US Sanctions on Venezuela Recalls 1980s Embargo on Nicaragua

US Sanctions emptied the shelves at supermarkets in Nicaragua.

Economic sanctions against Venezuela and the warning of another potential economic embargo on Nicaragua revive the sinister ghost of the 1980s.


By José Adán Silva  (La Prensa)    

HAVANA TIMES – The US economic sanctions against the Venezuelan regime and the warnings from US National Security Advisor John Bolton about a potential economic blockade on the Nicaraguan dictatorship have revived the phantoms of scarcity and extreme poverty that ravaged the country during the decade of the 1980s, during the first dictatorship of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

“It worked in Panama. It worked in Nicaragua one time, and it’s going to work there, again. And it will work in Venezuela and Cuba,” Bolton said last week in Lima during the Lima Group’s International Conference for Democracy in Venezuela.

File photo: La Prensa

When did the US economic blockade start, what was it like, why did it happen and what were the consequences for the country?

Officially, the total embargo on Nicaragua was enacted on May 1, 1985. US President Ronald Reagan made the announcement in Bonn, on the eve of the Group of Seven (G7) summit, using this argument to explain his decision to declare economic sanctions against Nicaragua: “the actions and policies of the Nicaraguan government represent an extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.”

[Editor’s note: When Reagan was making that announcement, his government had been already financing the Contras for several years in the prelude to the Iran-Contra scandal over financing for the Contra forces with funds from arms sales to Iran.] 

Fidel Castro applauds Daniel Ortega during his 1985 inauguration. LA PRENSA/ARCHIVE/Cruz Flores

What was the context for the embargo?

Diverse democratic countries, with the US in the lead, had been denouncing with greater insistence since 1980, a public policy of repression, persecution, execution, as well as the confiscation of land from campesinos, the expropriation of assets from business owners, media censorship, and the imprisonment, killing and attacks against any citizen considered as to be an “opponent” of the young communist dictatorship.

That year Washington gave the Sandinista regime a 60-day deadline to begin dialogue with the opposition and to hold early free, transparent and supervised elections to restore democracy. Emboldened by the economic and military support from the Soviet Union, the regime reacted by rejecting the call to start a dialogue and by doubling down on military and political repression.

When the economic embargo started in 1985, the country was at war and the regime had imposed a military draft for young men 17 and over, sending thousands of teenagers to die in the mountains. LA PRENSA/PERSONAL ARCHIVE OF OSCAR NAVARRETE

OAS and UN insist on dialogue

Diplomatic forums like the Organization of American States (OAS) and the United Nations, armed with reports documenting the regime’s crimes and abuses, pressured for a peaceful solution to the crisis. This crisis was brought on by the civil war that the Sandinista Army and its intelligence bodies waged against campesinos, who received financial, military and logistical support from the US.

Meanwhile in cities and urban areas, agents of the Ministry of the Interior, the Sandinista Police, the Sandinista Defense Committees on every block, and Sandinista gangs in the streets, crushed any sign of opposition.

Then UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuellar, proposed a national dialogue between the Sandinista regime and the opposition led by the private sector. But Ortega and his commanders denounced internationally that “they are trying to force us to surrender and overthrow the government to impose a puppet regime of the United States.”

“The United States has reiterated its conviction that a political dialogue between the Nicaraguan government and all sectors of the opposition, in the terms proposed by the unified opposition in Nicaragua on March 1, 1985, is the first essential step in the process of national reconciliation in Nicaragua,” warned the White House in 1985. Ortega and his commanders rejected this statement.

When the embargo was imposed in 1985, the country was at war and the regime had established an obligatory mlitary service for men starting from 17 years old. Thousands died in the mountains of Nicaragua. Photo: Personal file of Oscar Navarette / La Prensa

What did the embargo actually do?

The United States’ embargo decree, officially baptized by pro-government propagandists as an “economic blockade,” prohibited the import of Nicaraguan products into the United States and the export of all manufactured products from the United States and allied countries to Nicaragua.

The embargo went even further. Nicaraguan commercial aircraft could not land on US national territory, ships could not dock at US ports, and viceversa.

On April 21, 1987, President Ronald Reagan renewed the May, 1985 economic embargo for six more months. He also requested additional military assistance for the Contras, the campesino guerrilla groups fighting the Sandinista armed forces in the mountains.

Because of the embargo, food and basic goods became scarce throughout the country for several years until the reestablishment of democracy in 1990. LA PRENSA/CORTESÍA IHNCA

Catastrophic Impact of Embargo

The economic embargo in Nicaragua had an immediate and devastating impact. Just seven months later, in December of 1985, 90% of the country’s productive infrastructure ground to a halt because of the cutoff of raw materials.

The distribution difficulties, caused not just by the economic blockade but also by the lack of foreign exchange in the Nicaraguan economy and the war that scared off distributors, led to the collapse of equipment and industrial machinery and a reduction of 20% of total production.

The lack of foreign exchange, combined with the commercial blockade, led to the drop in production in the four main branches of Nicaragua’s small businesses sector: textiles, leather, footwear and foodstuffs.

Stores selling household appliances, clothes, toys and office supplies also collapsed, along with pharmacies, gas stations, distributors, mechanics, eateries, restaurants, recreational centers and an innumerable number of small, medium and large businesses.

In the wake of the embargo, the national economy slid into an inflationary spiral with the Sandinista regime stamping and restamping more zeros on the national currency, the Córdoba. LA PRENSA/ARCHIVE

Micoin, rationing, scarcity and suffering

The regime immediately created a state apparatus to control foodstuffs and a type of special “Gestapo” called the Ministry of Interior Commerce (Micoin), that confiscated any foodstuffs or goods sold outside of state channels.

Then the local Enabas (National Enterprise for Basic Grains) stations appeared, providing a rations card to each family and limiting their access to food.

Because of the embargo, foodstuffs and basic goods became scarce all over the country for several years until the reestablishment of democracy in 1990. LA PRENSA/CORTESÍA/IHNCA

Those who did not have a rations card had to go to the Nicaraguan supermarket chain, which had been confiscated and baptized as The People’s Supermarkets. Before 1985, Nicaraguans could still buy powdered milk and some other controlled goods like soap and toilet paper at these markets.

Once the embargo started, all dairy products, canned goods, meats and sausages in these supermarkets ran out, and the majority of the shelves were empty. This contrasted with the exclusive stores just for the privileged Sandinista elite, where you could buy any product just as if you were in a supermarket in another country.

People in incredibly long lines waiting to obtain the new currency in banks during Operation Bertha, on February 18, 1988. LA Prensa / ARCHIVE

End of embargo in 1990

In February of 1990, with the electoral triumph of the National Opposition Union (UNO), with the country destroyed by the war and the economy in bankruptcy, the administration of George W. Bush announced the end of the 1985 embargo and restored the flow of imports and exports between the two countries. The Bush administration also reopened air and sea traffic between the United States and Nicaragua after the inauguration of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in April of 1990.

9 thoughts on “US Sanctions on Venezuela Recalls 1980s Embargo on Nicaragua

  • August 13, 2019 at 1:40 pm

    It will be devastating for the ppl in Nicaragua specially the poor which are the majority but it’s a sacrifice worth making to be able to forced the genocide dictator pedophile Ortega out of power. But, the problem is, who’s gonna take over? Obviously that corrupt and unpopular Alianza Civic are a joke. There’s not one single opposition leader capable of have the respect from all the military forces to order them to disband or out of the street. So, what’s going to happen? A civil war? Another Syria?
    The situating here its highly volatile and extremely complicated than just overthrowing a genocide and phdophile dictator.

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