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As Nicaragua’s leftist government faces a violent right-wing insurgency, journalist Max Blumenthal discusses with TRNN’s Ben Norton how the regime change machinery bankrolled by the US government’s National Endowment for Democracy boasted of “laying the groundwork for insurrection” against President Daniel Ortega

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BEN NORTON: It’s The Real News, I’m Ben Norton.

For two months now, violent protests have destabilized the Central American nation of Nicaragua. President Daniel Ortega was reelected for his third term in 2016 with 72 percent of the vote. But in the past two months, right wing protesters from a variety of different factions have organized violent protests. Recently student leaders who were helping to lead a lot of these protests in the urban areas took a trip to Washington D.C. where they planned on meeting with Trump. The newspaper McClatchy reported that the students were supposed to meet with some of the most neoconservative members of the U.S. Congress including Senators Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and there are photos and video of these student leaders in Nicaragua meeting with Marco Rubio and also another neoconservative Republican from the house Illiana Ross Lleyton. So joining us to discuss this is Max Blumenthal. Max is an award winning journalist and he’s just published an article detailing how U.S. government backed organizations have spent millions of dollars over a period of years bankrolling a lot of these opposition groups that are now destabilizing the country. Max’s article was published in the Grayzone Project. It’s called U.S. government meddling machine boasts of laying the groundwork for insurrection in Nicaragua. Thanks for joining us Max.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Good to be on.

BEN NORTON: So in your article Max you detail how the students took this junket to Washington D.C. to meet with neoconservatives. They were trying to get Donald Trump’s support. They were lobbying for the U.S. to impose sanctions on Nicaragua. Nicaragua is one of the only remaining leftist governments in Latin America. Most of the other leftist governments have been overturned. There have been military coups or kind of soft coups and elections that pushed out the previous leftist leaders. And now in your article you talk about how U.S. government backed groups like the National Endowment for Democracy have spent millions of dollars trying to destabilize one of these last remaining leftist governments.

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Yeah, you know before I get into the current situation, just a little bit of background: I spent about half a year in Nicaragua between 2006 and 2007. I covered Daniel Ortega’s inauguration and followed his campaign. And you know he came into office with really great expectations. The public felt let down by decades of kind of rightwing neoliberal governance and they wanted to participate in the kind of Alba economy that centered around Venezuela which was doing very well at that time. Gas prices were high. I watched Hugo Chavez speak in the center of Managua you know a massive crowd which had essentially come to see him and Evo Morales the leader of Bolivia, and all the ALBA leaders proceed Daniel Ortega who is sort of much less charismatic than them and was riding on their coattails. Ortega had made a lot of compromises to get into office including with the clergy, the very conservative Catholic clergy- Obando who recently died. And Ortega sort of co-opt him as well as you know the liberal parties. And so Ortega didn’t exactly come into office as you know the hard core Sandinista leader that he was with with this revolutionary image that he cultivated in the 80s. There was an air of pragmatism that he aimed to project. And he also was promising stability.

And over the years his government has faced an enormous amount of challenges. The greatest challenge I think is you know the fact that Nicaragua doesn’t have oil it doesn’t have natural resources like Venezuela. And you know it’s traditionally been under attack from within, by the United States which is set up this gigantic apparatus behind the right wing forces of the country to prevent anything like Ortega’s election from taking place. It allowed his election to take place. The embassy was clearly interfering at that time and issuing statement after statement attacking him, but he won. And he had made all these compromises, but it clearly wasn’t enough and it really was surprising to me given that Nicaragua is still the most stable country in Central America. It’s not contributing to the migration crisis the way that El Salvador and Honduras are: countries that have been devastated mostly by U.S. policies. And you know just having been in the country it’s very safe. There aren’t a lot of firearms and Ortega still had popularity, much higher popularity than a lot of other Latin American leaders at the time that these protests broke out. They broke out because he was issuing reforms to the Social Security system which was going to go bankrupt so that it could stay solvent until 2019 and the local business community had insisted on these reforms that were basically recommended by the IMF that would have required the privatization of health clinics, and would have raised the retirement age. It would have been very debilitating for the working population, for a population that is disproportionately poor and one of the major achievements of the Sandinistas is free schools and free health clinics.

People I know in Nicaragua get pretty good healthcare, compared to the US. So Ortega proposed changes that would have raised– forced– you know average retirees to pay more into the system, but it ultimately would have forced the business community to pay the lion’s share to keep the system solvent. And then these protests erupted and it seemed strange to me, because these protests were spearheaded not by retirees. It wasn’t really focused around the pensions but by students who were politically unaffiliated and who had sweeping very vague demands. And as the protests got underway you started to see masked men with homemade mortars in the streets carrying out violent attacks on government facilities, and government radio stations, on police, and forming these tranques which are like roadblocks that aim to kind of consolidate territory in the same way that Venezuelan protesters, opponents of the Venezuelan government had done with their violent Garimba protests. So how did this just erupt out of nowhere?

Well I started looking into it more closely, and of course you know you have the private corporate media from Latin America which descended on Nicaragua to pump up the unrest, really in support of the opposition. But you also had this network that activated, that had been established– really established like incubated– by the United States government through its regime change arm the National Endowment for Democracy. And as I reported at the Grayzone project a publication funded by the National Endowment for Democracy called the Global Americans actually took credit for the unrest in Nicaragua, and said that the organizations funded in Nicaragua to the tune of four million dollars just in the last three years alone had laid the groundwork for insurrection. That was the actual headline in this article. So it’s clear that what was taking place might have reflected some organic grievances, but the network that’s made it possible and sustained it for so long relies heavily on U.S. dollars.

