The story of how Nicaragua’s former guerrilla Dora María Téllez and her anti-Sandinista MRS party allied with the right wing and became coup-supporting informants for the US embassy.
By Ben Norton
Published on the Grayzone, Nov 5, 2021
One of the most high-profile opponents of Nicaragua’s Sandinista government points to her revolutionary youth to justify her position. And while the international media constantly sings her praise, what it does not mention is that she abandoned revolutionary politics long ago, and has become a key asset in the US government’s campaign of unconventional warfare against Nicaragua.
When she was just 22-years-old, Dora María Téllez fought as a guerrilla in Nicaragua’s Sandinista Revolution, alongside current President Daniel Ortega. But she broke with Sandinismo over two decades ago, and has steadily drifted toward the US-backed right wing.
Téllez is a key figure in a group of former revolutionaries, many from elite, upper-class backgrounds, who cohered as a right-wing split out of the socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) in the 1990s. Together, they formed a centrist political party called the Sandinista Renovation Movement (Movimiento Renovador Sandinista, or MRS), trading on their revolutionary histories to advance a neoliberal counter-revolution.
Under the leadership of Téllez and her colleagues, the MRS developed a close relationship with Nicaragua’s rightist oligarchy. It also collaborated extensively with the United States government, working with neoconservative members of Congress and Miami’s regime-change lobby, all while raking in funding from US interventionist organizations.
Classified State Department cables published by WikiLeaks and analyzed by The Grayzone show that Téllez and fellow leaders of her MRS party have frequently met with the US embassy and served as informants for years.
In regular meetings with US officials, Téllez, Sergio Ramírez, Hugo Torres Jiménez, Victor Hugo Tinoco, and other top MRS figures provided the United States with intelligence about the FSLN and internal Nicaraguan politics, in an attempt to prevent the Sandinistas from returning to power. They then helped Washington try to destabilize the government of President Daniel Ortega after he won the 2006 election.
The embassy clearly stated that “the USG [US government] position [is] that the MRS is a viable and constructive option, with whom the United States would maintain good relations.”
The embassy added approvingly, “if the MRS can shift votes from the FSLN and garner some of the undecided vote, it is still a viable option — and could be the key to preventing an Ortega win.”
Today, Téllez and her MRS are openly allied with the right wing – even as she and her followers cynically exploit her former revolutionary bona fides to divide left-wing support for the Sandinistas and confuse progressive observers outside of the country.
The MRS played a key role in a violent coup attempt in Nicaragua in 2018, in which extremist forces backed by the United States paralyzed the nation by erecting barricades, called tranques, while they hunted down, tortured, and murdered Sandinista activists.
With substantial funding from CIA cutouts dedicated to promoting regime change, MRS leaders helped organize and lead the failed putsch. And they used their influential positions in the media, NGO sector, and academia to craft how the violent operation was marketed to the rest of the world.
In terms of pan-Latin American politics, Dora María Téllez and the MRS likewise became a reliable ally of the region’s right wing.
When Washington and Christian fundamentalist oligarchs sponsored a far-right military coup in Bolivia in 2019, Ortega’s Sandinista government staunchly opposed and condemned the plot, standing firmly with elected Bolivian President Evo Morales. Téllez, on the other hand, cheered on the putsch, smearing Morales as a wannabe dictator and claiming Bolivia was “better” with him overthrown.
Téllez declared with glee that the coup in Bolivia had “terrified” the Sandinista government, and expressed hope that Nicaraguan military officers would be inspired to launch a putsch of their own. The MRS leader praised the US-dominated Organization of American States (OAS) and its hyper-interventionist leader Luis Almagro, calling on him to expel Nicaragua.
Téllez told AFP that the Bolivia coup set a positive example that could scare the Sandinista government. She then conducted an interview with US government-funded opposition outlet Confidencial titled, “Dora María Téllez: ‘The Ortega-Murillo [family] are demoralized by the exit of Evo Morales’.”
“After Evo’s renunciation there is enormous desperation” in Nicaragua, she gloated. “They are in a very important situation of nervousness and desperation.”
Téllez expressed hope that the coup in Bolivia would send a message to the leaders of the Nicaraguan military to launch a putsch of their own, claiming “there is a very important part of the officer corps that” is not as loyal to Sandinismo.
Téllez and her MRS have taken an even more hardline position toward Venezuela. While the administration of President Ortega has steadfastly supported Venezuela’s leftist Chavista government against numerous US coup attempts, Téllez has relentlessly demonized the elected government of President Nicolás Maduro as a “dictatorship,” calling for it to be toppled too.
Pendientes y solidarios con el pueblo venezolano que avanza a la libertad. Caminamos juntos. https://t.co/HeqLvDLIfI
— Dora María Téllez (@DoraMTellez) April 30, 2019
By 2020, Téllez and her MRS party had moved so far to the right that they decided to drop any pretense of fidelity to Sandinismo, removing all references to the Sandinista movement from their platform and changing the name of the Sandinista Renovation Movement to the Unión Democrática Renovadora (Democratic Renovation Union), or UNAMOS.
All the while, Téllez and her UNAMOS colleagues have publicly lobbied the US government and European Union for more aggressive sanctions on their own country, which have already damaged the nation’s economy.
In 2021, the Nicaraguan government arrested a series of MRS leaders, including Téllez, Hugo Torres Jiménez, and Victor Hugo Tinoco. An investigation by The Grayzone shows that each of these figures has been a US embassy informant for at least 15 years, according to State Department cables.
Nicaragua also ordered the arrest of founding MRS president Sergio Ramírez, who has for decades served as a US government informant, a fact confirmed by the classified documents. (Ramírez lives in Costa Rica, so he was not apprehended.)
The detainees were charged with “inciting foreign interference in internal affairs, requesting military interventions, plotting with the funding of foreign powers to carry out acts of terrorism and destabilization,” and “demanding, praising, and applauding the imposition of sanctions on the State of Nicaragua and its citizens.”
These opposition figures were arrested under Nicaragua’s law 1055, which was approved by the country’s democratically elected National Assembly in December 2020. Titled “Defense of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination for Peace,” many of the world’s governments have legislation similar to this Nicaraguan law, forbidding citizens from coup-plotting, treason, and conspiring with foreign nations to attack their nation.
