In the wake of the recent Nicaraguan elections, the US imperialist war machine is once again directing its wrath at the governments of Nicaragua and Cuba. In response, anti-imperialist leftists around the world are rightly denouncing the onslaught of US aggression, sanctions, and propaganda, but many are also pushing for the left to engage in serious debate about how revolutionary governments can maintain systems of democratic accountability and hold true to the principles from which they were born.
In this segment of The Marc Steiner Show, Marc talks with Circles Robinson, who has been living between Nicaragua and Cuba since late 1984, about the Nicaraguan elections and the need for such debate to take place, both within Nicaragua and the broader left sphere. Before moving to Cuba, where he now works as editor of Havana Times, Robinson worked in Nicaragua for the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers and edited the Nicaragua Farmer’s View.
Tune in for new episodes of The Marc Steiner Show every Tuesday and Friday on TRNN.
Pre-Production/Studio/Post Production: Stephen Frank
Marc Steiner: Welcome to The Marc Steiner Show here on The Real News. I’m Marc Steiner, and it’s great to have you all with us. Today, we continue our Real News conversations about Nicaragua that Max Alvarez began in his conversation last week with William Robinson. Today, I bring you a conversation with Circles Robinson, who has no relation to William. I met Circles in 2015 while taping stories in Havana, Cuba. And Circles, as we called him then, is an American citizen who’s been living between Nicaragua and Cuba since late 1984. He worked in Nicaragua for the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers, and then he was editor of the Nicaragua Farmer’s View. He moved to Cuba where he worked for Prensa Latina and Estee from 2002 to 2009. Then from 2008 until now, he’s an editor of the Havana Times, the position he held when we first met in Cuba. We talked together from Bisbee, Arizona.
I’m really glad you could join us today, Circles. I’m looking forward to this conversation. I hope you’re well.
Circles Robinson: Me too. I’m glad to be with you on your show.
Marc Steiner: Let’s talk a bit about this election, let’s start there. Let’s start with the election that just took place in Nicaragua and the numbers of presidential candidates who were not candidates because they were in prison. But give us a sense of the atmosphere and your analysis of what went on here.
Circles Robinson: Well, first of all, I want to give an analogy. In the US elections in 2020, by the time the primaries got serious there were seven candidates trying to be the candidate to run against Donald Trump in the Democratic Party. In Nicaragua before May, there were also seven candidates trying to be in a primary that would decide which one would run against Daniel Ortega. Ortega had already co-opted the electoral council and the judiciary in Nicaragua. He was already going to win the election. But to assure that he would not have competition, he put them all in jail and also took the little parties that they were going to run on, took them off the ballot, took away their legal status. So the comparison would be for the US audience, would be as if five or six months before the election, Trump would put the seven Democrats in jail and annul the Democratic Party for running in the election. That’s what happened in Nicaragua and the result was Daniel Ortega assigning himself 76% of the vote, as if he was the most popular president in the history of Nicaragua.
Marc Steiner: From what I’ve read from objective observers left and right was that maybe 81% of the people did not even show up.
Circles Robinson: Well, there’s no way to really verify it. But what I can say is that up till 2006, in Nicaraguan elections there was usually good participation and long lines at polling places. This was very common. And this time there wasn’t, and even supporters of Ortega admitted that there weren’t any lines. There were a few polling places where they had lines. But in general, people went expecting to be there for two or three or four hours to vote, and they were out in 15 or 20 minutes. That was the difference. There’s no official statistic you can believe. The government says 65% of the registered population voted. That’s their statement.
Marc Steiner: So, I’m interested in your analysis of what you think is happening in Nicaragua and why this happened. You just mentioned the election in 2006. Even though that from 19, was it ’90 to 2006, is when Ortega first lost the election, then won again in 2006? So what do you think? Talk a bit about why this is happening and what has happened.
Circles Robinson: Well, between 2006 and 2018, but really between 2006 and about 2012, Daniel Ortega was able to totally control the judiciary, the electoral system, the National Assembly, the Congress, and the executive. When you control all the powers… For example, in the US people use the term a lot, checks and balances. In Nicaragua, those checks and balances disappeared by 2011. Ortega was able to change the constitution so that he could run forever and be the king or whatever you want to call him for life. Then he implanted his wife as the vice president so in case something happened to him, she could be the ruler. There’s no check and balance.
