Nicaragua is on the brink of a civic insurrection. For two weeks, hundreds of thousands of citizens have occupied the streets protesting president Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice-president, Rosario Murillo. The demonstrations and marches began following the government’s slow response to a massive forest fire inside the Indio Maiz bio reserve. A week later, the movements quickly escalated when Ortega’s government announced a series of austerity measures designed to rescue the country’s social security system from the brink of bankruptcy. The national police responded to protesters with force, leaving at least 60 civilians dead and more than 30 missing.
On the ground in Nicaragua, one gets the sense that Ortega’s government is on the ropes. Although a united opposition has yet to emerge, there is the feeling that one is beginning to take form. The government’s authoritative response has provoked the ire of an entire generation of youth, and in Nicaragua, where nearly 50% of the population is under the age of 24, losing the youth is the equivalent of losing the nation. The government’s poor response has also stirred a once formidable civil society that has, up until now, been largely ineffective at challenging the Ortega-Murillo regime’s efforts to concentrate power in the executive branch. Perhaps most important, the unrest has also united conservative and liberal factions around the common cause of removing Ortega from power. The last time this happened was in 1990, when Daniel Ortega lost his bid for re-election to Violeta Chamorro.
International press has depicted the rapid escalation of civil unrest in Nicaragua as a spontaneous explosion of collective discontent, triggered by the government’s changes to its insolvent social security system and rooted in more than a decade of authoritarian rule by the Ortega-Murillo family. And while the underlying causes of the turmoil are rooted in government mismanagement and corruption, it’s becoming more and more clear that the U.S. support has helped play a role in nurturing the current uprisings.
Since 2014, the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), which was established in 1983 to promote democratic ideals in developing countries, has spent $4.1 million on projects in Nicaragua. Projects funded by NED have focused on strengthening civil society, improving accountability and governance, fostering a culture of human rights, and reinforcing democratic ideals and values. As Table 1 details, the NED has funded 54 projects in Nicaragua between 2014 and 2017.
Source: Compiled by author using data from www.ned.org
The NED has awarded projects to a wide variety of civic organizations. However, the top grantees have been Fundacion Iberoamericana de las Culturas (six grants), Asociación Hagamos Democracia (five grants), Center for International Private Enterprise (four).
Seventeen grants were provided to unnamed organizations working within Nicaragua. In 2017, for example, the NED provided an anonymous organization with $86,000 to foster “a new generation of democratic youth leaders.” According to the project description, the funds were intended,
“To promote democratic values and participation among youth in Nicaragua. Forums in schools and universities will educate students about democratic values and human rights. A network of youth leaders will foster a more active role of youth in defending democracy. Additionally, a magazine and social media will facilitate discussion on youth issues and democratic activism.”
In the same year, the NED funded a project titled, “Strengthening the Strategic Capacity of Civil Society to Defend Democracy.” Again, the NED’s website does not report the name of the organization that received the grant. However, per the project description, the funds were used to,
“To strengthen the capacity of Nicaraguan pro-democracy activists to forge a common civil society strategy to defend democracy. Periodic publications will cover the state of democracy and the situation of human rights in Nicaragua. A group of civil society organizations and social movements will convene a series of forums to discuss their content and identify advocacy opportunities.”
In these cases, fears of government reprisals against the groups—not unrealistic given its intolerance for dissent, have led the NED to withhold the names of the groups from public documents.
As Table 2 illustrates, NED funds were spread out across 6 key areas of interest.
Source: Compiled by author using data from www.ned.org
This is not the first time that NED funds have made an appearance in Central America’s largest country. U.S. Congress created the NED—as a non-profit, private NGO—in 1983 at the height of the Cold War. The NED was designed to promote democracy overseas, and it was funded through the U.S. congress to remain autonomous from U.S. foreign policy. From 1984 to 1990, the U.S. NED spent roughly $15.8 million dollars to fund civil society groups and to political parties, most of them opposed to the Sandinista government. In 1990, against all odds, Chamorro defeated Daniel Ortega, and ushered in three consecutive terms of conservative leadership.
NED has expanded a great deal since 1983. Today, funds from the NED support civil society groups, election observation efforts and democratic political parties around the world, including in Africa and the Middle East. In fact, in the years leading up to the Arab Spring, the U.S. government used funds from the NED to nurture civil society organizations in the Middle East and Northern Africa.
While NED resources are small compared to the money the U.S. Department of Defense spends abroad, the impact of NED projects—particularly in closed societies—is important.
On April 14th, 2011, referring to the role of the United States in the uprisings of the Arab Spring, Ron Nixon of the New York Times wrote,
‘The money spent on these programs was minute compared with efforts led by the Pentagon. But as American officials and others look back at the uprisings of the Arab Spring, they are seeing that the United States’ democracy-building campaigns played a bigger role in fomenting protests than was previously known, with key leaders of the movements having been trained by the Americans in campaigning, organizing through new media tools and monitoring elections.”
Looking back at the developments of last several months, it is now quite evident that the U.S. government actively helped build the political space and capacity in Nicaraguan society for the social uprising that is currently unfolding.
Just over a month ago, on March 14th at a private gathering in Managua, the U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, Laura Dogu, gave a prophetic warning to Nicaragua’s largest business owners: “The doubts of Nicaraguans about the elections has led to a reduction in civic participation and a decline in the people’s confidence in institutions.”
Media did not attend the event, but naturally, the ambassador’s message found its way into the press. The following day, the opposition paper, La Prensa, publish an article titled, “Experts believe the speech of U.S. ambassador, Laura Dogu, ‘warns’ business owners.”
In her speech, Dogu spoke to the inherent uncertainty lurking amidst the country’s current political and social environment. The article also cited Luciano Garcia, who attended Dogu’s talk and is the current president of the civic organization Hagamos Democracia (Make Democracy). Since 2014, Mr. Garcia’s organization has received $525,222 from the NED for the purpose of monitoring the Nicaraguan National Assembly, coordinating a network of citizen reporters, and strengthening civil society. According to him, Dogu’s message was extremely clear: Nicaraguans need to involve business owners in decision making.
While there are many Nicaraguans who may criticize the NED’s involvement in domestic politics, it is important to point out that Daniel Ortega’s government finds itself on the brink of collapse due to its own shortcomings. Thus far, there is no evidence to demonstrate subversive or insidious behavior in Nicaragua on the part of the NED. Quite the contrary; existing evidence suggests that the NED has supported civil society organizations dedicated to democracy and human rights in a country in which political spaces have narrowed, opposition voices have been stifled, and political checks and balances have all but disappeared.
Regardless of whether Mr. Ortega is removed from power, the NED’s involvement in Nicaragua reveals the potential for transnational funding to contribute to the cultivation of the type of skill sets, networking, and strategies necessary for civil society to successfully challenge authoritative governments. It is not the purpose of this article to question whether the NED should be involved in bolstering civil society in Nicaraguan. Yet, regardless of how one weighs in on ethical questions of this nature, the NED’s current involvement in nurturing civil society groups in Nicaragua sheds light on the power of transnational funding to influence political outcomes in the 21st century.