The detention of Téllez and the MRS leaders led to a wave of denunciations from Western governments, corporate media outlets, and even some left-wing activists and intellectuals who had supported the Sandinista Revolution in the 1980s but later turned against it.
Critics exploited the arrests to craft a warped narrative, accusing the Sandinista government of President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo of having abandoned their leftist roots by arresting historic revolutionaries.
But the reality is the complete opposite: participants in the failed coup attempt such as Téllez and her MRS party broke with Sandinismo decades ago and became loyal allies of the right wing, and the United States, ever since.
Washington responded to Nicaragua’s arrest of two dozen US government-sponsored, coup-plotting opposition leaders by imposing a new round sanctions on the Central American nation, and by attacking the legitimacy of its November 7 elections. The administration of President Joseph Biden made it clear it would refuse to recognize the results of the vote.
At a special October session of the Organization of American States (OAS), convened for the sole purpose of condemning Nicaragua, the Sandinista government defended itself against these accusations by stating, “In our country there is not a single detained candidate, not one; not a single innocent is prosecuted, not one. Those who are being subjected to legal processes are foreign agents, plainly identified within the payrolls of foreign governments, who, using the structures of private organizations, received millions of dollars to destroy, kill, bankrupt the economy, and subvert the constitutional order.”
While Western governments and corporate media outlets have condemned statements like these as propaganda, what Nicaragua said is factually correct. It is a matter of public record that those detained received millions of dollars in funding from the United States and European states, and subsequently used that money to organize a coup attempt, violating numerous laws on foreign agents, money laundering, and treason.
Moreover, the accusations made by the Nicaraguan judicial system, which maintains that the MRS leaders it arrested had conspired with a foreign power in a bid to overthrow their government, are confirmed by numerous classified US State Department cables released by WikiLeaks.
State Department cables expose Dora María Téllez and fellow MRS leaders as US government informants
The Movimiento Renovador Sandinista party that Dora María Téllez helped found has enjoyed support from the US government for at least 15 years.
In the lead-up to Nicaragua’s 2006 national elections, when Téllez served as president of the MRS, the party chose the former mayor of the capital Managua, Herty Lewites, to serve as its presidential candidate. Lewites showed little commitment to any coherent political ideology, but he was charismatic and had a base of support.
That February, Lewites met with the US ambassador for breakfast. The former Sandinista wanted to reassure Washington that, if his party won the upcoming November elections, it would maintain close relations with the United States – the very country that had supported far-right Contra death squads and waged a brutal terror war against Nicaragua.
Lewites was once part of the Sandinista movement, but when the FSLN lost power in 1990, he initiated a series of alliances with the right wing and became a businessman. He went on to create an aquatic park, and, never one for modesty, named it after himself: Hertylandia.
By the time 2006 rolled around, Lewites was a bitter rival of the Sandinista Front, and explicitly preferred the right winning over Daniel Ortega return to power.
A State Department cable titled “Herty seeks cordial, constructive, cooperative relations with the United States” made it clear that the MRS presidential candidate was more than happy to ally with Washington against his former comrades in the FSLN.
“Lewites was effusive in his desire to maintain cordial, constructive, and cooperative relations with the United States,” the embassy wrote contently. It added that, “if he is elected, he will request a high-level U.S. delegation to attend his inauguration to demonstrate that the two governments will be strong allies.”
Lewites told Washington he approved of its attacks on Ortega, and insisted that “the Ambassador and other officials [should] continue to strike hard against Ortega.”
The MRS candidate not only sought close ties to the country that had repeatedly invaded and militarily occupied Nicaragua; he also supported neoliberal economic policies. The cable happily noted that “Lewites was unequivocal in his support for CAFTA,” the Central America Free Trade Agreement imposed on the region by the George W. Bush administration.
Lewites reassured the ambassador that his ideal vision for an MRS-led government in Nicaragua would be textbook neoliberal, run by “young technocrats,” with “cuts in government fat” and pro-corporate policies to attract “foreign investment.” He promised that his “consensus government” would be a centrist “balance” between the left wing and right wing.
The embassy cable revealed that almost all of the funding for Lewites’ presidential campaign came from outside Nicaragua, mostly from wealthy oligarchs and corporations in Panama, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and El Salvador.
It also noted that Lewites had been meeting with fellow presidential candidate Eduardo Montealegre, a fanatically right-wing and notoriously corrupt, Harvard-educated multi-millionaire banker. Lewites and Montealegre hoped to come together in an anti-Sandinista alliance to prevent Ortega from becoming president again.
Lewites had in fact publicly called for this cooperation with the right in a 2005 interview on the US government-funded media program Esta Semana. The MRS candidate admitted he had repeatedly asked Montealegre to make a “public agreement” with him so they could push through constitutional reforms that would make it almost impossible for the Sandinistas to return to power.
“Remarking that he will not be upset if Montealegre wins the election because he knows Montealegre will also lead the nation forward, Lewites argued that the two need one another,” the US embassy wrote after its February 2006 meeting. “He believes that between the two of them they can gain the 56 National Assembly seats required for much-needed constitutional reforms. Lewites hopes to sign some sort of pre-election commitment with Montealegre agreeing to work together if either of them wins the presidency.”
Lewites’ call for a pact with Montealegre was highly hypocritical, because the MRS had endlessly criticized, and capitalized on, a short-term agreement that Ortega’s Sandinista Front had made with Liberal former President Arnoldo Aléman, known as the “pacto,” in order to rewrite electoral law to allow presidential candidates to win in the first round if they had more than 35% of the vote.
But this was just the first instance in a long record of the MRS party openly allying with and supporting Montealegre, one of the most infamous right-wing oligarchs in Nicaragua.
Lewites unexpectedly died of a heart attack in July 2006. His vice-presidential pick, Edmundo Jarquín, became the MRS’ new presidential candidate in the November elections, and ultimately got just 6% of the vote.
From then on, the MRS continued to lurch further and further to the right. And the party’s leaders collaborated more and more closely with the United States.
