Reviewed by W. T. Whitney Jr.
Nicaragua, a History of US Intervention & Resistance, by Dan Kovalik. (Clarity Press, Atlanta, 2023), ISBN: 978-1-949762-64-8, 303 pages.
“This neoliberal economics, the latest stage of capitalism, does not allow for alternative political or economic ideas or values. We already knew that any country that seriously threatened our model either had to assimilate or be eliminated.”
Peace activist and Vietnam War veteran S. Brian Willson, speaking in South Paris, Maine, on September 13, 1998, was condemning U.S. interventions in Vietnam, Mexico, and Nicaragua. He himself had already acted on behalf of Nicaragua.
On September 1, 1987 in Oakland, California, Willson put himself in front of a train to prevent a weapons delivery to U.S.- backed “Contra” mercenaries fighting revolutionaries in Nicaragua. The train did not stop and Willson lost two legs.
College student Daniel Kovalik that summer was part of a reforestation project in Ocotal, in Nicaragua. The Contra war had not ended and he heard machine gun fire “nearly every night.” The suffering he saw was “simply shocking.” Looking now at photos of children there “makes me want to cry,” he writes. He states that the “Veterans Peace Convey” of humanitarian aid to Nicaragua, which he joined in 1988, was “possibly the most profound experience of my life.”
Kovalik’s new book “Nicaragua, A History of US Intervention & Resistance” touches upon these experiences. Kovalik is a labor lawyer, human rights activist and teacher, and prolific author (his other books are here).
The book is valuable and is immensely appealing, not least because Kovalik seems to speak directly to the reader. He makes effective use of extended quotations from various reports, other histories, analyses from international agencies, and commentary from participants. The intention behind what follows here is to recruit readers.
Kovalik’s stated purpose is to present “the realities of U.S. intervention [in Nicaragua,] past and present,” highlight Nicaraguans’ abilities to overcome U.S. “assaults,” and promote much-needed solidarity with Nicaraguans as they struggle for self-determination.
The book’s first sections look at history prior to the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s (FSLN) accession to power. Included are Tennessean William Walker’s attempt to set up his own slavocracy in 1855, U.S. Marines’ occupation of Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, U.S. formation of Nicaragua’s oppressive National Guard, and U.S. support after 1936 for the brutal Somoza-family dictatorship.
Also presented are Augusto Cesar Sandino’s guerrilla army that fought the Marines from 1927 until their departure and struggle by the FSLN rural insurgency after 1960 to bring down the Somoza regime. Over 50,000 Nicaraguans died in the year preceding its defeat on July 17, 1979.
In order, the book turns to: the FSLN in power, their electoral defeat in 1990, the U.S.-led Contra counter-revolution in the 1980s, the “Dark Days” of neoliberal rule after 1990, and the Sandinistas in power again after 2007. Kovalik makes these points, among others:
- Until recently, the Sandinistas, originally an alliance of three factions, governed with allies including Catholic Church representatives, business leaders, capitalists, Marxists, and rural collectives.
- Women’s lives have improved in equality, political participation, and leadership opportunities.
- Sandinista approval ratings have remained high, even in stressful times, for example, 80% in 2018 prior to the protests of that year and up to 90% before the 2021 elections.
- Dissent within FSLN ranks and FSLN differences with its opposition reflect divisions between city and countryside and between intellectual callings and manual work.
- The Catholic Church, now far removed from liberation theology, has consistently harassed the Sandinistas.
- Kovalik repeatedly inveighs against U.S. leftists who have abandoned the Sandinistas. They “claim to know better about the nature of Daniel Ortega and the FSLN than the Nicaraguan people,” he points out.
- Sandinistas in power have accomplished much: nutritional gains, agrarian reform, food sovereignty, housing access, widespread electrification, increased literacy, more jobs, youth programs, universal access to schools and healthcare, infrastructure improvements, and lowered mortality rates.
This is a record, we suggest, that betrays the socialist leanings of the government and people. And until 2020 or so, the sharply reduced numbers of Nicaraguans migrating north, compared to other Central American populations, testified to satisfaction with these gains.
Kovalik reviews the anti-government protest actions of 2018 and the pre-election jailings of opposition leaders in 2021. Each of these episodes prompted criticism from the U.S. and European left.
Street actions, roadblocks, and barricades occurred during mid-2018. In his afterword that concludes Kovalik’s book, Orlando Zelaya Olivas indicates that 198 civilians and 22 police officers were murdered. Press reports locally and internationally blamed the police for killing peaceful demonstrators.
Kovalik, citing sources, shows that the protesters had been paid and prepared, that many had criminal records, that snipers rather than the police did most of the killing, and that lethal violence continued even after the police were withdrawn. He insists that a coup was on the way.
Kovalik claims that the U.S. government promoted the opposition by funding NGOs, dissident Sandinistas, youth organizations, religious groups, and social movements. He mentions the connection between U.S. promotion of social media and expanded anti-government messaging. U.S. economic sanctions, not emphasized in the book, contributed to the turmoil.
The government’s imprisonment in 2021 of opposition leaders led to the Sandinistas being widely criticized for interfering in elections set for later that year. President Daniel Ortega’s election to a fourth consecutive term with a 75 percent plurality fueled the fire.
Sympathizing with the government’s accusations that the plotters of 2018 were orchestrating a coup, Kovalik observes that, “the first duty of a Revolution is to defend itself, for if it cannot meet this most essential goal, it obviously cannot serve and defend the people as they deserve.”
The jailed opposition leaders were not opposition candidates, asserts Stephen Sefton, writing from Nicaragua. The Sandinista government’s political opposition, he explains, in 2011 divided into regular political parties and “an extra-parliamentary opposition based in local NGOs.” The latter sector had “mounted the violent, US designed coup attempt” of 2018 and under Nicaraguan Law its operatives ought to have been arrested. The opposition’s contending political parties of 2021 had no part in planning a coup.
After Daniel Kovalik’s book was published, solidarity with the Sandinistas took a big hit. On February 9, 2023, the government released 222 prisoners, mostly those who had been arrested in 2021. It expelled all but a few to the United States. The government withdrew the citizenship of some 300 Nicaraguans, including those who were forcibly exiled; their properties were confiscated. Criticism has resounded, for example, from the Economist magazine, the United Nations, to the left-leaning Colombian government.
Explanation is in order. Nicaragua’s government, strapped by sanctions and prey to social media, had seen coalition-building and collaboration come to naught, and was facing coup attempts. Now in hair-trigger mode, it was primed for over-reaction. The Sandinistas’ enemies may have calculated that the desperation they were causing would feed into muddled decision-making that would itself lead to further destabilization.
Daniel Kovalik’s book says that rescue and recovery of oppressed, marginalized, and poor Nicaraguans is a long-term matter, one, we would add, that is surely too long for today’s counterpart of Tom Paine’s “summer soldier and the sunshine patriot” to be of much help.
The book gives rise to an important question for which Brian Willson provides an answer, at the top of this report. Prime minister of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines Ralph Gonsalves, speaking in Nicaragua in 2022, asks the question:
“You have a country [the US] which is 350 million people. They are reputedly the strongest military force in the world. Nicaragua is 6.2 million people, a country in Central America seeking to develop itself and its people.”
“Why in God’s name, with a country so large, with so many resources, with such military strength, why would you want to pick on a small country like Nicaragua? I ask myself that question every day.”