Lessons from Haiti: Another View on the Nicaraguan Crisis

Since April 18, the solidarity movement has been struggling over how to interpret events in Nicaragua and where to push in terms of advocacy and/or speaking out. As with many people following the situation, I have watched and listened to friends take a harsh line towards one another and with me about articles I have written. While the division in the solidarity movement is not in and of itself new, the tensions have boiled over. The gulf between people over how the situation is understood and should be represented is enormous. There are even calls from some to support U.S. sanctions against the government of Nicaragua, and to expand U.S. pressure on Ortega and the FSLN to step down. My sense is that we must resist this push for U.S. intervention; the potential consequences are dire.

For myself, the ghost hovering over my understanding of what is going in Nicaragua, and more to the point, my fear for the future, is not Venezuela or Syria, but Haiti in 2004. At the time, the solidarity community was deeply divided over Aristide’s rule. His effort to craft an institutionalized party (Fanmi Lavalas) from the Lavalas movement had created divisions within that movement; his embrace of some neo-liberal policy reforms, accusations of corruption, and accusations of political violence employed against opponents resulted in many on the left moving into an oppositional position against Aristide. As with Nicaragua today, much of this division was in response to division within Haiti. Groups like Batay Ouvriye and the Plateforme Haïtienne de Plaidoyer pour un Développement Alternatif (PAPDA), all with deep ties to solidarity groups in the U.S., began denouncing Aristide and even calling for his resignation. This sounds all too familiar.

In late 2003 and early 2004, armed groups began moving from the Dominican Republic into Haiti, burning police stations and public facilities. As these groups approached Port-au-Prince, the business community was organized into the “Democratic Convergence” with other sectors of civil society, and stepped up their long-time opposition and expanded protests. On February 29, 2004 Aristide was forced to leave Haiti. Escorted to an airfield by U.S. special forces, he was put on a plane to the Central African Republic. His claim that he was forced out of office at the point of a gun, was dismissed out of hand. There was no investigation. Many on the left accepted this de facto coup. Convinced of Aristide’s failings, they accepted at face value the claim that he resigned freely. What might come next seemed to worry them not at all.

There was no constitutional transfer of power. With the parliament inactive, the United States, Canada and France essentially handed off leadership to a transitional authority under Gerard Latortue, who had worked previously with the United Nations, and was working as a business consultant and talk radio host in Boca Raton, Florida, when appointed as Prime Minister. The U.S. military was dispatched to “stabilize” the situation, eventually handing over occupation to a United Nations peacekeeping mission in the fall of 2004. Though officially ended last year, a smaller “follow-up” mission continues to be a presence in Haiti 14 years later.

Between Aristide’s removal from power and Preval’s re-election in February of 2006, thousands of people died. The international “community” which had denied access to funding to President Preval during his first term, and later Aristide, opened the the aid floodgates for Latortue. Billions of dollars flowed into the country, which, to this day, are largely unaccounted for. Concessions were granted to corporations for large swathes of Haiti’s resources. It was corruption on scale that dwarfed anything Aristide had been accused of (much less proven), all coupled with political violence on a scale that rivaled (and, by some measures, surpassed) the coup regime of 1991-1994.

The solidarity community in the United States with ties to Haiti was deeply divided – a division that, whatever else was on the table, constantly came back to the question of Aristide’s rule and his future. It is hard to know what might have been achieved otherwise, but ultimately there was no effective voice to push back against the United States’ propping up of Latortue amidst widespread violence and intensified neo-liberalization. People allied in the anti-Aristide camp, would point to violence by armed groups nominally aligned with Lavalas to justify and ignore the broader destruction taking place.

Since April 18 of this year, I have had a strong feeling of deja vu. Obviously there are enormous differences between Haiti and Nicaragua. The FSLN is deeply entrenched in the economic, social and political life of Nicaragua, in a way that Fanmi Lavalas was never able to achieve in Haiti. Nicaragua’s democratic institutions are more deeply embedded, and even if one accepts the worst about Ortega’s machinations, there is a baseline of stability in Nicaragua that Haiti, under constant intervention from the United States, has not been able to achieve.

On the one hand, this means that Nicaragua is able to resist intervention to a greater degree. This is evident whether one accepts the “coup has been defeated” narrative, or the “government remains intransigent” narrative, as both interpretations speak to the resilience of the state in the face of external pressure.

On the other hand, if Ortega is ultimately forced from power, what comes next could be accompanied by even greater bloodshed, given the embeddedness of the FSLN. I am convinced that there is no way Ortega’s resignation, or even early elections, will satisfy the United States and those in the opposition who have aligned with U.S. policy-makers in the long-term. Why? Because the FSLN will remain the largest, most stable party in Nicaragua even without Ortega. Indeed, even if Ortega were to resign, unless the constitution is simply thrown out the window, a Sandinista will replace him, as his replacement would be left to the National Assembly to choose. If early elections are held, the FSLN will very likely win a large portion of seats in the assembly, if not a majority – and possibly the presidency – depending on who runs. None of this will be acceptable to the United States and allied forces in Nicaragua.