A September 2006 State Department cable, titled “MRS: ‘We want to bring Ortega down,’” is one of the clearest examples of the US government supporting the Sandinista Renovation Movement party.
The document reveals that after the death of Herty Lewites, his nephew Israel Lewites, the spokesman of the MRS party, met with the embassy’s polcouns (political counselor) and doubled down on his request for Washington’s support.
“The MRS is the only viable option for the 2006 election,” Israel Lewites insisted. Desperate to maintain US backing, “Lewites emphasized that the MRS would never return to an FSLN controlled by Ortega.”
In turn, the embassy’s “Polcouns reiterated the USG [US government] position that the MRS is a viable and constructive option, with whom the United States would maintain good relations.”
Israel Lewites “made a point of mentioning to poloffs [the political officer] that he had studied in the United States (at the University of Texas in Arlington) and believes in ‘the American dream’ and supports responsible capitalism — since it so clearly benefited him,” the embassy wrote happily.
The MRS spokesperson did however acknowledge that the party’s presidential candidate, Jarquín, was having trouble gaining traction. (The cable noted, for instance, that “Jarquin expressed his support for legalizing elective abortions, a procedure opposed by a large majority of Nicaraguans.”)
But Washington still clearly saw the MRS as useful in its crusade against Ortega: “Though current polls show Jarquin in third place, if the MRS can shift votes from the FSLN and garner some of the undecided vote, it is still a viable option — and could be the key to preventing an Ortega win,” the embassy hoped.
The document also revealed that the US government’s International Republican Institute (IRI), a sibling of CIA cutout the National Endowment for Democracy, had trained roughly 30% of MRS party poll watchers for the 2006 elections. (IRI has been used to fund coups and regime-change operations across Latin America and the world, targeting elected left-wing leaders like Haiti’s President Jean-Bertrand Aristide.)
The State Department evidently considered this cable on the MRS to be very valuable, because it forwarded it to the CIA, DIA, National Security Council, secretary of state, and US embassy in Venezuela.
But this is just one of a dozen cables showing how the United States has worked with leaders of Nicaragua’s MRS party to destabilize the Sandinista government of President Ortega.
In November 2006, Dora María Téllez met with US diplomats as well. It was the eve of the elections, and she was worried that the Sandinista Front might return to power.
A classified State Department cable, titled “Dora María Téllez concerned about fraud, possible FSLN government,” reveals that the former revolutionary was conspiring with the US embassy in Nicaragua to try to prevent the Sandinista Front from returning to power in that month’s elections.
At the time, Téllez was president of the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista, and a candidate to be a deputy in the National Assembly.
In her rendezvous with the US embassy’s “Polcouns and Poloff” – political counselor and political officer, respectively – Téllez was joined by Israel Lewites, the MRS spokesman.
“Tellez has often been critical of U.S. policies, but showed an apparent openness to discuss issues with emboffs and to pursue future meetings,” the State Department wrote after the engagement, using an abbreviation for “embassy officers.”
It added that Téllez “told emboffs that she would be interested in encouraging dialogue between MRS members and the United States.”
“Tellez, who says she has a cousin in the United States and a nephew fighting in Iraq, stated that she does not have an issue with the United States, but believes that Nicaraguans often manipulate Americans to do ‘their dirty work,’” the cable noted.
In the meeting, Téllez provided the US embassy with intelligence about the inner workings of Nicaraguan political parties, and accused the Sandinista Front of planning to win the election through supposed “fraud.”
This State Department cable was classified by the George W. Bush administration’s ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul A. Trivelli, who helped lead a full-scale meddling operation in a failed bid to tilt the 2006 election against Daniel Ortega.
Trivelli threatened that Washington would destabilize Nicaragua if Ortega won. The US embassy used hundreds of millions in USAID dollars as leverage to essentially bribe people to vote against the FSLN, while heavily pressuring anti-Sandinista parties to unite against Ortega.
Despite the US intervention campaign, Ortega and the Sandinista Front won the 2006 election, while the presidential candidate from Téllez’s MRS, Edmundo Jarquín, barely eked out 6 percent of the vote. (In subsequent elections, the MRS’ support base shrunk even further.)
Following Ortega’s victory, files published by WikiLeaks show how Téllez continued her role as an informant for Washington, providing it with sensitive information in an attempt to destabilize the new Sandinista government.
Another State Department cable classified by Ambassador Trivelli in January 2007 shows that Téllez and MRS leaders met with the embassy for a “cocktail” meeting that was “relaxed and cordial.”
Titled “MRS loses caucus status but continues as most vocal opposition group,” the document reveals that Téllez was joined at the meeting with US emboffs (embassy officers) by the failed MRS presidential candidate Jarquín, National Assembly member Enrique Saenz, and party co-founder Luis Carrion.
It is noteworthy that the US embassy chose to meet with these MRS leaders at a cocktail event, highlighting their shared elite backgrounds.
Carrion is the son of a wealthy banker from a powerful family, and Saenz has long been in the foreign NGO sector, working for the European Union and United Nations.
Jarquin is married to the ultra-rich oligarch Claudia Chamorro Barrios (a daughter of the US-backed right-wing President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro). He worked for more than a decade at the neoliberal Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) in Washington, DC after the Sandinistas lost power in 1990.
The elite background of these MRS leaders clearly reflected the base of the party, which back then and still today has been with upper-middle and upper-class Nicaraguans, highly educated, fluent in English, with opportunities to travel, and lucrative jobs (paid in dollars) in the non-profit industrial complex, academia, and media.
The Sandinista Front, on the other hand, has always remained firmly associated with poor and working-class Nicaraguans, with its base in impoverished barrios where residents didn’t even have paved roads in the 1990-2007 neoliberal era, and in rural areas where people did not have electricity or potable water.
In fact, the anti-Sandinista opposition is notorious for mocking FSLN supporters with classist tropes, claiming Sandinista Youth militants are uneducated and demeaning them for not being able to correctly pronounce English words.
In their friendly 2007 cocktail meeting with the US embassy, MRS leaders provided the foreign diplomats with sensitive information about the inner workings of Nicaraguan politics.
