U.S. President Joe Biden’s top Latin America advisor has admitted U.S. sanctions against Russia over Ukraine intentionally seek to hurt Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
The United States imposed a series of harsh sanctions on Russia following Moscow’s recognition of the independence of the Donetsk and Lugansk People’s Republics in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region on February 21, and its subsequent military intervention in Ukraine on February 24.
Juan S. González, Biden’s special assistant for Latin America and the U.S. National Security Council’s senior director for the Western Hemisphere, made it clear that these coercive measures against Russia are also aimed at damaging the economies of Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba.
Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba have socialist governments that Washington has long tried to overthrow. All three currently suffer under unilateral U.S. sanctions, which are illegal according to international law.
Former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton, an architect of the Iraq War, referred to these three Latin American nations as the so-called “Troika of Tyranny.”
Biden’s advisor González did an exclusive interview with Voz de América, the Spanish-language arm of the U.S. government’s propaganda outlet Voice of America, on February 25.
“The sanctions against Russia are so robust that they will have an impact on those governments that have economic affiliations with Russia, and that is by design,” González explained.
“So Venezuela is going to start feeling that pressure. Nicaragua is going to feel that pressure, along with Cuba,” he added.
Biden’s Latin America advisor noted that Washington has imposed sanctions on 13 top financial institutions in Russia, including some of the largest in the country. He proudly said that these coercive measures will, “by design,” harm other countries that do a lot of trade with the Eurasian power.
González also used his interview with the U.S.-funded Voz de América to reiterate Washington’s call for regime change against these three socialist governments in Latin America.
His comments were reported by the independent Bolivia-based news website, Kawsachun News.
Maduro stressed that Washington and NATO bear responsibility for the conflict, and “have generated strong threats against the Russian Federation.”
Venezuela rechaza el agravamiento de la crisis en Ucrania producto del quebrantamiento de los acuerdos de Minsk por parte de la OTAN. Llamamos a la búsqueda de soluciones pacíficas para dirimir las diferencias entre las partes. El diálogo y la no injerencia, son garantías de Paz. pic.twitter.com/Y7N1lwZfpi
Cuba blamed Washington for the crisis as well. Its Foreign Ministry stated, “The U.S. determination to continue NATO’s progressive expansion towards the Russian Federation borders has brought about a scenario with implications of unpredictable scope, which could have been avoided.”
Denouncing Western governments for sending weapons to Ukraine, Cuba declared, “History will hold the United States accountable for the consequences of an increasingly offensive military doctrine outside NATO’s borders, which threatens international peace, security and stability.”
The U.S. determination to continue NATO’s progressive expansion towards the Russian Federation borders has brought about a scenario with implications of unpredictable scope, which could have been avoided. 1/5
The chairman of Russia’s State Duma, Vyacheslav Volodin, traveled to Nicaragua to meet with top officials from the Sandinista government, and thanked them for their support against NATO expansion and U.S. threats.
🇳🇮🇷🇺 #Nicaragua recibió a una delegación de alto nivel de #Rusia, encabezada por el Presidente de la Duma Estatal de la Cámara Baja, Vyacheslav Volodín. La visita tiene por objetivo fortalecer la cooperación y la solidaridad bilateral. pic.twitter.com/BMY1AjnviF
Mobilizations took to the streets of Colombia on April 28 in a national strike to protest social injustice and aggressive tax reforms proposed by the Iván Duque government. Student movements, trade unions, young peoples’ organizations, feminist groups, and indigenous and Afro-descendant peoples’ movements marched, blocked roads and held cultural activities in urban centers and rural territories throughout the country, exercising their right to peaceful protest. But the state wasted no time in responding with violent repression, especially in major cities such as Calí, Bogotá, Palmira and Popayán.
Although the vast majority of protests have been peaceful, isolated incidents of looting and violence have been used as an excuse for using excessive force against protesters. Media discourses around “good protesters” and “bad protesters” legitimize this response. Widespread reports of infiltrators are being used to provoke violence and looting, as has been the case in previous strikes in the country. Armed forces reportedly have stood by and allowed looting to take place, only to later respond to such incidents with violent repression.
Rather than heeding the demands of the citizens against the tax reform and social injustice, the state has responded with militarization, turning peaceful demonstrations into scenes of war. Helicopters circle above protest points and communities, while tanks thunder through narrow city streets.
