Following two months of protests and an estimated 170 dead, the violence briefly subsided, as opposition-government negotiations tried to resolve the situation. The opposition now says the government is reneging on commitments and will abandon negotiations. What led to this crisis and where will it go from here? We discuss the situation with Trevor Evans and Camilo Mejia
GREG WILPERT: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Greg Wilpert, joining you from Quito, Ecuador. This is Part 2 of our discussion about the situation in Nicaragua. We’re joined by Trevor Evans, professor at the Institute for Political Economy in Berlin. And Camilo Mejia, activist and conscientious objector, originally from Nicaragua.
There’s clearly some issues that the people are definitely protesting against, some serious problems, in that sense. But I want to turn to the issue of the protest violence again, which seems kind of, and Camilo called it a coup attempt. And certainly given the amount of violence it seems quite extraordinary, and actually to those who have observed the situation in Venezuela is kind of reminiscent of there. There, too, you’ve had opposition protesters engage in violence and even deadly protests using homemade mortars, street blockades that are also enforced with violence, and even in some cases setting government supporters on fire. And every time somebody is killed, whether it’s from state security forces or because of opposition violence, the media and internationally human rights groups immediately blame the government for all of the violence.
Now, I’m wondering if this is also what’s happening in Venezuela, I’m sorry, in Nicaragua, that this is a conscious strategy to provoke violence in order to actually overthrow the government. Now, if so, if this is the case, first of all, is this the case? I want to get your reactions to that, and if so, why now? Why not simply wait until the next election and field a strong opposition candidate? What you have to say about that, Camilo?
CAMILO MEJIA: Thank you. Yeah, well, first let me go back a little bit to the whole economy issue and say that the Nicaraguan economy is a popular market economy. So you cannot compare the Nicaraguan market, popular market economy, to neoliberal standards of progress. The Nicaraguan people rely-. Seventy percent of employment in Nicaragua is driven by small investment and by this market economy. These are people who are given land by the government, who are given farm animals, who are given technical support and money to basically bring out the economy. The result of this has been that 90 per cent of the food that Nicaraguans consume is produced in Nicaragua.
And this type of food sovereignty stands in direct contradiction with the neoliberal model, which seeks to destroy a country’s economy in order to create a business-friendly atmosphere for big transnational corporations that have not been able to control as much of the economy in Nicaragua as they would like to. And if you go back to the NICA Act and the IMF reforms and things like that, you’re going to see a very clear relationship between this neoliberal economic model and this other alternative economic model that has been created by the Sandinista government that represents an existential threat to this neoliberal model, precisely because of what Mr. Evans has said, that this is not something that happens within the context of neoliberal economic models, but as an alternative to it. And it cannot be measured in the amount of money that people earn in dollars.
Part of the issue with the IMF is that people in Nicaragua are living longer, and they’re not contributing enough to the Social Security system because they’re no longer working. That shows that the standard of living has increased, despite the Nicaraguan people not making as much money in dollars, as Professor Evans said. So you have to take that into account when you analyze the situation of the Nicaraguans, that if you look at the amount of money that they make in dollars then Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries. But if you look at the, the healthcare benefits, if you look at education benefits, if you look at the way that they have fixed the roads to promote internal commerce amongst the poorest people and the poorest Nicaraguans, then you will see a much bigger picture. And not only a much bigger picture, but an alternative to the neoliberal model of progress and economic growth.
As to the constitutional amendments, and President Ortega reelected against the constitution, this is the case for many countries that never get questioned on their democracy. Countries like France, for instance, Russia, r perhaps Russia does get questioned, but I believe Germany, don’t have term limits. And I don’t think that we have ever elected any president in Nicaragua, at least since 1979, that did not have the majority of the popular vote, which is the case in the United States, and has been the case at least twice in my in my lifetime.
So it is true that there were some dealings by the Sandinista government to be able to get back into power. But let’s not, let’s not forget the fact that Western-style democracy is very controlled by money and big powerful interests, and the Nicaraguan Sandinista government had to engage in some of those deals to be able to go back to power, and be able to reinstate some of these programs that have been put out.
For instance, the investment in education has more than quadrupled since the Sandinistas took power back in 2007. The roads have been fixed. The primary education, secondary education, healthcare, which is part of the Social Security system in Nicaragua. So it’s a false comparison when we look at the nicaraguan economy and try to bring in, you know, how much people make based on the dollar. In terms of the violence, like I said, a lot of it is, this is the media smear campaign that, that has been promoted mostly by newspapers that have been financed by different entities within the United States. A lot of the information is uncorroborated. Many of the images and videos that are being provided are provided completely out of context. For instance, you know, you see a group of police officers shooting, but you don’t see what they’re shooting at. You see a group of police officers beating people up, but you don’t see that right before that there was a group of armed people ransacking a gas station, or burning down a city hall, shooting at police officers.
They’re saying that the, that the violence from the very beginning was by the government. But what they’re not saying is that allowed the people who have been killed in the same fashion as protesters have been killed, meaning shots to the head, chest, and neck, suggesting the presence of snipers, include police officers and include Sandinista people. So this whole idea that from the very beginning the government went out to repress the protesters which were largely peaceful is false from the very beginning. Even the Amnesty International report, which I wrote an open letter about, states that on the first day of the protests on April 19 the only three people who were killed at protests that had been confirmed were one student, a police officer, and another Nicaraguan, we don’t really know the political affiliation.