The WikiLeaks document shows that Téllez fed Washington intelligence about the country’s police commissioner and police chief.
Yet these two meetings were by no means the only times representatives from Nicaragua’s MRS party met and conspired with the US government. The cozy relationship continued well beyond.
A US government cable from April 2007, titled “MRS focused on legislative agenda, municipal elections,” reveals that the party’s National Assembly deputies Enrique Saenz and Hugo Torres, along with Torres’ alternate Victor Hugo Tinoco, had met that March with the embassy’s political officer, as well as analysts from the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR), the intelligence agency of the US State Department.
The MRS leaders gave the foreign diplomats information about the newly elected Sandinista government and the MRS’ plans to undermine it, which they deemed an “authoritarian project.”
Torres fed the US government officials intelligence about the Nicaraguan military, which he hoped could be used to undermine the elected president.
“Torres commented that he holds hope for the future of the military,” the embassy wrote. “Omar Halleslevens, Chief of the Nicaraguan Army, and Torres were schoolmates and Torres respects him. He believes that Halleslevens will be able to stand up to Ortega.”
Saenz, the other MRS lawmaker, reassured the embassy “that Nicaraguans recognize the importance of the relationship with the United States.”
Torres’ collaboration with the US government continued for years. Another State Department cable from July 2008 shows Torres providing Washington with detailed analysis of the inner workings of the Sandinista government.
In June 2021, Torres and Tinoco were arrested on charges of conspiring with and taking funding from foreign powers to destabilize the government, in violation of the sovereignty law 1055.
While Washington claimed the charges were baseless and politically motivated, its own classified State Department cables, published by WikiLeaks, tell a totally different story.
Founding MRS leader Sergio Ramírez has served as US embassy informant for decades
Washington’s collaboration with MRS leaders goes all the way up to the founding president of the party, Sergio Ramírez Mercado, who has in fact served as a US government informant for decades.
Ramírez had been an elite member of Nicaragua’s intelligentsia under the US-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. Although he played no role in the armed struggle, he supported the Sandinista Revolution, and as a conciliatory symbol was selected as Ortega’s vice president from 1985 until the Sandinistas lost power in 1990.
Like many other wealthy Nicaraguans who had joined the Sandinista Front out of opportunism, Ramírez took a turn to the right in the 1990s. He and Dora María Téllez, among others, created the MRS as a right-wing factional split out of the FSLN in 1995.
Ramírez led the party until Téllez took over from 1998 to 2007. He ran as the MRS’ first presidential candidate, in the 1996 election, earning just about 1% of the vote.
Although he served as the leader of the MRS for a mere three years, the party was so closely associated with Ramírez – and his self-importance was so notorious – that Nicaraguans joke that he named it after himself: MRS is the inversion of his initials, SRM.
Hardly any average working-class Nicaraguans supported Ramírez and his MRS. However, he had the ear of the US government – and internal documents published by WikiLeaks show that he has served as a US government informant since at least 1978.
In January 2007, mere days after President Ortega returned to power, Ramírez met with the US ambassador, Trivelli, for a friendly tete-a-tete.
A classified State Department cable titled “Ex-Sandinista VP Sergio Ramirez: Recent Ortega actions do not auger well for Nicaragua” shows that Ramírez provided the US ambassador with valuable intelligence about Ortega’s cabinet picks and the newly elected president’s relationship with the military and police.
“Ramirez lauded the USG’s [US government’s] approach towards President Ortega,” the document stated contently.
The MRS leader’s rendezvous with the ambassador was also apparently aimed at generating more financial pressure on Managua from Washington. The report recounted that “Ramirez noted the important role of international donors, who must hold Ortega accountable.” He stressed the influence that European Union economic aid to Nicaragua had gained over the neoliberal period, and said “the EU and a number of member countries should tie their assistance to” political demands.
In the meeting, Ramírez flaunted his right-wing stripes, attacking the democratically elected government of Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez and claiming he was a secret puppet master who “calls the shots” in Nicaragua.
In the same vein, Ramírez demonized China, Iran, and Cuba – making it clear beyond a doubt that he was firmly on the side of the United States.
The embassy cable delightedly added that, before the 2006 election, Ramírez had publicly called on Nicaraguans to vote for neoliberal candidate Eduardo Montealegre, the corrupt right-wing multi-millionaire banker. It was just one episode in the long relationship between the MRS and Montealegre.
In May 2007, the US ambassador in Nicaragua hosted a dinner aimed at unifying the opposition, seeking to defeat the Sandinista Front in the 2008 municipal elections. Trivelli invited the banker Montealegre, former MRS presidential candidate Edmundo Jarquín, and Sergio Ramírez, among others.
A formerly classified cable reveals Washington’s plans to craft “The opposition’s recipe for success: A Montealegre-Jarquin-Rizo alliance.” The document shows that, in the May 3 “dinner hosted by the Ambassador, Montealegre and Jarquin deliberated opposition unity with five prominent Nicaraguan political analysts and Embassy officials.”
Ramírez was one of those five influential pundits. He dined alongside the US embassy’s PolCouns (political counselor) and deputy chief of mission (DCM), as well as figures from Nicaragua’s conservative and liberal movements.
Together, the anti-Sandinista opposition leaders blatantly conspired with the US government, plotting ways to weaken and ultimately overthrow the democratically elected administration of President Ortega.
In the dinner, MRS veteran Jarquin complained to the US diplomats that Ortega has a “visceral loathing of free market economies, and [an] ingrained dislike for the United States.”
Another WikiLeaks document from 2008 recalls a trip that the US State Department’s office director for Central American affairs, John Feeley, took to Nicaragua that March. Feeley met with Ramírez, who said he “supported the USG’s [US government’s] general engagement policy in Nicaragua.” (The cable also laments that “USAID’s democracy partners warned that a divided and weakened civil society is incapable of mounting organized opposition to Ortega.”)
These meetings in 2007 and 2008 were far from the first time Sergio Ramírez had served as a US government informant. Back in October 1978, on the eve of the Sandinista Revolution, he was already feeding inside information to Washington.
