The US government has spent years cultivating a ring of right-wing media outlets in Nicaragua that played a central role in a violent 2018 coup attempt. This network is now being investigated by the Nicaraguan government on allegations of money laundering.
These publications are an integral part of a political opposition that Washington has carefully managed, trained, and funded with millions of dollars over the past decade. While relentlessly accusing Nicaragua’s leftist government of corruption, they have been suspiciously obscure with their own finances and record-keeping.
The institution at the heart of the US-backed influence network is called the Fundación Violeta Barrios de Chamorro para la Reconciliación y la Democracia, or Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation for Reconciliation and Democracy – often referred to simply as the Chamorro Foundation.
Run by one of the richest and most powerful family dynasties in Nicaragua, the Chamorro Foundation is perhaps the most important domestic organization in coordinating the political opposition to the Central American nation’s socialist-oriented Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).
The Chamorro Foundation is a central vehicle for Washington’s massive financial, technical, and logistical support to the Nicaraguan opposition, acting as what the CIA refers to as a “pass-through” – a third-party organization that serves as a seemingly independent channel for US government funding to foreign political groups and media outlets.
Since the Sandinistas came to power in 2007, the United States has funneled tens of millions of dollars to opposition groups in Nicaragua through its soft-power arm the US Agency for International Development (USAID), a CIA front that has long been used as “humanitarian” cover for operations to destabilize independent left-wing governments, especially in Latin America.
Internal reports from USAID show that the agency does much more than just fund anti-Sandinista political organizations, NGOs, and media outlets in Nicaragua; it births them, nurtures them, and trains them in every aspect of politicking, from electoral strategies and public relations to outreach and social media messaging, branding and marketing to organizing and building broad alliances, developing technology skills and navigating legal issues to managing finances and accounting.
This Grayzone investigation illustrates how USAID has helped to create Nicaragua’s anti-Sandinista opposition from the ground up. The right-wing political forces that comprise it are anything but organic; they are the product of an enormous campaign of foreign meddling by US government interference at every single level of Nicaraguan society.
The US astroturfing has been especially effective in forming Nicaragua’s anti-Sandinista media apparatus. Publicly available records show that USAID has spent at least $10 million specifically on opposition media outlets in Nicaragua since 2009. Of that money, USAID sent more than $7 million to the Chamorro Foundation from 2014 to 2021.
Given that much of the information that USAID discloses about its support for the political opposition and media outlets in Nicaragua is redacted, these figures are likely conservative estimates.
Western European governments have supplemented Washington’s efforts in cultivating the anti-Sandinista opposition, with a special emphasis on the press.
European Union member states have handed out millions to the Chamorro Foundation, using the influential opposition group to fund right-wing news outlets. In 2020 alone, the foundation received €831,527 (more than $1 million USD) from the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID), an arm of Madrid’s soft power that is modeled after USAID.
The Western funding has been bolstered with millions of dollars from Washington’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED) – another CIA front that exists to push regime change across the globe. Between 2016 and 2019, the NED provided at least $4.4 million to Nicaraguan opposition groups, including media organizations, according to public records – although this is likely an underestimate as well.
These are exorbitant sums of money in Central America, one of the poorest regions of the world, where the minimum wage amounts to around $200 per month. Such foreign funding is the main force keeping Nicaragua’s right-wing opposition afloat – especially given that polling show it has mere single-digit support among the general population.
Many of the media outlets bankrolled by USAID in these programs traffic in blatant fake news and extremist content, while inciting violence against the Nicaraguan government and supporters of the Sandinista Front.
The prominent tabloid opposition network 100% Noticias, for instance, which is funded by USAID through the Chamorro Foundation, regularly transmitted calls for Nicaraguans to overthrow their elected government during the violent 2018 coup attempt.
The director and founder of that US-funded station, Miguel Mora, stated in an interview with Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal that he wanted the US military to invade Nicaragua, violently remove the elected Sandinista Front party from power, and capture President Daniel Ortega. He cited Washington’s 1989 invasion of Panama as a model.
“What I see from the United States is it doing a Noriega-style operation, like in Panama,” Mora told Blumenthal in an interview in Managua, days after the putsch fizzled out in July 2018.
