The PBS story about “conflict beef” in Nicaragua reveals how billionaire-backed foundations defame and punish those who are too independent.
MISKITO COAST, NICARAGUA — There is much truth in the old saying, “He who pays the piper, calls the tune,” and the neoliberal era has spawned individuals with incredible wealth who, through “philanthropy,” can feel good and flex their influence at the same time. While these philanthropists can be liberal on some issues, they almost universally support U.S. foreign policy and the “free market;” and, because many of these super-rich individuals made their wealth through investments and speculation, most do not like a planned economy, socialized services beyond the private sector, or greater government control.
These mega-wealthy individuals and the people who run their foundations are often intricately connected to the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Grants are given to projects, campaigns, and organizations that align with their long-term goals. In this direct way, supposedly independent think tanks and NGOs are influenced, if outright not controlled.
Nicaragua is a good example. For historical and contemporary reasons, Washington is hostile to the Nicaraguan government. The Sandinista Front ousted the country’s U.S.-backed dictator in 1979 and governed until 1990. Then, following a decade of U.S.-sponsored “Contra” war and economic sanctions, the Sandinistas were voted out of office. After 16 years of neoliberal governments, the Nicaraguan people voted to return the Sandinistas to power in 2006. In 2011, the Sandinista Front (FSLN) won the election again and in 2016 secured a staggering 73% of the vote.
Nicaragua has a capitalist economy, but the government provides many social services, including health care and education, along with community-based policing and an impressive 90% food self-sufficiency. Nicaragua maintains an independent foreign policy that sometimes aligns with Cuba, Venezuela, and other independent movements in Latin America. The country has also made plans for a trans-oceanic canal. Washington disapproves because this would compete with the Panama Canal and be independent of heavy U.S. influence. With the financial collapse of the canal’s Chinese investor, the plans have been suspended if not canceled. Regardless of whether the plan is implemented, the U.S. foreign policy establishment and associated media have been hostile to the Nicaraguan government for daring to even conceive of the project.
U.S. Targets Nicaragua
U.S. meddling in Nicaragua is thinly veiled behind the U.S.-funded “civil society,” a “new generation of democratic leaders,” and an “ecosystem of independent media.” In September 2016, a high USAID official told the House Foreign Affairs Committee that 2,200 Nicaraguan youth had received leadership training. The U.S. governmental hypocrisy has been quite astounding. Imagine if Nicaragua, or Russia, or any other country for that matter, trained thousands of U.S. activists to “promote democracy” in the United States!
In December 2018, the U.S. ratified the “Nicaragua Human Rights and Anticorruption Act,” which imposes sanctions and commits the U.S. to prevent Nicaragua from receiving a loan, financial or technical assistance from U.S.-dominated financial institutions.
In August 2020, details emerged of a new USAID “task order” called Responsive Assistance in Nicaragua (RAIN). The document “outlines plans for a U.S. regime-change scheme against Nicaragua’s elected leftist government.” In short, Washington is not just hostile but actively trying to undermine, destabilize and replace the Sandinista administration.
The Establishment, Nicaragua, and Elliott Abrams
A key institution of the U.S. foreign policy establishment is the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Its role and importance are analyzed in the book “Wall Street’s Think Tank.” CFR reports and publications, including Foreign Affairs magazine, which together gives a good picture of America’s key foreign policy priorities and debates, consistently reflect open hostility to the Nicaraguan government.
One important example is an article by Elliott Abrams. Abrams has been a major foreign policy official for four decades. He was once convicted of lying to Congress yet is a Senior Fellow at the CFR. In September 2015, he wrote an article published at CFR titled “The Sandinistas Attack the Miskito Indians – Again.” He ends the piece with an appeal to environmental and human-rights groups:
The open question is whether anyone – groups defending the environment, or defending Indian rights or human rights more generally, or fighting against Sandinista repression – will help them [the Miskito].
Seemingly in response to Abrams’ suggestion, several major foundations have financed reporting on Nicaragua, emphasizing conflict and tensions in the indigenous Miskito zone. In March 2017, a Guardian article funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation lamented, “Lush Heartlands of Nicaragua’s Miskito people spark deadly land disputes.” In the fall of 2018, the Oakland Institute received a grant of $237,294 for the “Land Dispute Project – Nicaragua” from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation. This year, Oakland Institute published “Nicaragua’s Failed Revolution.” The report’s subtitle is “The Indigenous Struggle for Saneamiento,” with “Sacramento” being the final step in regaining indigenous rights.
The funding for these reports came from foundations where key players are interconnected with the foreign policy establishment. For example, Howard W. Buffett, the former executive director at the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, is a member of CFR; Melinda Gates, the co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), is a writer for CFR publications and speaker at CFR events.
We do not know whether they were influenced specifically by Elliott Abrams’ appeal, but the anti-Sandinista message was likely heard one way or another. Land disputes involving indigenous groups are widespread in the Americas, including North America. Research and reports could be done regarding almost every country. But instead of researching and reporting on indigenous land conflict in Colombia, Honduras, British Columbia, or any other states backed by the United States government, the billionaire foundations funded reports on Nicaragua.