A State Department cable from that year shows that Ramírez had met with the US embassy and given it intelligence on the anti-Somoza opposition.
Ramírez was “open and friendly,” the embassy recalled. It emphasized that he was more than willing to compromise with “more moderate elements.”
“We plan to continue our direct contact with Ramirez,” the cable stated.
Ramírez’s role as a US government informant indeed continued from there. In August 1979, just a month after the triumph of the Sandinista Revolution, Ramírez reunited with the US ambassador, Lawrence Pezzullo, and provided him with intelligence on Nicaragua’s new revolutionary government, with an emphasis on its internal foreign policy debates and education strategy.
That November, the supposed revolutionary met with embassy staff and Florida Congressman Dante Fascell. Ramírez reassured Washington that the Sandinista government would not threaten the private sector, and called for boosting exports to the US.
Ramírez was also more than happy to throw Fidel Castro’s movement under the bus, insisting that “Nicaragua has no intention of becoming a new Cuba, and is, indeed, a little irradiated at this false accusation,” the embassy recalled.
These documents clearly show that Ramírez – the founding president of the MRS party – was never truly committed to the Sandinista Front’s socialist and anti-imperialist ideology. Instead, he opportunistically joined the Sandinista movement when it was ascendant; and when it lost power, he quickly abandoned it.
In September 2021, Nicaragua ordered the arrest of Ramírez, accusing him of conspiring with foreign governments to destabilize the country. The US government, grateful for the intelligence he had fed it for so long, immediately showed support for Ramírez, as did Spain, the former colonizer of Nicaragua.
Ramírez faced no consequences for his decades of collaboration with the US embassy, given that he lives in Costa Rica, a major US asset in the hybrid war on Nicaragua. But the wealthy Nicaraguan author did take advantage of the charges against him to become a regular fixture in the Western corporate media, frequently appearing on outlets from CNN to the BBC to demonize Nicaragua’s Sandinista government.
MRS leaders lobby neocons in Washington for more US meddling in Nicaragua
While the Movimiento Renovador Sandinista has never been able to get more than a few percent of the vote in national elections, it has significant influence in the non-profit sector, academia, and media, both inside and outside of Nicaragua.
This is largely because MRS leaders overwhelmingly come from wealthy, privileged backgrounds, and while they cannot connect with poor and working-class Nicaraguans, they are most comfortable rubbing elbows with politicians, think tanks policy-makers, and media pundits in the Global North.
Many MRS leaders run NGOs and media outlets that are funded by the US government, via the National Endowment for Democracy (NED) and/or USAID.
A case study of these MRS leaders who are cultivated by elite Western institutions and turned into loyal neoliberal foot soldiers is Ana Margarita Vijil Gurdian, who served as president of the MRS from 2012 to 2017.
Vijil, who is Dora María Téllez’s longtime romantic partner, has enjoyed a jet-setting life of luxury, while the vast majority of Nicaraguans make very little money and could never afford to fly outside the country.
After she graduated from Nicaragua’s most elite private university, la Universidad Centroamericana (UCA), Vijil moved to the Netherlands, where she worked at the Hague and the notoriously corrupt Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) – which has been exposed by multiple whistleblowers to essentially be a tool used by Western governments to attack independent nations like Syria.
Vijil was then awarded a Fulbright Scholarship from the US State Department, which she used to secure a master’s degree in political science in Arizona.
After completing her US government-funded studies in the United States, Vijil returned to Nicaragua to try to enter politics as a hardcore anti-Sandinista activist. She soon climbed the ranks to become president of the MRS – the position once held by her mentor and life partner Téllez.
In her capacity as MRS president, in 2016, Vigil returned to the United States to lobby for Washington’s support for regime change in Nicaragua. There, Vigil met with neoconservative Florida Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the former representative of hardcore right-wing anti-Cuba and anti-Venezuela elements in Miami.
Joining Vigil in the meeting with Ros-Lehtinen (standing to her right in the photo) was right-wing Nicaraguan activist Violeta Granera, an inveterate conservative and former World Bank official who comes from a powerful family that strongly supported the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.
Granera is a vocal advocate for the coup-plotting hard-right leader of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro, who oversaw a military coup against Bolivia’s democratically elected socialist government in 2019, led by fascist extremists.
In June 2021, the Nicaraguan government detained Téllez, Vigil, and Granera, all on charges of conspiring with foreign governments to destabilize the country.
While the arrests of MRS leaders and other prominent coup-plotters were vociferously condemned by Western governments and the foreign corporate media, many Nicaraguans who survived the bloody 2018 putsch attempt that these opposition leaders orchestrated were in fact relieved.
Family members and friends of victims of the coup, whose loved ones were targeted, tortured, or even killed by the US-backed tranquistas, held the detainees responsible.
A security guard for the mayor’s office in the city of Masaya, named Reynaldo Urbina Cuadra, was kidnapped and brutally tortured by anti-Sandinista extremists during the US-sponsored 2018 coup attempt. He was so badly wounded that he nearly died, and lost his left arm.
Urbina filed a formal complaint with the state accusing fanatical right-wing media pundit Miguel Mora, of the US government-funded outlet 100% Noticias, of bearing responsibility for inciting the violence against him and his colleagues at the mayor’s office.
Mora was detained by the Nicaraguan government in June 2021, in a move widely denounced by Western capitals.
In an interview with The Grayzone, Urbina praised the Nicaraguan government for arresting Mora. “This is the beginning of justice,” he said. “But nothing can bring back what those terrorists took from me.”
Urbina’s comments about the Sandinista government’s arrest of roughly two dozen opposition leaders in 2021, all of whom were deeply involved in the violent coup attempt, are often heard repeated in working-class communities in Nicaragua.
While Global North governments and legacy media exploited the arrests to portray President Ortega as authoritarian, the detentions were quite popular in poor, humble barrios, where Nicaraguans who survived the terror of the tranques consider the opposition leaders to be coup-plotting criminals who should have been behind bars long before 2021.
MRS’ origins in the class contradictions of the Sandinista Revolution
The key role of the MRS in the bloody 2018 coup attempt in Nicaragua made the party’s blatant alliance with the Nicaraguan right-wing completely undeniable.
