Nicaragua : High-intensity Disinformation Warfare

Residents stand outside their home as they watch soldiers unload supplies from a military helicopter for people who suffered damage from Tropical Storm Ida in Bluefields, NicaraguaBy Tortilla con Sal

Among NATO’s psychological warfare outlets the UK Guardian occupies a special place as the fake-progressive mouthpiece of neocolonial English language news media. In recent years, Guardian writers and editors have been persistent propaganda shills for Nazi militias and death squads in Ukraine and for Al Qaeda and related terror groups in both Libya and Syria. No surprise then that it should also have an almost endless record of propaganda attacks against the main member countries of ALBA – Bolivia, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela.

The latest disinformation offering has been an article by Nina Lakhani in the Guardian’s development pages targeting Nicaragua’s education system. The article’s title “Poverty in Nicaragua drives children out of school and into the workplace” could be applied to almost any country in the majority world as well as to countries in North America and Europe. It’s also worth noting that the Guardian’s development pages are funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

A recent survey of projects funded by the Microsoft tycoons’ NGO between 2003 and 2013 in Africa found out that only 12% of the USD 3 billion granted went directly to the target populations. The rest was invested in research centers for the expansion of European and US-American agribusiness corporations. Self-evidently, the Guardian has a vested interest in promoting a neocolonial perspective skewed in favour of corporate funded non-governmental views and against sovereign governments, especially anti-imperialist governments like those of the ALBA countries.

This particular Guardian article offers a helpful concrete example of how certain kinds of anti-ALBA country propaganda can work while still staying within the bounds of apparently progressive ideas and argument. Nicaragua’s Sandinista government education has transformed education in Nicaragua in many positive ways despite very significant difficulties. But the Guardian article tries to make the absolutely false case that Nicaragua has practically abandoned a large number of it’s school age population and lacks a serious commitment to improving the country’s education system. The article uses various propaganda tricks that depend entirely on readers’ likely ignorance of Nicaragua and the region.

Nina Lakhani starts her false argument with quotes from childen in Bluefields, a city on Nicaragua’s impoverished Caribbean Coast. One quote goes “My family can’t afford the books”. But nowhere in her article does Nina Lakhani report that in January 2007, the very first decision of the incoming Sandinista government under Daniel Ortega was to make health and education services free. No child in Nicaragua’s public school system needs to pay for their schoolbooks. School directors breaching the principle of free education face dismissal. Does Lakhani offer a quote from a local school director? Of course not.

Similarly, Nina Lakhani’s disinformation exercise completely omits reporting mass national programmes by Nicaragua’s Sandinista government to guarantee at least one meal a day for children in school, to ensure the poorest children have shoes and a backpack for their books, to rehabilitate classrooms and classroom furniture, to consolidate literacy skills and to improve dental health. Apart from those important omissions, perhaps the most reprehensible feature of the Guardian article is that it cites figures that are mostly five years or more out of date.

This use of obsolete statistics effectively ignores the Nicaraguan government’s massive efforts to improve school attendance, diminish desertion, improve academic performance and promote better academic standards. Readily available World Bank data for some indicators is slightly more up to date and allows a fair comparison with Nicaragua’s neighbours. While it is certainly true that available recent statistics are patchy and make it hard to compare like with like, that does not mean a more current view is out of reach. In any case, data isolated from any comparative context are grossly misleading and are a long-standing disinformation specialty of corporate media writers on foreign affairs.

So Nina Lakhani’s false use of out-of-date data looks even more dishonest when Nicaragua’s indicators according to the World Bank for the period 2006 to 2013 are compared with its regional neighbours’. For example, in the area of primary education, Nicaragua’s indicators are generally better than those in Guatemala, somewhat behind Honduras and El Salvador and all four countries lag behind Costa Rica. However, in terms of indicators relating to secondary education, Nicaragua has generally similar or better indicators than Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and again all four lag behind Costa Rica.

Nina Lakhani’s insistence on the importance of reducing child labour so as to ensure good education for all children is certainly correct. But that is true throughout Central America, whose countries share many social characteristics derived from their history of colonial and neocolonial domination and economic under-development. In particular in Nicaragua, the school year has historically been scheduled around the coffee harvest from mid-December to late February when thousands of rural families migrate en bloc as families to pick coffee. As in most of Central America, Nicaraguan law allows children to start work at 14.

