U.S. must look before it leaps on Nicaragua

Opinion.

Washington’s recently renewed interest in Nicaragua’s troubled democracy has revealed two insights into U.S. Congress: 1) Daniel Ortega, who used to draw sympathy from left-leaning Democrats, now has no friends on Capitol Hill; and 2) With the exception of a few right-wing torchbearers leading the anti-Ortega crusade, most U.S. lawmakers—even members of the House Committee of Foreign Affairs—seem to know embarrassingly  little about Nicaragua.

Indeed, parts of yesterday’s House committee hearing on Nicaragua felt like a cram session by a bunch of students who haven’t done their homework for the past five years.

And in some cases, it’s probably been longer than that. Several of the congressmen used their microphone time to reminisce pointlessly about “fact finding” missions they went on to Nicaragua in the 1980s. Twenty-five years later, those facts need refreshing.

While some of the U.S. Representatives were clearly familiar with Ortega and the situation in Nicaragua today, the learning curve for others appeared too steep to keep up.  Some of the congressmen’s questions ranged from the seriously uninformed (“Is the U.S. giving aid to Nicaragua?”) to the I-haven’t-read-a-briefing-in-20-years uninformed (“Is Ortega a communist?”). One congressman demanded to know what’s going on in “Nicrawa.”

Congress’s sudden eagerness to “do something” about Ortega after not paying attention to Nicaragua for many years could create conditions for a knee-jerk policy push by archconservative lawmakers who seem eager to punish the Sandinista president, perhaps as a settling of old scores as much as castigation for current offenses.

“Twenty-five years ago, President Ronald Reagan assisted freedom fighters in pushing back the cancer of communism that Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas were spreading into Nicaragua. At that time, another Florida Member was Chairing the Foreign Affairs Committee. The distinguished Dante Fascell, my friend and mentor, had witnessed and heard first hand from his constituents fleeing communism about what was taking place in Nicaragua. Dante Fascell decided, as he always did, to stand for freedom and democracy against the oppressive tactics employed by the likes of Daniel Ortega,” said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, during her opening statement to Thursday’s hearing.  “Today, I am proud to carry the torch and do the same for the people of Nicaragua.”

While Ros-Lehtinen takes it upon herself to deliver the good people of Nicaragua to the promised land, it remains to be seen whether the less-convinced members of the House committee will follow her blindly into battle against Ortega.

The elections were a mess, now what?

While there seems to be universal agreement in Washington that Nicaragua’s election was corrupted to the point of being “not verifiable,” according to testimony from Jennifer McCoy of the Carter Center, there is still no consensus about what the U.S. should do about the situation.

U.S. Senator Bob Menendez (D-NJ) seemed to make the most level-headed call to attention yesterday, saying “Daniel Ortega’s unconstitutional grab of the Nicaraguan presidency is a serious deterioration of democratic values…It is time for the United States and the international community to pay attention to what is occurring in Nicaragua and take action to ensure that the democratic values in the region aren’t further eroded.”

For some Republicans, the focus seems to be on the action, including policies to isolate Nicaragua.

Former U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan claims that would be a mistake. He says Ortega’s project will probably “implode” on its own and thinks the U.S. needs to continue its engagement with Nicaragua because pulling out would be counterproductive.

“I do think that for the moment we should stay. I do think that it’s important to give material and moral support to the opposition,” Callahan told the congressional hearing. “After all, we did remain in Nicaragua throughout the 1980s. And I have got to believe that, at least in small measure, it contributed to the victory of the opposition in 1990.”

Callahan added that the Nicaraguan opposition “desperately need our help, including our moral support.”

“If we pull out, if we take drastic action, I am afraid it would have a greater affect on the democratic opposition in Nicaragua than it will on Ortega.”

But the House Committee’s Republican leadership is pushing for a tougher response.

“The U.S. must not recognize Daniel Ortega as Nicaragua’s leader and should call for new free, fair, and transparent elections to be held, that are in keeping with Nicaragua’s constitution and reflect the will of the Nicaraguan people,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

Congressman Connie Mack (R-FL), chairman of the western hemisphere subcommittee, called for “disengagement from the OAS” to allow the U.S. to “stand with other countries that want to see freedom and democracy in Latin America.”

Mack accused the Obama Administration of failing to provide stronger leadership in Latin America, and for giving Ortega a free pass.

