Under different circumstances, President Daniel Ortega’s fervid defense of the drug war would curry favor with Washington and bolster Nicaragua’s position as a steady U.S. ally in an increasingly rambunctious region. But unfortunately for Ortega, it could be a case of too little too late, analysts say.
“It doesn’t make sense to decriminalize drugs, which would be like saying ‘We give up.’ It would be like legalizing a crime, because promoting and facilitating the consumption of drugs is a criminal act,” Ortega said last week.
Ortega’s words, which came on the eve of last weekend’s poorly attended security summit in Guatemala, resonate in strange echo with Washington’s line on the war on drugs.
Indeed, at a time when the governments of Guatemala and Costa Rica are rebelling against the status quo, Ortega’s staunch support for U.S. drug-control policy puts him in the unfamiliar position of being—at least on this issue—one of Uncle Sam’s greatest allies in Central America.
Some say that’s a coincidence, noting Ortega has always supported the war on drugs and been a proponent of tough crackdowns on organized crime. But for others, Ortega’s recent reaffirmation of his backing of the drug war is meant as a peace offering to the United States at a time when bilateral relations are particularly strained.
Ortega has shown repeatedly over the past five years that he’s much more of a conservative fuddy-duddy than his revolutionary youth and political propaganda suggest. So it’s perfectly believable that Ortega’s support for the drug war is reflective of his social views rather than political calculations.
But the president’s loud proclamations in recent days appear like a new attempt to find common ground with the United States and mitigate his government’s worsening relationship with Washington.
It might not be enough, however. Analysts think the jury has already ruled on Ortega, and that Washington is waiting until after next month’s Summit of the Americas to hand down its final verdict.
“I anticipate a high-level policy decision has already been made on Nicaragua,” says Arturo Cruz Jr., Ortega’s former ambassador to Washington and a current professor of political science at INCAE business school in Managua. “The decision has been locked, and at this point further review will be difficult.”
Cruz says the U.S. is “tired of guessing on Ortega” and is “exhausted” by his political antics. He anticipates there will be no fanfare or State Department press statement announcing a change in U.S. policy towards Nicaragua, but the change of tack will reveal itself in administrative decisions and new treatment from lending organizations, such as the Inter-American Development Bank.
Despite claims by the U.S. Embassy’s Property Office that there has been an increase in alleged confiscations of U.S. properties over the past year, Cruz thinks the U.S. government will again extend the property waiver this year. The property waiver, on which all U.S. aid to Nicaragua is dependent, is—in Cruz’s words—the “Atomic bomb” option that the U.S. will reserve for next year, depending how messy the November municipal elections are.
If Nicaragua’s internationally disgraced Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) conducts this year’s municipal elections with the same ham-fisted knavery as the 2008 municipal elections and the 2011 president elections, it will be strike three for Ortega and Nicaragua, Cruz predicts.
In that regard, he says, Ortega’s support for the drug war might not be winning him the political points he hopes to gain in Washington at this time. Cruz says once a top-level decision is made on a small country like Nicaragua, the U.S. moves on and doesn’t usually look back. Therefore, Ortega’s subsequent “concessions” may go mostly unnoticed.
Hedging his bet on Chávez?
Francisco Aguirre, an ex-foreign minister and former Nicaraguan ambassador to Washington, says he thinks Ortega’s backing of the drug war is in part “trying to head off a possible showdown with Washington,” but also an attempt to hedge his bet on ailing comrade Hugo Chávez, whose prognosis is looking increasingly grim as he returns to Cuba for another round of mysterious cancer treatments.
“Daniel realizes he cannot afford to keep all his eggs in Venezuela’s basket,” Aguirre said.
President Chávez has been Ortega’s main benefactor over the past five years, providing him with upwards of $500 million a year in ALBA aid. In recent weeks, the Sandinista government has sponsored prayer groups for Chávez’s health.
At the same time, Aguirre notes, Ortega appears to be offering the United States a drug-war olive branch at a time when “U.S.-Nicaragua relations are at a new low.”
“Daniel has taken exactly the same position as the U.S. on the drug war; he is trying to become their point man on the drug issue,” Aguirre says.
What remains to be seen, Aguirre says, is whether that position will endure.
“No one knows whether this is a long-term strategy or a tactical swerve,” Aguirre said. “One thing that is always predictable is that Daniel is unpredictable.”