Several cities are occupied by four armed state actors:
Escuadrón Móvil Antidisturbios (ESMAD, or Mobile Anti-Riot Squads of the National Police),
military forces and
Grupo Operativo Especial de Seguridad del Cuerpo Nacional de Policía (GOES, or Special Security Task Force of the National Police Force).
Instead of seeking to pacify the situation and protect citizens, these forces have increasingly threatened security, peace and human rights.
Flagrant Human Rights Abuses
Countless videos recorded by protesters and onlookers circulate daily on social media, showing cases of police brutality, indiscriminate shootings, and the use of tear gas inside barrios that contain children and elderly people. Over the past few days, the violence has taken on a new face in Calí, with the presence of plainclothes police officers and reports of unmarked cars carrying out drive-by shootings against protesters.
Bogotá-based non-governmental organization Indepaz reports the following occurred between April 28 and May 8:
47 murders (the majority of whom have been young adults and 4 of whom were minors),
12 cases of sexual violence,
28 eye injuries,
1,876 acts of violence,
963 arbitrary detentions and
548 forced disappearances.
Reports are circulating of people being arrested and denied information of their destination, violating their rights to due process and exposing them to the risk of arbitrary detention, cruel and inhumane treatment, and forced disappearance.
Armed police have threatened lawyers and human-rights defenders when inquiring about missing people at police stations. The international community woke up to the seriousness of the situation when, on May 3, members of a humanitarian mission including UN and state representatives were attacked by armed police while waiting to enter a police station in search of missing people. On April 7, as a humanitarian mission was taking place north of Calí with the presence of Senator Alexander Lopez, a drive-by shooting took place, injuring one person and killing three.
The Racialization of State Repression
The violence and repression has a disproportionate impact on Black communities, only mirroring Colombia’s ongoing internal armed conflict. For example, 35 of the 47 murders Indepaz reported took place in Calí, home to South America’s second-largest Afro-descendant population. No surprise that structural and systemic racism are deeply ingrained in Calí. Many of the most aggressive cases of state violence have been carried out in neighborhoods with majority or significant Afro-descendant populations, treating communities as enemies of war. Historically, these barrios have suffered socio-economic exclusion, further entrenched by the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, structural racism and state violence. Many barrio residents already were victims of forced displacement, having fled the armed conflict in the majority Afro-descendant regions of the northern Cauca Department, in which Calí is located, and the Pacific coast.
While official statistics do not reveal the proportion of Black victims in this current wave of police brutality due to a lack of disaggregated data, photos of victims clearly show the disproportionate impact on young Afro-descendant men.
Racial profiling not only underpins state violence, but is central in the denial of state responsibility and impunity. Already, discussions around existing gang violence and urban conflicts are being used to question whether many of these young men participated in the protests or were delinquents killed in the context of the everyday violence in their communities. This discourse no doubt seeks to reduce the numbers of protest-related deaths, simultaneously justifying the deaths of young Black men. The first death registered in Calí took place in the majority Black barrio, Marroquin II, where a 22-year-old man was killed. But the military later denied his death was related to the protests.
Militarization, Imperialism and the Protests
The current situation in Colombia cannot be understood in isolation from the wider armed conflict and the ever-deepening neoliberal agenda supported and sustained by the United States and multinationals that feed off Colombia’s natural resources. U.S. imperialist interests in the region have been clear since the late 19th century, with the attempted invasion of Colombia’s neighbor, Panama, in 1885 and the start of the Panama Canal project in 1904. In 1948, the Organization of American States was created during a meeting in Colombia.
Colombia has been the strategic point for Washington’s political, economic and military operations in recent decades. Thanks to U.S. technical and logistical support, Colombia is now one of the greatest military powers in the region. With the 1999 signing of Plan Colombia and the 2002 Patriot Plan, U.S. military presence and influence has only deepened.
Further, U.S. military support has always depended on state policies that benefited U.S. imperial interests. For example, in 2009 the United States signed an agreement with the Uribe Government to be able to operate from seven Colombian military bases. Although this agreement was blocked by the Constitutional Court, the Santos government later arrived at alternative bilateral agreements. These enabled access and use of the bases in practice, and further facilitated the fruitless and dangerous strategy of spraying the herbicide, glyphosate, on illicit crops. All of this sustains the ideology of the “internal enemy” and the terrorist threat that underpinned the original emergence and expansion of paramilitarism in the 1980s.