The courts are ordered what to do from El Carmen. El Carmen is the home and the offices of the presidential couple and their family. All the decisions come from there. The other people, they maintain their positions by following orders. If you don’t follow orders – And there’s tons of examples in Nicaragua – If you don’t follow orders, you’re out. And if you’re not careful, you might end up in jail or forced into exile. So all the people that are in the judiciary, in the assembly, in all the other government positions, they follow orders. And that’s what we had coming up to the elections in 2021.
Marc Steiner: So, a couple of questions I was thinking about as I was listening to you. You have lived between Cuba and Nicaragua for a long, long time. For decades, if I’m correct, right?
Circles Robinson: Yes. I got to Nicaragua at the end of 1984, right after Ortega was elected for the first time and Ronald Reagan was reelected.
Marc Steiner: [laughs] Interesting juxtaposition.
Circles Robinson: They were two days apart, [crosstalk].
Marc Steiner: So, you’ve been a journalist and you’ve been writing for Havana Times for a long time as well. Full disclosure, when we met when I was in Cuba last, and that’s how you and I met and got to know one another. The question I have for you in that context is, what happened in Nicaragua? What happened that this revolution that overthrew Somoza, a pretty vicious dictator backed by the United States for a long time, on the one hand, did a decent job maybe eliminating poverty and picking up trash and ended up in this dictatorial world where people are put in jail, and people who fought the revolution with him were either in opposition, and thrown in jail as presidential candidates, or they fled the country? Can you talk here, what’s your analysis about what happened here?
Circles Robinson: Well, in a simplification I would say, I’ve always heard all my life, I heard it from my elders, I heard it from other people, that power corrupts. And I also heard that absolute power corrupts absolutely. And to me, that’s a lot of what happened. When I was in Nicaragua at the beginning, there were nine leaders of the Sandinista Front, all men, of course. I would go to the activities and be at their events and they were like gods. They very much liked being like gods. Now that all was transferred into one, into Ortega, after he was elected president, and they didn’t have to show facts, figures, accountability of expenses, budgets. They didn’t have to answer to non-governmental media, which they considered the enemy just like Ortega does today. So they abused the power.
We really didn’t concentrate on power enough and how power can corrupt. We were all too busy. So, I think the biggest lesson is that even if the candidates I’m in favor of virtually never win elections, and if they do, the population that elects them, that supports them because they want certain policies to be adopted, certain programs, certain openness, certain inclusiveness, we can’t take a vacation just because we’re tired of having to give up our free time to get them elected. When decent people get elected, they have to be held accountable by their supporters. More than anybody, by their supporters. In the case of Nicaragua, they lost all that accountability. They didn’t have to be accountable. The best example I think is Cuba, but it’s not the only one. Fidel Castro was the law in Cuba. Every policy, every idea that he had was to be implemented by everybody else. So even when he had a bad policy, one that wasn’t working, the excuse afterwards was he was well-intentioned for the people, for the poor, for the people. The analysis of why that policy was actually wrong was never discussed, [it was] forbidden from being discussed.
And in the case of Nicaragua, the leadership in the ’80s was godlike. And Ortega since 2006, he realized, him and his wife, that they could set up a system where they didn’t have to answer to anybody. It wasn’t nine people, it was just two of them and their family. No budgets were presented. Take this into account: Ortega hasn’t given an interview since he was elected to office to international or independent media. He did one interview that he gave right after the massacres in 2018 was, if I’m not mistaken, to Oppenheimer on CNN. I think it was CNN. In that interview, it was very clear Oppenheimer was showing him what happened on the streets and Ortega was denying everything that happened. That was the only one. There have been none afterwards and there were none before.
You don’t have to answer questions to any media that isn’t yours. Rosario Murillo has run the media operation of the country since they took office. And just to put that into perspective of how powerful that has been, Rosario Murillo has a program every day at noon where she talks for a half an hour, and she’s been doing this for 14 years at least five days a week. Those speeches are piped into markets. Besides being on television, radio, and her websites, they’re actually piped into some of the markets, the big markets in Managua. It’s to say the people who work in these huge markets and the people who are shopping, they are forced to listen to her speech every day for a half hour. They can’t change the channel or turn it off.
That gives you an idea of the megalomania type of government, all present, it’s a monologue. I think that combination of power corrupting and having a monologue and no one can question you, it leads us to what we have today. And again, even the best people with the best of intentions, if they have only a monologue and they don’t have any accountability, they can fall into a similar situation.
