Contrasting crackdowns: media coverage of 2021 elections in Ecuador and Nicaragua

By Joe Emersberger, Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA), Dec. 7, 2021

Both Ecuador and Nicaragua elected a president and national assembly this year.  Ecuador’s elections took place in February, with the second round of its presidential election in April. Nicaragua’s took place on November 7. Just by scanning headlines in Western media, as most readers do, it’s easy to tell which was a U.S. ally and which was an official enemy.

(By “enemy,” I mean a government that poses no threat to the U.S.,  but still gets hit with  crippling sanctions, or worse, that it endures as best it can.)

A search of the Nexis news database for the word “crackdown” in articles about Ecuador and Nicaragua in newspapers in the U.S.,  Canada, and the UK for a five-month period before the election in each country reveals a significant contrast between reporting on Nicaragua and Ecuador. In the case of Ecuador, not a single headline alleged any kind of  crackdown on opposition to the government. In the case of Nicaragua, 55 headlines alleged an unjustifiable crackdown. Some examples:

  • “Nicaragua’s Democracy Hangs by Thread as Crackdown Deepens” (New York Times6/6/21)
  • “Human Rights Groups Have Eyes on Growing Crackdown; UN, Other Organizations Fear Upcoming Elections Won’t Be Fair and Free” (Toronto Star, 6/27/21)
  • “Nicaragua Arrests Seventh Presidential Contender in November 7 vote” (Independent7/24/21)
  • “We Are in This Nightmare’: Nicaragua Continues Its Brazen Crackdown” (Guardian8/12/21)
  • “‘Everyone Is on the List’: Fear Grips Nicaragua as It Veers to Dictatorship” (New York Times9/5/21)
  • “Nicaraguan Business Leaders Arrested in Ortega’s Pre-Election Crackdown” (Guardian10/22/21)
  • “An Election in Nicaragua That Could Further Dim Democracy; Daniel Ortega Runs for His Fourth Consecutive Term as President of Nicaragua Virtually Uncontested, Having Imprisoned All His Political Rivals” (Christian Science Monitor11/4/21)

There was actually a crackdown in Nicaragua, but it was a defensible crackdown on persons receiving (and laundering) money from the U.S.,  a foreign power that has victimized Nicaragua for over a century. If one disregards that history, it’s easy, especially from afar, to take a libertarian position that the crackdown was unjustified. That was clearly the western media’s approach.

A U.S. crackdown since 1912

Remarkably, Daniel Ortega is the only president Nicaragua has had since 1912 who has not owed his position to murderous U.S. support. From 1912 until 1933, U.S. occupation troops ran the country directly, and structured the Nicaraguan military to ensure that brutal pro-US dictatorships (primarily of the Somoza family) would govern for decades afterwards.

Ortega first became president in 1979, after his Sandinista political movement overthrew the US-backed Somoza dictatorship in an armed revolution. Ortega was elected in 1984 (the first free and fair elections Nicaragua ever had–Extra!10-11/87), despite the country having to contend with US-backed terrorists known as the Contras, and with ruinous sanctions the U.S. imposed on the country throughout the 1980s (, 8/23/18).

By 1990, the Contra war had claimed 30,000 lives and, combined with U.S. sanctions, left the economy devastated. U.S. allies, backed by seditious media outlets in Nicaragua like La Prensa, secured Ortega’s defeat at the polls that year. The real winner was U.S. President George H.W. Bush. Allegations that Putin’s Russia influenced the 2016 election in the United States by hacking the DNC’s emails are a joke compared to what the U.S. undeniably achieved in 1990 in Nicaragua: The U.S. used terrorism and economic blackmail against an entire country to achieve an “electoral” victory in 1990.

In its coverage of the 2021 election, Reuters (11/5/21) referred to the 1990 triumph of U.S. aggression in Nicaragua by saying that Ortega’s “defeat left a deep mark on the leftist leader. Battling 16 years to regain the presidency, his opponents say he is now determined to retain power at any cost.” The article’s headline was “Ortega and Murillo, the Presidential Couple With an Iron Grip on Nicaragua.” (Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s spouse, is also his vice president.)

Ironically, the article actually mentioned some facts that expose the iron grip the U.S. has usually had on Nicaragua for over a century–referring to Somoza, for example, as “the last dictator of a US-backed family dynasty established in the 1930s.” But the article did not link that history to the grave threat the U.S. poses to Nicaragua today. That’s something it could easily have done by quoting independent critics of U.S. foreign policy who would have made that connection.


Ortega’s electoral record

Ortega regained the presidency in the 2006 elections, one of many left-leaning Latin American presidents (like Rafael Correa in Ecuador) who won elections in this century, after a disastrous neoliberal era under right-wing governments. By 2017, impressive economic gains by the Ortega  government made it the most popular in the Americas among 18 surveyed by Latinobarómetro, a Chile-based pollster funded by Western governments, including the US. The 67% approval rate for the Nicaraguan government in that poll was actually higher than the 47% of eligible voters who handed Ortega his 2016 re-election electoral victory (72% of the vote on a 66% turnout).