What happened in Haiti is also instructive about the future of the FSLN under U.S.-brokered regime change. In the wake of Aristide’s “resignation,” the United States transformed the political arena, defended the pillaging of the economy, and practically destroyed Fanmi Lavalas (ironically by trying to take it over in an absurd effort to clear the way for Marc Bazan – a long-time opponent of Lavalas – to run as the Fanmi Lavalas candidate in 2006). Preval’s return to power at the head of the Lespwa coalition in 2006, despite all of the U.S.’s efforts, would mark the last “free” election in Haiti. In 2010, amidst the aftershocks of the earthquake, the vote was simply discarded. The U.S.-supported candidate, Martelly, was put into a runoff in place of the Lespwa candidate who had actually received more votes in the first round. With this decision made under unrelenting pressure and threats of sanctions from the U.S. government, Martelly would go on to win, amidst widespread abstention. Lavalas was excluded entirely from the election.

For those of us in the solidarity community, I suggest we take seriously the hard-earned lessons of the Haitian example in 2004. Calling for accountability regarding the violence in Nicaragua, both from state forces and armed groups aligned with the opposition, is important; but I would emphasize that this accountability should come through domestic channels or the multilateral forums that Nicaragua participates in. This week, the government has invited the United Nations, the Vatican and members of the European Human Rights community to help mediate a new, expanded round of national dialogue. This has the potential for achieving an accounting of what has transpired, and creating a path toward resolution and reconciliation.

Continuing to call for Ortega’s removal from power, and inviting further intervention from the United States in the form of sanctions that would only further destabilize and polarize the situation in Nicaragua, seems like a really bad idea. Marco Rubio, who has led the right-wing charge against the FSLN in the Senate, has even spoken of the possibility of war in Nicaragua, and has tried to recast the crisis as a national security issue for the United States. Rubio and his partners in Congress make strange allies for those on the left, and they are certainly not the allies of the majority of people in Nicaragua. Those with such a policy orientation have no track record of bringing democracy to any part of the world. Nor, clearly, is that their intention.

As the violence on the ground in Nicaragua has subsided dramatically over the last two weeks, there is space for a conversation about long-term political solutions. We should welcome and support this opening. But inviting alliances with those on the political right in the United States, which has long sought to dismantle the Sandinista government, is about the worst thing that could be done for Nicaragua.

Comments (11)

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    Kathy

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    Thank you for a thoughtful analysis of a complex situation.

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      Jack

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      Yes, and thank you for the perspective from Haiti, where the immorality of the coups is so obvious and the terrible suffering from the US govt and those who went along with the prevailing story that ignored the cruelty.

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    Adrianne Aron

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    Tricker: Your attempt at an analysis contains some serious errors, though it is good you made the effort. Readers who are trying to learn about the Nicaraguan situation may be able to gain insight by looking at Haiti, but I would caution them against using your words or your examples as they try to build an understanding. They’d do much better by reading the works of Aristide or learning about the Lavalas Movement (good information exists on http://www.haitisolidarity.net ).

    I want to point out here just a few ways in which I think you have done your readers a disservice. You begin by pointing out that there is division in the Nicaragua solidarity movement. This is doubtless true, and as you say, nothing new. You then go on to describe the division. Here your effort at analysis breaks down, spoiling all the rest of what you say, because the division you describe is not accurate. You would have us believe that there is a division between those who want Sandinismo to survive and those who, on the contrary, prefer an agenda that calls for U.S. intervention. You write, “There are even calls from some to support U.S. sanctions against the government of Nicaragua, and to expand U.S. pressure on Ortega and the FSLN to step down.” This is incorrect. No genuine solidarity organization would advocate for US intervention. You say, “My sense is that we must resist this push for U.S. intervention; the potential consequences are dire.” You are certainly right. We must of course, all of us, resist any push for U.S. intervention. But you are calling for a solution to a non-existent problem. Nobody in the left solidarity movement supports a U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. We are Sandinistas, followers of A.C. Sandino, the Nicaraguan who drove the U.S. Marines out of Nicaragua in the ‘30s, and whose example led to the founding of the FSLN to drive the U.S.-installed dictator Somoza out of Nicaragua in 1979.

    You go on to explain how divisions occur, using the example of the Aristide government in Haiti as a case in point. You mention “accusations of corruption, and accusations of political violence employed against opponents” as conditions that “resulted in many on the left moving into an oppositional position against Aristide.” This is a serious distortion of fact.

    The accusations of corruption that were leveled against Aristide were entirely false, and in many instances outrageously defamatory. You name a number of groups in Haiti that had “deep ties to solidarity groups in the U.S.” and you tell how they “began denouncing Aristide and even calling for his resignation.” The reader is meant to see a parallel with denunciations of Daniel Ortega by solidarity groups today. That parallel is an illusion. The groups you name supported the coup that overthrew the democratically elected government of President Aristide. They had ties to the violent, anti-democratic forces that then took power and have oppressed the Haitian people ever since. That is to say, those “solidarity groups” were not in solidarity with the Haitian people. They were on the side of the coup-makers who commit human rights abuses of the kind the Aristide government had been trying to prosecute, and that the Ortega government is committing today.

