On September 10th last year, my friend Amaya was kidnapped from her safehouse by the paramilitary police in Leon, Nicaragua. She was taken to El Chipotle prison, notorious for human rights abuses, and transferred shortly afterwards to La Esperanza women’s prison, where she remains. A student leader in the anti-Ortega movement, she was charged with terrorism. Her trial has been delayed several times, and is now set for April 1st. A political prisoner with a not dissimilar list of alleged crimes was recently sentenced to 216 years in prison.
I have learned a lot since September 10th. I have learned that the Nicaraguan embassy is above a bridal wear shop in Notting Hill Gate, and that I lack the charisma required to adeptly wield a megaphone. I have learned about Daniel Ortega’s shoot to kill policy, about how the socialist vision of the Sandinistas turned sour, and about Amaya’s role in the protests, calling a general strike in Leon with feminist and trade union groups. Not only have I learned who Max Blumenthal is (he’s Sidney Blumenthal’s son), I have been mocked by him on the internet.
I have also learned a lot about the Labour Party. Unfortunately, little of it good.
I am a card-carrying, door-knocking, branch-meeting-attending, obscure-internal-election-voting, correx-in-window-displaying Labour member, and have been for as long as I’ve lived in the UK. I believe in the Labour Party: I believe that it represents the best vehicle to implement positive social change and that it is, among other things, the party of human rights, a party composed of people with consciences. As such, I believed that my party would be somewhere where the cause newly close to my heart, that of Amaya and the political prisoners in Nicaragua, could find support and be amplified. This was, I now realise, very naïve of me.
Some background, for the as-I-was-then uninitiated. Daniel Ortega first came to power in Nicaragua as leader of the Sandinistas, genuine socialist revolutionaries, in 1979. He lost power in 1990, but returned to the presidency in 2007, before progressively losing legitimacy and sliding into dictatorship. It is not hard, you might think, to condemn a man who locks up protestors (and has been credibly accused of sexual assault by his own stepdaughter). However, it would seem that swathes of the British left have not updated their position on Nicaragua since approximately 1983, and still view Ortega as a socialist and anti-imperialist.
We might begin with the cranks. Chris Williamson, the suspended Labour MP for Derby North, and a leading light of Labour Friends of a Progressive Latin America was pictured happily posing with the Nicaraguan ambassador in June 2018, several months into a government crackdown which killed 300 and injured many more. Left-wing website The Canary has a particularly fine line in pro-Ortega content: so fine, in fact, that it has taken to slamming Amnesty International, whose reports about human rights abuses perpetrated by the Ortega regime it derides as biased (am I out of touch? No- it’s the human rights organisations that are wrong). The Morning Star has supplemented the attacks on Amnesty by labelling all anti-Ortega protestors “right wing hordes”.
Moving away from the cranks and into more mainstream territory, we also saw Dan Carden MP, the Shadow Secretary for International Development, appearing at the 2018 Latin America Conference alongside Nicaraguan MPs as they dished out pro-regime propaganda. He’s right in saying that the US has an awful history of intervention in Latin America and that the Trump administration can never be trusted; he’s wrong in saying it at an event which happily celebrates a “progressive Nicaragua”, where the consensus was that those protesting the Ortega regime are part of a CIA-backed coup attempt, and where Nicaraguan feminist activists were immediately removed after unfurling a banner asserting that the Sandinistas were no longer socialist.
Jeremy Corbyn has raised the subject of Nicaragua in the House of Commons no less than 210 times in his parliamentary career, and has tabled motions in support of the Sandinistas. He has a long-standing and well evidenced interest in both Latin American politics generally, and in Nicaragua specifically.
It is close to inconceivable that Corbyn does not have an opinion on recent events in the country. Whatever it is, however, he’s keeping it to himself. His office has been notably silent on the situation which has been unfolding in Nicaragua since April. An open letter (which I co-authored) signed last November by Labour activists and academics asking Corbyn to condemn the regime’s human rights abuses has received no response of any kind from the leader.
For those of us paying attention, it feels a little like the Labour leadership is operating with something of the ambiguity that we associate with its Brexit position. From Corbyn’s video message of support to the Latin America Conference, to his former role as Morning Star columnist, to the impressive array of Corbyn merchandise available on the pro-regime Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign’s website, there is ample evidence to suggest that the leader’s line on Ortega is at the very least in need of clarification. To paraphrase Andrew Gillum: I’m not saying he is an apologist for dictators – but the apologists for dictators think he is.
Politically, I am something of a melt. I don’t rage much, happily ensconced as I am on the soft left. With the exception of Chris Williamson, I can’t say I have ever felt real malice towards any Labour (or ex-Labour) MPs. However, having spent months trying to get a response out of Corbyn, Labour Friends of a Progressive Latin America, and various MPs, I have started to feel real animosity towards the leader of my party. The idea that he is engaging in ambiguity or equivocation over, let alone covert support for, the regime which has imprisoned my friend for 6 months, makes me strangely, seethingly angry. Is this how Richard Angell feels, like, all the time?
Maybe I just need someone to be angry at and have picked Jeremy Corbyn.
Then again, maybe it isn’t unreasonable to expect a little more moral leadership from the leader of my party.
In the time between the writing and publication of this article , Ortega has announced his intention to release the political prisoners within 90 days, as part of opposition talks. Given the continued oppression of political opponents and suppression of the press, hopes of release are tempered with scepticism.