By December 2020, Latinobarómetro found Ortega’s government  enjoyed 42% approval (in a report that repeatedly called Nicaragua a “dictatorship”)–still above average in the region, despite the US-backed coup attempt in 2018, subsequent U.S. sanctions and threats, as well as the pandemic. That points to a substantial hardcore base of support for Ortega–and poll numbers (again, from a hostile pollster funded by hostile governments) that are not out of line with the 46% of the eligible vote Ortega won on November 7 (in an election with 65% turnout).  It’s worth stressing that Ortega is the historic leader of the movement that overthrew the Somoza family, a fact that by itself makes the existence of a hardcore Sandinista base easy to credit.

In mid-October, less than a month before the 2021 election, Nicaragua’s right-wing media hyped a poll by CID Gallup claiming that Ortega’s support had dropped to 19%, but the same poll suggested turnout in the election (in which there was allegedly no opposition) would be between 51% and 68%. It claimed 51% were very likely to vote and another 17% somewhat likely. In the wake of Ortega’s win, that contradictory finding in the CID Gallup poll (evidence that it was badly skewed in favor of anti-Sandinistas) was ignored to allege massive abstention of about 80%.

As usual, pollsters, independent election observers and independent journalists on the ground who refuted Western media claims about the election were simply ignored, in some cases suspended from social media, and in one instance subjected to vulgar abuse by a prominent U.S. pundit.


Coup attempt of 2018

In 2018, Ortega’s unpopular US-backed opponents clearly applied the lesson of 1990: Violence and sabotage backed by a superpower and its propagandists may eventually produce an “electoral” victory. Violent protests aimed at driving Ortega from office were launched in 2018 from mid-April until late July.

La Prensa–an anti-Sandinista paper that has been funded by the U.S. National Endowment for Democracy, which ex-Contra spokesperson Edgar Chammoro described as a CIA “propaganda asset” (Extra!10–11/87)–predictably supported the 2018 coup attempt, claiming in June of that year that 70% of Nicaragua’s roads were blocked by protesters. Imagine how violent and well-armed U.S. protesters would need to be to block a large majority of the country’s roads for months. In 2011, 700 Occupy Wall Street protesters were immediately arrested for blocking traffic on the Brooklyn Bridge for a few hours. In fact, careful assessments of the 2018 coup attempt in Nicaragua, that relied heavily on anti-Sandinista sources,  showed that the opposition was responsible for about as many deaths as the government and its supporters.

The coup attempt was defeated, but it gave the U.S. a “human rights” pretext to vilify and sanction Nicaragua’s government. Independent journalist John Perry, a Nicaraguan resident, recently noted in (11/3/21) that hundreds of people involved in the coup attempt actually benefited from an amnesty law passed in 2019. But Washington demands total impunity–no jail time and full political rights–for all the criminals it supports. Ben Norton explained the consequences of pressure the U.S.,  OAS and prominent human rights NGOs applied for the release of alleged poltical prisoners: “Droves of criminals with lengthy rap sheets have been freed, and one has already murdered a pregnant 22-year-old woman”.

In other cases, charges against Ortega’s opponents stemmed from  the “passage of a ‘foreign agents’ law designed to track foreign funding of organizations operating in the country,” as the Associated Press (9/2/21) put it. AP neglected to clarify that the law is aimed at disrupting the free flow of U.S. government funds to political groups that indisputably tried to overthrow Ortega in 2018 (COHA, 6/8/21). The wire service obscured these key facts by using vague language and by presenting facts as mere allegations made by Ortega, who “has claimed that organizations receiving funding from abroad were part of a broader conspiracy to remove him from office in 2018.”

Further highlighting that Ortega’s opponents and its U.S. sponsors feel entitled to overthrow the government, the “foreign agents” law indirectly led to charges against children of Violeta Chamorro, the ex-president who in 1990 scored an“electoral” victory over Ortega that was a product of US-backed terrorism.  The Chamorro Foundation received millions in USAID funding until it shut itself down in protest at the “foriegn agents” law. Ortega’s government then charged its director Cristiana María Chamorro Barríos with money laundering based on the allegation that she did not properly account for where all that money went.


No opposition in DC

On November 3, as Ortega and the Sandinistas were days away from an electoral victory, the U.S. House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to intensify sanctions on Nicaragua’s government. Reuters (11/3/21) reported that the “House of Representatives passed the bill 387–35 with strong bipartisan support, following a similar vote by the Senate this week.”  At the same time, U.S.-based social media corporations cracked down on pro-Sandinista accounts. In other words, U.S. state and private power united in attacking Nicaragua’s government while hypocritically alleging that Ortega had no real opposition.

