Nicaragua’s right-wing opposition is waging an information warfare campaign to undermine the elected Sandinista government, spreading fake news on coronavirus, while the state takes a balanced approach with close attention to the working class and poor.
By Ben Norton
MANAGUA, NICARAGUA – The coronavirus pandemic has paralyzed the global economy, unleashing what is easily the worst crisis since the Great Recession of 2008, if not since the Great Depression of 1929.
In Nicaragua, US-backed right-wing forces have exploited the pandemic to try to destabilize the democratically elected government, run by the leftist Sandinista Front (FSLN) and led by the party’s President Daniel Ortega and Vice-President Rosario Murillo.
Although Nicaragua has managed to contain the Covid-19 outbreak much better than its US-allied neighbors in other parts of Central America, where the infection rate is far higher, that has not stopped domestic opposition forces from trying to milk the crisis.
The Nicaraguan right-wing is a tiny, overwhelmingly elite, out-of-touch group making up around 10 percent of the population. With little hope of electoral success and its base more divided than ever, it has resorted to spreading mountains of fake news, printing demonstrably false information in hopes of stirring up a frenzy among the population.
While the fear-mongering has spread panic among Nicaragua’s middle and upper classes, the majority of the country’s population has continued to follow government recommendations.
Contrary to claims by the billionaire Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post that “Nicaragua declines to confront a pandemic,” the government is pursuing a strategy that parallels the approach of Sweden, and with more success so far.
I have spent most of 2020 living and reporting in the capital, Managua, so I have seen how international corporate media outlets are spreading misleading claims about Nicaragua and its response to Covid-19, fueling the opposition’s efforts to stir chaos.
As of the date of publication, there are no known cases of local transmission. All nine patients that have been recorded are Nicaraguans who contracted the virus in the United States, Colombia, or Panama, and brought it back to the country. Five of the nine recuperated, and one, who had AIDS, died.
Each of the confirmed Covid-19 patients has been isolated. Nicaragua’s health ministry has followed up by ordering those they have been in contact with to self-isolate, and has checked in on them regularly.
Nicaragua has not closed its borders, however anyone crossing a land border or disembarking a plane in Managua’s international airport is required to see a medical professional who checks the temperatures of all arrivals, tests for potential symptoms, and asks about health issues.
Nicaragua boasts a system of socialized medicine that provides high-quality healthcare to all residents, at no cost – an achievement made possible by the Sandinistas’ national electoral victory in 2006.
This universal health system helped Nicaragua prepare for the crisis well before it started. In its 13 years in office, the FSLN government has constructed 18 public hospitals (with plans to make 15 more), and has put enormous effort into ensuring that all Nicaraguans receive regular, up-to-date immunizations at no cost.
Nicaragua’s substantial public health system sprung into action when the global Covid-19 outbreak began. The Sandinista government announced its professionals would be training 250,000 health “brigadistas,” with plans to visit more than 1 million homes to check in on families and teach them ways to fight and contain the virus.
It appears that another key reason coronavirus has not spread much in Nicaragua is due to the country’s hot climate. Chinese scientists found that “high temperature and high relative humidity significantly reduce the transmission” of Covid-19. Nicaragua’s temperature is in the mid-90s Fahrenheit (mid-30s Celsius) on a daily basis, with a humidity often around 50 percent or higher. This makes it much more difficult for the virus to spread.
Nicaragua has also benefited from help from its friends and allies. Medical experts from Cuba, some of the best in the entire world, have come to Nicaragua to help combat the pandemic.
Nicaraguan health officials have also consulted with experts from both the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan. (Nicaragua’s relations with the PRC are complex, as it is one of the few nations on Earth that still recognizes Taiwan, due to the decisions of past neoliberal governments, financial assistance in anti-poverty programs, and constant US meddling.)
Nicaragua’s economic dilemma, with US coup attempt and informal economy
While Nicaragua’s response to the pandemic has been more hands-off than the lockdown approach pursued by countries in the Global North, it does not mean the government is not taking Covid-19 seriously. Each morning, for example, the Health Ministry (MINSA) holds a press conference featuring officials and health experts updating the public with the latest news on the coronavirus.
But unlike the citizens of wealthy, industrialized nations in the Global North, many Nicaraguans face a serious economic dilemma as the pandemic bears down on them.