Since 2011, the Nicaragua government has implemented a series of measures aimed at preventing under-age children from working. In 2012 the government began an annual campaign coordinated by local municipal authorities, the Education Ministry, the Health Ministry and relevant labour unions to ensure children under 14 years old, accompanying their families picking coffee in Nicaragua’s main coffee growing areas, attend classes and educational activities. The national confederation of workers in the informal sector also works with the government in urban centres to keep school age children from working selling with their parents on the streets.

Child labour is a serious problem throughout Central America. But Lakhani’s article suggests the Nicaraguan government’s policy on child labour represents a unique failure. To make her false case, she cites old figures from the 2005 census that she compares with unreliable current estimates from Nicaragua’s business sector. Lakhani writes “Nicaragua has ratified multiple international treaties and has strong national policies, but government claims that it is reducing child labour are not supported by any published evidence.” But Lakhani applies a different standard to a business sector estimate “that there are between 250,000 and 320,000 child workers, with one in three under 14.”

The link her report offers is to a video with off the cuff remarks at a press conference by business organization President José Adán Aguerri. His claim too is unsupported by any recent published evidence, but still Lakhani gives it more weight than government claims. By contrast, the Chair of the National Assembly’s Commision for Women Youth, Children and the Family, Carlos Emilio López, announced in 2013 a 10% drop in child labour in Nicaragua since 2005. Nina Lakhani mentions no reliable evidence to falsify that assertion.

She mentions an anecdotal case study by La Isla Foundation of 26 children in the sugar cane plantations aged between 12 and 17 which is virtually meaningless in the national context, but may perhaps reflect to some degree the reality in the sugar industry throughout the region, not just in Nicaragua. In that regional context, Nicaragua has a better record at protecting vulnerable children than its neighbours. In fact, the International Labour Organization representative in Nicaragua said in June 2014, “In the 2005 census, 53% of children working did not go to school, now that percentage is less than 15%.”

That statement by the ILO should be taken together with recent government data for education indicating substantial increases in matriculation numbers, lower figures for academic desertion, and better academic results generally. Likewise, Nicaragua’s Ministry of the Family’s mass campaign to help families ensure their children go to preschool is helping hundreds of thousands of children to get better early schooling. Bearing all that in mind, it is fair to say that the recent statements from the relevant responsible officials about the government’s committed implementation of education and family policies categorically contradict the Guardian’s misleading report. Nina Lakhani seems deliberately to omit highly relevant context supporting the government’s education policies in relation to child labour.

When she cites the most recent US government report saying, “The [Nicaraguan] government’s enforcement of labour laws is inadequate, and plans to combat child labour and protect children have not been fully implemented”, one has to assume she is making an extremely bad joke. The United States government, has overseen the fall of much of its child population into deep poverty for many years now and has zero authority to lecture another country about its record on child welfare. All the Central American governments are working to reduce child labour, Nicaragua’s Sandinista government especially.

Nina Lakhani’s baseless claim that the Nicaraguan government is failing to reduce child labour is not just grossly unfair given available evidence that she has chosen to ignore. A look at the budgetary history of Nicaragua’s spending on education since January 2007 also serves to confirm the falsity of the Guardian’s report. This calculation of education spending in Nicaragua includes both spending assigned to universities and the budget of Ministry of Education. It does not include :

  • spending by the Ministry of the Family to support pre-school education;

  • spending by the Ministry of Health to support children with special needs or dental health

  • spending in schools by the government’s sports and culture institutions;

  • in some years it may not include all spending on vocational and technical education;

  • spending to guarantee school meals or shoes and backpacks for school

Last year of the Presidency of Ing. Enrique Bolaños Geyer

Year Education spending in C$ (millions) % national budget % GDP
2006 4, 608.4 20.1 03.98

Comandante Daniel Ortega Saavedra became President in January 2007

Year Education spending in C$ millions % national budget Inflation adjusted increase % GDP
2007 5,501.40 22.00 08.61 04.30
2008 6,250.00 21.80 02.21 04.52
2009 7,526.00 23.10 00.51 05.34
2010 7,250.80 23.00 -07.64 04.74
2011 7,900.40 22.00 03.17 04.65
2012 9,364.40 22.10 08.21 05.01
2013 10,553.80 22.00 04.08 05.14
2014 12,766.40 22.80 11.38
2015 14,439.10 23.60 05.93

(Budget data from Ministerio de Hacienda y Crédito Público. Inflation data calculated from various IMF reports. GDP data calculated from World Bank data.)

