UK Guardian: a new propaganda nadir


On October 14th, the Guardian published a fine example of disingenuous slitheriness and downright mendacity with Rory Carroll’s disinformation gem in defence of fellow Guardian writer Gioconda Belli’s dissident Sandinista colleagues in Nicaragua. The Guardian report follows the formula pioneered in the last century by propaganda guru Edward Bernays. To understand the degree of disinformation involved in Carroll’s report requires a digression looking briefly at how foreign intervention in Latin America has coopted development cooperation via non-governmental organizations.

Bernays helped John Foster Dulles structure the 1954 coup against the reformist government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. A new ingredient in Bernays’ old recipe now for Dulles’ ideological grandchildren, like Condoleezza Rice, John Negroponte and their European counterparts, is the collaborative role played by some NGOs. Earlier this month the Nicaraguan government finally lost patience with non-profit NGOs who use donated income from overseas to fund vicious anti-government political activities and campaigns. It ordered an investigation into NGOs thought to be flouting the law.

In response to the government investigation, the small right-wing aligned Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (MRS) party has mobilized international liberal opinion via its influential media buddy-network. Their campaign fits well into the disinformation war waged incessantly by international corporate media to discredit and demonize the ALBA governments of Bolivia, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela. Like the governments of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala or Salvador Allende in Chile, the ALBA country governments are determined to break with traditional patterns of neo-colonial subjugation.

To do so they have combined into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas – ALBA. ALBA is a solidarity based trade and cooperation initiative currently helping almost every country in Central America and the Caribbean with vital energy and food security agreements. That is why the ALBA member country governments are constantly attacked in the corporate media of the Western Bloc imperialist powers.

The motifs exploited and distorted in these media disinformation bulletins are always the same : human rights and freedom of expression concerns, economic competence and stability, corruption, regional security issues, terror and narcotics. The NGO motif has come to prominence now because the United States government and allied governments are using NGOs for political ends as part of their low intensity war against the ALBA countries. It is impossible to understand the current controversy in Nicaragua without looking at the economic significance of non-profit NGOs there.

NGOs in the Nicaraguan economy

The Nicaraguan Central Bank reckons that international NGOs donated around US$267m to Nicaragua in 2007 with trend growth at about 12% a year. But that is a figure derived from the development cooperation office of the Foreign Ministry. It almost certainly underestimates the total cash and in-kind donations actually transferred from individuals and smaller foreign donors that are not fully reported. It also only includes registered non-profit non-governmental organizations that do in fact report fully to the Foreign Ministry. A small minority most likely do not at all. A conservative guess would put the foreign ministry’s underestimate at between 15% – 20%

So one can very probably take as a more realistic, but still quite conservative, current figure for the 4,200 non-profit NGOs registered with the government in Nicaragua an average of US$75,000 cash income per year each. This would add up to US$315m for the current year. That amount looks impressive at first glance, a significant sum for a developing country. Billions of dollars of aid have been paid into Central American economies over the last three decades. But they have done little to reduce poverty. Here’s why.

Even on conservative estimates taking that US$315m per annum figure for Nicaragua as a benchmark, the superficially impressive sum soon dissipates. Even at a modest average of US$40,000 per year per NGO in salaries, the total would add up to around US$168m for about 30,000 people. A similarly modest average of US$15,500 per year per NGO for operating costs, maintenance and vehicles adds up to a bit more than US$65m. That gives a total of about US$233m.

So of the original US$315m only about US$82m will remain for capital investment, non-productive project work (education, training, health care and social work) and productive projects in agriculture and small and medium sized businesses. Even if half that US$82m was made available for productive activity. It is almost insignificant in terms of overall national economic development. Just one major disaster – Hurricane Mitch in 1998 – cost Nicaragua over US$3bn.

The same applies to so much of the over-hyped development cooperation game. International development cooperation to developing countries is a fraction of those countries’ repayments of external debt and other outflows to rich country economies. Development cooperation just about helps them sustain their extremely vulnerable economies, wrecked by decades of unfair terms of trade, structural adjustment and foreign debt. Under the current “free market” system, countries in Central America are barely able to meet their peoples’ basic needs.

That is why ALBA is so important. It changes exponentially the possibilities of economic development for impoverished countries in Latin America. That is why Western Bloc elites and their local allies in Latin America detest the ALBA country leaders.