Perry noted that among the participants on November 7 were “two opposition parties that formed governments between 1990 and 2007, and still have significant support.” But the larger point is that Ortega’s most dangerous opposition resides in Washington, and it has always tormented Nicaragua with complete impunity.

A popular government defending itself against a violent US-backed opposition was depicted by Western media as instigating an unprovoked crackdown on defenders of democracy–ignoring the US’s grim record of successfully crushing Nicaraguan democracy since 1912.


Betrayal in Ecuador

That’s not the treatment the media dished out to the former president of Ecuador, Lenin Moreno, during elections this year.

The crackdown in Ecuador that merited no accusatory headlines was driven by a stunning betrayal of Ecuadorian voters in 2017. That year, then-Vice President Lenín Moreno ran as a staunch loyalist to left wing incumbent President Rafael Correa, who held office from 2007 to 2017. But after defeating right-wing banker Guillermo Lasso at the polls, Moreno proceeded to implement Lasso’s political platform for the next four years.

Western media outlets were delighted with Moreno’s cynicism (FAIR.org2/4/18Counterpunch.org2/9/18). Voters were not so delighted, however, and by 2020 his approval rating fell to 9%, according to Latinobarómetro.

To pull off his betrayal of the political movement that got him elected, Moreno jailed, exiled and banned Correa loyalists from running in elections throughout his years in office (CounterPunch.org12/21/1810/15/1912/3/19FAIR.org2/16/21). Moreno’s pretext was that Correa (whom he had always praised extravagantly) was actually corrupt, and had left the country heavily indebted. The lie about Ecuador’s debt was especially easy to refute, but Western media happily spread it anyway ( 10/23/19).

Moreno’s harassment of WikiLeaks‘ Julian Assange (whom Correa had protected for years after he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy in London) also failed to damage Moreno’s credibility with Western media (FAIR.org11/3/18). Moreno eventually handed Assange over to UK police (FAIR.org4/12/19), thereby helping the U.S. crack down on press freedom around the world.


Banned for ‘psychic influence’

This year, Lasso ran against Andrés Arauz, a pragmatic leftist who tried to register Correa as his running mate. Lasso’s win in the fairly close runoff election owed an enormous debt to the persecution of Correa loyalists that Moreno had perpetrated for years (, 5/6/21).

Shortly before the election, Correa was banned from running for vice president, thanks to a farcical judgment (sped through judicial appeals in record time, despite the pandemic, to beat the electoral calendar) that found him guilty of “psychic influence” over officials who had taken bribes. Correa was therefore not just banned from running: He’d also be jailed if he returned to Ecuador.

Absurd rulings like this were possible because Moreno trampled all over judicial independence while in office. In 2018, a body that Moreno handpicked fired and appointed replacements to the Judicial Council and the entire Constitutional Court. (Counterpunch10/12/2018) The same handpicked body (the CPCCS-T in its Spanish acronym) also appointed a new attorney general and a new electoral council. [1]

Correa’s former vice president (Jorge Glas) has been jailed since 2017 on similarly trumped-up grounds.  Prominent Correa allies like Ricardo Patiño and Gabriela Rivadeneira remain in exile. Electoral authorities even banned the use of Correa’s image in campaign ads by his loyalists.

Several months before the election, a Moreno cabinet secretary openly bragged about the crackdown in a TV interview ( 2/16/21), saying that it was a “big risk being a Correaist candidate, because the justice system will have its eyes on those who have not yet fled or been convicted.”

A key to Moreno’s crackdown was that Ecuador’s state media and big private TV were united in vilifying Correa and his loyalists. Weeks before the runoff election in April, Moreno’s attorney general appeared before the media with her Colombian counterpart to bolster absurd accusations that Arauz had been funded by the Colombian rebel group ELN.  Ten days later, the U.S. State Department singled out Ecuador’s attorney general as one of its “anti corruption champions.” (Incidentally, Arauz has just come under investigation again in retaliation for explaining exactly how Pandora Papers revelations prove that Lasso’s entire 2021 campaign was illegal.)

As Moreno’s term ended, the New York Times (2/7/21) portrayed this cynical authoritarian as a “highly unpopular” but sincere reformer–a man who merely punished corruption, and who genuinely worried that “leaders with too tight a grip on power are unhealthy for democracies.”

Correa and his political movement had become dominant in Ecuador for a decade by winning elections and implementing successful policies that broke with neoliberalism.  A ten year break from neoliberalism was a threat to democracy that warranted a crackdown in the eyes of the New York Times, not over a century (and counting) of a lethal U.S. assault on Nicaragua’s sovereignty.

Concealing Western hypocrisy is essential to helping the world’s most powerful state behave like a global dictator, and Western media reliably provide that assistance.


Research assistance: Jasmine Watson


Posted Dec. 11, 2021