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.