Two thousand miles from Managua, far from the claptrap buncombe of Nicaraguan political theater, a small group of Nicaraguan businessmen and politicians accomplished something in Washington today that they haven’t been able to do at home for many years: Have a civilized, public conversation about their country, with an open exchange of divergent viewpoints and opinions.
No insults were hurled. No mortars were fired. No government-sponsored youth groups showed up wearing matching peace-and-love t-shirts to spontaneously celebrate the adolescent joys of presidential reelection.
It probably didn’t appear like a very important moment to the several dozen U.S. audience members who strolled into the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to listen to the Nicaraguan investment forum. But for Nicaraguans, the event—broadcast live via webcast to an equally small audience of journalists back home—was a rare display of political tolerance, respect and pluralism.
General Alvaro Baltodano, President Daniel Ortega’s delegate for foreign investment, led off the forum with a convincing and coherent case for why Nicaragua is a productive partner in trade and development, and why the United States should continue to work with the country to help it achieve sustainable social and economic development. He spoke about how Nicaragua needs both U.S. and Venezuelan aid to help the country meet its many needs and pull itself out of poverty—a process, he said, that is already underway. Baltodano insisted that Nicaragua is on the right track, generating employment, building the economy and moving towards a better future.
Opposition congressional leader Eduardo Montealegre—the once and future presidential candidate—disagreed. He told the Washington audience that Nicaragua is going backwards economically, socially and institutionally.
Montealegre said the Sandinista government has managed to continue the macroeconomic stability “inherited from previous administrations,” but that even with Venezuelan aid the country’s growth has been “insufficient and fragile.”
“The [government] has not generated massive employment or quality jobs and as a result has not achieved important advances in the reduction of poverty,” the opposition lawmaker said.
In addition, Montealegre said, health and education systems are deficient, government programs are eleemosynary and politicized, and there has been a “profound deterioration” in the country’s democratic institutionalism. The Sandinista government, he said, has “lost credibility and its capacity to carry out its functions.”
Montealegre then rattled off a jeremiad of political offenses and fouls committed by the Sandinista government starting with the 2006 elections. Far from being a country that Baltodano described as being on the right path, Montealegre argued that Nicaragua is on an undemocratic and authoritarian track that historically ends badly.
“When democratic spaces are closed, the people always look for ways to defend their liberty, with very high costs for all of society,” Montealegre said.
Other panelists sought a more measured middle ground between Baltodano’s optimism and Montealegre’s gloom.
Mario Arana, former Central Bank president and head of Polaris Nicaragua, the country’s largest geothermal company, said he thinks the government is making strides to work with the opposition to “harmonize the priorities of the country.”
“What we need is to assure the long-term stability of the country,” Arana said. “And that happens when we find points of convergence on political issues, social issues and economic issues.”
To investors in the audience, Arana said, “We think the country is ready to make the leap, but we have to assure that this is sustainable politically and socially, and that’s the great challenge for our national leadership.”
Yalí Molina, president of the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM), said Nicaragua is not “an ideal country, but it’s a real country with lots of real benefits that we need to promote.”
In many ways, Molina said, “Nicaragua has everything and more that Costa Rica offers.” The difference, he says, is in the branding, marketing and reputation—something Nicaragua needs to work on to promote itself better.
Despite the different positions expressed by the panel, everyone agreed that Nicaragua’s political and institutional problems need to be fixed internally, by Nicaraguans in Nicaragua. For a country where one group or another has always looked beyond its borders for outside help solving its internal problems, that acknowledgement alone is a significant step towards nation-building.
And judging by the sparse turnout at Monday’s forum, and the fact that the Nicaraguan delegation could not get a meeting with any important officials in the Obama administration (something the group denies it was trying to do anyway), it looks like Nicaragua might be on its own anyway.