The Sandinista government is not acting like a good team player when it comes to building democracy in Nicaragua, according to Kevin Whitaker, the U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere.
In addition to brushing away independent civil society groups that want to contribute to the country’s inchoate democracy, the Ortega government is also boxing out the Uncle Sam, Whitaker says.
“What Nicaragua is doing is slowly closing spaces for U.S. engagement and involvement, something which we very much regret,” Whitaker told The Nicaragua Dispatch in an interview during his visit to Managua last week. “A closing of space is not in anyone’s interest – certainly not in our interest and I would argue that it’s not in Nicaragua’s interest, either.”
Whitaker says the U.S. needs other countries to work “in a team” and “to be in a position to exchange information” in order to be productive partners in the hemisphere. Such teamwork also allows international financial institutions to partner up as well, Whitaker said.
In Nicaragua, however, that’s not going too well, the U.S. official said.
Indeed, Whitaker said, Nicaragua’s democracy seems to be moving backwards.
“We have seen a significant retrograde movement—one that concerns us and one that we intend to follow up on within the inter-American system,” he said.
Nicaragua is still a good trade partner in CAFTA and a helpful ally in the global war against organized crime, but the U.S. government says the Sandinista administration is not making the grade in the area of democratic governance. And for Washington, democracy still counts, Whitaker said.
“I don’t think you are ever going to see us moving away from a discussion about fundamental democratic practices or fundamental freedoms because of our desire to have better cooperation in other areas,” Whitaker said.
Still, the U.S. official, who was in Nicaragua last week to meet with government officials, opposition leaders (if there were any to be found) and civil society groups, hemmed and hawed a bit when pressed on whether the Obama administration still considers Nicaragua a functioning democracy.
Several vocal leaders within the Republican opposition has been rhetorically hammering the Sandinista government and calling for the U.S. to take action against President Daniel Ortega. The Obama administration, however, doesn’t seem to be so gung-ho. Whitaker wouldn’t take the bait when asked if Nicaragua has crossed the Rubicon from democracy to dictatorship.
“We don’t really divide things up that way; that makes it sound like there’s a set of criteria where you can draw the line, and we don’t do that,” Whitaker said.
Still, Whitaker said the U.S. is discouraged by the way things are going here.
“I would argue that what we are seeing in Nicaragua today looks in some respects like the past. It’s the movement towards (a government model) where civil societies’ contributions are not valued and the only civil society contributions that are made come from groups belonging to the ruling party. And that, of course, is not at all consistent with our vision of democracy,” Whitaker said.
In that regard, Whitaker said, the continued backwards slide in Nicaragua would be a setback not only for Nicaragua, but for all of Central America—most of which is moving, at varying speeds and sometimes with dubious determination, towards something that might be optimistically confused for an inclusive democracy.
Nicaragua, meanwhile, is slipping back to time when the a country seems to be on the fence about whether democracy is even a noble pursuit.
Whitaker, however, says democracy can still be won. Despite Ortega’s weak democratic performance in the first half of the game, the Obama government is playing the role of the supportive high school coach by trying to keep Nicaragua from dropping off the team altogether and going to hang out down by the train tracks with other international pipeheads like Iran and Syria.
“The great thing about democracy is there is always another election; there is always another opportunity to get it right,” Whitaker said, mussing Nicaragua’s hair in encouragement.
But if Nicaragua is going to start making its layups, it needs to start listening to advice from folks who know a little bit about the game, Whitaker said.
“That’s why the follow up on the suggestions (about electoral system improvement) are so important,” he said, referring to the Organization of American States (OAS) repeated calls for Nicaragua to keep its elbow up and eyes open when shooting the ball.
The EU will present its final election report in Managua on Wednesday, adding another international voice that will surely urge Nicaragua to take serious corrective measures moving forward.
For Washington, Whitaker said, the Nicaragua issue is gaining momentum.
“In the State Department, we see it as something that needs to be addressed and can be addressed,” Whitaker said.
When another country veers off the rails of democracy, he said, the United States “feels obligated and compelled to respond.”