Marc Steiner: So, I asked that question in part, because I’m thinking about how Ellsberg and Noam Chomsky and others signed a petition with hundreds of others condemning Ortega’s government and what has happened in Nicaragua. And so you, as they and others, supported this because what promise there was in places like Nicaragua and Cuba, but in Nicaragua we’re talking about. I’m curious what lessons we learned from that. I mean, when you see so many of the people who were part of the FSLN, the Sandinista Movement, are either in jail or in exile. The greatest authors, other leaders are out of the country. I mean, that’s what I’m getting at when I’m saying contradictions are involved that allow this to even happen.
Circles Robinson: Well, dreams don’t always turn out the way one wants. I think between many of the Sandinista people who I had great respect for in the pre-revolution and in the ’80s, including the great authors, I’ll mention just three to start out. The poet, Daisy Zamora, who you are interviewing, Gioconda Belli, and Sergio Ramirez are some of my favorite authors. Ernesto Cardenal, who was the Minister of Culture, as well as his brother, who was the Minister of Education, Fernando Cardenal. There’s a whole slew of other Sandinistas who had a dream and were working towards it. And within the party, this is key. The leadership of the party had a military mentality from the beginning. They were an armed guerilla group, and when they took power they never dismantled their military mentality and way of being. That structure was kept and by the time 1990 rolled around, when the Sandinistas lost the election, Ortega lost the election, the military mentality remained in Ortega’s part of the party.
Many of the people that I mentioned before over the next few years decided that the party shouldn’t be a military party anymore, and that there should be diverse voices, and that the party needed to be more modern and democratic. The Ortega faction of the party didn’t think that was necessary and thought that would be conceding something to the imperialists, to the United States, et cetera, et cetera. And, those other people, well, basically separated from the party because there wasn’t going to be any diversity of opinions in the party, and they left. They left or were thrown out, one of the two. It was pretty much the same. The only thing that was left was Ortega, his wife, who gained much more power as of 1998. But Ortega, his wife, and his closest collaborators, they were the ones that kept the power in the party and they kept the military structure in the party.
Marc Steiner: When I was talking to some other people today and reading some other articles, especially from the left perspective here in the United States, and one of the people who was put in prison was one of the other presidential candidates who had been a revolutionary in the Sandinista movement; Dora Maria Tellez. Many people here in this country, in the United States now on the left, are painting her as a tool of the American government. So again, I want to go back because you understand the political dynamic in Nicaragua better than many people. So talk a bit about that. I mean, how real is that when people say all of this against them is the doings of the American government, how do you respond?
Circles Robinson: For one, I would say the US is not the cause of discontent or wanting changes in all the countries of the world, basically, because they’re a very powerful country. Everybody in their own country has a right to try and have a better country and work towards it. They have a right to analyze what’s happened in the past and try to come up with something better. If I as a student in Nicaragua say, I want a more democratic country. I want to participate. I have an idea myself on what the environmental policy should be in my country, then does that mean the United States is propping me up and paying me to say that? Of course not, that’s ridiculous. Just like every poor person or anti-racism person or environmentalist in the United States, are they being paid by Russia and China? Or is the whole Black Lives Movement paid by Russia and China? That would be a ridiculous accusation, but it’s exactly the same.
The people who are in the US, I would say, who are living in the past, who have an image of what the anti-imperialist situation was during the Contra War, if they think that is the same today, then the logic of the enemy of my enemy is my friend fits perfectly. Is to say, okay, Ortega’s enemy, his specific enemy, he said it yesterday very well in his speech, is the imperialists, is the United States, is Europe. So if they’re his enemy, then I’m for him because he’s against my enemy. Because me on the left in the United States, I don’t like the US policy. I don’t like the EU foreign policies. So Ortega’s against them too, so he must be my friend. It’s to say what Nicaraguans are doing in their own country, trying to improve their country and learn from the past, the hell with them. They don’t have that right. They don’t have that right because the US supports their efforts.
Marc Steiner: To conclude, one of the things I’ve been talking to people about recently in Nicaragua is that, for want of a better term, that the left opposition is not that strong. So what are the next moves? What could happen in Nicaragua to change the situation?
Circles Robinson: Okay. Well, one thing, and I wrote about this before in September. I was mentioning – Okay, personally, I don’t think leading up to the elections the only issue, and still is, to have the dictatorship or not have it. All the other debates of what kind of country every Nicaraguan activist, with the different parties and the different movements would like to push for, none of that is of any importance until there’s no dictatorship. None of that is on the table. There’s no conversation, there’s no dialogue, there’s no opposition, there’s no debate. So, one of the reasons that the Nicaraguan opposition sort of failed in the run up to the election was they weren’t able to unite in Nicaragua with one big issue: getting rid of Ortega.