It is precisely this paramilitarism model the Colombian state is using in the context of the current protests, particularly in Calí, where state agents, often without proper identification, collaborate with civilians to shoot and kill protesters from high-end cars. The Indigenous Guard, accompanying the protests in Calí, have suffered several attacks of this kind, most recently on May 9, when eight people were wounded.
This violent state repression is yet another consequence of imperialist intervention and the extractivist neoliberal project that uses militarism to eliminate a historically racialized population it considers residual as well as a threat to the capitalist, white-supremacist order.
Esther Ojulari is a human-rights and racial-justice activist and sociologist. She is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of London, writing on transitional justice and reparations for the Afro-descendant people in Colombia. She worked for eight years as a consultant in the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) on Afro-descendant rights. Esther is currently Regional Coordinator in Buenaventura, Calí and Northern Cauca for the Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES). She is a member of several Afro-descendant and African-led international networks and coalitions.
Harrinson Cuero Campaz is a Afro-Colombian rights activist. He is a Ph.D. candidate writing on sustainability in urban and regional planning for biologically and culturally diverse territories. He is a social activist and member of the Proceso de Comunidades Negras (PCN, or Black Communities Process). Harrinson currently works as regional representative of Consultancy for Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES) and as a coordinator for the formulation of the Special Territorial Plan of the District of Buenaventura 2021-40.
Now that my Toward Freedom guest editorship has come to an end, I am reflecting back on the stories we ran for the past 6+ months and the writers who wrote them.
The scenes coming out of Modi’s India and its pandemic nightmare have been particularly horrific, causing me to inquire about the health of Toward Freedom contributor Sanket Jain. Sanket is a freelance journalist based in western India. TF ran two of his stories in December and February about how India’s poorest citizens were barely coping with Covid. He emailed me back: “Fortunately, I am safe. For the past few weeks, I have been on the field documenting the disaster that’s unfolding in remote villages of India. Last week, I was shooting photos at the crematorium to see how many people have died of COVID because the Government is hiding official numbers. It’s a nightmare to see a human disaster unfolding at such a massive scale. From lack of oxygen, improper vaccination policy, COVID patients facing ostracism in the village, to frontline healthcare workers facing verbal abuse and even physical assault, India is witnessing a humanitarian crisis. I hope we come out of this disaster soon.”
Stay safe, Sanket, and keep sending us your stories.
Another writer who moved me deeply is Charles Wachira. His recent story on what’s happening in Uganda opened my eyes to what’s happening throughout much of Africa; the maintenance of dictatorial rule [e.g through the (truly) rigged election of President Yoweri Museveni in Uganda] to ensure “stability” for resource extraction by foreign corporations. With remarkable patience in responding to my queries, Charles produced evidence that the Great Game for Oil is now on steroids in East Africa (much of which lies opposite the Red Sea – and Saudi Arabia.)
Fascinatingly, a similar situation is playing out in West Africa, as explained by Eric Agnero in his story on how President Alassane Ouattara was able to extend his unconstitutional rule over Cote d’Ivoire, aided and abetted by France and the United States.
I admit: I came into this job with a geopolitical perspective, one which is followed by most world powers as they survey entire regions for riches. I discovered it during decades of researching my new book on endless wars. You’ll find a geopolitical analysis reflected in my article on Afghanistan: If you want to understand the many wars that have swept through the Middle East, Central Asia, and now Africa, you need only to follow the pipelines and the oil schemes taking place right now. All this, despite promises by Big Oil to invest in alternative energy to slow down climate change.
Trend Lines in the TF Stories
Looking back, it was a privilege to be able to choose stories that reflected extraordinary, indeed history-making events between October 2020 and early May. Below, I will highlight some of those stories, as certain trends begin to emerge. Call them patterns of history. Ten years from now, you may want to look back on them as if they were diary entries of an unforgettable period in your life, featuring Covid 19, Trump’s defeat, the January 6 assault on the capitol; the re-invigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement after the death of George Floyd; the rise of the right wing in the United States based on claims of voter fraud, the similar tactics used by Trump’s fascist allies abroad. Democracy v Racist Authoritarianism is one overriding theme. Look for others:
In October 2020, Toward Freedom ran stories on two historic elections. Olivia Arigho-Stiles’s article on the elections in Bolivia, which returned the MAS party to power, gave us some hope that massive turnouts could turn the table on authoritarian regimes. Meanwhile, in the leadup to the November elections in the United States, Harvey Wasserman and Greg Palast sounded warnings that voter fraud mechanisms were in place in Florida and Wisconsin. Who could have guessed that Secretary of State Raffensperger (or, as Palast calls him, Raffens-purger) would later emerge as a hero for upholding the integrity of Georgia’s vote for Biden, when in 2020 he was responsible for purging 198,000 names from the voter roles!