The Miskito indigenous in Nicaragua are not new to conflict. In the 1980s, the CIA used them to advance their proxy Contra army, and many Nicaraguans died as a result. Now, 35 years later, people such as Elliott Abrams are trying to use the Miskito all over again. The Miskito may have valid issues and complaints. But are the advocates seeking a solution, or are they seeking to exacerbate the conflict? There is a big difference.
Economic warfare and “Conflict Beef”
The United States is increasingly using sanctions and economic warfare to hurt governments deemed to be adversaries. Some right-wing foreign policy advisors would like to amplify the economic damage to Nicaragua. Among them are some who would like to prevent the U.S. from importing beef from Nicaragua.
Cattle ranching is a major part of the economy in Nicaragua. Nicaragua once boasted large exports of beef to Venezuela, but with the extreme economic hardship in that country (attributable largely to U.S. sanctions), exports have declined, and Nicaragua has helped fill the gap by exporting larger quantities of high-quality beef to the United States.
Last October, PBS Newshour aired a nine-minute video about “Conflict Beef.” The documentary claimed that the increase in Nicaraguan beef exports is “coming at a high cost for indigenous communities that are being run off their land to make way for cattle ranches.” The accusation, and the suggestion that perhaps Nicaraguan beef should not be imported, was the video’s core message.
Subsequent research, including interviews with indigenous leaders from the area, has revealed that the PBS Newshour report was fundamentally inaccurate. Journalist John Perry, based in Nicaragua, gives details in his article “Progressive Media Promoted a False Story of Conflict Beef from Nicaragua,” published by Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting. Some of the reported violence was exaggerated, and some entirely fabricated. The claims of “genocide,” it turns out, are not credible.
The exaggerated and false accusations in the PBS report were based on four sources. Lottie Cunningham is an indigenous attorney who heads up the Center for Justice and Human Rights on the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua (CEJUDHCAN). Her organization is a USAID recipient, and she is close to the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua. The United Nations Human Rights Commission has issued press releases based solely on her accusations. Judging by the “Conflict Beef” report, her accusations are sometimes exaggerated and sometimes untrue.
Another source for this report was Anuradha Mittal of the Oakland Institute, which received a grant of nearly a quarter of a million dollars for its research on Nicaraguan “land conflict.” Much of the information came from the Oakland Institute report and the claims of Cunningham, a USAID grant recipient, as noted, and recipient of the Lush Spring Prize sponsored by Lush Cosmetics.
The chart below portrays these and other ideological and financial connections implicated in the generation of the PBS Newshour report.
Recently published interviews with numerous elected indigenous leaders from Nicaragua’s autonomous zones indicate that Cunningham is viewed with skepticism if not outright hostility. Local leaders believe that her organization, CEJUDHCAN, does not represent the interests of indigenous communities and is actually promoting violence and publicity for personal gain.
The lead journalist for the PBS report was Nate Halverson of REVEAL at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR). CIR is well funded, with a budget of around $10 million and large grants from dozens of individual foundations: Hearst ($625K), Soros ($325K), Gates ($247K), Ford ($250K), Pierre Omidyar ($900K), etc.
Camilo de Castro Belli, another journalist in the video, is the son of author and Sandinista critic Giaconda Belli and a “Central America Fellow” at the neoliberal Aspen Institute, funded by grants from the Rockefeller, Ford, Gates, and other U.S. philanthropic foundations.
Trial by media
The key allegations in the “Conflict Beef” story are untrue. The beef for export comes from cattle that are not from the indigenous zones. The cattle are individually tagged and regulated by the national IPSA (Institute for Agricultural Protection and Health), which the U.S. Dept of Agriculture, in turn, audits. Nicaraguans are currently in discussion with European regulators in preparation for export there. A recent video from one of the Nicaraguan beef producers gives a sense of their professionalism.
Even the introduction of the PBS video rings with falsehood. It sensationally claims that a young Miskito girl was shot in the face by someone “sending a message” to the community. The girl was accidentally shot while playing with another youth who had his father’s gun. This was confirmed by the president of the local indigenous community, who knows the girl’s family. The girl survived the incident, and the family allegedly accepted a bribe to fabricate the story.
The report also claimed that “dozens of armed men attacked another Indigenous village in northeast Nicaragua, killing four people in the Mayangna community.” A version of this same story was repeated twice in the Oakland Institute report and sent by Cunningham (via CEJUDHCAN) to the United Nations Human Rights Council, which dutifully issued a press release. This despite the fact the claims were quickly exposed as false by the president of the Mayangna indigenous community. Yet, the media quickly jumped on the story, reportedly after two phone calls from individuals and with no verification.
The PBS story about “conflict beef” reveals how big foundations influence reports that promote the U.S. foreign policy goals for Nicaragua: to defame and economically punish those who are too independent. When a government is targeted by Washington, as the Sandinista government clearly is, the media attitude seems to be “guilty until proven innocent.”
Feature photo | A man sells cuts off beef and other meat at a public market in Cenral America. Arnulfo Franco | AP
Rick Sterling is a journalist based in the SF Bay Area. He can be reached at [email protected]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect MintPress News editorial policy.