In 2018, there was a united Nicaraguan opposition. Hundreds of thousands of people out in the streets demonstrating against Ortega, and they only had one flag: the Nicaraguan flag. Nobody was talking about the liberal party or the students, or this, or that, or the left party, or the right party. They all were out there under one flag asking for a free Nicaragua. Well, after the repression came down, after over 100,000 people went into exile, after all the people that were killed were killed, after all the people that were jailed were jailed, they lost that unity and they were not able to regain it. They talked about it for two and a half years. They were talking about the need for unity. But they were unable to do that in the run up to what was going to be the primaries, a primary of the election. That was a big advantage to Ortega.
And I feel the same today, that the only issue is getting rid of the dictatorship. The fear… I have friends, they fear that some type of right-wing government, pro-business government after Ortega is going to be as bad or worse as what exists today. I think that’s a crock of bull. It’s to say, I have no idea what it’s going to be, but the Ortega government has been the most neoliberal, capitalist government I think that Nicaragua’s had. And it’s been a government between millionaires, which are the leading people in the government including Ortega and his family, number one, and the large business sector up until 2018. They’ve been running the country.
The type of very inclusive country and participatory country that I personally would like to see in the United States and I’d also like to see it in Nicaragua, I don’t know if my idea and the people that I’m close to, if we’re going to, in the short run, they’re the minority. But the ability to be able to participate, to be able to educate and discuss issues and try and win people over, that needs to exist, first of all. If that doesn’t exist at all, well, it’s a lost cause. And I feel like I’m not afraid of the after, because there is no after with dictatorship. In no dictatorship are any of these things an issue. You can try if the dictatorship has no debate, if it’s not open to discussion of any issues basically, or changes, there’s nothing to be done.
And so therefore, I feel like those issues will come about afterwards. All the groups, even now in the exile community – Which I would like to see united, which it isn’t – There’s 40 groups or 50 or 60 that make their own statements. Sometimes united between some of them, condemning the political prisoners, saying the election’s a farce, this and that. But I think the impact is very limited by not being united, having one centered coordinating body, which spokespeople – I’m not saying candidates, I don’t think these people should be a party or candidates at all. I think they should be leading people who are respected within the entire opposition and that anybody, Marc Steiner, the US government, the French government, the people inside Nicaragua, that they have respect for this small coordinating body and look towards them and get motivated by them in the case of inside Nicaragua.
And that the first step is to get rid of the dictatorship, and peaceful protest is not impossible to win. There’s a lot of examples where it does. It doesn’t happen overnight 99% of the time. And it’s a long battle against the bloody dictatorship, but there has to be a concerted effort, both inside and outside, in my opinion, a united effort to oppose the dictatorship. A united effort onto the world, what does that do? It means that Ortega’s space both for international trade, for international recognition, for international loans, all of those being affected. And on the internal part, it means a motivated population who sees protesting, even if it involves risks, as worth doing. And I think that’s pretty similar to many struggles that were in a lot of countries and even the United States as well.
You watched the civil rights movement, and there were people who were going up against armed police and dogs willing to attack them. And they knew that they had to do that and they had to take the risk, and they kept up with it. And over a period of time, they had a major impact in changing policy. Obviously there’s plenty to be done still today, but it’s not the same United States as it was in the 1950s. And in the case of Nicaragua, I think it means that unity has to be forged in the opposition and then a unity in action.
Marc Steiner: Circles Robinson, this has been a great conversation. I always enjoy talking to you. It’s been a long time and I do appreciate you doing this today with us.
Circles Robinson: I’ve enjoyed it too. And I know there’s a lot of issues and I really hope that Nicaragua can once again be a free Nicaragua where the media can operate freely, that includes us, and where the population can use… Nicaragua has an extremely intelligent, well prepared population that can make that an exceptional country. And I still have a dream that that gets to take place and I can play my very small part in that
Marc Steiner: Circles. Thank you.
Circles Robinson: Thank you, Marc.
Marc Steiner: Thank you all for joining us today. And please let me know what you think about what you’ve heard today, what you’d like us to cover. Just write to firstname.lastname@example.org and I promise I’ll get right back to you. And if you’ve not joined us yet, please go to www.therealnews.com/support, become a monthly donor and become part of the future with us. So for Stephen Frank and the crew here at The Real News, I’m Marc Steiner. Stay involved, keep listening, and take care.