The big news in November 2020, was the defeat of Donald Trump thanks to the commitment of black and brown voters, who ensured “the largest turnout ever by U.S. voters in a presidential election.” We were so hopeful, I wrote back then. noting that Trump’s “multiple lawsuits claiming ‘voter fraud’ have been rejected so far by U.S. courts for lack of evidence.” As It turned out, Trump continued to use voter fraud to enrage his base…even against fellow Republicans. The fight against a fascist movement in America is far from over.
We also witnessed through the reporting of Serbian journalist Nicolas Micovec some tense super-power standoffs. In Belarus, a proxy battle by “the Western-backed Belarusian opposition” failed to topple President Alexander Lukashenko, who is still firmly supported by Russia.” In Nagorno-Karabakh, more deadly proxy battles were raging between Armenian and Azerbaijani forces, where “the conflict is being carefully watched for two reasons: 1) its potential to spread beyond its borders, and 2) an underlying energy war between Russia, the US, and the European Union.”
In December 2020, we began to take stock of what the world would soon face with the new Biden administration. Climate change was high on the agenda, especially since the Trump administration in November officially withdrew the US from the 2015 Paris Agreement. Rashika Pardikar, an Indian journalist, wrote of the “responsibility to both undo the damage done by the Trump administration and do more to address climate vulnerability concerns, especially in the developing world.’ Especially, she notes, because “the US is responsible for 25% of global emissions.” And what could provide better evidence of the dangers of climate change than two horrific Category 4 hurricanes which slammed into Nicaragua and Honduras in November, two weeks apart? Toward Freedom contacted Dan Higgins of the Burlington-Puerto Cabezas Sister City program. His and others’ reporting helped raise aid for the people of Puerto Cabezas, where roughly 2,000 homes were destroyed, and another 9,000 properties were damaged. The article turned into a good opportunity for Higgins to reflect on the history of “Port,” whose “peoples, languages, culture and history [on the Atlantic Coast} are very different from the Spanish-speaking side of Nicaragua.” He writes that the issue of autonomy “continues to be a flash point in Nicaraguan politics, with differing interpretations of what autonomy means.”
Elections in Venezuela, another hot point in international affairs (due in large part to the Trump administration’s economic sanctions to bring about regime change), came into focus as CodePink sent reporter Teri Mattison to observe the country’s December 6 legislative elections. “The sanctions imposed on Venezuela are a form of economic warfare… meant to create hardship and unrest,” Teri reported. (The elections resulted in a victory for President Nicolas Maduro and his allies. The opposition, which boycotted the elections, claimed “election fraud!” Thanks to reporting from Peter Lacowski, “Cries of election fraud by Donald Trump and his followers are familiar to Venezuelans; their right-wing opposition has been doing the same thing for years.”
In January 2021, we focused on Trump’s lies about a “stolen election,” which triggered the right wing assault on the Capitol on January 6, causing TF to immediately probe for details. Jonathan Ben Menachem provided some shocking details in “Cops at the Capitol,” which revealed, “at least 26 sworn members of U.S. law enforcement agencies from at least 11 states have been identified by law enforcement agencies and local reporting as attendees of the Jan. 6 rally.” Alexander Hinton, in his evaluation of the raid, warned us –correctly as it turned out – not to underestimate far right extremists in the US.
The other big news of January, of course, was the Inauguration of Joe Biden, and “Why Poet Amanda Gorman Stole the Inaugural Show” with her reading of her newest poem, “The Hill We Climb.” We published her poem in full, noting that Gorman was about halfway through the poem on Jan. 6, when pro-Trump rioters stormed into the halls of Congress, some bearing weapons and Confederate flags. She stayed awake late into the night and finished the poem, adding verses about the apocalyptic scene that unfolded at the Capitol that day.” Her eloquent performance was a source of pride for the Black Lives Matter movement and its supporters.
