Twenty years after the US-funded contra war ended and Nicaragua faded from the US nightly news, aging Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega – who returned to the presidency democratically in 2007 – is again being accused of pushing this small Central American nation back toward dictatorship.
Only this time around, the United States government may be too distracted by problems in other parts of the world to bother with Nicaragua. At least that’s the perception here.
In the past two years, Mr. Ortega has been accused of rigging the 2008 municipal elections, manipulating the Supreme Court to get a green light on his reelection aspirations, usurping powers from the National Assembly, illegally replacing democratically elected mayors, threatening free press, and cracking down on opposition protests. Concerns over the Sandinistas’ commitment to democracy have led to the US and EU canceling some $190 million in development and budgetary aid over the past two years.
Headlines in Nicaragua’s opposition dailies read like cries of distress: “Sandinista Dictatorship Established in Supreme Court,” “Dictatorship Thanks to Weakened Opposition,” “Dictatorship, Step by Step.”
Obama takes it slow
Yet in Washington, the US government doesn’t seem to care as much about Nicaragua as it did in the 1980s. Aside from occasional declarations, there is little evidence to indicate that Nicaragua still matters on Capitol Hill.
“Nicaraguans always say to me, ‘What’s going on in Washington? The United States isn’t worried about Nicaragua anymore?’ ” says Richard Feinberg, the senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs during the Clinton administration.
Mr. Feinberg, who spoke to a group of business leaders in Managua on Aug. 19, points to free-trade agreements, aid for education, health and development, and joint private sector initiatives as proof that the US is still interested in engaging Nicaragua and Latin America. But he says times have changed, and notes that presidents Ortega and Obama "are from different generations." Plus, when it comes to promoting democratic values and US idealism, the Obama administration might still be taking it slow after the perceived abuses of the Bush administration.
“Unfortunately President Bush mistreated the concept of ideology and he used it as justification to invade a country. So throughout the world, many countries don’t believe the US when they talk about democracy because it looks like a justification of other things,” Feinberg says.
Actions 'reek of authoritarianism'
Ortega, meanwhile, pretends – at least in public – that he still holds the same importance as when the Reagan administration funded an decade-long counterrevolutionary war against his government. In a rare interview to a Russian television reporter Aug. 18, Ortega said the only reason the US hasn't attempted a coup against his government is because "they don't have any military instrument to provoke a coup [here]."
Despite his fiery rhetoric against the "yanqui empire," there is little to suggest that Washington spends much time thinking about Ortega. Even US lawmakers who were sympathetic with the first Sandinista government seem to have lost their taste for Ortega. Last year, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, condemned Ortega’s power grab and "manipulation" of Nicaragua's judicial system, which he said “reeks of authoritarianism."
This month, Ortega completed his takeover of the Supreme Court by replacing opposition judges with Sandinista substitutes – a move opponents claim is brazenly illegal. Nicaragua's majority opposition, which has been too divided and weak to organize any meaningful defense against Ortega’s advances in the past three years, is looking beyond their borders for help.
Ortega takes advantage of US politics
“The OAS [Organization of American States] should intervene because this is a coup d’état against the court. The entire judicial branch of government does not work,” says former Supreme Court president Roberto Argüello, who served as chief justice during the first Sandinista government in the 1980s.
Leaders in the private sector are also looking to the United States for support. “We are the reflection of a failed state,” says Roger Arteaga, president of the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce. “In this situation, of crisis on top of crisis, our relationship with the US is of special importance.”
Washington insiders say the Obama administration is in a bind regarding Nicaragua.
“Senior officials know that Ortega is riding roughshod over institutions and is dismantling democracy and the rule of law, but they do not know how best to respond,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue. “If they lead the charge and take a tough stand, that could backfire. It might evoke some unpleasant memories of US bullying in the 1980s.”
Shifter adds, “Washington today is quite different than the 1980s, in the midst of the Cold War. At that time there was fear about the spread of communism. But now Ortega is not perceived to have a wider agenda beyond perpetuating himself in power in Nicaragua.”
And with US midterm elections fast approaching, Democrats also have to worry about perpetuating themselves in power. That could make Obama even less likely to raise a fuss over Ortega, according to Francisco Aguirre, former Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United States.
“It’s an election year and the Obama administration doesn’t need any more controversial issues,” he says.
Mr. Aguirre predicts there could be less tolerance in Washington for Sandinista shenanigans if the Republicans win big in the congressional elections. But for now, he says Ortega is reading the situation in Washington clearly and taking full advantage of it in Nicaragua.
“Ortega understands the US much better than the US understands Nicaragua,” Aguirre says.