Debate: Who Is Behind Nicaragua’s Turmoil? (Pt 2/3)
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
AARON MATE: It’s The Real News. I’m Aaron Mate.
This is part two with Mary Ellsberg and Max Blumenthal. We’re talking about the internal unrest that has gripped Nicaragua for months. Max Blumenthal, we’ve just heard Mary Ellsburg lay out her case. She says that you’ve ignored the fact that it’s the government that was responsible for the outbreak of violence in the early days of the protests, have ignored the use of government snipers to attack protesters. And also, that the conclusions of the human rights community, not just locally but also internationally, the U.N., the Organization of American States, is sweeping in its condemnation of the Nicaraguan government and that you’re overlooking that. Your response to what Mary said.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, I’ll respond specifically, but what Mary appears to be trying to do is to decontextualize the goal of the revolt and the goal of an opposition that has no political platform or clear leadership behind sowing destruction and then forming a junta, which is what they specifically told me, and doing so with the same statistics that Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the rightwing leader of the Miami lobby in Congress is using to drive the NIKA Act, which will put Nicaragua under an economic embargo like it was under in the 1980s at a time when Nicaragua lost something like fifty thousand people. And these are the real allies of the opposition, these right-wing members of Congress who are trying to drive sanctions using what appear to be manipulated statistics that erase the suffering of Sandinistas.
Mary mentions the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and doesn’t mention that that organization relied on extremely partisan opposition “human rights groups” like ANPDH, which are totally discredited in Nicaragua because ANPDH, for example, was founded by the Reagan administration and funded by the U.S. To support the Contras in the 1980s, and as I documented, was an active participant in the chaos in Nicaragua. Mary said that the police were not actually ordered to go into their barracks in the beginning. She’s right. Later in the national dialogue, Ortega issued this order and members of ANDPH, this biased partisan fake human rights group, started showing up at police stations like the one in Masaya where I interviewed the commissioner, besieging the police on behalf of the violent tronquistas, to leave their stations and essentially give up.
This is actually a part of the blueprint for regime change laid out by Gene Sharp in his “nonviolence as a weapon of warfare,” except that we didn’t actually see nonviolence. The death count that Enrique Hendrix has surveyed showed that these human rights groups would conflate deaths that occurred during the period from the beginning of the unrest on April 18 into July with deaths that were suicides, car accidents, passers by in the protests and all of the Sandinistas who died, including people like Gabriel Vado, who was burned alive. This is an off-duty cop who never carried a weapon, who worked with at-risk youths in Masaya, was burned alive at an opposition decision tranque. They have been conflated with the deaths of the opposition so that people like Ros-Lehtinen and Marco Rubio can go before Congress and demand putting on Nicaragua under an economic embargo on the basis, the false basis, that over three hundred peaceful protesters have been killed.
So, Mary can nickel and dime the deaths of people and the suffering of people that I met, people like Jacaranda Fernandez, who is a union leader and Masaya who had her home burned and all of her book collection burned, or Sander Bonilla, who was tortured at an opposition tronque after being kidnapped, with a priest presiding over his torture on video. Or Leonel Morales, a student leader at UPOLI, where the opposition’s chaos began, who let the students on the campus. And after he turned against them and said, as we have heard now from Dania Valeska, one of the students who took over at UNAN and ransacked that public university, that these weren’t students anymore, they were armed gangs connected to the criminal element of Viper. And Leonel was dragged out of his house by men in a pickup truck, shot in the face and the stomach and thrown in a ditch.
Luckily, he lived. I was one of the first reporters to talk to him. And I wonder why no Western reporters have talked to him. No Tim Rogers has gone and made videos about him, and it’s to create the perception that all of the violence was done by personal orders of Daniel Ortega through paramilitaries to these peaceful protesters when what we actually saw for about a period of fifty five days was an attempt to purge Sandinistas in areas where the opposition took control. This is the opposition’s program from within and from without. The program is sanctions, economic warfare like the kind we’re seeing on Venezuela. And it’s unfortunate that Mary Ellsberg and her son Julio Martinez, who is a paid advisor to the opposition, are trying to cast this as some kind of progressive people’s movement, when their real allies are Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and the Miami lobby which seek to bring Latin America back to the 80s.
AARON MATE: Okay, before I get a response from Mary Ellsberg, I want to go to a clip of someone who Max mentioned because it’s an interesting story. Dania Valeska, she was among the student protesters taking part in the protests against the proposed pension reforms. And she posted a video that went viral where she is pleading into the camera with a message to her mother amid what was portrayed as government supporters attacking the students.
