Article by Becca Mohally Renk
To mark one year since George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police, Vice media announced it was dedicating it’s platforms to “reporting on systemic racism around the world.” Included in those special reports was a story by Nathaniel Janowitz published by Vice World News on May 24th entitled “Nicaragua’s First Black Presidential Candidate Keeps Getting Targeted by the Cops.” In the article, Janowitz stretches to create false parallels between George Floyd and a precandidate in Nicaragua’s upcoming Presidential election, George Henríquez.
The article makes three references to Floyd’s murder, obviously encouraging readers to assume Nicaraguan police mistreat Black Nicaraguans in the same way U.S. police mistreat Black Americans. The author mentions an incident in Nicaragua where police allegedly failed to save a man they’d been pursuing from drowning, and then says that case and George Floyd’s murder are “just two of the many cases in the United States and Nicaragua where Black people have been killed by the police.”
This attempt to shoehorn the Nicaraguan reality into a narrative that will be familiar to progressives in the U.S. is irresponsible at best – the militarized U.S. police with its systemic racism and the horrifyingly common murder of people of color is simply incomparable with the largely unarmed Nicaraguan police force that works under a community policing model. The two country’s police forces, in fact, are strikingly different: rather than enforcing order with fear and militarized weapons as U.S. police do, the Nicaraguan police force works with young people to promote a culture of peace which includes home visits to at-risk youth, community counseling sessions, organizing and running sports programs, teaching vocational classes, technical training, GED programs and even financing start-up businesses together with at risk youth.
So why is Vice World News going to such great lengths to paint George Henríquez as an “activist,” implying a Black Lives Matter movement parallel that simply doesn’t exist in the Nicaraguan context? Vice may be taking its cues from other media – this false equation between Nicaraguan police and U.S. police was posited at length after George Floyd’s murder in 2020 by Confidencial, a right wing Nicaraguan media outlet largely funded by USAID and the U.S. government’s National Endowment for Democracy. Confidencial and other U.S.-funded opposition media played an important role in the attempted “soft coup” in 2018, as did groups who had received training from USAID-funded organizations, such as the Institute dor Strategic Studies and Public Policy, IEEPP. Henríquez himself participated in an IEEPP public policy training in 2017. Once again this year at the anniversary of the attempted coup, a smattering of BLM slogans in Spanish with reference to Nicaragua were trotted out on Twitter and then repeated by CNN.
Although much effort has been put into pushing this false narrative, it hasn’t gained traction for one reason: it’s simply not true. Henríquez may currently be the only Black pre-candidate for the Nicaraguan Presidency (political parties have not yet declared their candidates and the election period does not officially begin until August), but he is far from being the only Back or Indigenous person in the political realm. The fact is that in Nicaragua, many senior government and political figures come from the Black and Indigenous communities, including Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United States. Even the very body that oversees the elections has historic diversity. On May 6, ten new magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Council were sworn in, 60% of whom are women. These magistrates include Lumberto Campbell who is from Bluefields and Afro-Caribbean; Devoney McDavis who is part of the Miskito Indigenous group,and is a specialist in defense of Indigenous people; Leonzo Knight from the Indigenous group Ulwa, who speaks six languages and is an educator and author; and Brenda Rocha, from the North Caribbean Autonomous Region, who lost an arm in a Contra attack in 1982 when she was 15.
Nicaragua suffered centuries of colonization and there is still racism in the country. One step toward dismantling racism, however, is to acknowledge it and attempt to change it. In addition to passing appropriate laws and creating inclusion policies, in recent years the Nicaraguan government has titled a full one-third of its territory to 300 Indigenous communities to be communally owned and managed. The largely Indigenous and Afro-Caribbean eastern coast of Nicaragua has historically been cut off from the more populous Western side of the country and has experienced higher levels of poverty. It is divided into two Autonomous Regions and the current government has singled out these Regions for investment in roads, hospitals and schools, vastly improving quality of life, access to markets and creating tourism opportunities for the Regions. When two back-to-back Category 4 hurricanes hit the North Caribbean Autonomous Region last November, the central government avoided loss of life by evacuating tens of thousands prior to the storm, working to restore basic services quickly, and is now engaged in rebuilding homes, schools and hospitals.
The Nicaraguan people overwhelmingly recognize these efforts: a recent M&R Consultores poll shows that 77% of the population believes the government is working for the good of the general population of Nicaragua and 76% consider the country has improved under the current government. This broad support may be why nine political parties, six political movements, and four social movements formed an alliance with the ruling party, the FSLN, to go into elections together – including two Miskito parties, the Indigenous Multiethnic Party and the Indigenous Movement of the Caribbean Coast.
Janowitz’s article, however, does not admit to this wide approval. From a multitude of reputable surveys on public opinion, he cherry-picked an obscure poll from nearly a year ago carried out by the Inter-American Dialogue, a conservative think-tank co-chaired by ultra-right-wing ex-President of Costa Rica Laura Chinchilla, which conveniently showed just 20% of the population supporting the current government. It appears that Vice World News, like other progressive US media, may have wittingly or unwittingly fallen into a trap of drawing false parallels which serve Nicaraguan opposition groups and the U.S. government in its overt attempts to undermine Nicaragua’s government. Hopefully in future Vice Media will pay more careful attention to the sources of its reports on Nicaragua.
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