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Recent months of deadly unrest in Nicaragua have fractured splits in the Sandinista movement, with critics accusing President Daniel Ortega of autocratic rule, and supporters accusing the opposition of attempting a US-backed soft coup. We host a debate between Dr. Mary Ellsberg of George Washington University and Max Blumenthal of the Grayzone Project

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AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate, continuing with Max Blumenthal and Mary Ellsberg. We’re talking about the turmoil in Nicaragua.

Max Blumenthal, we’ve discussed a lot. You have a few minutes to sum up what you want to impart viewers with, and then I’ll go to Dr. Ellsberg for the last word.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, the opposition is now waging a campaign of assassination against Sandinista historic combatants. Someone at Matagalpa, named I think Lennan Mendiola, who is a historic combatant of the Civil War, was just assassinated. We saw on July 26, or [23rd], I believe, the assassination of two political secretaries. This has been happening throughout. This is the opposition’s program. If the opposition has a different program, then maybe Mary when I’m done can say who the, who the leader is of the opposition. I mean, I saw Juan Fernando Chamorro, a part of the dynastic U.S.-backed Chamorro family which has held five presidencies, retweeting Mary’s article about my factual reporting. Maybe she would like to see a Chamorro come in. Are the Chamorros the leader of the opposition? Usually in these cases there is no leadership. There is no program. The Sandinistas, however, have offered a program that’s benefited millions of Nicaraguans. And that’s why we see people defending, defending this movement with their lives.

Now, I want to respond to just two points, and then I’ll wrap. The first point is that Mary cited a lot of Latin American governments who’ve condemned Nicaragua. These are the right-wing vassals of the U.S., like the coup government of Michel Temer in Brazil; like the government that just stole an election in Honduras, and just cracked down on protests, and we heard nothing about that. The Iron Triangle, El Salvador, and Guatemala, whose government is run by a right-wing clown, Jimmy Morales. These are the governments which are arms of American Empire, who seek to crush any opposition to it, any opposition to free markets and corporate rampage. And of course then there’s Colombia and Ivan Duque, where it just appears that they were a base for an assassination attempt on Nicolas Maduro, one of the last holdouts of the pink tide.

So these are the governments that Mary Ellsberg and the opposition see as their allies in their attempt to strangle Nicaragua as an independent nation-state. Mary mentioned the use of defensive weapons. I can tell you from my own documentation and what I’ve seen, there were indeed homemade mortars used by the opposition, as well as sniper rifles and AK-47s. I’ve seen them myself. But you know, I hold in my hand testimonies that were handed to me by common people who were tortured by the opposition, whose voices have never been heard by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, like [name], who I mentioned earlier, who was kidnapped at a tranque and tortured, with two priests presiding over it while plastic bags, burning plastic bags were dripped on his skin. When I met him he still had the marks of rope on his wrists. Denis Jose [Harque] Garcia, in Concepcion, Masaya: “Masked men grabbed me, hit me with machetes, hit me because they said I knew something I didn’t.” Salvador Pelle from Léon: “They shot at us and shot at my son’s car. I had to leave my house on June 13. They burned my house after bomb threats. They ruined everything.” Luis Arias: “Fifteen people grabbed me. They were going to kill me because I’m a Sandinista. They left me for dead.” Jimmy Espinosa: “On 2nd of June, 50 men in ski masks started attacking me.”

I can rattle off name after name after name, and these are people who Mary Ellsberg and the opposition and Western media want to either ignore, or whose suffering they want to nickel and dime. It really highlights what the agenda of the opposition is. It’s not to replace one government with another one; it’s to purge that society of Sandinistas in service to the United States and the Miami lobby, which will not tolerate any resistance to neoliberalism, or any independence in Latin America. Nicaragua has just overcome a coup, thanks to a mass popular mobilization. We were lied to here in the United States by our media, as we have been again and again and again. And that’s a very good thing. And we should support Nicaragua, Nicaraguans reconciling, returning to a peaceful atmosphere with a strong economy. Because this is what most people in Nicaragua want, irrespective of which side they’re on, and we should reject narratives that seek an extension of the unrest.

AARON MATE: OK. Dr. Mary Ellsberg, final comment to you. I want to also just ask you, hearing Max talk about the victims, he says, of opposition violence, my question to you is I understand that for people who have followed Nicaragua for a long time there are a lot of critiques of Ortega, and especially how he has consolidated power inside the Sandinista movement. But I guess my question is, do you think Max has a fair point in talking about the violence against his supporters that opposition members have carried out that have been ignored?