    “If Ortega is ultimately forced from power,” you write, “what comes next could be accompanied by even greater bloodshed… [T]here is no way Ortega’s resignation, or even early elections, will satisfy the United States and those in the opposition who have aligned with U.S. policy-makers in the long-term.” The pairing of Opposition with Alignment with US policy-makers is a dangerous and very troublesome distortion of fact. The Opposition people and groups, both within and outside Nicaragua, have legitimate grievances against Ortega: fiscal malfeasance (how did he and his wife, the vice-President, become so rich?); rollbacks of services and legislation for protection of women; control of ALL governmental power: Executive, judiciary, military, police, legislative, a history of incest—the years-long sexual exploitation of his stepdaughter, which could not be prosecuted because of his official status within the government but was declared credible by independent international investigators; and above all, the violence he has used to quell dissent in Nicaragua. Early on, demonstrators were saying their concerns were no longer about pensions and student subsidies, the issues that brought them into the streets. Rather, their most urgent concern was the atrocities—the gross human rights violations being committed every day by the Ortega government. The number of dead and wounded is uncertain, partly because of the government’s practice of making estimates based on hospital admissions. The actual situation on the ground is so problematic that many people who need medical attention are afraid to go to the hospitals, because paramilitaries have threatened the lives of medical personnel poised to treat them. Dr. Mary Ellsberg reports the chilling case of a 15-year-old boy named Álvaro Manuel Conrado Dávila, shot in the neck while carrying water to help student demonstrators, and refused treatment at the public hospital, Cruz Azul. He was taken to a second hospital where he subsequently died. In León, medical students who tried to treat wounded demonstrators were evicted from the hospital.

    It is true that a bloodbath followed the removal of Aristide from the presidency in Haiti. But those who removed Aristide and were responsible for the bloodshed—the “opposition”—were aligned with U.S. policy-makers and were Duvalierists, supporters of Baby Doc’s dictatorship. The thousands of people who are clamoring for the removal of the Ortegas are NOT SOMOCISTAS. They are not looking to bring back the dictatorship. They are looking to bring back the liberty that Daniel himself fought for in the revolution of 1979 but is for some reason, perhaps out of a need for personal aggrandizement, now trampling. On July 16, 2018, two weeks before assassination threats drove him into exile, Carlos Mejia Godoy, the great poet-musician whose revolutionary songs are prized by Nicaraguans everywhere, wrote an open letter to Daniel Ortega that echoed the admonition of Oscar Romero to the soldiers of El Salvador: “In the name of that God, with whom you fill your mouth and your soul, in the name of that God who’s watching this holocaust, stop the killing Daniel, Now!” This is the voice of the Opposition.

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    Barby

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    When I was in Nicaragua March ’17 I found SandINistas unhappy with Ortega/Murillo for unilaterrally spending money on the chayo trees
    With the lights using more electricity thanfamileis culd affor, unilaterally ruling political parties illegal to participate in elections, usurping all elections, allying with big business ( COSEP)& the church ( who have now pulled away. Ortega is NOT the man he was during his first round. Nica needs new leaders. They may well be Sandinistas, but no peole so authoritarian.
    I think taking away military vehicles given to nica police is a good move. Le’s take them awy from our police as well!

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    Charlie

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    From my reading of us-Latin AmericAn Jisrory, this is a Very thoughful look. Took often the us has decided what is best in Latin AmericA. ThAnk you for this incIsive analysis.

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    Arnold Matlin

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    THis is a thoughtful, cogent analysis of the situation in Nicaragua. The MRS may have started as a party pushing the fsln from the left. Now it is totally aligned with the U.S. right wing. However, the FSLN has lost the propaganda war here in the U.S. and elsewhere. nicaraguans were never fooled by the mrs. the mrs never got more than 5% of the vote. The mrs leaders are intelligent, articulate, and artistic people. but they don’t have the best interests of their country in their hearts.

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    Catherine M Stanford

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    I have been following the situation in Nicaragua and have greatly appreciated the analysis by Tricker and have shared them with others, but I would really appreciate knowing more about Tricker. Since the name is unusual, my friends have asked me and I can’t give them an answer. I have tremendous respect for the work of the Quixote center and have felt that I was part of your community since I was active in the central America and Haiti solidarity movement in the 1980s.

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    Oscar Romero

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    I see a lot of “thoughtful” analysis of a complex situation, but not very much of the “thoughts” are based on facts, at least as I understand them. The author of this article certainly has a very different understanding of the 2004 and following events, especially the very obvious ouster of Pres. Aristide by the US Govt.. It’s hard to see how the author’s “knowledge” about nicaragua is any more based on facts than the ones about Haiti.

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    Oscar Romero

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    I would like to add that the traditional solidarity of the Quixote Center has suffered a huge hit with this opinion piece. Muy Triste.

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