“They come, they grab the [Ortega-Murillo] family, they take them away, and the army is not involved. In two days, 24 hours, this is solved, if there were US intervention like that,” the US-funded 100% Noticias director said.
“So what I see, instead of the United States giving weapons, like what it did with the Contras, is that they come and do a Noriega-style operation,” Mora added.
While USAID bankrolled violent, far-right, coup-plotting elements like Mora, internal documents reviewed by The Grayzone show that it was simultaneously supporting liberal NGOs that exploited issues like LGBT equality, women’s empowerment, and Indigenous rights, to provide the rightist anti-Sandinista opposition with progressive cover.
The USAID-backed coordinator of many of these opposition groups, the Chamorro Foundation, was accused of fiscal improprieties this May, and the Nicaraguan government launched an official investigation on suspicion of money laundering, stating that it had found “serious financial inconsistencies in the reports presented to the government and the amounts received by the foundation.”
Serious questions about the Chamorro Foundation remain unanswered. This February, the organization announced that it had voluntarily suspended its operations in Nicaragua as a form of protest against a law passed in October 2020 by the nation’s democratically elected National Assembly that requires NGOs funded by foreign governments to register as foreign agents. (The legislation was harshly condemned by Washington, although it was modeled after an 83-year-old US law.)
However, while the foundation claimed to have legally shut down in Nicaragua, it still continued receiving large sums of money from foreign governments. In 2020, Washington gave the Chamorro Foundation at least $1.3 million, and as of this May, the US government sent the group at least $419,000 more for 2021.
Exactly where this money has gone is not clear, and what happened with the millions in its bank accounts when the foundation shut down is not known.
The Chamorro Foundation has denied the charges by pointing to a 2020 audit done by an accounting firm called Baker Tilly Nicaragua S.A. (a company that is closely linked to the country’s right-wing opposition). But the USAID inspector general’s office admitted in an internal memo that there was no external peer review of the audit, noting that it did not meet Washington’s own Generally Accepted Government Auditing Standards (GAGAS) requirements.
A high-profile elected member of the National Assembly from a left-wing party allied with the Sandinista Front, Wilfredo Navarro, accused the Chamorros of using a money-laundering ring to fund the 2018 coup attempt in Nicaragua.
“Between the Chamorro Foundation, the Grupo Cinco [another Western government-funded media organization run by the Chamorro family], and other NGOs, they laundered money and sent more than $30 million to pay the killers and torturers, the authors of the pain, destruction, and death in the failed 2018 coup,” Navarro alleged. “Neither justice in heaven or on Earth will forgive them. Their hands are full of blood.”
For its part, the Chamorro family has thus far stonewalled, refusing to publicly provide concrete answers to the lingering questions about its finances.
In a revealing response to the allegations of financial malpractice, the founder and director of the foundation, opposition politician Cristiana Chamorro – the elite daughter of the right-wing former president of Nicaragua after whom the foundation is named – rejected the investigation by immediately citing the authority of her patrons in the US government.
Cristiana Chamorro insisted in an official statement, “The US State Department rejected the charges of money laundering against the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation based on audits they conducted that did not find evidence of money laundering or diversion of funds.”
Managua’s Public Ministry replied by politely reminding Chamorro that Nicaragua is a sovereign country and the US government does not control its justice system. “The statement by the State Department is not relevant to the investigative process taking place in Nicaragua, which is being carried out according to the Constitution and laws of the Republic,” the ministry wrote.
Cristiana Chamorro appeared to have forgotten that she was a citizen of Nicaragua, not the United States. Her confusion was perhaps understandable, however, given that her foundation – and the Central American nation’s right-wing opposition as a whole – has been not only financially sustained by Washington, but created, cultivated, and propped up by the US government over the course of a decades-long foreign meddling operation.
The Chamorro family has long been one of Uncle Sam’s most reliable assets in the region. An oligarchic clan descended from Spanish colonialists, the Chamorro dynasty boasts seven former presidents of Nicaragua, tracing back to the very first head of state of the republic in the 1850s.