MARY ELLSBERG: I think that all deaths and all torture that’s taken on in Nicaragua is indefensible. It’s terrible. It must be documented. Those who do it must be brought to justice. And the Nicaraguan government brought in international human rights bodies to do specifically that. Max, I’d like to ask you whether you talked to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission about these specific names, and whether you are aware whether they made a complaint or not. Because there is a procedure in place both for the, for the International Expert Committee that’s looking at the earlier cases, and a procedure in case, in place for [msani], which is the group that is investigating all crimes. I would be very surprised to hear that they went, they declared it, and that they were refused and their names were not included, or that they were refused to make a complaint. And if that were the case, [inaudible] right next to you complaining about that.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah. As I mentioned before, the International Commission on Human Rights has relied on biased human rights groups, which were including ANPDH, which was set up by the Reagan administration and is probably stil taking [crosstalk] and is totally discredited. I’m sorry I’m not giving you the answer you want. But my intention when I went to Nicaragua as a reporter was to talk to the people who’d been ignored, as well as the opposition. I’m not really interested in this elite NGO narrative about coming to predisposed conclusions that condemn a government and provide more space for sanctions, and that’s what’s going on here by nickel and diming the suffering of Sandinistas. And I haven’t denied that anyone suffered on the other side who attempted to enact a violent coup that no American would have ever tolerated in their country.

AARON MATE: But Max, let me ask you a question. I mean- [crosstalk]. Max, let me ask you a question. I mean, do you also acknowledge, though, that obviously people suffered on the opposition side who were not being violent, who were not trying to wage a violent coup, but who were simply trying to make their concerns heard?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, I haven’t denied any of that. But I tried to put things in context. I mean, when students like Leonel Morales or Veronica Gutierrez from Upoli went out- and this is someone who has been living under 24/7 police guard, now- they went out to protest the social security forms which, by the way, were actually a counterproposal by Ortega’s government against an austerity plan offered by COSEP, the private business community, which would have undermined the public pension system on behalf of the IMF. That’s a separate issue. These students went out to protest with their fellow students, and they saw that it was moving towards regime change. This was not about reform. This was not a protest they wanted to be part of. And when they delivered a press conference condemning their colleagues who are now calling for regime change, like Miami-born Lester Aleman, and the students who are now being pampered in Costa Rica and think tanks in Washington, like Victor Cuadras. When they did that they were attacked, they were threatened, they were doxxed. And in the case of Morales, he was almost killed.

So I’m trying to put things into context that Americans haven’t had before, and I’m not interested in what some international NGO working with a discredited, biased, formerly pro-Contra human rights think tank, human rights group, has to say.

AARON MATE: All right, we’ve got that point. [Crosstalk] Dr. Mary Ellsberg, final comment to you, [and we’ll move on].

MARY ELLSBERG: Can I just clarify that it is actually state organization equivalent to the- I think you, for a long time people have been calling it an NGO. The Organization of American States is the representative of all the Latin American countries. And they were brought in [crosstalk] by the government to do this work.

AARON MATE: Let’s, let’s let Dr. Ellsberg finish.

MARY ELLSBERG: OK. So let me give- I’ll just say some final words. Obviously there are many things that we disagree with. I do absolutely agree that all deaths are too many, that justice must be, must be achieved. And that is- right now we have tons of people who actually are living in a state of fear, because the most recent stage of, of the repression is the new terrorism law that came out in early July. And as of July 9 to August 10, 103 people have already been charged under the Terrorist Act. They’re not people who have been charged of killing somebody or violence. They’re basically being charged of protesting or of dissent. And there are 79 more who have been kidnapped by the police or the paramilitaries, and who are in the Modelo or in the Chipote, in the police headquarters. And no charges have been made.

Either Ortega is unable to keep peace, his crowd control using- and everybody has said that- to try crowd control for protesters using live ammunition is absolutely the worst way to control a crowd and to deescalate. So at the very least he’s been absolutely incompetent in the way he’s been managing the uprising and the unrest. And it’s basically been adding fire to kindling, because it’s, because it’s made things so much worse. But that’s the most gentle analysis you can do. The other alternative is that he would rather kill as many people as he needs to, to stay in power. There are still surely many people who are very connected to the, to the party, and who will continue to support him. But many, many people are now disaffected. Dozens, hundreds of people have now left the country or are living in hiding, are in Costa Rica. So there’s also a huge need for humanitarian aid.