Nicaragua has only just begun to recover from the enormous economic damage it weathered in a 2018 US-backed coup attempt. For months, violent right-wing extremists actively destabilized the entire country, erecting barricades called tranques that blocked off traffic, grinding the nation and its economy to a halt.
Besides the hundreds of citizens who died in the violence, or who suffered torture and brutality at the hands of armed opposition forces, the country’s economic growth slipped from a roaring 5 percent to zero.
Since the failure of the putsch, the Sandinista government has placed a herculean effort into a national peace and reconciliation process. It has also tried to recover the billions of dollars worth of economic damage that was done, by ramping up domestic production and inviting tourists to return to its beaches.
By the beginning of 2020, Nicaragua seemed like it was on the verge of recovering economically from the chaos. Then came Covid-19.
With a critical national election looming in 2021, the Sandinista front clearly recognizes that a total economic shutdown in the face of Covid-19 could be exploited by Nicaragua’s right-wing oligarchs, who for 13 years have been desperate to return to power.
Compounding this dilemma is the fact that Nicaragua’s economy is not nearly as centralized as those of rich industrialized nations in the Global North.
More than 70 percent of Nicaraguans work in the informal economic sector, meaning they live hand to mouth, without paychecks or salaries. They grow food, sell products in the street, or provide services, often in their own homes, where they have set up businesses.
Nicaragua’s Sandinista government prides itself on enacting an economic model that centers small businesses and informal vendors, providing them with loans at zero interest and other forms of free assistance.
Large corporations are present in Nicaragua (Walmart runs some supermarket chains), but it is mostly the middle class and the rich who shop at these stores. The vast majority of working-class Nicaraguans shop in community markets, small businesses, and the informal economy; they buy food, clothes, cleaning supplies, and even electronics from vendors in the streets.
If the majority of Nicaraguans who work in these small businesses do not work, they do not eat. And they can’t just get checks from the government, because most of them do not even have bank accounts.
So the Sandinista government has responded with a more measured economic response to the crisis. The Nicaraguan economy has not been entirely shut down. Many unnecessary stores and restaurants are closed, but some remain open.
In supermarkets, banks, and most stores in Managua, a guard can usually be found in the entrance with a mask and a bottle of alcohol, ready to spray the hands of clients.
All across the country, people are wearing masks. I have even seen cab drivers with face shields.
The government has provided hand sanitizer containers in public spaces, and there are signs everywhere warning people not to touch their eyes or mouth and to wash their hands thoroughly for 20 seconds.
Nicaragua has managed to find a healthy balance while also containing the virus. Life is not normal, but it is not at a standstill as it is in many other countries.
Left-wing President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has faced a similar dilemma in Mexico — another country where the majority of the population works in the informal sector. And as in Nicaragua, the right-wing opposition has weaponized this more careful economic response to attack López Obrador, known popularly by the acronym AMLO.
A photo went viral on social media showing a Mexican worker cooking next to a sign reading “Mexico is not Europe; in Mexico if you don’t work you don’t eat.” This is a real dilemma facing many millions of laborers in the informal economy.
Mexico is not Europe, in Mexico if you don’t work you don’t eat, reads sign in entrance to the Coyoacán market. The government has ordered everyone to stay home to prevent #COVID19, but 60 million people work in informal economy and have no income if they don’t work. 📷by me. pic.twitter.com/Ux62ifVFBY
Despite these criticisms, however, Nicaragua has managed to avoid the chaos seen in neighbors like El Salvador, where the right-wing government shut down the entire economy, leading to massive protests by poor residents who are starving.
The results speak for themselves. A daily tally provided by the Central American Integration System (SICA) shows Nicaragua has the fewest cases in the region, even fewer than the much smaller nation of Belize.
Nicaragua’s right-wing opposition exploits coronavirus to destabilize country
Nicaragua’s relative success in fighting Covid-19 has not stopped the right-wing opposition from using the crisis as an opportunity to turn up the heat on the Sandinistas.
Information warfare has been their go-to strategy, spreading fake news to depict the FSLN government as incompetent and unconcerned.