But although the MRS had previously portrayed itself as a center-left social-democratic party, its historical roots were always in the political right.
Self-declared “leftist” critics of the Sandinista Front and President Ortega – many of whom live outside Nicaragua and have not closely followed its internal politics since the neoliberal era began in 1990 – often point to the revolutionary past of some older MRS leaders to try to depict the party as the real torchbearer of Sandinismo.
But this revolutionary past has been directly contradicted by decades of overt right-wing activities.
On the surface, the story of Dora María Téllez in particular seems compelling. In August 1978, when she was just 22 years old, Téllez served as the third-in-command of a major operation in which the Sandinista Front took over the National Palace in the capital Managua, earning her the nom de guerre “Comandante Dos” (Commander Two).
But how Téllez transformed from this young revolutionary to becoming a US embassy informant allied with the coup-plotting right-wing is a process that reflects the political contradictions present in the Sandinista Revolution since its inception.
In July 1979, after years of struggle, Sandinista revolutionaries overthrew the US-backed dictatorship of General Anastasio Somoza, whose family dynasty had ruled the country for decades.
But in some ways, overthrowing Somoza was easier than governing. When he ruled the country with an iron fist, it was easy to unite opposition forces against Somoza, from across a wide range of class interests.
The Sandinista Revolution had broad support from several classes, not just poor and working-class Nicaraguans. Significant sections of the middle class and even part of the upper class had lost faith in the Somoza dictatorship.
Somoza had pursued backwards economic policies that served the class interests of the wealthy elites, but his regime became increasingly decadent, corrupt, and incompetent, and thought the solution to all problems was more violence and repression. It was only a matter of time until there was a social explosion.
Most of the founders and leaders of the MRS were from the comfortable upper-middle class of Nicaraguans who opposed Somoza and initially supported the revolution.
Many were also quite young. Téllez was a medical student when she joined the Sandinista Front as an activist, and at the time of the victory of the revolution, she was just 23 years old.
Téllez worked with the Sandinista Front for just 15 years, before later becoming one of its staunchest opponents, spending the last 27 years organizing against it. So her time as a Sandinista militant is greatly outnumbered by her time as a US embassy informant and ally of the Nicaraguan right wing.
Toppling an unpopular dictator is not as difficult as governing a country under attack by the world’s hegemon. And internal political contradictions quickly emerged in the 1980s.
Right-wing oligarch Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who represented the upper-class elements that had opposed Somoza, turned swiftly against the Sandinista Revolution in early 1980.
The US government then launched a terrorist war on Nicaragua, with the CIA pouring millions of dollars into arming and training far-right death squads, known as the Contras, who massacred civilians; assassinated Sandinista leaders, judges, police, and state officials; and burned down hospitals, schools, and government buildings.
Washington also imposed a devastating – and internationally illegal – blockade, which crippled the impoverished Central American nation’s economy. The US goal was to terrorize the Nicaraguan population into submission, overthrow the Sandinistas, and install a compliant neoliberal regime.
Faced with such a relentless onslaught waged by the most powerful empire on Earth, Nicaragua’s Sandinista government lost the support of the middle class that had once supported the uprising against Somoza.
Washington recruited the Nicaraguan wealthy elites and disenchanted middle class, and eventually succeeded in breaking the Sandinistas. The FSLN did win a 1984 election in a landslide, but by the end of the decade, many Nicaraguans had been sapped by the US-led war and economic depression.
In 1990, the Sandinistas lost the vote to Violeta Chamorro, the right-wing oligarch from one of the most powerful families in Nicaragua, whose presidential campaign had been created, advised, and funded with millions of dollars by the US government.
This meant that the Sandinista Front went from being the governing party to the political opposition. And cracks soon began to emerge.
MRS founders lead right-wing split out of Sandinista Front
In the 1990s, revolutionaries watched as leftist movements around the world were overthrown, with coups in the former Soviet Union and subsequent US-backed neoliberal “color revolutions” in its former republics.
Given both the national and international context of counterrevolution, the Sandinista Front was gripped by a series of serious internal debates.
Two main factions emerged in the FSLN: On one side was the left-wing faction loyal to the revolution, called the principistas, which consisted more of working-class activists who were close to the labor unions, sought a confrontational approach against the neoliberal US-backed government of President Chamorro, and remained committed to socialism and anti-imperialism, despite the end of the Cold War. The principistaswere led by Daniel Ortega.
On other side was the right-wing faction, the renovadores. They sought dialogue with the other neoliberal political parties and a more conciliatory strategy with Chamorro, and wanted to turn the Sandinista Front into a moderate social-democratic party, modeled after the European center-left.
The renovadores were led by Sergio Ramírez, with other prominent members such as Dora María Téllez and Luis Carrión Cruz. They demonized the revolutionary principistas led by Ortega as “archaic,” “obsolete,” Marxist-Leninists.
In an “Extraordinary Congress” meeting in 1994, the FSLN held an internal vote, and the renovadores were defeated. So some of their top followers left the party in protest, including poet Ernesto Cardenal and writer Gioconda Belli.
These members of the right-wing faction of the front subsequently published an open letter titled “For a Sandinismo that Returns to the Majorities” (“Por un Sandinismo que vuelva a las Mayorías“).
This letter would essentially become the founding document of the MRS, and was signed by all of the major figures in what would soon be the new party, representing a Who’s Who of anti-Sandinista opposition leaders:
- Dora María Téllez
- Sergio Ramírez Mercado, a wealthy author
- Luis Carrión Cruz, a rich activist from an oligarchic banker family
- Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a media mogul from Nicaragua’s most powerful dynasty, who runs major anti-Sandinista media outlets with US government funding
- Xavier Chamorro Cardenal, another media oligarch who ran the anti-Sandinista newspaper El Nuevo Diario
- Claudia Chamorro Barrios, yet another member of the Chamorro dynasty
- Carlos Mejía Godoy, a prominent musician
- Ernesto Cardenal, a Catholic priest and renowned poet
- Gioconda Belli, a novelist from a rich Nicaraguan family who previously worked as a Pepsi-Cola executive
- Oscar René Vargas, an academic who called for a US military invasion and bloody coup in Nicaragua
- Sofía Montenegro, a liberal feminist who runs NGOs funded by the US government
It was noteworthy that almost all of these figures came from wealthy families, and many were educated in the United States and spoke English.