DANIA VALESKA: Mama, perdoname…
AARON MATE: So, that’s Dania Valeska, but then later on, she appeared in another video where she then criticized what she called armed militants who she says came to the school and sort of took over the protests. And she had criticism of them for their agenda and also for being armed. This is what she said.
So, that’s Dania Valeska criticizing the armed elements of the protest with whom she was at least publicly associated with based on the first video we saw. So, Mary Ellsberg, a lot for you to respond there. Max says that you are obscuring the fact that the political opposition basically has no real platform and has no broad popular support among many other points.
MARY ELLSBERG: Okay, well there are a lot of points. I’ll try and get to a few of them. I’ll start by saying that I absolutely do not support the NICA act. I don’t think it is helpful for or the United States government to get engaged in this and I don’t support the use of the Magnitsky Act, either. And I think that most of the opposition now is really trying to get more support from Europe, more support from other Latin American countries. And in fact, they have achieved that.
There are now forty-nine countries, including the European Union, including twenty-one countries from Latin America, who have supported, who have urged Daniel Ortega either to disarm the paramilitaries, to leave power, to seek justice in a variety of ways, and many of them to come out of power. But they basically lost their faith in him. And I don’t think that the United States is the most important one, and I think it is the power that is most problematic in terms of their role and their role always in Nicaragua.
Number two, I’ll just say that my son, Julio, is not paid by anybody. So, I’ll just let you know. I don’t know where you got that. At the same time, your article says that I’m Facebook friends with Silvio Baez and-
MAX BLUMENTHAL: That’s not my article, not my article.
DANIA VALESKA: Well, it was one of the articles then that was published recently.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Not on my site, I have nothing to do with that article.
MARY ELLSBERG: Okay, so people are making up stuff.
AARON MATE: Okay, Mary Ellsberg, let me ask you, to avoid this issue, because to a broader audience we want to keep it to what’s happening in Nicaragua. But let me ask you, I mean, you mentioned that there is international support around Ortega leaving power., but what about domestically? I mean, he’s won several elections now, most recently in 2016. Just last month, looking at the footage of the protests, by far the largest rally was on the anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. Ortega led a massive rally, tens of thousands of people. So, what about his support at home? Does he have domestic support, and what about the opposition?
MARY ELLSBERG: Okay. First of all, CID Gallup did a poll about less than a month ago that said that seventy percent of the Nicaraguan population want Ortega to leave. The high numbers that he was hired, that he was elected with, he mostly eliminated all the other parties, and there was very, very high abstentionism, and that has never been actually recorded openly, acknowledged openly. So, I think that you have to look at those elections in that context. Sorry, what was the other point?
AARON MATE: Does the opposition have support?
MARY ELLSBERG: The opposition, today, had a huge, a huge march with hundreds of thousands of people, trying to get the political prisoners like Medardo Mairena, who was one of the representatives at the national dialogue and then was arrested by the Ortega government. And there was a huge march today. Somebody said in one of my papers that a march that I showed was from June, it wasn’t. It was from two days before the 19th of July demonstration. So, you just have to keep going on social media on a regular basis and you will see that these marches are absolutely huge and less than a month ago they did a national strike and the entire city was closed down, virtually. So, that indicates a very high degree of power.
Let me say something about that Dania Valeska, and then I’d like to go to this supposed forensic analysis that Enrique Hendrix did. So, Dania Valeska, yes, is very famous because she was on several social media streams, including one saying goodbye to her parents where the government had said that that was completely false. That was not false and I could present a lot of evidence of why it wasn’t, including a Washington Post reporter who was actually trapped in the school and then later in the church the whole night while they were being shot at. However, the the clip that you just showed of Dania Valeska, what nobody mentions is that that clip was taken while she was in jail in The Chipote. That was a clip that’s heavily edited and it was taken during her interrogation.
And we actually have a lot of information about her interrogation, how she was beaten, how she was humiliated. She was stripped naked, she was forced to do Santeria’s squats naked. And they filmed her over and over again during the interrogation and then turned it into a clip to get people to think that she was an infiltrator. All of the student movements together have come out with statements supporting Dania Valeska and denouncing the harsh treatment and torture that she experienced. So, I think we should not keep using pictures of confessors that are made during torture. I thought we had learned a long time ago that confessions made during torture not very reliable and I am a little shocked that we continue to use them here.