The modern history of the Chamorro family clearly reflects Washington’s role as the guiding force behind Nicaragua’s right-wing opposition.
Cristiana Chamorro’s mother, and the namesake of her foundation, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, was the first opposition president to come to power after the 1979 Sandinista Revolution that toppled Nicaragua’s decades-long US-backed military dictatorship.
In the 1980s, Washington poured millions of dollars into violent far-right death squads, known as the Contras (short for “counterrevolutionaries” in Spanish), which resorted to terrorist tactics in a failed bid to overthrow the socialist Sandinista government.
One of the most important leaders of the Contras was Edgar Chamorro – another member of the same oligarchic family. He later turned against the murderous paramilitary groups, and published a revealing letter-to-the-editor in the New York Times in 1986 titled, “Terror Is the Most Effective Weapon of Nicaragua’s ‘Contras’.”
“The ‘contras’ were, and are, a proxy army controlled by the U.S. Government,” Edgar Chamorro wrote. “If U.S. support were terminated, they would not only be incapable of conducting any military activities against the Sandinistas, but would also immediately begin to disintegrate. I resigned rather than continue as a Central Intelligence Agency puppet.”
Edgar Chamorro’s description of the anti-Sandinista opposition in Nicaragua as a proxy of the US government that would collapse were it not for Washington’s enormous economic, political, and logistical support remains true today.
Violeta Barrios de Chamorro only came to power in 1990 thanks to a presidential campaign that was directed and financed by the US government. Her victory reflected the exhaustion of a population sapped by a decade of Washington-sponsored terrorist war – compounded by an economic crisis created by an illegal US blockade of their country, as well as an implicit US threat to levy even more sanctions on the impoverished nation if Ortega won.
Violeta Chamorro’s presidential campaign was one of the first projects of the US government’s newly created National Endowment for Democracy (NED), a CIA front that still bankrolls the anti-Sandinista opposition today.
Her presidential tenure was an unmitigated disaster, and the horrors that working-class Nicaraguans suffered through during that period, which they now call the “neoliberal era,” are seared into their collective sociocultural memory. Despite massive economic assistance from the United States and debt forgiveness by its financial organs the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, Violeta’s Chicago Boy-style policies led to skyrocketing poverty and inequality, unleashing an epidemic of organized crime, drug-trafficking, and prostitution in Nicaragua, creating one of the highest murder rates in the world.
Violeta Chamorro’s departure in 1997 was followed by another decade of neoliberal rule that continued the trend of widespread poverty and inequality. To perpetuate her legacy, she founded the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation the year she left office.
When the leftist Sandinista Front won Nicaragua’s 2006 presidential election and returned to power a year later, the Chamorro Foundation became the central pass-through for US government funding to the opposition.
The foundation is run by Violeta’s daughter, Cristiana, who is the top opposition choice for Nicaragua’s November 2021 presidential election, and the preferred pick in Washington. Although she has no real political experience, Cristiana’s sponsors in Western governments and corporate media outlets frequently refer to her as an “opposition leader.”
Cristiana has been aggressively boosted by mainstream corporate media outlets, becoming a regular fixture on CNN en Español, which lavishes praise on her as the “woman who promises to save Nicaragua.”
The scion of a veritable aristocratic clan, Cristiana has marketed herself as the second-coming of her mother, making it clear that she hopes to inherit the presidency with her aristocratic last name – and a little help from her friends in the US government.
In addition to their enormous political and economic influence, the Chamorro dynasty has significant control over Nicaragua’s media. The country’s two largest newspapers, La Prensa and Confidencial, are run by Chamorros – and funded by the US government. And the Washington-backed Chamorro Foundation is used to sustain other right-wing outlets in the country.
Western governments and corporate media outlets often accuse the Sandinista government of opposing freedom of the press and freedom of speech, but the reality is that the majority of Nicaraguan media outlets are neoliberal and viciously anti-Sandinista.
The opposition’s media apparatus in Nicaragua consists of newspapers such as La Prensa and Confidencial; TV channels Canal 10, Canal 11, Canal 12, and Vos TV; the outlet Radio Corporación and radio show Café con Voz; as well as online outlets 100% Noticias, Artículo 66, Nicaragua Investiga, Nicaragua Actual, BacanalNica, and Despacho 505, to name just a few. This is further supplemented by dozens of right-wing social media influencers.
