By Fiona Edwards, Editor of the Eyes on Latin America website

March 12, 2020


Overthrowing the Sandinista government in Nicaragua is a key foreign policy goal for the US in Latin America. Alongside Cuba and Venezuela, Nicaragua has been described by the Trump administration as part of a “Troika of tyranny” in the region. Following the US-backed coup in Bolivia that removed Evo Morales and the Movement Towards Socialism (MAS) from government in November 2019, the US administration is now intensifying its attempts to achieve regime change in Nicaragua and Venezuela and further isolate and attack the Cuban revolution.

In 2018 the US coordinated an attempted coup against Nicaragua’s democratically elected President Daniel Ortega and the left wing Sandinista government. The coup plot failed but the impact of months of extreme violence instigated by right wing opposition groups funded by the US has been to transform Nicaragua’s economic success story into a crisis, with the economy contracting in 2018 and 2019. The imposition of US sanctions through the ‘NICA Act’ of December 2018 has put serious pressure on the Nicaraguan government.

I met Daniel Kovalik, an American human rights and labour lawyer and peace activist to interview him about his new documentary, ‘Nicaragua: The April Crisis and Beyond’ which seeks to set the record straight on what really happened during the 2018 US attempted coup in Nicaragua.

Daniel also shares his perspective on the current situation in Nicaragua, the record of the Sandinistas and the on-going struggles taking place throughout Latin America for independence and against US imperialism.

Your new documentary film, ‘Nicaragua: The April Crisis and Beyond’, explores the great upheavals that took place in Nicaragua in the summer of 2018, where a violent right-wing movement attempted and failed to overthrow the country’s left wing, Sandinista government. What are the main messages you are trying to get across in the film?

Daniel Kovalik: The main message I’m trying to get across in the film is that the events of the summer 2018 were greatly distorted by the mainstream press. It was easily more complicated than what was portrayed, if not completely reversed from what reality was. It is very clear to me and to most Nicaraguans that the crisis of the summer 2018 was not brought about by alleged police brutality but in fact brought about by a very concerted, very manipulative, very violent, right-wing campaign against not only the government but the Sandinista movement itself and this orchestrated campaign was funded by the United States.

The other thing the film seeks to do is give voice to everyday Nicaraguans about not only the events of 2018 but about what the Sandinista revolution has done for them, has done for society and what the Sandinista revolution means to them. I think many people don’t know what the Sandinista revolution is about and if they did know many have forgotten.

How do you see the current situation facing Nicaragua? Has the situation stabilised since the regime change attempt of 2018?

Daniel Kovalik: I think the current situation in Nicaragua is the following: certainly things are much more peaceful than they were in 2018 although there is sporadic violence being carried out by the same right wing folks that carried out the violence in 2018. And part of this is due to the fact that the Nicaraguan government in part under pressure from the opposition and the United States but also due to their own benevolence released a lot prisoners who should have been locked up because of violence. In fact Ben Norton in the Grayzone recently had a great story on some of these prisoners who were released. One of those was released went out and murdered his girlfriend because a lot of these people were common criminals. So there is a lot of sporadic violence but mostly it’s calmed down.

The economy is coming back, tourism is coming back – these are all good things. The problem is that the United States has at the end of 2018 imposed very draconian sanctions in the NICA Act which are obviously making it harder for the economy to flourish. The EU is considering similar sanctions and so I would like to take this opportunity to ask people in the US, the EU and Britain to oppose the sanctions. Oppose the ones already imposed and to campaign against those that are currently being considered.

The film explores the impact of the Sandinista revolution. How would you characterise the achievements of Daniel Ortega and his left government in Nicaragua?

Daniel Kovalik: The achievements of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista revolution are really innumerable.

The first victory of the Sandinistas was to overthrow a US-backed dictator, Anastasio Somoza. So in one stroke the Sandinistas not only overthrew a dictatorship but they overthrew foreign domination because the US was ruling Nicaragua through the Somozas that they put in power in 1934.

Also the Sandinistas achieved democracy, which they are not given enough credit for. In 1984 the Sandinistas held the first free and fair elections Nicaragua ever had. They won those. In 1990 they held elections again and they lost those and they stepped down from power, even though they lost due to coercion, due to the US’ continual threat of war against the Nicaraguan people. But they voluntarily stepped down. No one gives them credit for that. They call them dictators and authoritarians but they gave up power. They gave up power for 16 years and watched the country go to pieces under neo-liberal rule – under governments that did nothing for the people, governments that didn’t even bother to electrify the country. So when the Sandinistas took power again in 2007 they inherited a country that was 15% un-electrified. Now the country after 13 years of Nicaraguan leadership is nearly 100% electrified, has free wifi throughout the country, poverty has been greatly eradicated. The Sandinistas have given the people free healthcare, free education, the country is now ranked 5th in the world in gender equality. These are incredible achievements for any country but for a country as poor as Nicaragua, as small as Nicaragua, and for a country that has been under this unrelenting intervention and warfare by the US since 1979, that they have achieved these things is nothing less than miraculous.

In the film you mention how the US has been pouring millions of dollars into the political and civil society opposition in Nicaragua. What role is the US playing in the situation? What is the Trump administration trying to achieve?

Daniel Kovalik: As I note in the film the US has poured millions of dollars into Nicaragua, mostly in the form of supporting opposition groups. Actually since the Sandinistas were re-elected in 2006 the US has cut humanitarian aid but has increased aid to opposition forces with the goal of destabilising the country. They have done this through the USAID, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). The NED in a magazine actually took credit for the turmoil that took place in 2018, they actually bragged about the fact that their money brought to fruition this violent turmoil in 2018. So they aren’t even hiding. The goal is to take out the Sandinistas and to really destroy Sandinismo and to bring back neo-liberal rule in Nicaragua. That has been the goal all along and continues to be the goal.