Opposition media arms like 100% Noticias, a right-wing tabloid station funded indirectly by the US government through the Violeta Chamorro Foundation; along with Confidencial, which is owned by another elite from the Chamorro clan; as well as La Prensa, which also has historically received financing from Washington’s regime-change arm, the National Endowment for Democracy, have all published rumor after rumor as indisputable fact.
On a daily basis, these opposition media outlets spread imaginary statistics, claiming without any evidence that the Sandinistas are covering up the actual number of coronavirus cases and deaths.
Right-wing saboteurs even created a fake account posing as Nicaragua’s public news station Channel 4 to disseminate fabricated statements they falsely attributed to Vice President Rosario Murillo, claiming school had been cancelled until further notice.
The fake video they published went viral, garnering more than 350,000 views on Facebook alone. After two weeks and many reports, Facebook has still not taken it down.
An employee at Canal 4 told me that the public media outlet’s real page filed a complaint to Facebook, but instead of removing the fake news, Facebook simply told the owner of the counterfeit account they had to change the profile image so it would not match the logo of the real Canal 4. However, the social media giant has refused to remove the fake Canal 4 account because the real one is not verified (Facebook has rejected its appeals for verification). In the end, Facebook let the users keep the fake name — even while the social media corporation continues its program of censoring Venezuelans and Iranians under US government pressure.
The opposition’s information warfare spread confusion among working-class Nicaraguan families, whose children missed school because they thought they were supposed to stay home.
Opposition hooligans have spread dozens of fake documents claiming to be government press releases, impersonating the national police and other state institutions.
Right-wing activists have also tried to blame unrelated deaths on Covid-19. When an elderly man passed away from a heart attack in a market, Nicaraguan opposition groups falsely claimed that he had been a victim of coronavirus, and that the government was supposedly covering it up. Anti-government media websites have even used photos from other countries and claimed they are from Nicaragua.
This opposition campaign has also led to some comically hypocritical results. When I went to a beach in the city of San Juan del Sur in early April, a Nicaraguan friend noticed that two prominent right-wing activists were swimming and tanning on the shore with a large group of associates.
Both of the opposition figures on the beach had been using their large social media platforms to implore Nicaraguans to stay at home (“quedáte en casa” in Spanish). “We are at home, but our hearts are everywhere,” wrote anti-Sandinista activist Cristian Vaughan on his Instagram account, accompanied by the hashtag #quedateencasa, while he has been violating quarantine by frequenting the beach.
Vaughan’s partner Idania María Flores, a popular anti-government social media influencer who was on the beach with him and several other friends, has also implored her more than 50,000 followers on Instagram to “stay at home.”
Flores and Vaughan took part in a viral video organized by right-wing Nicaraguan activists, in which some of the top leaders of the opposition told their countrymen, “Quedáte en casa.” Mere days before she was spotted at the beach, Flores posted the video on her Instagram account, writing in all caps, “YO ME QUE QUEDO EN CASA” (“I am staying at home”).
Through its disinformation campaign, the US-backed Nicaraguan right-wing has endangered public health and spread fear to fuel its ambitions. For the working-class and poor base of the Sandinista Front, the opposition’s cynical actions amid a pandemic are further confirmation of how little it cares for their lives.
Doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t
In small countries like Nicaragua, the power of the international corporate media can be overwhelming. And the global press has largely joined in the opposition-led effort, using the coronavirus pandemic as an opportunity to relentlessly attack Nicaragua’s government.
Foreign media outlets have falsely claimed, for instance, that the Sandinista Front has continued holding marches amid the coronavirus pandemic. This is not true. Until March, the FSLN had weekly demonstrations called “caminatas” in which thousands of supporters marched in downtown Managua.
The last caminata was held on March 14. At the time, there were no Covid-19 cases in Nicaragua. Medical professionals from the Health Ministry participated in the demonstration, and the government provided many signs and posters to help educate the population on how to contain and figure the virus. After that caminata, all of the subsequent marches were cancelled.
Alongside the Bezos-owned Washington Post, even ostensibly “progressive” outlets like Democracy Now have helped advance the demonization campaign against Nicaragua’s government by repeatedly spreading misleading claims about its response to the coronavirus.
The wave of negative and falsehood-ridden PR has placed Nicaragua in a difficult quandary. If the Sandinista government decides to respond aggressively to Covid-19, it will be accused of being “authoritarian” and “repressive” (as China was depicted early on in the outbreak). Meanwhile, citizens who toil in the informal economy will face starvation and potentially protest being forced to remain in their homes — as has repeatedly happened in El Salvador, where demonstrators are shouting, “We are dying of hunger!”