By February 2021, Toward Freedom reported that Trump’s voter fraud allegations seem to have found a receptive audience with generals in Myanmar.Emily Blumenthalobserved “glaring similarities between the attempted coup in the US and the successful coup in Myanmar.” She quotes from the rightwing US group QAnon, which supported the coup: “The Burmese military has arrested the country’s leaders after credible evidence of widespread voter fraud became impossible to ignore…Sounds like the controlled media and Biden admin are scared this might happen here. “ An expert on Myanmar concluded, “Trump has given despots across the world fresh rhetorical ammunition to justify their authoritarian actions.”
If this weren’t unsettling news in the post-Trump era, our apprehension about Biden’s foreign policy turned to alarm after US forces bombed Syria in February. In their piece, Medea Benjamin and Nicolas Davies remind us that “the airstrikes were supposedly authorized by the 20-year-old, post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), legislation that Rep. Barbara Lee has been trying for years to repeal since it has been misused, ‘to justify waging war in at least seven different countries, against a continuously expanding list of targetable adversaries.’
In March 2021, Toward Freedom observed the 10th anniversary of the Arab Spring with disturbing reportage about the least known revolts in Bahrain. Finian Cunningham reveals that “Western powers played a nefarious role to ensure that the Arab Spring was kneecapped in order to cripple any progressive potential.” In Tunisia, where popular revolts launched the Arab Spring, Alessandra Bajek provides an in-depth report, noting that “Tunisia has failed to make any substantial progress in the daily lives of its citizens as the country’s democratization is not accompanied by a socio-economic transition. Nor should we forget that it was the Obama-Biden administration that oversaw the Arab Spring, as well as the regime change in Libya, which devolved into a disastrous civil (read proxy) war, killing thousands with many more displaced. According to Mathew Cole, Blackwater mercenaries poured into Libya, portraying themselves as “unarmed logistical personnel being sent in to support oil and gas companies.”
In April 2021, Toward Freedom reported on escalated tensions between Israel and Iran, after Israel bombed Iran’s Natanz uranium enrichment facility. Kim Zeterreports, “The sabotage seemed timed to send a message — both to Iran and to the U.S. and Europe. It occurred just days after talks began in Vienna to revive the Obama-instigated 2015 nuclear agreement with Iran to control its uranium enrichment production.” Fortunately, cooler heads once again prevailed, and the negotiations are continuing. There is even talk that Saudi Arabia and Iran have been holding secret talks.
The situation in Yemen, as revealed by William Boardman, is not as rosy as the Biden administration would have us believe. “Biden,” he writes, “promised that the US would be ‘ending all American support for offensive operations in the war in Yemen.’ Biden gave no specific details. The six-year bombing continues. The six-year naval blockade of Yemen continues. The humanitarian crisis continues, with the threat of famine looming. In effect, Biden has participated in war crimes since January 20, with no policy in sight to end the killing.” Long-time activist Kathy Kelley, worried that the American people were becoming desensitized to the killings in Yemen, reporting on a hunger strike taking place in Washington, DC. demanding an end to the war in Yemen.
Concluding Thoughts: The pandemic brought us many challenges. I, for one, was fortunate to have a job that allowed me to connect with writers from around the world from the safety of my own home.
Now that the pandemic is gradually lifting, I hope to spend more time promoting my book, which suffered greatly from being published during the lockdown. I wish all readers well as they hopefully recalibrate their lives toward a better future. Maybe a new Renaissance will be born out of COVID-19, just as the Renaissance emerged out of Italy’s Black Death in the 15th century. Let history—and science—be our guide, and may today’s movements –for democracy, justice and true equality—be our inspiration!
Toward Freedom Editor Julie Varughese recently spoke with Ramiro Sebastián Fúnez, a Honduran communist content creator based in Los Angeles. Fúnez produced a film, “Nicaragua Against Empire,” which premiered May 15 on YouTube. The film casts a lens on the landscape, culture and geopolitics that led to the ongoing Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua. Interviews with Sandinistas, peasants, as well as African and Indigenous peoples of the country’s autonomous zones were captured during a March 2021 13-member delegation Sanctions Kill and the Friends of the ATC (Asociación de Trabajadores Campa, or Rural Peasant Workers Union) organized.
