US to Nicaragua's opposition: We can dance, but you lead

If Nicaragua’s sluggish opposition is waiting for Uncle Sam to swoop in like Superman to rescue Lady Democracy from the grips of mustachioed villain Daniel Ortega, they’re in for a long wait.

Elmer Martinez/AFP Photo/Newscom
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (C) and First Lady Rosario Murillo (C L) take part in the IV Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) Congress, at the Revolution Square in Managua, on February 26. Ortega was officially proclaimed by the Sandinista Congress as presidential candidate for a second consecutive period, for November 6 elections.

If Nicaragua’s sluggish opposition is waiting for Uncle Sam to swoop in like Superman to rescue Lady Democracy from the grips of mustachioed villain Daniel Ortega, they’re in for a long wait.

That was the gist of the message delivered Wednesday afternoon by US Ambassador Robert Callahan, who stressed that Washington wants to be Nicaragua’s partner in democracy, but Nicaraguans need to do their own leg work.

“Democracy needs to emanate from the bosom of the people; It can’t come from another country or international [organization]. It can’t be imposed or created by magic,” Mr. Callahan told a group of 150 business leaders gathered at a luncheon event organized by the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM).

While Callahan’s words might have sounded inspirational at a commencement speech to university graduates, they most likely fell on slumped shoulders at the business luncheon. That’s because many in Nicaragua have lost hope in their country’s divided political opposition and want the US to take the lead.

Even the country’s business leaders, who have been criticized in the press for kissing up to President Ortega, say they feel forced to play ball with the Sandinista strongman because the political opposition is too ineffective to partner with.

“We tried for several years to work with them without any success,” one business leader told me about Nicaragua’s political opposition.

The ambassador’s message came four days after Ortega accepted his party’s nomination to run as the Sandinista presidential candidate for the sixth consecutive election, despite a constitutional ban prohibiting his reelection and amid increasing concerns that he’s pushing Nicaragua towards dictatorship.

While the US has expressed serious reservations about Ortega’s candidacy, Callahan says Nicaragua must find its own footing on the path back toward democracy.

And it’s not going to be easy, he warned. Democracy, the ambassador stressed, is hard work; it takes strong and dedicated leadership, constant vigilance, tolerance, sacrifice, and energy. And above all, it takes an entire nation.

“Whether it be a mature and prosperous democracy, or a nascent democracy, or a country that is fighting to create a representative government – it’s the people of that country who have to assume responsibility for their own affairs. The people need to build their future and define their destiny,” Callahan said.

Perhaps. But for those Nicaraguans who viewed Ronald Reagan’s support for the Contras as a positive thing, Callahan’s message is a tough pill to swallow.

Nicaragua’s history is one marked by repeated interventions – and even armed invasions – by the United States. The Sandinistas’ namesake, Gen. Augusto C. Sandino, gained international fame and national-hero status fighting against the occupation of US Marines in the 1930s.

It’s that spirit of nationalism that President Ortega tries to personify today. He constantly rails against US meddling – both real and imaginary – in Nicaraguan affairs. During his nomination speech Feb. 26, Ortega openly challenged Callahan by telling the outgoing ambassador to stick around Nicaragua after his post ends in July to apply for Nicaraguan citizenship and then run against him for president. “And then we’ll beat you!” Ortega bellowed.

Truth is, the US isn’t exactly living up to Ortega’s expectations of a meddlesome imperial overlord these days.

Instead, the US has attempted to work with the Ortega administration, providing some $60 million a year in aid and development programs for Nicaragua. Yes, some US aid – particularly the $64 million in Millennium Challenge Corporation development funding – was cut following what was viewed as widely fraudulent municipal elections in 2008. But many other programs have continued, and new ones have been started.

In that sense, the US is also failing to live up to the opposition’s expectations.

Many in the anti-Ortega current want Washington to take a much tougher stance against the Sandinista leader by threatening sanctions or embargos or somehow making Nicaragua a pariah in the region (something Ortega, arguably, is handling quiet capably on his own – and a position that will be further cemented if Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi seeks exile in Nicaragua, as is rumored).

Instead, the US continues to make quaint calls for democracy, rule of law, and respect for individual rights, while tiptoeing around Ortega’s continued abuses.

Even when tossed a lob pitch, such as Ortega’s recently announced candidacy – explicitly prohibited by Article 147 of the Constitution – the US is opting to bunt rather than swing for the fences.

“Can an electoral process born into original sin have anything other than an illegitimate ending?” I asked the ambassador Wednesday, rather leadingly, as he pushed his way through a throng of reporters on the way out the luncheon.

Callahan laughed, then said to me quietly: “I can’t answer that, Tim. But well put.”

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