But if the government does not respond aggressively enough to the pandemic, and continues the balanced approach it currently pursues, it will continue to be smeared as “irresponsible.”
For historically colonized, politically independent countries like Nicaragua, which are under siege by US sanctions, it’s a doomed if you do, doomed if you don’t situation. And even the smallest of decisions can generate massive repercussions.
Meanwhile, Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has repeatedly downplayed the severity of the crisis. Trump did the same for months. But in Nicaragua, the opposition forces that support Bolsonaro and Trump ironically claim their government has not acted aggressively enough.
From a cynical political perspective this makes sense: The right-wing is in power in the Brazil and the US; their allies abroad don’t want to rock the boat. But in Nicaragua, it is the left that it is in power, so the opposition wants chaos and destabilization.
Carlos Fonseca Terán, the FSLN’s vice president for international affairs and son of the martyred founder of the Sandinista Front, explained the contradictory approach of the Nicaraguan opposition: “There is an existential crisis in the vulture-like right-wing in Nicaragua. Their spokespeople accuse us of not doing anything against the pandemic because we didn’t paralyze the country or declare quarantine over two imported cases — while their boss Donald Trump, with [many thousands of] cases and [thousands more] deaths, has not declared quarantine either.”
“Before they complained about the ‘repression,’ and now they are demanding that we do the same as their idol, Bukele [the president of El Salvador], who is using tanks to close markets, despite only a few cases there — and even so, there are more than in Nicaragua, but if we did something similar, they would say that we are using the pandemic to increase the ‘repression,'” Fonseca Terán added.
US sanctions make the situation way worse
While Nicaragua has been taking careful steps to avoid harming its population’s livelihoods, the Trump administration has joined the right-wing opposition it sponsors in using the opportunity to destabilize the Sandinista government.
Leading up to the pandemic, the US government had imposed several rounds of aggressive sanctions on Nicaragua. In 2018, the US Congress passed the NICA Act without any opposition. This dealt a major blow to Nicaragua’s economy, preventing the country from gaining access to loans and blocking it from working with international financial institutions.
Unlike right-wing countries in Latin America, such as the US-backed regimes in neighboring Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala — all of which have done a worse job at fighting the coronavirus — Nicaragua is locked out of the US-dominated global financial system.
Concerns over the damage this has done to the Nicaraguan people led the Sandinista government to join Cuba, Venezuela, China, Russia, Iran, Syria, and the DPRK in signing an open letter calling on the UN to take action to lift the illegal, unilateral coercive measures targeting their economies.
Prominent Sandinista activists I spoke with expressed concerns that the US government might use the pandemic as an opportunity to trap poor countries in the Global South in debt bondage. Washington could then leverage the debt to force the countries to fork over their natural resources, privatize state institutions, and open up their economies for plunder by multi-national corporations.
Sandinista Front members also stressed in our conversations that, while wealthy countries like the US and Britain are treating Covid-19 as a once-in-a-century threat, Latin America has struggled with lethal viruses for decades.
More than 3 million people in the Americas suffered from dengue in 2019 alone, including 186,173 in Nicaragua, which has mounted a series of national drives to suppress the mosquito-borne viral disease.
Dengue is entirely treatable, however, in much of Latin America, where right-wing governments have systematically privatized health systems under International Monetary Fund pressure, the poor are often neglected.
For those weathering the storm of neocolonialism, Covid-19 is a threat, but just one in a disturbingly long list of them.
Nicaragua’s socialized health system has taken a preventative approach to balance the weight of the many health crises it faces on a regular basis. While the for-profit, capitalist health system in the United States has collapsed under the weight of the pandemic, leading to what will likely be hundreds of thousands of deaths and mass graves in New York City’s public parks, Nicaragua has so far managed to minimize the impact.
The Sandinista government has accomplished this feat under much less favorable conditions than any nation in the Global North faces, with an imperial sword of Damocles hanging over it at all times. Washington has waited with bated breath for the government to slip up. So far, it is the US that has suffered through the worst crisis, while Nicaraguans have gone on with their lives.