These domestic outlets receive heavy amplification from foreign-based corporate media networks, which broadcast nonstop anti-Sandinista propaganda – and quite a bit of fake news – day in and day out.
Sustaining most of the Nicaraguan opposition outlets is a steady flow of US government money through the Chamorro Foundation.
These media platforms played a key role in the violent coup attempt in Nicaragua in 2018. The Washington-funded outlets spread fake news, openly incited violence against Sandinistas, and even called on opposition supporters to attack the government and kill President Ortega.
As mentioned above, the founding director of the influential right-wing network 100% Noticias, Miguel Mora, called for the US military to invade his country and overthrow President Daniel Ortega in a “Noriega-style operation,” in his July 2018 interview with The Grayzone editor Max Blumenthal.
With the help of USAID funding through the Chamorro Foundation, 100% Noticias also sent its reporter Lucía Pineda Ubau to the violent barricades erected by armed coup-plotters, known as tranques, where she encouraged viewers to join them and take up arms against the elected government.
Another fanatical right-wing Nicaraguan media personality who advocated for the coup attempt in 2018, host Jaime Arellano of Radio Corporación, openly broadcasted his support for former US President Donald Trump.
Arellano, known as “El Pingüino,” posted a photo on Facebook in 2020 of himself wearing a Trump hat, accompanied by the text “Nicas for Trump.”
Arellano and 100% Noticias staff were among the media figures who were called in for questioning by the Nicaraguan justice system in May 2021 as part of its investigation into alleged money laundering.
Nicaragua’s top two newspapers, La Prensa and Confidencial, are slightly more measured in their messaging, but essentially espouse the same extremist viewpoints.
For her part, Cristiana Chamorro – who was educated in the United States and has never had a real job other than positions she inherited from her family – is not only director of the Chamorro Foundation; she is also vice president of La Prensa.
Both institutions are funded largely by Washington, which effectively makes Cristiana an unofficial employee of the US government.
La Prensa is directed by Jaime Chamorro Cardenal, Cristiana’s uncle. Following the 1979 Sandinista Revolution, the newspaper served as Washington’s key propaganda weapon. During the US terror war in the 1980s, the NED used La Prensa to spread pro-Contra disinformation.
The Chamorro family also ran the leading newspaper El Nuevo Diario, which closed down in 2019. Meanwhile, the other major Nicaraguan opposition news outlet, Confidencial, is run by Cristiana’s brother, Carlos Fernando.
Carlos Fernando Chamorro is essentially the Rupert Murdoch of Nicaragua. Thanks to the many millions of dollars he has received from Western governments over years, Carlos Fernando has built a veritable media empire.
The most important weapon in Carlos Fernando’s information warfare arsenal is Confidencial. He uses it to churn out non-stop propaganda against the government of President Daniel Ortega, while pushing an aggressively neoliberal editorial line that makes Fox News look like a bastion of journalistic rigor.
Confidencial refers to Nicaragua’s elected government as a “dictatorship” and “regime,” and often pushes dubious stories and disinformation with little basis in fact.
This May, for instance, Carlos Fernando’s publication sought to distract from the government’s investigation into his family’s alleged money laundering by running an absurd story that claimed an attempt by the Managua mayor’s office to collect unpaid back taxes owed by Nicaraguan corporations was part of an “extortion scheme.” Confidencial has also accused the mayor’s office of “fiscal terrorism” for forcing wealthy elites to pay taxes.
The institution that bankrolls this disinformation factory is the US government. Confidencial is funded by the NED, through the companies Invermedia and Promedia, which Carlos Fernando owns.
Confidencial is also financed by the Swiss government, an appropriate patron given that Carlos Fernando has employed a Swiss bank-style strategy to create a panoply of de facto shell companies to rake in foreign funding for anti-Sandinista media outlets.
The Grupo CINCO, like his sister Cristiana’s Chamorro Foundation, is funded by another EU member state, the Spanish Agency for International Development Cooperation (AECID).