This represents an increase of education spending of 36% in real terms since 2006, well outstripping the development of the school age population which, like Costa Rica’s, has in fact been declining slightly year by year in contrast to Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala where the school age population is slightly increasing year by year. Here are World Bank data on Nicaragua’s population of children and adolescents under 18 years of age :

Age group

2006

2007

2008

2009

2010

2011

2012

2013

2014

Ages 0-14

2050489

2039137

2027692

2017376

2009063

2003075

1999212

1996346

n/a

Ages 10-18

1213061

1217077

1218835

1217850

1213924

1206832

1197091

1186169

1176045

(Data from World Bank: http://databank.worldbank.org/data/download/EdStats_excel.zip)

As regards the above table of budget allocations, note the period 2008 to 2011. Major events in this period were the massive inflationary pressures leading to dramatically higher oil and food prices. Also in 2009 the US government and the European Union cut a total of over US$100m in development cooperation funding to the Nicaraguan government in response to the opposition campaign led by right-wing leader Eduardo Montealegre and his social democrat allies falsely alleging fraud in the November 2008 municipal elections. That mendacious campaign was supported by political opinion across the political spectrum in North America and Europe, including neo-colonial progressives and leftists.

It was only through 2011 that the government was able to make good the budgetary difficulties of the three years 2008-2010. Government spending figures tend to conceal the huge deficiencies of Nicaragua’s education system as of January 2007. The new Sandinista government had to overcome the enormous deficit in capital spending accumulated over 16 years of systematic denial of resources and corruption, preceded by a decade of war. In January 2007, that 26 year period had left Nicaragua’s schools unable even to deliver the complete primary school curriculum to large areas of the country, never mind comprehensive provision for secondary or technical and vocational education .

In January 2007, preschool care was almost entirely private. Secondary education was in the early stages of effective privatization. Public vocational and technical training was grossly under-resourced. Nationally, school infrastructure needed a programme of complete overhaul and renewal. Teacher salaries were desperately inadequate, as were resources for teacher training. That same year, 2007, saw the start of the global economic crisis with oil reaching US$147 a barrel in early 2008 and the worst economic collapse in North America and Europe since the 1930s.

None of that essential context figures anywhere in the Guardian’s report by Nina Lakhani on Nicaragua’s education system and its link to child labour. Her report glibly evades all that essential history. Instead, she shifts from disinforming her readers about Nicaragua’s education system to remarks reflecting an ideological disagreement between international education bureaucrats. But her earlier faithless, heavily prejudiced depiction of Nicaragua’s education dilemmas offers no legitimate insight into that debate. Her Guardian report quotes Manos Antoninis, “a senior analyst at Education for All global monitoring report“.

Manos Antoninis argues, “While raising the compulsory age of schooling is unlikely to immediately impact on completion rates in Nicaragua, it would send a powerful message that the state believes in the importance of education, which in turn would impact the way families perceive their own responsibility in keeping children in school.” His remarks are quoted in such a way as to reinforce Nina Lakhani’s false argument that the Nicaraguan government neither really believes in the importance of education nor devotes the resources necessary to improving Nicaragua’s education system.

The Guardian cites an opposing theoretical view, without explaining that this view, offered by Philippe Barragne-Bigot, Unicef representative in Nicaragua, in fact reflects the current policy of the Nicaraguan government. Philippe Barragne-Bigot argues “Quality, flexible education and jobs will keep children in school, not a change in the law.” But Nina Lakhani categorically fails to report the significance of these remarks by UNICEF’s representative in Nicaragua. Nicaragua’s Sandinista government is very deliberately prioritizing improving the quality of education in Nicaragua, broadening the range of study and training opportunities available to adolescents and young adults and prioritizing employment creation.

