Can Nicaragua continue to play both sides?

The Sandinistas of the Cold War requested aid from countries across the globe, landing themselves in neither the Soviet nor American camps. Today President Daniel Ortega is in many ways following those same steps. But he soon may be forced to make some choices.

Miguel Alvarez
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega, top, delivers a speech during the XVII Sao Paulo Forum in Managua, Nicaragua, Thursday, May 19 2011.

In many ways, today, the Sandinistas, or more accurately (President Daniel) Ortega, is following the same foreign policy as the Sandinistas of 1979 and the early 80s. President Ortega's Nicaragua is a member of DR-CAFTA, a free trade agreement with the Dominican Republic, other Central American states, and the US. Nicaragua is also a member of the Venezuelan and Cuban-led Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas (click here for an Americas Quarterly report on ALBA). While the stakes are not nearly as high as during the Cold War, Ortega is again playing both sides.

There are a few potential scenarios that might affect Nicaragua's simultaneous participation in DR-CAFTA and ALBA. First, there might be a new occupant in the White House following the US presidential election in 2012. If the next US president takes a more hard-line approach to its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere (one that does not look kindly on Nicaragua's support for Chavez, Castro, Gadhafi, or Ahmadinejad), Ortega might be forced to choose.

A second scenario might come from a deterioration in the relationship between the US and Venezuela. Recently, the US levied sanctions against Venezuela's state-run oil company, PDVSA. While the sanctions are relatively weak, it's not hard to imagine events spiraling out of control.

Finally, another scenario that could force Ortega to choose comes from his likely victory in next year's presidential election. A recent Nicaraguan poll, this one by New Century, has Ortega comfortably in the lead with 50 percent of the respondents in favor of reelecting Ortega. Ortega's support is up slightly from April's survey. While things could always change, there's a very good chance that Ortega will win another five-year term, even though the constitution seems to have barred him from running.

Should Ortega need to manipulate the vote like he has been accused of in the past or have to send out his enforcers to break up anti-Ortega protests movements, one can see the US government taking a stronger stance towards the Nicaraguan government. And like in the Cold War, Nicaragua will no longer be able to pursue a foreign policy that seeks to take advantage of what both the United States and Venezuela have to offer. And Nicaragua and Ortega will, in all likelihood, look south....

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