AARON MATE: Okay. Mary, let me pause you there. I know you want to speak about that forensic report on the death toll, but let’s actually start taking it issue by issue. So Max, Mary’s alleging that this video we just played was done under under duress. Now, I’m curious your thoughts on that, because you went to the school and spoke to students yourself. Your response to Mary saying that this testimony from that student was was coerced?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well, it is a prison confession. Mary has presented no evidence of torture. Dania Valeska is out of prison. She was harshly condemned and attacked by other students, including Victor Cuadras, who is here in Washington to hang out with right-wing elements like the Hudson Institute. But what was pretty clear was that her testimony dovetailed with the testimony that I gathered from several students, including one student who actually participated in the early protests at UPOLI, but also at UNAN, of the presence of armed gangs. There’s really no denying that armed gangs were at these schools. Let’s talk about UNAN. Mary Ellsberg cited a Washington Post article which I found to be a total whitewash of what happened at this public university founded by the Sandinistas as part of its program to provide free education to poor and working people.
Basically, Dania Valeska and a bunch of students, particularly from UCA, the University of Central America, where the more affluent population who can study at home online took over. They were supplemented by armed elements who bivouacked at the children’s healthcare center. I toured the school, and they stayed in the reproductive health center, which provided free reproductive health services mostly to women, to the local population, and ransacked it completely. There were signs posted about the guard duty they would do with weapons. And then, as they left, they burned the children’s healthcare center, which serves three hundred children of the staff.
They have kept the entire student population off campus, preventing the poor and working class students, including from as far away as Bluefields, from actually going to class. And these are poor students who don’t have wireless at home. So, what some of the students who went to UNAN told me was that this is part of a class war waged by a very generally affluent opposition that holds their tiny marches, and I went to one of them in the more affluent sections of Managua, that this is a class war and that the voices of the working class and poor that have been kept off campus are being ignored.
And I would just ask any American what you would do if CUNY, for example, was overtaken by students from Cornell or some Ivy League school along with, pick your choice, the Bundy gang or any right-wing militia, and students were kept off. What would you demand of your government, what would you demand of your government if entire parts of the city were shut down by roadblocks, motorists were extorted, four hundred motorists who are truckers were actually prevented from moving. What would you demand of your government? Nicaragua’s government through mass mobilization.
AARON MATE: Mary, go ahead.
MARY ELLSBERG: We actually had a very similar situation awhile ago at Kent State, and I don’t think that anybody was pleased that the National Guard shot down four students. So, do you really think that that’s what we would ask for?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: First, of all that’s not even a factual statistic. But yes, people would be asking to drive the armed criminal gangs off of public universities so students could go back to class, and you would especially be doing that. Americans have no idea what Nicaraguans have suffered through and I would also ask what Americans would, how Americans would react if Russia and China donated billions of dollars to opposition civil society groups and opposition media in order to lay the groundwork for insurrection, which is what the National Endowment has boasted of doing in Nicaragua. And USAID, who you’ve written grants for, and I don’t know why you didn’t-
AARON MATE: Max, did you say billions?
MAX BLUMENTHAL: If Russia and China had donated billions. Now, let’s talk about the actual statistics. The USAID has donated one point five million dollars for opposition groups in the coming year, but they’ve donated five million in the past four years, along with the National Endowment for Democracy’s four point one million and who knows how much else? That’s almost two dollars for every Nicaraguan citizen.
So, imagine if Russia and China came through with two dollars for every American citizen to push regime change in America, undermine America’s government and foment chaos, and we actually saw operatives of the National Endowment for Democracy, like Felix Maradiaga, working in plotting alongside armed criminal elements of the Viper gang on video at UPOLI. This is a documented fact, and Felix Maradiaga last week was hosted at the Aspen Institute for a seminar on moral leadership alongside David Brooks. This is a complete, unbelievable-
AARON MATE: Okay. A lot of points to respond to there, so let’s go to Mary Ellsberg. Go ahead.
MARY ELLSBERG: Okay. There’s again a lot there that I could talk about but I don’t think it’s the most important things. I haven’t said anything, I have never said that the students or that anybody in the opposition does not have any arms. Clearly, there are deaths of Sandinistas that involved shotguns and arms and some of them, most of the arms we saw were by far, homemade weapons. And almost all the pictures you see are of homemade mortars or Molotov cocktails, not to say that they can’t cause harm, they can’t kill somebody, but they’re primarily defensive weapons and you can’t use them as a sniper. So, they are not responsible for any of the people who were killed by bullet in the head or thorax.
And another time, we’ll have the conversation about the UNAN siege being completely made up. I have family who live about two blocks away from UNAN. I was up that entire night watching the streaming from multiple different areas around UNAN. The police set up barricades everywhere until the morning. People in solidarity came up and were praying and were singing. My family heard all of that. And to say the next day that none of that existed.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: I never said that.
