Manufacturing Dissent: The N.E.D., Opposition Media and the Political Crisis in Nicaragua

The world’s major media outlets have spoken, and the verdict is in: Daniel Ortega is on his way out. After years of cronyism, his dictatorial rule has met with mass popular resistance, a resistance Ortega’s government responded to with unprecedented force. All of this signals that Ortega is isolated and clueless, and that “the people” have had enough. It is only a matter of time before he and his wife go the way of former dictators, like Nicolae and Elena Ceaușescu in Romania. No need to look further. The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Yorker and others, have lent their editorial pages to “investigative” reporters, who have accepted and reproduced a consensus analysis concerning the political conflict in Nicaragua.

But this story is not true, or at best, partially and selectively told.

The consensus in the international media that Ortega is a dictator on his way out seems a conclusion underdetermined by the facts. Certainly, prior to the demonstrations in April, the Sandinistas generally, and even Ortega specifically, remained popular in many quarters. The FSLN’s anti-poverty initiatives have garnered it significant support; and Nicaragua’s overall economic performance, one of the fastest growing economies in Latin America over the past few years  – even according to the CIA  –  has until now alleviated fiscal strains that such programs might otherwise cause.

To be sure, the FSLN approach is not “revolutionary.” It is more a neo-liberalism lite, e.g., market reform offset by social service provision. But now, the tripartite alliance of government, business and labor that has allowed this strategy to move forward may well be coming undone – as signified by the business community’s opposition to the government over social security reform and its own call to demonstrate. What might replace this tripartite model is not clear, but the process of National Dialogue might offer the possibility for forming a new governing coalition. You would never know any of this from the international press.

The framing of the protests we read in the international media emerges from a concerted effort within Nicaragua to coordinate messaging and tactics among opposition groups, an undertaking funded in part by the United States’ National Endowment for Democracy. It would be a gross oversimplification to argue that the protests themselves were simply manufactured by the United States. Some of the grievances are real, and much of the protest legitimate. But our understanding of events has been distorted by the opposition filter that dominates the international media.

The Manufacturing of (a certain kind of) Dissent

Midway through Jon Lee Anderson’s April 2018 piece for The New Yorker he claims:

Arguably the only other [in addition to La Prensa] independent Nicaraguan media outlet of note is Confidencial, an online publication whose small team of reporters has taken on the Ortega government with uncommon valor. The editor-in-chief of Confidencial is Carlos Fernando Chamorro—one of the sons of Pedro Joaquín and Violeta Chamorro. [emphasis added]

But Confidencial is not really an “independent” media outlet. Confidencial’s framework of taking on Ortega with “uncommon valor” is funded, at least in part, by the National Endowment for Democracy. In 2014, for example, INVERMEDIA received a $60,000 grant in order to “foster independent digital media in Nicaragua” and they received an additional $175,000 in subsequent years. Per the grant details,

INVERMEDIA will strengthen the organizational capacity of the digital newspaper, Confidencial. Confidencial will conduct investigative reports on issues affecting Nicaraguan democracy. Confidencial will also establish working relations with leading civil society organizations in order to provide a media platform for coordinated action. Confidencial will strengthen its social media presence.

This grant is just one of 55 grants totaling $4.2 million given to organizations in Nicaragua between 2014 and 2017 by the National Endowment for Democracy as part of a U.S. government-funded campaign to provide a coordinated strategy and media voice for opposition groups in Nicaragua. NED grants fund media (radio, social media and other web-based news outlets) and opposition research. In addition, strategies targeting youth get substantial funding, along with programs seeking to mobilize women’s and indigenous organizations. Though the language is of support for “civil society” and “pro-democracy” groups, the focus on funding is specifically to build coordinated opposition to the government.