Carlos Fernando Chamorro helps run Grupo CINCO with the prominent opposition activist Sofía Montenegro. They are allied with the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista, or Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), an ostensible social-democratic opposition party founded by upper-class NGO activists and academics who claimed momentary loyalty to the Sandinista movement in the 1980s, but broke with it when it lost power in the 1990s.
When the Sandinista Front returned to power in 2007, wealthy liberal intellectuals like Carlos Fernando Chamorro and Montenegro emerged as some of the government’s most vehement opponents. They allied with Washington, reaping substantial paychecks from the United States’ regime-change entities.
Nicaragua-based journalists Nora McCurdy and Stephen Sefton uncovered photos showing Montegro holding friendly meetings with the US embassy, alongside MRS leaders.
The MRS has never been able to earn more than 6% in a presidential election, but its petit-bourgeois members dominate Nicaragua’s NGO sector, media, and academia. The MRS was a significant player in the violent US-backed coup attempt in 2018, helping to organize and supply the various elements vying to topple the elected government.
In January 2021, MRS leadership shed any pretense of loyalty to Sandinismo and renamed their party the Unión Democrática Renovadora (Democratic Renovation Union), or UNAMOS.
The website NicaLeaks published a leaked internal USAID document revealing that Montenegro and the Grupo CINCO that she helps run with Carlos Fernando Chamorro are funded by the US government.
In 2016, USAID gave Montenegro a one-year grant of $80,000 to fund her anti-Sandinista media work.
Other shell organizations run by Carlos Fernando Charmorro include the little-known Fondo de Apoyo al Periodismo Investigativo, as well as the Costa Rica-based Asociación Productora de Periodismo Independiente. Then there is his radio station Onda Local, and his TV shows, “Esta Semana” and “Esta Noche.”
The closeness that Carlos Fernando and Cristiana Chamorro enjoy to the US government was reflected in the fact that they were both invited to sign an open letter in 2020 organized by the NED, which accused “authoritarian regimes” of exploiting the Covid-19 pandemic to “tighten their grip on power.” They were joined by a slew of powerful right-wing political leaders from across Latin America.
Among average working-class Nicaraguans, it is well-known that the Chamorro oligarchs control myriad shell companies, front groups, and political NGOs, and have many millions of dollars flowing into their multiple bank accounts from a variety of foreign sponsors. The family is notorious for its financial murkiness.
The government’s investigation into alleged money laundering by the Chamorro Foundation comes at a time when Nicaragua is trying to crack down on rampant tax evasion by local elites.
This May, Nicaragua’s National Assembly voted to strengthen the laws on money laundering, in order to better combat the crime, noting that new technologies like cryptocurrencies have made it easier for plutocrats to hide their wealth from taxation.
The increased enforcement of laws against money laundering and tax evasion is partly aimed at boosting Nicaragua’s tax base, which has been hard-hit by the 2018 coup attempt and the subsequent, aggressive US sanctions that effectively locked the country’s economy out of the Washington-controlled international financial system.
In February 2020, Nicaragua was placed on the “greylist” of the Financial Action Task Force, an instrument created by the G7 nations ostensibly to reduce money laundering, but which is, in fact, an economic arm of NATO designed to punish countries that refused to toe the neoliberal line demanded by Washington and Brussels.
That same year, the European Commission added Nicaragua to its short list of “high-risk third countries” – another economic attack on the Sandinista government disguised as a measure against money laundering.
While Western governments employ dubious accusations of money laundering to economically strangle Nicaragua, they continue funneling tens of millions of dollars to conservative Nicaraguan elites who are infamous for shady book-keeping.
The main financial sponsor of Nicaragua’s political opposition has been the US Agency for International Development (USAID). Most grassroots Sandinistas are familiar with USAID’s dark history in the country, and the organization’s name has become synonymous with meddling and destabilization.
During the 1980s, USAID helped the CIA run covert operations to arm and fund the far-right Contra death squads. Then-Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams admitted that the Reagan administration sent weapons to the Contras on so-called “humanitarian aid” flights.
Today, USAID plays a similar role in Washington’s attempts to topple the democratically elected leftist government not only
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