Why the Labour movement should support Nicaragua’s Sandinista government

John Perry, Masaya, Nicaragua, replies to Mike Phipps’ article, published earlier this week

The Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua was an inspiration to many on the left in the 1980s. Forty-one years later, it still urgently needs and deserves our support. The case for doing so is a very strong one.

After the US-inspired “Contra war” led to electoral defeat for the Sandinistas in 1990, the country endured 16 years of neoliberal government. On regaining power in 2007, Daniel Ortega’s government restarted the social investment and anti-poverty programmes which the revolution promised. Then two years ago, it faced a new threat: protests orchestrated by US-funded organisations quickly turned into a violent attempt at regime change. Nicaragua’s government survived once more, only to confront the Covid-19 pandemic with an economy still not fully recovered and access to vital medical and other aid severely limited by US sanctions. It will survive again, but only because the majority of Nicaraguans still back it. Opinion polls forecast that the Sandinista Front (FSLN) will earn by far the biggest share of the vote in next year’s elections.

How has the government kept this level of popular support? A big part of the answer is Nicaragua’s social achievements. Poverty fell from 48.3% in 2007 to 24.9% in 2016, and extreme poverty fell from 17.2% to 6.9%. In part this resulted from government subsidies for basic needs such as electricity and bus transport, but also through massive promotion of what is known as the “popular economy” of small businesses and co-operatives. It enabled Nicaragua to minimise its dependence on large firms and foreign-owned multinationals which dominate most Latin American economies.

The government has invested strongly in education. Schools were made free again in 2007 and attendance rocketed. All school children get a free daily meal, with the food prepared collectively by parents. There has been a massive school building programme. Vocational technical training is also free in well-equipped centres. Low-income students receive scholarships to attend university.

Nicaragua leads in renewable energy. In 2007, only a quarter of electricity came from renewables, now the country is on the path to reach over 90% once current investments in solar plants and wind turbines are completed. The electricity grid now extends to 97% of the population, up from 50% only two decades ago.

Nicaragua remains the safest country in Central America and among the safest in all the Americas. It is largely free of the powerful gangs and drug-running violence that bedevil its neighbours.

Nicaragua has achieved gender parity in its political institutions and government bodies. For the third straight year, Nicaragua ranked fifth in the world in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report. Much remains to be done, not least in tackling domestic violence, but the government is opening women’s commissions in many police stations. Nicaragua’s restrictive abortion law, dating from before the Sandinistas’ return to power, remains a strong point of contention internationally. But it is still approved by most Nicaraguans, perhaps because (unlike in other countries with strict laws) it rarely if ever leads to prosecutions.

Most importantly at the time of the pandemic, health care in Nicaragua is free. In May 2020 the country had more hospital beds at 18.5 per 10,000 people than Colombia or Mexico and proportionately more intensive care beds than Japan or the UK. The country has built 19 hospitals since 2007. Maternal mortality has dropped to 34 deaths per 100,000 births thanks in large part to the country’s Maternal Shelter programme for rural women.

Nicaragua’s critics on the left in both Europe and the US have been heavily influenced by the hostility of the international media to the Sandinista government that began well before the violence of 2018 and has been unrelenting since then. The opposition, who appeared to have significant support among Nicaraguans in April and May that year, but quickly lost most of it when their violence became widespread, have enjoyed largely uncritical coverage in the Guardian, BBC, New York Times and elsewhere. Appeals to the international media, as well as to human rights bodies such as Amnesty International, to look more carefully at who caused the violence and who suffered most from it, have been in vain. For example, although Amnesty International accepts that on the very first day of the violence two years ago, April 18th, a police officer was shot by demonstrators before any of the protesters themselves became victims, it has never reached the obvious conclusion that the protesters had conventional firearms from the start. A very detailed and exhaustive report, prepared by local activists, never received any response from AI despite many attempts to engage with them.

Apart from rejecting the violence, Nicaraguans quickly realised that while some protesters were disaffected Sandinistas, their organisers had received substantial  US funding to plan and carry out what was effectively an attempted coup (using tactics since implemented successfully in Bolivia). All of the local “human rights” organisations, including the one mentioned in Labour Hub’s previous article on Nicaragua, have received funding from US Aid, the US government-funded National Endowment for Democracy, and other bodies promoting regime change in Cuba, Bolivia and many other countries. This is why, having been tolerated for years by Daniel Ortega’s government, these bodies and other NGOs that accepted US funding have had their equivalent of “charity” status removed.

Worse still, from the outset, opposition leaders looked to the worst elements of the Trump Administration and to the right-wing of the Republican Party for support, making clear that if they ever gain power a neoliberal agenda will be imposed on the country as it was in 1990. The right-wing media, which have become little more than propaganda outfits, but nevertheless continue to operate freely, reinforce this perception. Most Nicaraguans, whether or not they are active Sandinista supporters, can readily see the direction which the country would take if the government were to be overthrown.

The opposition, unsuccessful in 2018, were quick to use the pandemic as the latest stick with which to beat Daniel Ortega’s government, with plentiful fake news of mass graves, bodies left in the street, hospitals in a state of collapse and alleged government indifference. The international media joined in, with the Guardian three times comparing Ortega’s approach to that of Brazil’s right-wing president Jair Bolsonaro. A letter in The Lancet from a group of doctors in the US (not Nicaragua), claiming that Nicaragua’s response was “perhaps the most erratic of any country in the world to date,” received wide publicity. My reply, also published by The Lancet, received practically none.

The criticisms completely ignored the strategy which the government had agreed with the World Health Organisation’s regional body in late January, well ahead of many other countries. It led (for example) to health checks at the borders, with travellers asked to quarantine, months before similar measures began in the US or the UK. Nineteen hospitals were prepared specifically to deal with respiratory cases before the pandemic started and 36,000 staff were trained, with help from Cuba and from countries like South Korea which already had hundreds of cases. A huge programme of house-to-house visits to dispense advice on Covid-19 was begun, using trained volunteers.

So far, the government’s strategy appears to have been successful. There have been just over 3,000 confirmed cases, although this is certainly an underestimate as there is a severe shortage of test kits (because of US sanctions, Nicaragua has not enjoyed the same international aid as other Central American countries). The government’s decision that it could not enforce a lockdown because most Nicaraguans simply couldn’t survive without going out to work, especially the 40% in rural areas where the planting season started in May, was heavily criticised. However, hospitals didn’t reach capacity and the worst of the pandemic – at least for the moment – has passed.

It is true that Daniel Ortega has stretched the constitution to stand for election more than once. Because of this his government is now branded a “regime” and he is frequently called a “dictator”. But there is no question that the last election reflected the popular vote, as attested at the time by the Organisation of American States. As progressive governments have been marginalised and directly threatened in Latin America, beginning with the attempted coup against Hugo Chavez in 2002, and followed by the successful coups in Honduras in 2009 and most recently Bolivia, it is hardly surprising that they have become tougher towards opponents, especially when those opponents have openly turned to violence and demand that the government simply leave power and hand it over to them (as happened when Ortega opened a “national dialogue” with the opposition in 2018). None of the left-leaning governments in Latin America have been perfect, but all offer a far better deal to Latin America’s poor than what is on offer from their opponents. That is why progressive opinion in Europe and the United States must continue to defend Nicaragua’s sovereignty and self-determination, free from interference from the US and other outside interests.