AARON MATE: Mary, I think the contention there is that there were armed elements inside, that it wasn’t just peaceful student protesters. At a certain point, armed elements came in and supplanted the peaceful protesters and it became an armed standoff.
MAX BLUMENTHAL: And that the students themselves who were there, who did not come from that campus, substantially destroyed large parts of the campus, which I personally saw. And it’s horrifying to look at this, to see a reproductive health clinic destroyed.
MARY ELLSBERG: I think we’re speaking of two different pieces. I think it’s terrible that the school was destroyed. I don’t know who did it-
MAX BLUMENTHAL: I do.
MARY ELLSBERG: Guns coming from the students, also bad. And also bad, the police surrounding two hundred students that are in a church looking for refuge and not able to get their wounded out. And that has been treated as completely fake news.
So, I think we just need to look at that whole episode with somebody like the Inter-American, because really, this is the job of the group of independent and international experts of the OAS. And they are supposed to be looking at each one of these incidents and figuring out where justice lays and what happened. They gave a press conference today basically saying that they have not been able to fulfill their mandate because they have not been given access to any of the areas that they need, they haven’t been given access to the Medical Legal Institute to look at forensic documents. They haven’t been given access to the jails and literally, many of the things that it is their job to find out what happened, and they are very distinguished human rights lawyers, they’re not able to do.
MARY ELLSBERG: I had already gone through the Inter-American Human Rights Commission’s paper, the first report, which was very, very detailed. And I already told you a little bit about it. They had come up with 100, almost 200 people in the first report, and then in their most recent report they talk about 317 people who had been killed during this period as a result of the, of the protests. So it could be on either side. They have received documents from the government and they have included them. So the idea that they ignore it and don’t put them in is just not true. And in my article I actually cite the pieces where they recognized what the government is- what the information the government has given them.
But a few days ago, a paper came out by somebody named Enrique Hendrix that everybody is talking about it as a forensic document. I don’t know- I think the word forensic is being used very loosely. What he did was take a bunch of names, lists of names from two of the Nicaraguan NGOs that collected data on the deaths, and then the IACHR, which is not based on the other two, as people continue to say. In fact, there are, there are complaints that were collected intended that are not in the in the IACHR list because the family didn’t want to report it or report a complaint. So these are actual formal complaints that have been lodged by family members, or by individuals who have been harmed.
So I went through it all. Basically his point is that he has made his own sort of organization of the, of the different people who have been killed, and has taken a group that he says were killed by the opposition, and they were Sandinistas. He says there are 60 of those. So about a fifth of the murders are by the opposition. About another fifth are people who are protesting, who were murdered presumably by the government, or by parapolice. There’s another 16 percent or 46 deaths of people who were bystanders, and people keep talking about- people who are just walking around or something. And another group of 17 percent of deaths that are unrelated to the protests.
And so he takes all of those out and basically says that there are 119 deaths from this list, and half of them are people who were killed by the opposition. OK? That’s the big story and that’s what everybody’s been hearing thus far. So I now have it, and I’m going to just open up my computer so I can look at a little better.
So I just went down the list. And what he does is that he classifies them himself as to how he thinks they should be considered, and gives the information he has, and then he puts which report they’re in. And then in the side he gives, he gives the media where he got his information. Now, again, this is not forensic in the sense that he didn’t speak to anybody. He didn’t do any independent investigation. He basically just reorganized it and went back over all the media, and tried to figure out in his own mind what had happened. OK?
So what I found in the first 14- and I’m happy to send this to you, Max, and to anybody else- in the first 14 I found 10 errors. And this was either because the links were not- the links that supposedly were substantiating the identification, the classification, were wrong or dead, or dealt with the wrong person, or they were incomplete. So if I looked and I found more media talk- so basically he would use the media around the bystanders. One that said, oh yeah, he was just nearby coming home. We don’t know what happened. But there’s another one that says that on his Facebook he said, you know, ‘Todo por la Patria’ with a blue and white flag on it. And all of his friends said that he was a, he was a protester. So there’s that. And then finally, he actually links to some data, some reports, where it actually said the opposite.
So in the first whole long list of people who were killed by snipers that he says are not related to, they’re not at all related to the protest, what happened there, these are all people who were standing near the protest. Either in Ciudad Sandino or in [uni]. They may or may not have been there intentionally to participate. But they were killed by the same snipers. And remember, these snipers were firing from far away and were shooting to kill individuals that were unknown.
And that’s part of the terror of this, and the whole idea was to terrify people to not participate in, in marches or in the protests because people were simply getting mowed down just for being there.
AARON MATE: All right, so we’ll pause there, come back in part three. My guests are Max Blumenthal and Mary Ellsberg.