All these policy measures are integral components of Nicaragua’s national development strategy whose overwhelming priority is to reduce poverty. But the Guardian never even mentions the wide-ranging, complex national development policy the government is trying to implement. Instead, the Guardian report gives Manos Antoninis the last word:

‘ “Countries that don’t educate their children to second school level don’t stand a chance. But the sudden expansion of secondary education could serve the elite, so policies must target the neediest,” said Antoninis. He added: “The inter-generational effect is chilling. A lack of education not only scuppers a child’s chances, but also the chances of their children. Failing to make an effort in this generation, also fails the next.” ‘

And that’s it. Nina Lakhani’s article ends there, leaving the reader with the impression that Nicaragua’s Sandinista government is a clear example of a government “failing to make an effort” for the education of the country’s children and youth. The falsity of Nina Lakhani’s report in the Guardian is beyond travesty. More than any other country in the region, with the possible exception of El Salvador, Nicaragua is very much targeting the neediest among its population as it works to strengthen the whole of its historically devastated public education system.

On May 19th this year, the government’s policy coordinator, Rosario Murillo, announced that enrolment in the public education system came to “a grand total 2,143,721 students between Pre-school, Primary level, Secondary level, Special Education, Teacher training, Workshop-Classrooms for Young people and Adults, Literacy tutoring, Technical education and training”, apart from university level education. Earlier in the year, Rosario Murillo also confirmed the distribution of almost 90,000 text books in indigenous peoples languages, free, for school students on Nicaragua’s Caribbean Coast.

The reality of educational policy in Nicaragua overhelmingly contradicts Nina Lakhani’s disingenuous fake-progressive argument that the Sandinista government has failed Nicaragua’s children. Perhaps the most egregious outright falsehood in the Guardian’s account is its report as a current fact that “The UN children’s agency, Unicef, estimates that 500,000 Nicaraguan children aged three to 17 are not in the educational system.” That is grotesquely unfair both to UNICEF and the Nicaraguan government because the link leads to a 2012 report using figures from 2010 that were probably out of date even then, despite the crisis between 2008 and 2010, and much more so now, five years after that crisis, in 2015.

For us at Tortilla con Sal we feel particularly bitter at the Guardian’s mendacious report on education and child labor in Nicaragua because much of the community work of our collective’s members is with families on extremely low incomes. Since 1998, we have worked with a programme serving 40 young women from very impoverished rural families each year training to be primary school teachers. Since 1999, we have worked on a programme that each year has helped  over a hundred low income women, mostly single mothers, return to school to finish their secondary education. Over the last four years we have worked on a program to address domestic violence among families in low income rural and urban areas.

This close grass roots engagement has permitted us to witness the great sacrifices people in Nicaraga on very low incomes will make to ensure their children get an education that will improve their economic opportunities. We have also witnessed how year by year the government’s education and child protection policies improve systematically and incrementally, often making a dramatic difference to different sectors of the country’s impoverished majority. That process throws up many complex dilemmas over trade-offs, the most obvious being that of young family members opting to start work so as to increase their family’s income and go back to education later.

By quoting UNICEF’s country representative in Nicaragua, the Guardian’s Nina Lakhani opened the door a fraction towards a view of the flexible, quality education system Nicaragua’s Sandinista government led by Comandante Daniel Ortega is trying, despite innumerable difficulties, to promote. But she and her editors then immediately slammed it shut. They  had to.

Nina Lakhani had to close down that view because it contradicts her own self-evident prejudices against Nicaragua’s government. Her Guardian editors’ had to deny it because their sinister psy-warfare imperative is to erase any reality contradicting their neocolonial propaganda line. In sum, Nina Lakhani’s article in the Guardian is grossly unfair and disingenuous. Contrary to her phony conclusion, Nicaragua’s education system is a very successful example of how a government committed to ALBA’s emancipatory socialist vision can overcome, in favour of the impoverished majority, the intractable problems inherited from decades of neocolonial subjugation and war.

Psy-warfare Poisoning News About ALBA…
Corporate media puts Nicaragua in its crosshairs

By Tortilla con Sal

North American and European corporate media news outlets have failed for so long to give a true and fair view of foreign affairs, it is hard to remember if they ever did. The origins of that outcome may be a matter for argument, but the outcome itself is indisputable, more obviously in times of intense crisis, like the wars in Lebanon, Gaza, Libya, Syria or Ukraine.