The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Julie Varughese: Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. Let’s start with the purpose of the delegation.
Ramiro Sebastián Fúnez: The delegation I was on was called, “No to Sanctions in Nicaragua.” The ATC is Nicaragua’s oldest and strongest peasant workers union that played a central role in the Sandinista Revolution and was the organization that facilitated the land redistribution of over 4 million acres to peasants from the landlords, owned by the Somoza family dynasty. The delegation was organized by Friends of the ATC, which is the international solidarity organization of that group, and also Sanctions Kill, which a lot of U.S.-based anti-imperialist organizations are part of. The delegation was 13 days long, but I was only able to attend for about 10. It took place from March 12 to about March 25.
JV: All of the delegation participants were asked to complete a project related to this trip. Why did you choose to make a film?
RF: Film is one of the best ways to educate the masses, educate a broad range of people of all educational backgrounds. While I love writing, and my background is in writing and journalism, I feel nowadays people don’t take the time to sit down to read an article as they would to watch a film or documentary. That’s more accessible, especially to people who don’t necessarily know how to read or write. I felt producing a film was the best way to approach the project because it achieved the goal with the maximum end of teaching people and exposing people to the successes of Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution. To a broad range of people, not only in the U.S. and the European Union, but all over Latin America, where there is a Nicaraguan diaspora. It also highlights the diversity of revolutionary culture that has been produced by the Sandinista Revolution. Music is a big part of the culture of the Sandinista Revolution. Music that talks about workers’ rights, Sandino and fighting U.S. imperialism. Music, videos and art in one documentary form is the best way to incorporate everything.
JV: What kind of projects did the other participants create?
RSF: Some people made photo essays. That’s a great way to capture the Nicaraguan revolution. Others also wrote articles. I definitely think writing articles about Nicaragua is great. One person did a listicle like, “10 things you need to know.” Also, organizing seeds. The collection of seeds and books. One of the biggest struggles right now for countries that are being pillaged by sanctions is food sovereignty. Being able to grow your own food, independent from Monsanto, independent from the multinational imperialist agricultural companies. For example, in India, we have one of the highest farmer suicide rates in the world, who have been forced into growing GMO food. Part of the delegation work has been to help collect seeds for people in Nicaragua to help them continue to grow Native and Indigenous crops that have been grown in the Americas for thousands of years because the global elites are trying to eliminate that, trying to be the sole creators of these genetically modified seeds. We also collected books in Spanish and in Indigenous Nicaraguan languages like Miskito to deliver them to children on the Caribbean coast, which was hit hard by two hurricanes in November 2020.
JV: Nicaragua is part of what former U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton called the “Troika of Tyranny.” Nicaragua has been hit by sanctions. How do sanctions affect the country and what can people in the United States do about that?
RSF: John Bolton definitely singled out Nicaragua. At the end of 2018, after the protests, he began imposing more sanctions like the NICA Act, limiting their trade just like with Cuba and Venezuela. I think one thing that sets Nicaragua apart from Cuba and Venezuela is Nicaragua has not been getting love. A lot of the progressive left that supported the Sandinista Revolution in the ‘70s and ‘80s has succumbed to the U.S. propaganda. The solidarity movement for Nicaragua is not as strong, but the problems are still urgent. I think the best way to explain the impact of sanctions is to bring it to a micro level, to bring it to a human level. “Sanction” sounds misleading or not specific. It doesn’t have the same effect as “economic warfare” or “economic blockade.” That’s the reason people in Cuba have referred to the U.S. embargo as a blockade. For example, if we compare the country of Nicaragua to a single mother who has recently lost her job and is struggling to find a job because of a criminal record she got for something she didn’t do. She’s being accused of abusing her children and not giving them food and water. She constantly has these credit card companies on her back, hounding her to sign up for debt and trying to control her life. When she refuses to accept the debt, they make up lies about her. They say she’s not feeding her children, and that when her children try to speak up, she suppresses them. It doesn’t matter if they’re true. The fact is they’re repeated over and over. So sanctions mean where the bank calls you to say, “We can’t do business with you because you’re hitting your kids and not feeding your kids. And if you call a lawyer, we’re going to accuse the lawyer of collaborating with the criminal. We’re going to accuse any workplace that tries to hire you of collaborating with the criminal.” Now that single mother is not able to feed her kids. We were originally supposed to go to Nicaragua in February, but it had to be postponed to March because American Airlines canceled our flights over the sanctions. So now there is less travel—same with commerce. It’s a strangulation.