“What they are seeing is that on one hand we go after Honduras, and on the other hand we don’t take the same strong position against Nicaragua,” Mack said. “We seem to be a little passive when it comes to Nicaragua, so that creates a muddled world in Latin America where there’s no leadership.”

 Mack went on to show his own style of leadership by acting like a playground bully with the Carter Center’s Dr. McCoy for suggesting Nicaragua’s election results were unverifiable due to the lack of transparency.

“Well, duh!” Mack said.

The Tico’s take

Perhaps the strangest testimony of the day came from former Costa Rican Ambassador Jaime Daremblum, a longtime Tico lobbyist and outspoken critic of Ortega.

Daremblum told the committee that Ortega is a “hardened autocrat and expert in stealing elections,” and said any efforts to recommend electoral reforms would only “fall on deaf ears” in Nicaragua’s sullied Sandinista-controlled electoral council.

But Daremblum resorted to fear-mongering when it came to the issue of Nicaragua’s relations with Iran. Ambassador Callahan stressed that Nicaragua’s relationship with Iran is based more on rhetoric than cooperation, but Daremblum seemed determine to overstate the relationship and exaggerate the alleged threat it represents to U.S. national security.

Daremblum claims Iran is using Nicaragua to establish a “strategic presence” close to the United States’ borders, just like the U.S. has military troops stationed in the Middle East in close proximity to Iran.

“Iran wants to the do exactly the same thing with its presence in Nicaragua,” Daremblum said.

Anyone who pays any attention to Nicaragua knows that’s nonsense. Iran has less of a presence in Nicaragua than TGI Fridays, and there’s no evidence that they’re any more threatening.

 Daremblum’s efforts to equate the U.S.’ full-strike military capacity in the Middle East to a couple of lonely Iranian diplomats sitting around in a Managua home waiting for the first Iranian tourist to show up with a lost passport, is laughable.

Or at least it would be if the U.S. congressmen knew enough about Nicaragua to not take those comments seriously. The problem, however, is that when certain members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee don’t even know how many syllables Nicaragua has, there’s a good chance there’s a lot of other things they don’t know either. And in that haze, the idea of an Iranian foothold in Nicaragua—similar to the idea of the communist foothold in Nicaragua in the 1980s—probably seems scary.

Daremblum, a veteran political operator, understands the gringos’ fear perfectly well. And as his country enters another round of border squabbles with Nicaragua, he realizes he can use Washington’s concern about Nicaragua to Costa Rica’s advantage.

But when it comes to Nicaragua, Iran is a red herring. Nicaragua’s problems are much more homegrown.

If the United States is serious about taking an interest in Nicaragua again, first its need to figure out why. The U.S. won’t help anything or anyone if it goes from being uninformed and disinterested to uninformed and active.

The U.S. has been blowing it in Nicaragua for more than a century, despite the dedicated work of many state department individuals who truly want to see the country succeed. U.S. lawmakers need to learn from history before rushing to repeat it.

The only thing worse than non-engagement is dumb engagement.

  • sayayuca

    Our world is never gonna get any better while we’re still thinking that some nations have the right to interfere in other nation affairs. Who has given the US the right to even discuss matters that are of the sole competence of the Nicaraguan people? Has the Nicaraguan Congress ever had a session to “study and debate” the state of the democracy in the USA or any other country? Some out there pretty sure will come up with the argument of the economical help given, as a base for having this right to interfere. Well, there is 2 types of help, one is a loan, which you’re paying back and you should’nt be subjected to any other obligation and the other one is a donation or gift that is supposed to be an un-interested gesture. If you don’t like the way your donation is being administered just don’t give it any more, but don’t you feel with the right to impose your will to others.

    • crisalex

      wow sayayuca, i see that you have poured in comments on all topics where there´s critizism of Ortega, you’re half right about the fact that no other nation should interfere in a nation’s affairs, but WE nicaraguan beleive there should be a sense of support when the BIG guys that dominate the ARMY, police forces, so on so forth are doing wrong to the people of a country. OTHER NATIONS SHOULD HELP SMALLER NATIONS WHEN THERE’S WRONGDOINGS that are taking the tolls on the people.

    • http://above howard cox

      Does that include Chavez interfering in Nicaraguas internal affairs? Never mind, Chavez wont be around much longer.