BEN NORTON: Yeah. And what’s interesting about this is there are so many parallels to Venezuela as you mentioned but also to the war in Syria. This isn’t to deny that there were legitimate protests at the beginning in the war in Syria either, there were legitimate grievances, but it was quickly militarized. It became a kind of war almost overnight as we’ve seen in Nicaragua. These are not all peaceful protests. In fact the New York Times just published an article in which it referred to the protesters as an irregular army. It used the language of an army. It referred to them as fighters not just protesters, although it went back and forth in the language. And it also discussed how these fighters in the east of the capital of Nicaragua, who are taking over neighborhoods and putting up barricades, they actually were holding hostage a police commander and this was forcing the police forces to try to break down the barricade, and the police were being shot by homemade mortars.

So this is very similar to the ongoing crisis in Venezuela but specifically last year in 2017 when we saw right wing protesters in Venezuela attacking police, blowing up police, blowing up different police headquarters, setting fire to buildings. And we also saw a very terrifying act. In Venezuela right wing protesters would actually set pro Chavez and pro Maduro people on fire, especially black Venezuelans. And we actually just saw a report that in Nicaragua two pro government workers who were cleaning up and trying to move a barricade out of the middle of the road– two pro government workers were actually lit on fire by right wing protesters in Nicaragua. Can you just talk about the parallels to what we saw in Syria and Venezuela and the potential for this to balloon even further in Nicaragua?

MAX BLUMENTHAL: Well there, you know if you look on Twitter, you know, Venezuelan opposition Twitter has been sharing tactics with Nicaraguans who claim to be part of the unrest or the revolt against Ortega. Now when I say tactics I mean how to design homemade munitions and like, luckily the munitions are homemade and the U.S. isn’t sending in arms as it did during the 1980s, when it created the contras, or as it did in 2012 when it created the Syrian version of the contras who eventually helped establish Al Qaeda’s largest affiliate since 9/11. And basically what we saw was a kind of disturbing harbinger of what could take place across Nicaragua if the opposition was more heavily militarized. They basically established what they call the liberated zone, like the so-called rebels did in Syria. It was basically a junta in Masaya, they kidnapped the police commander, set up roadblocks, and then fought a siege with the Nicaraguan police and paramilitaries until the Nicaraguan government could re-establish control. And this is what they’re attempting to do around the country using militarized guerrilla tactics to basically assert control outside of the government’s latitude.

Now this is something that the U.S. may not overtly endorse but the U.S. has created the context for this to take place by pumping millions of dollars into civil society organisations, and probably more importantly into media. The most important media organization in Nicaragua which is inspiring the unrest is La Prensa, which is the right wing paper of the Chamorro family which ruled Nicaragua between 1990 and 2007. I actually visited the paper, and you know they’re very deeply opposed to Ortega, but they also maintain kind of a professional newsroom apparatus. It’s hard to see the paper as sort of a non Nicaraguan operation, and I’m not suggesting that it is, but the paper was largely incubated by the National Endowment for Democracy in the 1980s through a front group which was also funded by Oliver North’s allies covertly. By 1990 La Prensa was receiving one million dollars from the National Endowment for Democracy and that was the year of the National Endowment for Democracy’s first big success, which was defeating the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections, and electing Violeta Chamorro who proceeded to roll back a lot of their gains. There are other media organizations like Radoo Dario, whose director recently was junketed to Washington alongside these students you mentioned in the beginning, by Freedom House. Freedom House is another arm of the U.S. government that plays a role in the world that dovetails very neatly with neoconservative foreign policy priorities, and they junketed these students and any National Endowment for Democracy funded activists up to Washington to lobby for regime change. Now while that lobbying was taking place with the kind of 5star opposition– This is another parallel to Syria, where you’d have these kind of opposition figures in three piece suits meeting in hotel rooms who are funded by the U.S. or Saudi Arabia or whoever. While the opposition on the ground was carrying out violent attacks on the government and seizing territory. While this was all taking place, the U.S. put the first sanctions on members of the Nicaraguan government through the global Magnitsky Act. So it began the process of attacking Nicaragua’s government– Nicaragua’s economy.

The economy has bled something like 250 million dollars since the unrest began. That’s an enormous sum for the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. And, ironically large sectors sectors of the Nicaraguan business community are also behind the uprising. But their bottom line is being hurt by this, so I wonder how far they’re going to go. I still think that Ortega is in control. But what we’ve seen take place really reflects the blueprint that played out in Venezuela, and to us to a certain extent in Syria but without billions of dollars of arms being pumped in.

BEN NORTON: We’re going to take our pause in our conversation. I’m joined by the journalist Max Blumenthal who is an award winning reporter and the editor of the investigative news website The Grayzone project. I contribute to the Grayzone project, and actually cohost a podcast with Max.

In the second part of our discussion here we’ll talk more about the protests and the ongoing destabilization inside Nicaragua, and specifically I’m going to ask Max about the media response, and then what he thinks about the response of many leftists and progressives in the United States. Thanks 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.