Some examples from the NED database:

  • Hagamos Democracia received $520,000 in this period in order to expand reporting on activities in the National Assembly and “develop a joint civil society strategy.”
  • The Fundación Iberoamericana de las Culturas received nearly $400,000 over this period to build a network of local chapters throughout Nicaragua, and “increase the number of alliances with like-minded civil society organizations.“
  • $395,000 in grants were made to organizations including the Centro de Investigaciones de la Comunicación (CINCO), to “foster collaboration among civil society organizations. A common civil society strategy to defend democracy in Nicaragua will be promoted.“ [emphasis added]

The problem with the words “developing a joint civil society strategy,” and similar formulations of this idea, is what they obscure, which is the control of media representation through a well-coordinated strategy that excludes facts that might disrupt the story of a corrupt dictatorship with no popular support. The result of this consistent building and funding of opposition resources has been to create an echo chamber that is amplified by commentators in the international media – most of whom have no presence in Nicaragua and rely on these secondary sources. During and immediately after the INSS protests, the NED-funded opposition lost no time in using overblown rhetoric to frame a complex situation in simplistic terms, focusing solely on government misdeeds.

To take one hyperbolic example, the International Statement issued by Hagamos Democracia and other groups after the initial protests denouncing the “assassination of more than 30 young people by the police,” characterized the conduct on the side of state forces as a “genocide.”

But it is perhaps on the pages of the Confidencial, the “independent” news source celebrated by Anderson, that one can best appreciate the impact of coordinated opposition messaging. Concerning the protests, the most detailed overview of events published by Confidencial is an analysis from the Centro de Investigaciones de la Comunicación, yet another NED grantee. According to this report, students protested, and the state and “paramilitaries” repressed them. Period.

No burning of public buildings, no murder of police officers, no torching police motorcycles.

A “common civil society strategy” must omit facts that do not fit with the prevailing storyline advanced by the Centro de Investigaciones de Comunicación and others who participate in the network of media outlets and opposition groups funded by the NED. 

The Centro de Investigaciones de la Comunicacion’s analysis ends with three scenarios, presented in descending order of desirability, according to the authors of that piece: 1) Ortega could step down immediately; 2) electoral reforms could be undertaken to ensure a fully transparent election, setting up Ortega’s departure in 2021; or 3) “The least favorable scenario would be one in which the government… uses dialogue as a political mechanism to buy time and dismantle protest and mobilization.” This characterization, of course, undermines the whole process of National Dialogue, as it is intended to do.

In the end, the one-sided narrative has stuck. Even on the left, there is a marked tendency to focus on a specific plot line concerning Ortega’s betrayal of the revolution. I’m not sure what to do with this narrative. The revolution was ultimately destroyed not by Ortega but rather by a bloody U.S. intervention. One need not love Ortega to understand that inviting further U.S. intervention today is a really, really bad idea. Melissa Castillo’s piece on Latino Rebels captures this problem:

Something about the entire narrative, readily accepted by everyone with an opinion, feels too neat. All the facts presented fit perfectly, every loose thread is tied together, and the only possible conclusion from this package manufactured by social media activists on the ground is to overthrow Ortega. For years, the right wing has been trying to delegitimize Ortega and the FSLN and now it seems to be anonymously consolidating itself under a banner carried by moderates with novel grievances.

For international audiences, especially those in the United States, we must look outside the echo chamber generated by U.S.-funded opposition, which has no other agenda than the collapse of the Ortega government. Further U.S. intervention at this point will only deepen the polarization of society and kill any chance for a new domestic consensus or compromise.

Drowned out by the chorus repeating the manufactured media package is the establishment of a Truth Commission to investigate the violence that unfolded during April 18-22. In addition to the Truth Commission, Nicaragua’s Public Prosecutor’s Office has launched an investigation into the protests and deaths. Which is to say, domestic processes have been established to provide for investigation and prosecution, that alongside the process of National Dialogue, offer a real chance of justice for those killed, a real understanding of what happened, and the possibility of constructing a path forward.

We just need to let it happen.

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