They represented the upper-class, upper-middle-class, and bourgeois factions who had supported Sandinismo in the 1980s, many of whom had enjoyed comfortable government positions as ministers or advisers, but who turned against the movement when it lost power in the 1990s.
These Nicaraguan elites had happily worked in the government when they had an opportunity to taste power, but when the FSLN entered the opposition and they had to do the hard work of organizing with working-class people, most left the country for the Global North, and they quickly drifted to the right.
In 1995, more figures from the renovadores faction resigned from the FSLN, and they officially formed a separate party: the Sandinista Renovation Movement (Movimiento Renovador Sandinista, or MRS).
At the time, it was obvious that the MRS was a right-wing split out of the front. This is clearly reflected in the party’s founding document, “For a Sandinismo that Returns to the Majorities.”
In the open letter, the MRS leaders intentionally left out any reference to socialism or anti-imperialism. Neither word is mentioned. Instead, the document only expresses opposition to “neoliberalism.”
Moreover, the MRS founding letter made it clear that the new party’s leaders wanted to reconcile with US imperialism, stating explicitly, “Our relations with the United States should be mutual respect.”
To understand the ideological divisions and history that eventually led to the split, The Grayzone interviewed prominent FSLN leader Carlos Fonseca Terán, a son of the founder of the front and leading member of the revolutionary left wing of the party.
Fonseca Terán explained that the many debates going on inside the Sandinista Front when it entered the opposition in the 1990s boiled down to four fundamental issues:
– the renovadores, who became the MRS, wanted to drop socialism from the FSLN’s mission
– the principistas, led by Ortega, were committed to socialism
2. Popular struggle
– the renovadores were against any and all forms of violence by the working class, including peasants trying to defend their lands from violent takeovers by landowners and companies or workers engaging in militant struggle against corporations
– the principistas did not want to return to the armed struggle, but did support the right of Nicaraguan workers to defend themselves
– the renovadores wanted to abandon anti-imperialism and seek good relations with the United States
– the principistas were firmly committed to anti-imperialism above all
4. Vanguard character
– the renovadores considered the vanguard model to be outdated and wanted to emulate European social-democratic parties
– the principistas continued seeing the FSLN as the vanguard party that would lead the working class in its struggle against capitalism and imperialism
“As time passes, the MRS’ rightwing character became more obvious. It couldn’t be denied,” Fonseca Terán reflected. “But from the beginning they were right wing.”
“They were always reformists,” he added. “And they never cared about anti-imperialism.”
Fonseca Terán said the MRS’ critiques of the Sandinista government’s economic policies is especially hypocritical, given the party has repeatedly shown support for neoliberal reforms over many years.
“The only way for our economic program to be more left-wing would be to start expropriating properties,” Fonseca argued, referring to the current FSLN-led government.
MRS forms alliances with Nicaragua’s right-wing elites
The creation of the MRS as a right-wing, social-democratic break with the Sandinista Front mirrored similar splits that happened inside revolutionary socialist parties around the world at the time.
Given their elite class positions and knowledge of English, MRS leaders quickly burrowed into the media, NGOs, and academia, taking control of these sectors and turning them into anti-Sandinista outposts. They also used their friends abroad to try to turn the international left against the FSLN.
Yet after it split of the FSLN, the MRS struggled to find popular support at home. In the 1996 presidential election, the party’s candidate Sergio Ramírez got just 1% of the vote (compared to 38% for the FSLN’s Ortega).
Having been thoroughly defeated and embarrassed, the MRS did its first and only second-guess, deciding to form a brief alliance with the Sandinista Front for the 2001 election. But when they lost that vote, the MRS turned against the FSLN once and for all, and embarked upon its long journey to the right.
In 2006, MRS presidential candidate Edmundo Jarquín earned a mere 6%, against Ortega who won the election with 38%.
This year saw the beginning of the MRS’ alliance with notorious Nicaraguan oligarch Eduardo Montealegre, of the right-wing Independent Liberal Party (PLI).
A multi-millionaire banker, Montealegre is infamous in Nicaragua for his corruption, closely linked to a massive debt bonds scandal.
“The term conservative doesn’t work anymore in Nicaragua. Anyone who uses the word loses support. So all the right-wing call themselves liberals,” Fonseca Terán explained in his interview with The Grayzone. “But Montealegre is not even a liberal; he is a conservative, an ally of big capital.”
The 2006 State Department cable recounting the US embassy meeting with Dora María Téllez noted that then MRS presidential candidate Edmundo Jarquin had been secretly meeting with Montealegre behind the scenes and “renewed their prior agreement not to attack one another.” The US embassy noted that “MRS ads criticizing Montealegre have disappeared.”
For his part, Montealegre was also a US embassy informant. A 2007 State Department cable published by WikiLeaks reveals that he met with Washington’s Ambassador Trivelli in January of that year to provide sensitive information.
When the MRS and Montealegre’s PLI lost the 2006 election and the Sandinistas returned to power, the MRS began to openly collaborate with the plutocratic banker.
In 2008, Montealegre ran for mayor of the capital Managua, and the MRS publicly supported his right-wing campaign against FSLN candidate Alexis Argüello, a legendary Nicaraguan boxer, who ultimately won the election.
Téllez herself endorsed Montealegre, while in characteristic fashion bending herself into an ideological pretzel claiming that she and her party did not support him.
“The MRS is calling to vote for Eduardo Montealegre, although we are not supporting him under the table,” Téllez insisted.
To justify their undeniable alliance with the right wing, fellow MRS leader Edmundo Jarquín argued, “This is not a conflict between the right and left; it is between dictatorship and democracy.”
The rightward drift became a lurch from there, and by the 2010s, the MRS had totally abandoned its alleged commitment to the left and become a right-wing party.
In 2015, the MRS once again signed an agreement with the right-wing Independent Liberal Party (PLI), hoping to defeat the FSLN in the 2016 election as part of a short-lived National Coalition for Democracy(Coalición Nacional por la Democracia).