Less obvious is the steady, between-crisis, drip-by-drip psychological warfare against governments or political movements targeted by NATO country governments for resisting the strategic agenda of Western corporate elites and their local allies. Examples of this kind of psychological warfare abound in the pages of flagship Western corporate media.

One recent article in the UK Guardian targeting Nicaragua’s education system offers a helpful concrete example of how this kind of anti-ALBA country propaganda tends to work while staying within the bounds of apparently progressive ideas and argument. Since inheriting in 2007 a semi-privatized education system impoverished by 16 years of neoliberal misrule and the preceding ten years of war, Nicaragua’s Sandinista government has transformed education in Nicaragua.

But the counterfactual Guardian article argues the Nicaraguan government has practically abandoned a large number of it’s school age population and lacks a serious commitment to improving the country’s education system. The structure of the text is almost a template for this kind of false propaganda.

Although dealing in this case with Nicaragua, the same propaganda recipe recurs repeatedly in similar articles attacking aspects of politics, society and environmental or economic policy in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela. This particular propaganda recipe is as follows :

  • select a target-country community suitable for the propaganda purpose
  • adapt the language to the target audience core values:
    progressive, conservative, fascist, socialist, etc.
  • start by establishing credibility with an anecdote giving local colour
  • introduce a quote early on to establish the main propaganda point
  • label interviewees accordingly and, if necessary, vary the tags for the same person
    e.g. first “feminist”, later “democracy activist” and so on
  • use old or otherwise compromised data to give spurious factual authority
  • isolate the target government from the regional context
  • consolidate the initial message with quotes of local anti-government opinion
  • avoid or minimize alternative, contradictory views
  • cite international institutions to suggest a broad objective panorama
  • end by reinforcing the propaganda message

This simple propaganda recipe recurs constantly in reports about Latin American and Caribbean countries moving closer to China and Russia and reducing their dependence on the United States and its allies. In fact, in this case, as if to emphasize its built-in bias, the report on Nicaragua by the Guardian’s Nina Lakhani appears in the media outlet’s development section funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

The overall subliminal implication is, “Oh well, the morally superior West and generous donors like the Gates’ Foundation will just have to clean up the mess created by these incompetent socialist-inspired governments…. ” That plays well with the neocolonial prejudices of most liberal and progressive opinion in North America and Europe.

The broader significance of this counter factual reporting on Nicaragua’s education system is how it works as part of the consistent omnipresent, psychological warfare campaign by NATO country media outlets against Nicaragua and its fellow ALBA country governments.

The ALBA governments are dedicated to working out the region’s problems formulating their own sovereign policy in accordance with their peoples’ lived reality. Those government’s reject the hopelessly flawed and phony neocolonial Western development model based on unfair trade, heavily conditioned, deliberately inadequate development cooperation, and systematic bed-of-Procrustes debt. Some kinds of propaganda attacks on the ALBA countries and their allies may use more or less subtle disinformation strategies, but the objective remains the same.

The Guardian and its fellow NATO psy-warfare corporate media outlets work constantly via reports like Nina Lakhani’s to create, drip by drip, the worst impression possible of a target government. Then, when a crisis does occur, usually deliberately manufactured by the US government and its allies, the NATO propaganda machine, of which the Guardian is a key fake-progressive component, slips up a couple of gears towards false hyper-sensationalist denunciation without missing a beat.

In Nicaragua’s case, this happened perhaps most acutely after the 2008 municipal elections when North American and European opinion across the political spectrum supported phony right wing and social democrat claims of electoral fraud. In the case of Cuba and Venezuela it has happened so many times one loses count. Bolivia and Ecuador as well as, more recently, Argentina and Brazil, offer numerous other examples.

It may be impossible to defeat this drip-feed poisoning of information channels, but to defend ALBA we should denounce it as effectively as we can. Perhaps the most important thing is to challenge the neocolonial assumptions of people in North America and Europe who regard themselves as progressive but feel impotent against their own governments’ economic and political repression.

ALBA’s fundamental premise is the emancipatory power of solidarity – that cuts not just both ways, but all ways, across nations, even across ideology, across every conventional barrier preventing us all from realizing our shared humanity, our common vulnerability on a planet we ourselves are destroying.