Recent arrests of Nicaraguan opposition figures are the latest example of actions by left-leaning Latin American governments creating division and consternation among international faith groups and solidarity activists. This article was published in the July-August 2021 issue of NewsNotes.
Since late May in Nicaragua, the government of President Daniel Ortega of the FSLN (Sandinista) party and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, has arrested scores of opposition leaders and at least five potential electoral opponents. The government claims the targets were not arrested because of their candidacies, but as part of a crackdown on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) it alleges received foreign funds aimed at destabilizing the country. The arrests are the latest in a series of incidents in recent years, in Nicaragua and elsewhere in Latin America, which pose a confounding dilemma for faith groups and solidarity activists in the United States.
Faith-based organizations like the Maryknoll Office for Global Concerns often follow a See-Judge-Act model to guide their work, taking stock of the signs of the times, judging them in the light of the Gospel, and organizing action to promote peace and social justice. Historically in Latin America, this has typically meant standing with poor and marginalized communities in resisting right-wing militaries, governments, and economic programs. In many cases, the U.S. government actively backed such regimes with arms, money, training, logistical and intelligence support, and the U.S. solidarity movement advocated for an end to such intervention.
Today, though, as populist and left-leaning governments in countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua have held onto power for a generation, the See-Judge-Act process is complicated in new ways. Understanding what is happening on the ground, agreeing what to make of it, and deciding how to respond have all become more challenging.
Observers often struggle to know what is actually happening in the region. Even eyewitnesses interpret events through partisan and ideological lenses, leading to competing narratives and accusations of “fake news” from all sides.
When violence rocked Bolivia in the wake of the 2019 elections and the ouster of President Evo Morales, MOGC consulted in real time with Maryknoll missioners and their Bolivian contacts in the communities of Senkata and Sacaba where dozens of people were killed. Many were unsure whether the killing was being carried out by militants of Evo Morales’ Movement Toward Socialism (MAS) party, or troops under the command of right-wing interim president Jeanine Añez. Some believed both groups shared responsibility. Others attributed the violence exclusively to whichever group they personally opposed. Local news outlets repeated rumors and gave conflicting reports.
A year-and-a-half later, most human rights investigators attribute all or nearly all deaths in Sacaba and Senkata to state security forces under Añez. But groups sympathetic to Morales tend to focus exclusively on those attacks, while others note violations of democratic and human rights norms by Morales leading up to elections, and violence by both sides throughout the country in the following weeks. In June 2021, the Bolivian conference of Catholic bishops released a report on the conflicts, which was immediately condemned by Bolivia’s new, MAS-appointed human rights ombudsman for referring to the violence in Sacaba and Senkata as “clashes” rather than one-sided “massacres.” Through all of these competing narratives, international observers struggle to accurately understand and describe events.
Drawing conclusions about events is made difficult not just by conflicting information, but by divisions within justice and peace organizations themselves. Just as longtime allies within Latin American social and political movements find themselves at odds, so do friends and colleagues in the solidarity community in the United States – some criticizing governments they may once have supported, and others continuing to defend those governments with vigor.
As the arrests of opposition leaders and attacks on NGOs in Nicaragua continue unabated, stalwart defenders of Ortega and the FSLN justify these measures as necessary to stop foreign efforts to undermine the government. Organizations to which grassroots activists in the United States have historically looked for analysis are often stymied by contentious disagreement in their ranks. Some have been personally and publicly maligned and lost supporters because they have condemned the arrests. Others have declined to comment at all on what is happening, not for lack of interest, but because their members or partners have no consensus on how to proceed.
For some, the debate is mainly along ideological lines. A representative of a respected U.S.-based non-governmental organization who spoke with MOGC asked not to be named, as it makes it hard to work with groups on both sides of the divide. "Latin American governments of right, left, and center are restricting space for civil society to organize for rights--and they are learning from each other,” the representative said. “Yet we tend to speak out against undue restrictions against civil society groups in, for example, countries like Guatemala, when we don't speak out when the same kinds of actions are taken by governments seen as on the left. This bears some serious reflection on our part."
For organizations with an institutional presence in the region, speaking out might put local staff at risk. The director of one NGO in Nicaragua describes teams of internet trolls employed by the Ortega-Murillo government to monitor the web for anything critical of the administration. NGOs in Nicaragua that receive any foreign funding must register as foreign agents and are subjected to constant auditing and control of their bank accounts, which can be shut down completely for perceived disloyalty to the FSLN. It is increasingly difficult to get foreign funds into accounts to pay Nicaraguan employees, the director told MOGC, and any attributable public comments on the political situation could make it impossible.
Even those who agree that abuse is taking place and publicly condemn it often disagree about what to do in response. Advocating to end U.S. intervention when U.S.-backed governments carried out violence and repression was relatively straightforward. But should activists advocate in favor of U.S. intervention to stop violence and repression carried out by governments like Nicaragua’s? That is a hard pill for many in the solidarity community to swallow.
Geoff Thale, Executive Director of the Washington Office on Latin America, suggests a nuanced approach. “I’m not comfortable simply saying ‘the United States shouldn’t intervene in the affairs of other countries.’ It ignores the reality that the United States is, as one of the biggest economic powers in the world, inevitably involved in the affairs of other countries, and that, left to its own devices, U.S. involvement is likely to support entrenched elites.”
Thale suggests some minimum conditions for U.S. intervention. For example, U.S. action should be multilateral, and any sanctions should be narrowly aimed at individuals and not the civilian population. In Nicaragua, since the main thrust of the repression by the Ortega-Murillo government seems aimed at eliminating serious competition in upcoming elections, Thale argues that international pressure should seek to ensure elections are genuinely competitive, so that “political prisoners and opposition activists in exile [are] free to participate and organize to support candidates; candidates can register without fear of being arrested or harassed, and can campaign without reprisal.” Neither the U.S. government nor Ortega’s can finance candidates as per Nicaraguan law.
Thale suggests that the United States could work with European and Latin American countries to implement a series of “carrots and sticks” – imposing sanctions on Ortega’s inner circle, but establishing a process by which those sanctions could be lifted pending progress on electoral conditions. The United States should also leave room for potentially helpful actions by other regional actors like Mexico and Argentina, who are applying pressure on Nicaragua independently of the Organization of American States, which is often perceived in the region as merely a U.S. proxy.
“To be honest, [holding these opinions] does put me at odds with some of my friends and colleagues, who don’t think it’s ever acceptable to urge the United States to take any action,” says Thale. As the situation in Nicaragua deteriorates and the Biden administration turns to the affairs of its Latin American neighbors in an effort to address the root causes of migration, these debates take on increased urgency.
A number of Latin American countries have experienced dramatic changes in recent decades, as the solidarity community in the United States continues to wrestle with the violent legacy of U.S. interventionism in the region. Latin Americans and U.S.-Americans must discern a nonviolent path forward together.
Photo: Protests in Managua, Nicaragua in 2018. Available on Wikipedia.