When the Nicaraguan government approved plans for a Chinese company to build an interoceanic canal that could challenge the monopoly held by the US-dominated Panama Canal, the MRS helped organize opposition against the project. Téllez and other MRS leaders exploited liberal environmentalist talking points in order to push the geopolitical agenda of Washington, which desperately, yet successfully, sought to halt the construction.
A blatant example of the MRS’ right-wing character came in 2016, when the party posted a meme on its Facebook page (where it scarcely has any followers) cheering on the recent death of Cuban revolutionary leader Fidel Castro, as well as the 2013 demise of Venezuela’s socialist President Hugo Chávez.
“The hour arrives for all pigs, the next is Daniel Ortega,” the MRS wrote. “In Hell he will pay everything that he owes the people.”
MRS president Ana Margarita Vijil, Téllez’s partner, wrote an op-ed in 2017, titled “The MRS and private enterprise,” that demonstrated the party’s complete descent into neoliberalism.
Published in the US government-funded right-wing newspaper La Prensa, which is owned by the oligarchical Chamorro dynasty, Vigil’s rhetoric in the article sounded totally indistinguishable from that of a World Bank official.
“We believe in permanent dialogue and the alliance between the public and private sector,” Vijil wrote.
Welcoming “big business” to Nicaragua, while giving lip service to supporting “small businesses” as well, Vigil declared, “We welcome foreign investment,” in order to “inject capital flow into the country.”
When the violent US-backed coup attempt kicked off in 2018, the MRS played a crucial role. The MRS took a lead in running the Unidad Nacional Azul y Blanco (Blue and White National Unity), a neoliberal opposition alliance that strongly supported the putsch, with backing from Washington.
But when the coup failed, the MRS faced a crisis, and decided to rebrand.
MRS rebrands and drops any reference to Sandinismo
The MRS once absurdly claimed to be the true representative of Sandinismo, but it abandoned that cynical marketing strategy in 2020.
That year, the MRS held an internal vote and decided to renamed itself the Unión Democrática Renovadora (Democratic Renovation Union), or UNAMOS for short.
By rebranding, the MRS cast off its mask of Sandinismo once and for all. In an interview with Nicaragua Investiga, a right-wing media outlet funded by the US government, Dora María Téllez admitted that MRS/UNAMOS, the party she helped found, was a big-tent party with no real coherent ideology.
“We have people who come from liberalism, from Sandinismo, from conservatism, people who have not been in any political party,” Téllez said.
While MRS supporters outside of Nicaragua had spent decades depicting the group as a supposed “leftist” alternative to the Sandinista Front, Téllez and her allies admitted that they had no real loyalty to Sandinismo, and no longer even pretended to be a left-wing party.
The MRS had long used socially liberal issues like LGBT rights and support for abortion to appeal to leftists outside of Nicaragua, but there is nothing socialist about the party.
In fact, for the MRS’ foreign sponsors, the group’s decades-long rightward drift was entirely predictable. The centrist renovador reformists who split from the FSLN in 1995 and formed the MRS were never very ideologically dedicated in the first place.
A 1978 US government cable published by WikiLeaks shows how former Sandinista militant Hugo Torres Jiménez, who went on to become vice president of the MRS, never embraced a coherent leftist ideology.
The document also reveals that US journalist Tad Szulc, who was a reporter for the New York Times and Washington Post, had been a State Department informant.
On the eve of the revolution, Szulc met with top leadership of the Sandinista Front – co-founder Tómas Borge, Edén Pastora (Comandante Cero), Hugo Torres (Comandante Uno), and Dora Maria Téllez (Comandante Dos) – for a lengthy interview. Szulc then recounted his meeting in close detail to the US government, so that it could use the intelligence to undermine the FSLN.
Szulc told the US embassy that Borge was “a militant ideological Marxist” and was the most ideologically committed of all of the leaders. He noted that “Borge seemed to have a clearer idea of where he was going and how to get there than either [Comandantes] Zero [Pastora] or Uno [Torres].”
“There was a distinct split between the rescuers (led by Zero [Pastora] and Uno [Torres] and the rescued (led by Borge),” Szulc explained to the US embassy. “The Borge group is allegedly intransigent in its determination to seize power in Nicaragua without bourgeois help, whereas Zero and Uno are more inclined to flexibility in tactics.”
That is to say, Torres was part of the less ideologically socialist, more opportunist right-leaning faction from even before the revolution triumphed, and he was always willing to make a deal with Nicaragua’s capitalist oligarchs.
On the other hand Borge, one of the original leaders the FSLN, who remained loyal to the party and to President Ortega right up until his death in 2012, had always been the most ideologically committed.
When Torres was arrested in June 2021, his detention was cited by putative “left-wing” critics as a sign that Ortega had supposedly betrayed the revolution. But the reality is Torres and his MRS allies had always been willing to compromise with the United States and form alliances with Nicaragua’s conservative oligarchic elites.
The reality is there is a long history of self-identified “leftists” in Nicaragua allying with the right wing and US imperialism against the revolutionary Sandinista Front.
In the 1990 election which dynastic oligarch Violeta Chamorro won thanks to a campaign run and funded by the US government, the CIA helped her set up a National Opposition Union (Unión Nacional Opositora, or UNO) that was made up of more than a dozen small political parties.
Two of the members of this US-created, anti-Sandinista UNO alliance, working alongside hard-line right-wing parties, were the Communist Party of Nicaragua and Nicaraguan Socialist Party.
Both groups were tiny and basically irrelevant, run by obscure academics and little-known intellectuals. But it was an early example of the so-called “left opposition” to the Sandinistas forming alliances with Washington and the most rabidly conservative and neoliberal forces in the country.
Nicaragua’s history is replete with examples of self-described “leftists” undercutting the Sandinistas and joining hands with the US government and right-wing oligarchy. The MRS/UNAMOS, and leaders like Dora María Téllez, Sergio Ramírez Mercado, Hugo Torres Jiménez, and Victor Hugo Tinoco are perhaps the most high-profile case studies, but they are far from alone.