Isolated Nicaragua senses opportunity in Honduras crisis

President Ortega has quickly positioned himself – alongside Chávez and Castro – as a champion of democracy.

Miraflores Palace/Reuters
Bolivian President Evo Morales, Honduras’s ousted President Manuel Zelaya, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chávez, and Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa attend a Bolivian Alliance for the Americas meeting in Nicaragua June 29.

Every crisis presents an opportunity.

For Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, whose government has been on the defensive since last year's alleged electoral fraud, the military coup in Honduras has presented a golden opportunity to go on the offensive.

"We are launching a battle for democracy," announced Mr. Ortega at a June 29 meeting of Latin American leaders, flanked by leftist presidents Raul Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

In the hours following last Sunday's ouster of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, Ortega quickly jockeyed himself into a leadership role in the region's condemnation of the coup.

Taking advantage of the fact that Nicaragua was already scheduled to host a June 29 summit of Central American presidents, Ortega also invited the leftist members of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) and other Latin American leaders to attend.

Within less than 24 hours, presidents and representatives from 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries had descended upon Managua, converting the city into what the Sandinista government glowingly called "the capital of democracy."

Ortega, seated in the center chair at the banquet table, conducted the meeting as the master of ceremony.

The Sandinista administration, which has been accused of trampling on democracy and isolating Nicaragua from the concert of nations, referred to the meeting as "one of the greatest democratic moments" for their government. Ortega's leadership role was hailed as a "cause of pride for Nicaragua."

"It was a clear manifestation of the international leadership of Nicaragua under President Daniel Ortega," said Vice Foreign Minister Valdrack Jaentschke. "This is a moment of national pride."

For others, listening to Ortega, Chávez, and Castro defend democracy, free elections, and freedom of the press smacked more of irony.

"Leaders of governments who are snubbing basic freedoms and human rights [in their own countries] come here and declare themselves the leaders of free expression, when we know by their actions they are doing the exact opposite," says Carlos Lauria, Americas program coordinator for the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists.

Mr. Lauria was in Managua this week to present a report titled "Daniel Ortega's war on the media."

The opposition sees it differently

Nicaraguan opposition leaders took equal offense to this week's political theatrics.

"Obviously, some of the governments of ALBA, notoriously Chávez and Ortega, have a double standard," says opposition leader Edmundo Jarquín, of the leftist Sandinista Renovation Movement. "While they stifle democracy in Venezuela and Nicaragua, they say they are defending it in Honduras."

Despite the apparent irony of the event, some see a silver lining.

Victor Hugo Tinoco, a former member of the Sandinistas' inner circle and ex-vice minister of foreign affairs during the first Sandinista government in the 1980s, says he thinks the emergency summit here could be viewed as a step toward strengthening democracy in the hemisphere.

"One can look at the situation pessimistically and cynically, but I think it was positive because it was saying that democracy is an obligation in the hemisphere and the hemisphere is obliged to act when one country breaks from democracy," Mr. Tinoco says.

Tinoco, now an opposition lawmaker with the Sandinista Renovation Movement, said Ortega's impassioned defense of democracy in Honduras is noteworthy, because it shows he thinks the principles of democracy supersede a government's claim to sovereignty.

Since Nicaragua's election scandal last year, Ortega's government has dismissed all foreign criticism as an offense to Nicaraguan sovereignty. And despite his own record of silencing unfriendly media, Ortega was sharply critical of this week's harsh media censorship by the de facto government of Honduras. (For more on the election scandal and Ortega's handling of the media, click here.)

But now that Ortega is raising his voice against the situation in Honduras, it could open a space for dialogue in Nicaragua about last year's elections, Tinoco says hopefully.

"Our position is that we are against military coups and we are also against electoral fraud," Tinoco says. "They are both deplorable, because both represent a violation of democracy and citizens' rights."

The lawmaker predicts that "sooner or later the contradictions between Ortega's words and actions has to end, because it's not sustainable."

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