NGOs in Nicaraguan politics

But whereas non-profit NGOs contribute little beyond subsistence support to meet peoples’ basic needs, the story is very different from the perspective of a small but well-connected political party like Nicaragua’s MRS. The MRS has a little over 5% electoral support in Nicaragua. It’s popular base is insufficient to help it mobilize effectively. The MRS punches well above its weight in national politics because its leaders include the owners of national media and because the party is supported by local NGOs.

The 4200 non-profit NGOs registered in Nicaragua with the Ministry of Governance represent about one NGO for every 1300 people in the country. Sympathetic NGOs are able to assist the MRS party with use of office facilities, providing MRS activists with a salary, helping with stationery and printing costs and with transport. Using that US$315m benchmark figure, if just 0.5% of non-profit NGO resources were used to help the MRS, that would still add up to over US$1.5m.

That is a significant sum of money for political purposes anywhere in the world. It is a relatively huge sum in an impoverished country like Nicaragua. There, as elsewhere in Latin America, the US government and its allies are using NGOs to undermine governments in Latin American in countries where local US allies in the political parties have failed.

The Guardian report

That is why the Nicaraguan government is investigating non-profit NGOs. It is also why the Guardian completely excludes such vital context from its spurious coverage of the issue. The Guardian report starts

"Oxfam targeted as Nicaragua attacks ‘trojan horse’ NGOs.

• Sandinista crackdown to ‘clean up’ political funding
• Fears grow for freedom of speech and European aid."

The headline hints at the underlying issue of non-profits getting involved in politics and immediately sends it to oblivion with scare quotes. The headline and its accompanying bullet points touch on the traditional propaganda components. Freedom of expression is there and the economic stability motif is also exploited by suggesting a threat to "aid". Note the emotive use of "targeted" and "crackdown" and more scare quotes around another of the government’s reasons for the investigation.

The first sentence in the body of the article sets the tone with dishonest hyperbolic assertion, "The Sandinista government has launched a sweeping crackdown on non-governmental organizations". A recent review found that 700 of Nicaragua‘s 4,200 non-profit organizations were not in full compliance with the relevant law. Of those organizations only around a dozen have been requested to clarify their conduct and status. For the Guardian, that constitutes a "sweeping crackdown".

The "sweeping crackdown" against this tiny number of organizations is supposed to prompt "concerns about freedom of speech and democratic rights". But those concerns spring most obviously from the MRS political party whose base lies precisely in the NGO movement. The NGO sector in Nicaragua depends overwhelmingly on foreign funding. No country in the world permits non-profits to support political parties with foreign donations.

OXFAM UK

Carroll strikes a note of implied incredulity by saying that this "sweeping crackdown" is on NGOs "including OXFAM". The implied question is "who in their right minds would target dear old harmless granma OXFAM ?" Anyone familiar with the development game as played by the major Western Bloc development NGOs knows very well they all, both at home and abroad, tread a questionable line in their "advocacy" between education and information work and active intervention.

One can very plausibly argue that these wealthy Western Bloc NGOs constitute the soft, extra-mural arm of NATO country foreign policy. The term NGO is in fact largely a misnomer. They receive much, if not most, of their funding either from government development cooperation departments or from the development cooperation budget lines of the European Commission.

The one solid attributable quote from a participant in the Nicaraguan controversy in Carroll’s whole report is from Oxfam’s chief executive. She is reported as saying that OXFAM works in a "transparent, accountable and non-partisan way." Her glib, unconvincing assertion bears little reality to the practice of any of the main Western Bloc NGOs working in Latin America.

OXFAM is not accountable to people at grass roots in any meaningful way. It is only notionally accountable to its donor base in the UK. Its bureaucrats cut deals behind closed doors around the world, particularly in Brussels with the European Commission. The same is true of the rest of the somewhat incestuous Western European development agency mafia.

In Nicaragua, almost all the main foreign NGO representatives clearly favour the social democrat New Labour-wannabes in the MRS over NGOs sympathetic to the governing Sandinista FSLN party. For example, the pro-FSLN AMNLAE national women’s organization has always been marginalized by foreign NGOs. So it is hardly surprising when Carroll notes, "Privately, officials from several other aid agencies questioned whether they could work in the western hemisphere’s second-poorest country after Haiti.”

Inconvenient detail

Carroll’s short article is dense with falsehoods, distortion and innuendo. The second sentence runs "Police raided the offices of two pressure groups…" What Carroll does not report is that the police searches, far from being unexpected "raids", were follow up measures resulting from a refusal of the organizations concerned to cooperate with an official investigation.