So I think the most important things are to strengthen the role of the international, the UN and the OAS agencies, to be able to clear things up, to be able to investigate and find out who was guilty of crimes against humanity- because surely much of what we’ve been talking about does constitute crimes against humanity- make sure that those people are [punished]. And pretty much everybody agrees that the elections have to be moved up. The idea of Ortega staying in power-.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Everyone doesn’t agree with that.

MARY ELLSBERG: [Crosstalk] is seen as just unviable by large parts of the population.

AARON MATE: OK. Max, quickly- [crosstalk] Max, Max, what’s the harm in holding early elections after so much turmoil?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: The whole- this is something that no country in the West would accept, which is that they defeat a violent coup funded by foreign elements and drug traffickers, and then they have to move up their elections, which would completely destabilize the political system. The only reason we’re hearing this demand for early elections is because the opposition has completely failed in its attempt to achieve regime change. And by the way, I attended several opposition rallies. They proceed freely. They’re not being fired upon. They were able to do what they wanted in the recent rallies, which Mary falsely characterized as hundreds of thousands strong. We saw videos of the same criminal elements attacking Sandinistas, spray painting ‘sapo’ or ‘toad’ on their car, attacking people in public buses. They’re not- they’re not these peaceful protesters, but at the same time, they’re not facing live fire right now, and they’re basically being exhausted. They’re much smaller than they were before. The country is substantially exhausted.

And what it appears that Mary is calling for is for the OAS to continue to- which is dominated by right wing countries who are vassals of American empire- to continue to punish Nicaragua simply because they defeated a coup. This is what small, independent countries face now if they defy the U.S. and its vassals in Latin America or the Middle East, is they get punished by fake human rights groups and NGOs which are acting as arms of American soft power, and it’s abominable.

AARON MATE: Dr. Ellsberg, so we have to wrap; 30 seconds to you. I just want to say, in fairness to what Max just said, I mean, we’re speaking on a Thursday. On Wednesday there were protests on both sides. There were pro-government protests and there were also opposition protests. The opposition protesters marching for the release of political prisoners. But those protests were not repressed. They went off peacefully. Your final comment, in 30 seconds.

MARY ELLSBERG: My final comment is that Daniel Ortega is very unlikely to be able to regain the trust of a very large part of the population who see him as a murderer. It didn’t just start now. He had already consolidated power throughout all the arms of the government. He’d already become an authoritarian. Populations were already- demonstrations were already being repressed, both women’s groups, social security, the anti-canal groups. This had been going on for a long time. He had for 10 years ago, for 15 years ago, after Zoilamerica, his daughter, his stepdaughter revealed and complained to the Inter-American Human Rights Commission that he’d been raping her since she was a child, that should have been the moment that he should not have been eligible to ever become president. And it was basically because all the high-level Sandinistas around him, including his wife-.

AARON MATE: OK. OK. We’re going to have to, we’re going have to leave it there.

MARY ELLSBERG: [Inaudible] procedure.

AARON MATE: We’re going to, we’re going to leave it there. Dr. Ellsberg- but if you want to finish your point, Dr. Ellsberg, and then we’ll wrap, because we have to go.

MARY ELLSBERG: Well, my point is that I think things are not- much as he’s tried to say, and in his interviews with Max saying things are all back to normal, we fixed the coup, we’ve- you know, it’s all over, everything’s fine, that is not the truth. People do not feel that things are normal. People are afraid. Anybody who participated in the, in the protests are hiding. They’re in safehouses, they’ve left the country. And that- and they’re not going to forget all of those deaths anytime soon.

AARON MATE: All right, we’ll leave it there. Dr. Mary Ellsberg, founding director of the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University, and Max Blumenthal, journalist, bestselling author, senior editor of the Grayzone Project, thanks to you both.



AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on The Real News.

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Max Blumenthal is an award-winning journalist and bestselling author whose articles and video documentaries have appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Daily Beast, The Nation, The Guardian, The Independent Film Channel, The Huffington Post,, Al Jazeera English and many other publications. His book, Republican Gomorrah: Inside The Movement That Shattered The Party, is a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller.