The Sandinistas’ erratic foreign policy underwent another uncomfortable, rope-tightening corrective adjustment this week when President Daniel Ortega ordered yet another diplomatic missive sent to the U.S. State Department distancing his administration from comments made by his acting foreign minister Manuel Coronel Kautz.
“The unfortunate declarations made Dec. 9 by deputy foreign minister Manuel Coronel Kautz about the United States’ foreign policy does not represent in any way the position of the Government of Nicaragua,” reads the letter sent by the Nicaraguan government to the U.S. State Department.
The apologetic note came in response to Coronel Kautz’s comments last Friday accusing the United States of “killing people everywhere always with bombs everywhere.”
“Are you not up to date with what happened in Libya?” Coronel Kautz asked reporters. “I ask because over there (the U.S.) killed half of the Libyans. Not half, but a lot of Libyans.”
Nicaragua’s deputy foreign minister added, by way of non sequitur, that relations between Nicaragua and the United States are “excellent,” and that there’s “no reason to improve upon them any further.”
Though it’s unlikely anyone in Washington noticed or cares much about Coronel Kautz’s comments, the Sandinistas’ hand-wringing apology has given his hyperbole more importance by drawing attention to the issue.
It’s the third time in three years that the Ortega Administration has had to distance itself from the outspoken deputy foreign minister, and essentially tell other governments that Nicaragua’s foreign minister doesn’t represent Nicaragua’s foreign policy. Coronel Kautz’s greatest diplomatic hits include: calling Swedish Ambassador Eva Zetterberg “the devil;” calling Holland a “shitty little country;” calling European diplomats in Managua “cats in heat,” and offering “thanks to God” that U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan left Nicaragua last July.
But if the people President Ortega appointed to the foreign ministry don’t represent Nicaragua’s foreign policy, who does? Or perhaps more importantly: What is Nicaragua’s foreign policy?
“What foreign policy?” scoffs opposition lawmaker Francisco Aguirre Sacasa, president of the congressional committee on foreign affairs and ex-foreign minister under President Arnoldo Alemán.
Aguirre says the Sandinistas’ foreign policy, whatever it may be, is clearly originating from the presidency, not the foreign ministry, and reflects the interests of the ruling party more than the state. Jacinto Suarez, head of the FSLN’ foreign relations, declined to discuss foreign policy issues, and directed all policy questions to the foreign ministry, which didn’t respond to queries by press time. Meanwhile, a source in Costa Rica’s foreign ministry said the real decisions on Nicaragua’s foreign policy are made by former Sandinista minister and Maryknoll priest Miguel D’Escoto, who was unavailable for comment this week.
One diplomat who has been on the receiving end of the Sandinistas’ foreign policy says the Nicaraguan government’s incoherence is a reflection of Ortega’s time-machine cosmovision, which no longer fits in a messy, post-cold war world order.
“I think what (Ortega) says is a largely hormonal reaction to events refracted through a cold-war and 1950s’ Marxist-Leninist prism,” former U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan told The Nicaragua Dispatch in an email. “His diplomatic recognition of Abkazia and South Ossetia, his defense to the last of Gaddafi, his mooning over the donation of Russian buses, all are examples of a mind that remains trapped in the illusion that a bipolar world—the ideological battle between Marxism and capitalism—still exists.”
Callahan added, “He simply has not accepted, or cannot understand, that the collapse of Soviet communism fundamentally altered the world. With the exception of his sycophancy toward Chávez, none of his public statements and the resultant foreign policies, if they can be called that, benefits Nicaragua. What, for example, has Nicaragua got from the Russians for recognizing Ossetia?”
South Ossetia demonstrated its willingness to help its new friend by rushing to congratulate Ortega on his Nov. 6 reelection victory. But the fact that the aspiring breakaway Georgian republic was one of only a handful of “countries” to congratulate the Sandinista boss made the gesture seem more silly than significant, like high-fiving an imaginary friend.