JV: That’s a very helpful example to use. To use the example of a mother who cannot feed her children. How do these sanctions affect business people who come from outside?
RSF: The economy of Nicaragua had a change in 2007. There’s two stages of the Sandinista Revolution. The first stage was from 1979 to 1989. At this point, the party was more influenced by Marxism-Leninism and by liberation theology, which it still is to a degree. It was more influenced by Marxist economics and it had a very similar command economy model like the Soviet Union and Cuba, where there was very little foreign investment, where there was central planning. There were gains and losses with that model. Obviously, one of the gains was you didn’t have to deal with private enterprise and foreign bourgeois leaders trying to sabotage the economy. The con was it was entirely dependent on the Soviet Union and Cuba. So once the Soviet Union collapsed and once Cuba went into the special period in 1990, that same year Nicaragua’s economy went into a crisis. And that year, they had an election, and the neoliberal candidate, Violeta Chamorro, won the presidency. She implemented free-market reforms. Neoliberalism at its worst, where private companies ruled the country. The second stage of the Sandinista Revolution began in 2007, after the 2006 election of Daniel Ortega. The economic model is very different. The new government is called the Government of Unity and Reconciliation. So even though the Sandinista Party is in the front as a ruling party, it’s a consensus government where they work with the national bourgeoisie, where they’re more open to commerce with the imposition of labor laws. Interestingly enough, this has led to more economic gains, where they have the Sandinista government in power watching private enterprise. So when they mess up, the government is able to kick them out. For example, I visited a cigar factory in Estelí. Nicaragua is one of the biggest producers of cigars now. Even now, cigars that say they are “Cuban cigars” are made in Nicaragua in a factory owned by Cubans from Florida who are not necessarily on the political left. But they’re allowed to trade in the country because they follow the rules of the Sandinista government. I got to tour the cigar factor with the ATC and talk to the workers. While there is a private sector in Nicaragua—including foreigners—it’s still under the control of the Sandinista government. This is very similar to the model we see in Cuba, Vietnam, China or Venezuela. A small private sector does operate in the country as long as the benefits are for the Nicaraguan people.
JV: If sanctions are going to stifle your ability to do business, I almost wonder why anyone would want to stay doing business there.
RSF: That’s a great point. That’s the impact of sanctions. The sanctions are intended to scare these companies out. The sanctions are intended to criminalize any companies doing business with Nicaragua, in order to strangle their economy. That’s why I think the new mode of socialism includes private enterprise. But some use that for a justification, for saying [socialism] doesn’t work.
JV: How does the call of Nuestra America (Our America) resonate with the anti-imperialist movement in Nicaragua?
RSF:Nuestra America or Latin America unity is central to Nicaragua. Nicaragua had a central role in those movements in the 20th century, and even before that in movements in Latin America. Nicaragua is at the center of not only Central America, but Latin America, geographically. It’s at the crux of north and south, it’s at the crux of the Caribbean, it’s at the crux of Mesoamerica, which includes Mexico and Central America. And very close by is South America. Nicaragua has historically been in a position to see potential unity between all Latin American and Caribbean countries, especially because it has one of the narrowest points in Central America between both oceans, where an inter-oceanic canal can be constructed to ease trade between all of the countries. Many people in Nicaragua have been working to create this canal to counter the Panama Canal, which is under the control of the U.S. imperialists. And to make this canal for use for the Latin American and Caribbean people. The concept of Nuestra America, which Jose Martí wrote about in his essays in the 1890s, is very central to Nicaragua, to many leaders. For example, the liberator of Central America, Francisco Morazán in the 1800s, who was from Honduras also fought some of his toughest battles in Nicaragua against the Costa Rican nationalists, who wanted to divide and split up the Central American Federation. Morazán, similar to Simón Bolívar in South America, wanted to unite Latin America as a federation of Latin American republics because they understood the United States was the rising imperial power, and the only way to defend their lands from tyranny would be to unite all of the countries as one United States of Latin America. In the early 1900s, you have Augusto César Sendino, who was one of the earliest members of the Central American Communist Party, which was the first, if not, the second communist party in Latin America, that sought to unite Latin America under one communist movement as the Soviet Union was growing. Sendino worked with Martí in El Salvador to build something like a Soviet Union in Latin America. This upheld the idea of Nuestra America, this upheld Martí, Morazán and other people, who envisioned a united Latin America. Later on, when the Sandinistas were able to win in 1979, they also sought to expand the revolution across the region. There’s a Time magazine article in 1980, where they show President Daniel Ortega. It says, “Reagan sees red.” They didn’t want just to claim victory in Nicaragua on the Sandinista front. They wanted to expand socialism across Central America. In late ‘70s and early ‘80s, El Salvador was in the middle of guerrilla warfare, and the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FLMN) was very close to winning the entire country. The Sandinistas were arming, training and supporting them, to eventually revive this idea of a united Central America under socialism. So for many years, Nuestra America has been central to Nicaragua and I would argue Nicaragua has been one of the strongest proponents.