  • Rita Lugo

    Lets hope the good old time of cover ops come back as we all know by now who the enemy is. It’s time to take out people like Chavez and Ortega.
    Do we need to wait and experience a nuclear showdown with Iran? Do you think, if the had a portable nuke, instead of planes on 9-11 they would have used it?
    Do we need another Pearl Harbor to realize there are people, as we speak, planing on the destruction of the USA?
    Do you think they will stop because of all the talking done by a few lost libs or a lost man called Obama?
    Wouldn’t you agree they are actually using them?
    Thank God we have Israel for they will show the way…

    • http://above howard cox

      We are halfway there. Chavez is reported to have stage 4 pancreatic cancer. If that is true, he will not survive 2012.

  • Tico Jones

    Why does Ortega make his calculations counting on US monies? He knew very well that Nicaragua had to comply with IMF-IDB-BM conditions on democracy and human rights.His economic team signed those agreements.Tomas borge said that they were going to face any risk but giving away power.Credit is not a undeniable right of any nation. If he hates US so much why does he expect that the US is obliged to fund him? Why doesn’t ALBA provide credit to governments that don’t like Venezuela? A couples of weeks ago an orteguista congressman said that the ALBA benefits are not for the right wingers! It works the same way on the other side, IF YOU DONT WANT TO DEAL WITH THE IMPERIALIST DON NOT DEMAND OR EXPECT ANY MONEY FROM THEM!! Very simple!!

  • OEstrada

    Great article/opinion piece. Now I’ve seen this “sayayuca” sandinista propagandist post so many ridiculous comments it’s not even funny. He must be getting a big payoff from his boss the election stealer ortega. These people are good at that, but they will not be able to quiet the many freedom fighters Nicaraguan who all the want is live in peace with hope for a better future.

    • sayayuca

      Hey, I’m here giving my opinions, everybody has the right. Now, if you guys don’t like it, you have the right of not reading them. I’ll respect that. My comments are not intended to be funny, they only try to get attention to certain topics. Thank you for making them a success, as I can see you’re an avid reader of them.

  • El Comandante

    For once I totally agree with yuca. If you don’t like his comments, don’t read them. I noticed hes got a reply for everything, even if they are pointless, predictable and down right ridiculous. Its obvious that his job is to get a rise out of the readers of this forum. So go ahead yuca, fire away. Viva la robolusion.

    • crisalex

      It’s spelled revolucion, at least spell it right.

  • Ken

    When Callahan ends up being the voice of reason on Capitol Hill, you know that Congress is veering insanely right. Good article, I only wish it would have been published in the W Post or some other outlet that these uninformed ideologues might read.

    • http://above howard cox

      The U.S. Left Wing heard from. .Thanks for sharing, Ken. Amb. Callahan is a man with Character. We all know what Ortega is.

  • http://Lola Lola

    I had to LOL about Iran and TGIF. About 3 weeks ago I had launch at TGIF and off to the Oriental market to buy fabric from my favorite “Persian” store. My experience at the Oriental was better then the burger at Friday’s.

  • Rita Lugo

    Muchos consideran la posibilidad de negociar con los narcotraficantes la destrucción de Ortega y los suyos basándose en el hecho de que supuestamente la única ventaja de Ortega para con los USA es detener a los narcos pero si estos no desean actuar protegiendo la democracia Nica, porque deberá Nicaragua preocuparse de que los Gringos no chupen drogas?… Los narcos no tendrían mucho problema en reventar a Ortega y los suyos a cambio de un corredor en el Atlántico…

  • Daniel Ortega

    I agree with Lola, the burgers at TGI Fridays are terrible.

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  • http://www.nicaragua-magazine.com Michael

    I enjoy reading your take on things going on in Nicaragua or related to Nicaragua in the US.

  • Miguel

    Nicaragua needs to work out their own problems. The USA has plenty of their own issues to solve: high unemployment, a 2-party system that does not represent the people, middle-class shrinking, foreclosures due to banking scam of the Bush era, bank bailouts loan agreements never made public, fighting 3 wars in 2011 simultaneously, civil liberties being removed, tax moneys allocated to war instead of education and occupy protest movements across many medium and large cities in every USA state. The USA has enough on their hands dealing with domestic problems. There won’t be any meddling by “public” military force in Latin America without an extreme public outcry. The Nicaraguan people must have the courage to decide what they want and don’t want in a government and like the USA, the people need to work out their own internal problems without outside influences. That is called democracy. A positive collective mass to make a change that will be good for everyone, not just for the few. Either you love your country and help solve its problems or you cut your losses and move and try a start someplace else.