Aguirre thinks Ortega has had a hard time readjusting his old cold-war foreign policy to a modern world. “Daniel Ortega has realigned his foreign policy in a way that baffles most people. More specifically, he has combined virulent anti-developed country rhetoric with more pragmatic sets of actions. Hence his (rhetorical) attacks on the U.S. are combined with action to help the U.S. achieve some of its foreign policy goals in Central America, such as the fight against drug trafficking.”
Another foreign policy analyst consulted by The Nicaragua Dispatch said the main objective of Nicaragua’s foray into world affairs is to offer rhetorical dividends to Chávez, the Sandinistas’ main grubstaker, without having to commit much in the way of actions. “Part of that policy includes making exaggerated comments, and then taking them back,” said the source, who wished to remain unidentified due to government ties.
In a certain sense, Ortega has benefited from his own ambiguity by cleverly playing both sides, without fully showing his cards to anyone. He talks the talk with Chávez, but manages to still walk the walk with the United States by being an exemplary ally in the drug war, a productive partner in CAFTA and a helpful and repentant associate when it comes to indemnifying U.S. citizens who had their properties confiscated in the 1980s.
But it’s not a balancing act Ortega has pulled off flawlessly. Ortega’s power grab has pushed away traditional donors such as the U.S. and European nations. The Sandinistas’ electoral knavery in the 2008 municipal elections, when they were accused of stealing more than 40 mayoral seats, led to a cutoff in U.S. Millennium Challenge Account aid and hastened the bleed of European aid.
EU donors have since cut 90% of the quick-disbursing balance-of-payments support funds they had pledged to Nicaragua, forcing the Sandinista government to turn to the Inter-American Development Bank to make up the difference with loans, according to Aguirre, who is also on the budget commission.
But following the Nov. 6 general elections, and the growing grumble in Washington to do something about Ortega, the Sandinista leader’s line-dancing days may be coming to an end.
“In my view, Ortega understands that he is walking in a minefield and that he needs to be careful, very careful,” Aguirre says. “By muzzling Coronel, he has sent a strong message to his underlings: speak softly and tread softly. And for now, do not burnish so much as a small stick.”
But if Ortega is trying to make nice with Uncle Sam by washing out Coronel Kautz’s mouth with soap in public, it doesn’t explain Nicaragua’s recent position in the Organization of American States (OAS), where Nicaraguan Ambassador Dennis Moncada accused the United States of conspiring to destabilize the Sandinista government and lying to other nations.
The fact that Ortega is asking forgiveness for the minor transgression of Coronel Kautz’s comment, without addressing the issue of its international conspiracy theory accusations hurled in the OAS, only seems to support the idea that Nicaragua’s foreign policy is still a few screws and a fan belt away from a running engine.
Ultimately, the incoherency of Nicaragua’s foreign policy could soon evolve from an issue of journalistic curiosity to one of diplomatic liability.
The government’s failure to define their own foreign policy has created a vacuum that the Sandinistas’ adversaries might try to fill by defining it for them. And probably not in generous terms.
Last month’s hearing of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs illustrated that point clearly, when Costa Rican Ambassador Jaime Daremblum cunningly fed upon Republican lawmakers’ ignorance to whip up fears about Nicaragua’s relationship with Iran, and the imagined threat that might represent to U.S. national security.
Daremblum told the House Committee that 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.
While that’s clearly overstating the nature of Nicaraguan-Iranian relations, Daremblum realizes that he can exploit the Ortega Administration’s rhetoric to make it seem like the Sandinistas’ actions match their words.
Following Nicaragua’s second electoral flop in as many tries, and amid new calls for action on Capitol Hill, Ortega is probably going to be given a lot less latitude for rhetorical posturing in the coming months. His government’s ambiguous foreign policy, while helpful in allowing Ortega to play both sides, might not be good policy moving forward.
If the Sandinista government can’t explain coherently what Nicaragua’s foreign policy is, reactionaries in Washington—and Costa Rica—will happily do it for them. And that won’t be good for anyone.