JV: In the United States, African and Indigenous peoples are colonized internally. From what you saw in Nicaragua with the autonomous zones over there, how do you think that would work in a settler-colonial state like the United States?
RSF: That’s a great question. One of the most inspiring things I was able to see in Nicaragua was they are able to not only talk about, but provide autonomy to Black and Indigenous people on the coastal areas. You hear liberals and hipsters in the United States talk about autonomy or free liberated spaces. These same liberals and hipsters will talk about Nicaragua, that it’s a dictatorship and say they betrayed socialism. That they’re revisionists, capitalists and tyrannical. But right now in Nicaragua, the two biggest departments are autonomous. The two autonomous regions make up more than 50 percent of the country. There’s actually more land for Black and Indigenous than for the Mestizo population. They’re building autonomy right now. It serves as a model for many countries, not only in Latin America, but around the world, that have nations within nations. One of the interesting things about comparing Nicaragua to the United States is both are a “prison house of nations,” as Vladimir Lenin described the Russian empire and later the Soviet Union. The United States is an imperialist country that, from its root, has been based on pillaging, colonialism, racism, banking, white supremacy. So the identity of the United States would have to be done away with. Nicaraguan nationalism is at its core anti-imperialist, and it’s a vastly smaller and poorer country. It’s vastly different from U.S. nationalism. But I think modelling the U.S., based on what’s happening in Nicaragua, there would have to be a restructuring of U.S. society, where nationalism and the flag are replaced. And autonomous regions could be created for Africans and Indigenous people, and Hawaii and Puerto Rico. When we flew into the autonomous areas, we needed special visas for traveling to that area. It was very easy with Sandinista representatives. But everything has to be done through local tribes and local communities. They have five levels of government. Aspects that can be learned from is like how private companies and the government have to pay a tax to the Miskito people, or the Garifuna people, or other Afro-Indigenous communities. Not even the government has full control of the land. The local people lease them that space. Same thing with tourism: Foreign companies along the Caribbean coast, which is where a lot of the tourism is with the beaches, they have to pay a tax to the Indigenous groups, who at any point can decide those companies need to leave.
JV: What would you say to people who are interested in making films to share information about alternatives to the system inside the United States and to the U.S. empire?
RSF: It’s all about the story you tell and the people you’re speaking with. I went with a Canon camera that I’ve had for five or six years that cost $200, and a simple audio recorder. With that, I was able to speak to a lot of people. Looking back at the film, there are certain shots I look at, I can say, “I could do this better. I could do that better.” But I was the scriptwriter, the camera person. Everything was me. Everybody could do that. We live in a time where anyone could do that. Some of those shots, I recorded with my iPhone. It’s not so much the technology or equipment. The most important thing was making the right connections. If I didn’t have connections with the ATC, I wouldn’t have been able to have former Sandinista guerrillas show me the country after the armed struggle. That’s why it’s important to get involved with organizations, even if you’re an amateur [filmmaker]. That’s why mainstream media gets these stories wrong, because it’s like these random dudes from Europe dropping into a protest, who just take a flight to Managua. And it’s an illusion, because you go there and see a protest and think, “Okay, this must be good.” But without an OG, without an elder, without somebody who has seen what the country was like before socialism, during the neoliberal period, you’re not going to understand that context. There has to be some level of humility and open-mindedness. The right people are going to show you the right story. If you’re able to meet the right connections, that’s the best way to produce something like this that is able to show a different side of a country that is constantly bombarded by the mainstream media.