So what is Trump trying to achieve? He is trying to achieve that but we also have to admit that so was Obama. Trump didn’t even take office until 2017 and that funding had been going into Nicaragua for some time. In the US this is a bipartisan issue. The Democrats and Republicans are in lockstep together in opposing liberation movements around the world.

What challenge does the candidacy of Bernie Sanders for US President pose to the bipartisan consensus to make Latin America the US’ backyard again?

Daniel Kovalik: I would have some hope of a Bernie Sanders Presidency – that he would take much more of a non-interventionist position towards Latin America. He was a supporter of the Sandinistas in the 1980s. I think he is a leftist at heart, I think he is a non-interventionist at heart. But I think for that reason and others the establishment will never let him be President, just like the establishment in Britain would not allow Jeremy Corbyn to be Prime Minister. I think you are going to see the Democratic nomination stolen from Bernie Sanders – you are already starting to see that. The establishment is rallying against him. But I think he does represent some very positive change, not only for the US but for the world because I do think he has no interests in continuing these wars abroad.

The Trump administration has dubbed Nicaragua part of a “troika of tyranny” in Latin America, alongside Cuba and Venezuela which are also run by left wing governments. The US has scored victories in the region with the coup against the legitimate and democratic President of Bolivia Evo Morales as well as the rise of Bolsonaro in Brazil following the judicial coup against Lula da Silva. But the US has also seen setbacks with the election of AMLO in Mexico and Alberto Fernandez in Argentina. How do you see the overall situation in Latin America at the present time? Do you think the US is succeeding in making Latin America its “backyard” again?  

Daniel Kovalik: The US has certainly had some victories in Latin America. The US Justice Department partnered with Brazilian Justice Department in what is known as the ‘Car Wash’ campaign which resulted in the jailing of Lula da Silva, the most popular politician in Brazil. He was in jail when he should have been running for election, he would have won overwhelmingly. Instead Bolsonaro was elected and he is an ultra-right wing leader who has vowed to open up the rainforest for super-exploitation and to cleanse the rainforest of indigenous people who stand in the way of that. Of course when he talks of opening up the Amazon rainforest for exploitation it’s largely in the name of US and Western interests. So Bolsonaro is a huge victory for the US.

The overthrow of Evo Morales based on what we know now is a lie, the lie that he allegedly won re-election through fraud – that’s been debunked by MIT. Getting rid of Morales was a huge victory for the US. It’s becoming clear that one of the reasons they wanted him out was to be able to secure Bolivia’s rich lithium supplies for the US and for the West in general. Lithium is very important of course for lithium batteries, for electric cars and for computers. So those are two notable victories for the US.

But of course the US has yet to be victorious in Venezuela. They have now been working for over a year to install Juan Guaido in power. It looked for a moment that maybe they’d succeed but they haven’t. And now the Venezuelan economy is coming back, so we see at least for now a loss by the US in Venezuela. They were unable to overthrow Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua in 2018. I think the Sandinistas are stronger now than they ever were. Cuba continues to resist. So there is hope. I think the problem the US have in Latin America is that the natural tendency of the people of Latin America is to towards independence, they are a fiercely independent people and the US can maybe have a temporary victory somewhere, but I believe they are going to lose the region. The US cannot keep them all down at once – so I do think Latin America will find its way towards independence.

The US is funding right-wing, violent opposition groups in Nicaragua. To what extent is this approach deployed elsewhere in Latin America against governments the US wants to overthrow?

Daniel Kovalik: The US support for the right wing and for violent elements in Nicaragua is a very old strategy of the US. Going back to Mosaddegh in 1953 the CIA’s first coup in Iran, the CIA used that tactic there –they funded violent protests to overthrow Mosaddegh. That playbook has continued. They used it in Chile in 1973, they used it in Brazil in 1964, they used it in Guatemala in 1954, they used it in Bolivia. This is a very, very textbook tactic of the CIA and the National Endowment for Democracy. It’s incredible you can trace these coups back to 1953 in Iran and you see the combination of economic strangulation, supporting of riots and violent street protests and they trying to blame those on the government – this is classic. If one knows their history you’ll see how much the Nicaraguan experience and the Venezuelan experience today looks like prior experiences.

The US claims to intervene in Latin America in the name of “democracy”, “freedom” and “human rights”. What do you think of such claims?

Daniel Kovalik: I actually think that the idea that the US supports democracy, freedom and human rights anywhere is a cruel joke, it’s a dark comedy. The US has never supported democracy throughout the world, if they have it’s been sheer accident. Their main objective is to support governments that advance US and Western economic interests, if they happen to be democracy fine but they are just as happy to support a fascist like Pinochet in Chile, a fascist like Bolsonaro in Brazil, the Somozas is Nicaragua, the Shah in Iran. You can go down the list where the US has overthrown democratic governments and imposed dictatorships and military juntas. Chile is the classic case where they took a 100 year old constitutional democracy and destroyed it and imposed this fascist military leader in Pinochet. The ideas that they are somehow out there supporting freedom and democracy, there is no factual basis for this – this is pure fantasy. You might as well believe in unicorns or elves – it’s not reality.

You can watch Daniel Kovalik’s new documentary, ‘Nicaragua: The April Crisis and Beyond’, on Youtube.