The investigation resulted from a request by the Ministry of Governance asking the Public Prosecutor’s office to investigate apparent non-compliance by those organizations. Both the organizations concerned, the Centro de Investigaciones para Comunicación (CINCO) and the Movimiento Autonomo de Mujeres (MAM), were twice requested to visit the public prosecutor’s offices to assist the authorities with their enquiries. They refused to do so.

CINCO is a non-profit registered with the Ministry of Governance. It is not supposed to be a political "pressure group". The director of CINCO is the widely respected but controversial journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who is a high profile supporter of the MRS. MAM, part of the opposition MRS political alliance, is a recognized pressure group focusing on women’s rights. 

The director of MAM is Sofia Montenegro a pugnacious, uncompromising activist, who is also on the board of CINCO. Most of this essential information is missing from the Guardian report. The MRS opposition alliance is not even mentioned, let alone its connections with MAM and CINCO.

This is the context in which other organizations involved in the investigation, like OXFAM, are being asked to assist the authorities in clarifying whether or not non-profits have been funding the opposition MRS campaign. Part of that campaign involves propaganda suggesting that Daniel Ortega should be assassinated. That propaganda has been condemned by non-partisan solidarity organizations, including the umbrella US solidarity group, Nicanet. So the matter is far from trivial.

Unsourced falsehood

The Guardian also reports the extraordinary falsehood that "Several European governments are preparing to axe tens of millions of dollars in aid in protest, a sign of how much international support Ortega has lost since his return to power last year." No foreign government has made any such announcement. Although it is common knowledge that throughout Latin America, European governments are reviewing their aid programmes because their countries’ "aid" lobbies tend to believe their countries’ focus should be in Africa.

Sweden has already ended its development cooperation programme with Nicaragua because it has changed its policy focus to Africa. On the other hand, Germany recently confirmed its continuing programme in Nicaragua following sensationalist anti-Sandinista reports in the right wing German press. The IMF recently met Nicaraguan government officials in Washington to agree continuing cooperation. Where could Carroll’s mendacious innuendo have originated?

The only support Carroll offers for his baseless assertion is an anonymous quote from "one diplomat in Managua". Here Carroll borrows from fellow anti-ALBA ideologue John Carlin, who has used anonymous "high-level security, intelligence and diplomatic sources" to smear the Venezuelan government. Now Carroll wheels out this decrepit, hydra-headed, Cold War-era veteran, unable to walk on its own, reeking dreadfully of MI6 and CIA leaks, to try and smear Nicaragua‘s Sandinista government. It is certainly possible that some foreign governments may time an announcement cutting aid in an effort to influence voting against the governing FSLN party in the forthcoming municipal elections. So far, though, no foreign government representative has said anything publicly in Nicaragua.

Serving MRS electoral propaganda

But Carroll’s report still does not explain that CINCO seems to have received money from foreign donors via OXFAM and other organizations, that it then passed on to MAM, a member of Nicaragua’s political opposition. Carroll falsely misrepresents the official investigation, suggesting that OXFAM had to "pre-empt" a "raid". The normal procedure in such investigations is to request the party concerned to go for an interview to the public investigator’s office, which is what OXFAM did.

Carroll’s report in the Guardian completely misses the fundamental issues involved in the official investigation into non-profit NGOs. He seems not to be aware of or to understand the relevant Nicaraguan legislation or the way NGOs are supposed to manage their accounts or the difference between a non-profit in Nicaragua and what he calls "pressure groups". Perhaps the most glaring omission is any mention of the opposition MRS party and MAM’s relation to it – something without which the affair becomes completely unfathomable and much easier to manipulate dishonestly as a clear cut, freedom of expression issue.

Current opinion polls suggest the FSLN government in Nicaragua is likely to increase its support at municipal level in local government elections, to be held on November 9th this year. The political opposition are scraping the very bottom of their dirty tricks barrel to try and mitigate the looming electoral defeat. In that context, the Guardian’s report fits neatly into the MRS propaganda tool kit. A debt of thanks is owed to Rory Carroll for making so very explicit the Guardian’s deceitful propaganda agenda. A tin Foggy Bottom Cuckoo will be left to rust in his honour, in appropriate obscurity, somewhere in Nicaragua.

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