But this was basically taken and distorted into a narrative that basically said that the Sandinista government gave the order to his police force to go on a killing rampage, resulting in the killing of over 60 students. And then from then on, the narrative continued uncorroborated, with no evidence, basically saying the same thing, that the government had gone crazy, that they had gone on a killing rampage. They’re burning down their own city halls and they’re burning down their own monuments, that they’re killing and threatening its own people.
It’s, I mean, like, my point is not to say that the Sandinista government is completely blameless. My point is to say that the way that people are repeating the information that is completely uncorroborated and without evidence, it’s reminiscent of what we have seen happen in Venezuela, what we have seen happen in Syria, what we have seen happen in Libya, what we have seen happen in the Ukraine, where you have a very similar situation, where some kind of issue that is real in the country, such as, you know, energy subsidies, or subsidies to the transportation system, or subsidies to any other government service or program, are distorted, and then serve as a spark to throw people out into the streets, kill them alongside government personnel to create confusion and chaos, and then create this narrative of genocide that continues to snowball into a situation of chaos and ingovernability that makes people believe that the government is behind the violence. And that serves as the basis for overthrowing the government through unconstitutional means.
GREG WILPERT: OK, I just want to get Trevor back into this. Especially your, your thoughts on the U.S. involvement in all of this, which Camilo brought up. That is, you know, two weeks ago, for example, student leaders went to Washington, D.C. where they met with the head of USAID asking for how-. Like Camilo mentions, it’s well known that the National Endowment for Democracy has contributed tens of millions of dollars to the opposition in Nicaragua, and also now it’s perhaps no coincidence that the NICA act is going through Congress, which was stalled previously. And it would place pretty harsh conditions on multilateral loans from the IMF, World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. So what role do you think the U.S. playing in all of this, and what’s the balance in terms of the U.S. role versus internal dynamics?
TREVOR EVANS: I certainly think that the United States is trying to take advantage of the situation. It had a student visit, although apparently there [seems to be] regret having taken part in that. I think that the situation I would see a little differently from Camilo, that the Sandinista government since 2007 has had excellent relationships with the International Monetary Fund. The IMF imposed its usual script conditions for loans, and the government kept to those conditions. It’s certainly true that they have invested large amounts in roads. The road systems are excellent. So if you’ve got a big Jeep you can move around easily. They have increased spending on health a bit, but their spending on education is extremely low. And basically it’s an educational system, public sector, which is about educating workers to work on the land and in foreign investment owned factories.
And that brings us to the second point, that the Ortega government has really done a lot to try and attract foreign investment. That they’re getting, for the size of the Nicaraguan economy, an annual gross domestic product of $6 billion, they had over $800 million of foreign investment last year. This is a central part of their strategy. And to attract foreign investment they have therefore been discouraging wage rises. They have allowed wages to rise a little, but basically, because they put a lot of emphasis on attracting foreign investment, which has been quite successful, this has meant that the wage level has remained quite depressed.
And one of the things that’s made it possible for Nicaragua to survive the last few years, Camilo referred to, has been the support from Venezuela. That Venezuela [inaudible] Nicaragua oil on very generous terms. They only had to pay 50 percent of the cost. The other half of the money that was obtained from selling the petrol in Nicaragua remained with an agency that could use that money to invest in a whole range of initiatives, and also to finance social programs. Social programs, for instance, that gave poor peasants zinc roofs for their huts so the rain didn’t come in. That provided farmers with a very basic supply of inputs for agriculture.
So the Venezuelan money has been very important for some of the social gains. And that stopped in 2017. No money arrived from Venezuela. So already Nicaragua had a financial problem there to sustain this model. And then on top of that, as you’ve just mentioned, the United States has now become much more aggressive, that the United States Agency for International Development had been providing paramounts of money to Nicaragua, but this year a very small amount is going to arrive. And in their plans for next, in subsequent years, there’s no money plan. So already there was a financial problem facing the government, and the beginning of this year the government’s own, the central bank’s own estimates for economic growth in Nicaragua, were marked down a lot because without the Venezuelan oil money, with the cuts in other sources of external finance, it going to be very difficult to sustain the modest gains that have been achieved.
So I would repeat the point that I’ve said before. The main beneficiaries of the Ortega government have been very, the very rich farmers, the investors in industry, and this very large new commercial middle class that has done extraordinarily well with this influx of dollars.
GREG WILPERT: OK. Well, unfortunately, we’re going to have to leave it there for now, but I hope we can get back to you as things develop in Nicaragua. I was speaking to Camilo Majia, Nicaraguan activist and conscientious objector, and to Trevor Evans, professor at the Institute for International Political Economy in Berlin. Thanks again, Trevor and Camilo, for having joined us today.
CAMILO MEJIA: Thank you, Greg, and thank you, Professor Evans.
TREVOR EVANS: Nice to talk to you, Camilo.
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