MANAGUA, Nicaragua—The amount of historical baggage that Nicaragua and the United States bring onboard when they travel together is usually too much to fit politely into the overhead bin. But like most cynical travelers, both countries would rather carry it than check it.
Denis Moncada, Nicaragua’s Ambassador to the Organization of American States (OAS), revealed just how much his government keeps crammed into its overstuffed roll-aboard when he dug deep into his bag last November to pull out an old reference to early 20th century meddling to spice up his defense of President Daniel Ortega’s reelection. Moncada argued before the OAS that the United States’ criticism of Nicaragua’s 2011 election process was no different than the 1909 “Knox Note”—an infamous albeit obscure letter penned by U.S. Secretary of State Philander Knox demanding the resignation of Nicaraguan President José Santos Zelaya.
Moncada’s distant reference to U.S. interference was probably lost on most of the OAS general assembly, whose familiarity with U.S. diplomatic cables from the pre-WikiLeaks era of 1893-1909 might be fuzzy. But the Nicaraguan ambassador’s argument demonstrates how political events from more than a century ago continue to influence his country’s relations with the United States today.
It’s not only Nicaraguan politicians who entertain a mildly peculiar fascination with the politics of the past. The opposition daily La Prensa has referenced former U.S. filibuster William Walker in at least 18 articles so far this year, including five times—with a full-cover article—in the past month alone. That’s a flurry of news coverage for a man who hasn’t said anything for 152 years.
Such is the historically charged situation that U.S. Ambassador Phyllis Powers stepped into last May when she presented her credentials to fill a diplomatic post that some consider the second most prominent position in Nicaragua after the presidency itself. If the new U.S ambassador was hoping to get a fresh start in Managua, the weight of history is stacked precariously against her.
Washington still eyeing Nicaragua
Managua’s keen interest in Washington is not unreciprocated. In fact, Powers says after she got confirmed by the U.S. Senate last March she was taken aback to learn how much interest Washington still has in Nicaragua.
“I didn’t appreciate the level of interest that was focused on Nicaragua,” Powers told The Nicaragua Dispatch candidly. “It’s more than I thought it would be. It’s Central America, it is a small country, but there is interest.”
Washington’s interest in Nicaragua’s affairs is coming from “new people as well as people who have followed Nicaragua for years,” the U.S. envoy said.
“To what extent still isn’t clear to me, but there is interest and based on my conversations with folks in the State Department, it continues to be there,” Powers says. “Part of it is narcotics, part of it is the politics of the situation, and part of it is that this region is important to the United States.”
Powers says she doesn’t know if part of it is personal also.
“I really can’t answer that, I don’t know,” the ambassador said.
The ambassador does, however, realize how much the past continues to influence relations between the two countries.
She says the drag of history requires the U.S. embassy to work harder to reach out to younger generations and let the people of Nicaragua know what the United States represents today.
“History does play a role…it still plays a role on what people think.” Ambassador Powers says. “It requires me to be out and about allowing people to get to know not only me but understand what the U.S. is in the 21st century.”
Land grabs on the rise
Another issue from the past that continues to weigh heavily on current U.S.-Nicaraguan relations is the problem of unresolved land confiscations from the 1980s, and concerns that history is repeating itself with a worrisome rise in land grabs.
Though the U.S. government recently extended Nicaragua’s property waiver through 2013—thanks in part to 65 resolved cases last year—respect for private property rights remains a serious concern, Powers says.
Since President Ortega returned to power in 2007, there have been 15 new cases of land grabs against U.S. citizens, including five in the past year, according to the embassy. Powers says the numbers indicate the problem is “on the rise.”
It’s not clear what interests are motivating and manipulating the land grabs, but it is the Nicaraguan government’s responsibility to protect property rights and rule of law, the ambassador stressed.
“In many instances we have found squatters, or land invasions by ex-combatants or landless people looking for a place to live; they see an underdeveloped or undeveloped piece of land and they go in and squat,” the ambassador says. “The problem is what happens next—how local government reacts and how the problem gets resolved. Those are the kinds of issues we are working on with the attorney general and his team because there have been a number of new cases. These are cases we are actively pursuing with the government to see if they come to some satisfactory resolution.”
Powers says she has met with Attorney General Hernán Estrada on several occasions over the past few months and he has told her that the property problem is bigger than one that affects only U.S. citizens. She says Estrada told her the land grabs are “also occurring with Nicaraguans and other foreign investors.”
“Obviously the attorney general is taking this into account. He is reviewing cases. They are aware. How big is the issue? I don’t know. But it is big enough that we tell American citizens about the concerns that we have about titling issues and how they need to be extremely careful—and even then something like this could happen. So people need to be aware ahead of time of the risks involved,” the ambassador said.
If the new cases aren’t resolved quickly, she said, they could become included under Section 527 of the Helms-Burton Law and extend the property waiver issue even longer.
“It is in everybody’s interest to get these resolved so we don’t have more cases,” Powers said.
Needs versus wants
Despite the political rhetoric, platitudes and occasional saber rattling from both governments, Nicaragua and the United States remain solid allies on key issues such as the drug war and trade. But after two questionable elections in Nicaragua and increased calls for action on Capitol Hill, political pundits are asking: Are drugs and trade enough?
The ambassador says a commitment to democracy is also important, but at the same time the U.S. government recognizes that Nicaragua is a sovereign country and that democracy is a long process.
“Are democratic values important? Absolutely. Free and fair elections? Absolutely. Having the Nicaraguan people have someone in office that they can hold accountable? Absolutely. Is that going to happen tomorrow? I don’t know. Are the Nicaraguan people ready to vote in a manner to make sure they get it? That’s something they are going to have to decide. Are they getting things from this government? It appears to be that they are. Is that enough? [shrug]”
Powers says democratic values count, but so does reality.
“A commitment to values is always going to be important whether you take a pragmatic view or an ideological view, but you have to be realistic about what you can accomplish in the short term and long term, and what is the ultimate goal?” Powers says. “To get to where you want to be, but more importantly where the Nicaraguan population wants to be. It comes back to them; what we want is one thing, but what do the people want? And when you got over 40% living in poverty, they have a whole list of things they want in the short term and medium term and we can’t presume to make that decision for them.”
Nicaragua must, however, avoid going completely off the rails of democracy. After two heavily criticized election processes in 2008 and 2011, Washington will be watching the November municipal poll closely and determining its next course of action accordingly, she said.
“We still believe deeply in the meaning of a constitution and the inherent right to free, fair and transparent elections. And there is another election coming up, so not only is the (Obama) administration watchful, so too is the U.S. Congress. We are still very interested in strong democratic institutions here…it is all about what is good for the Nicaraguan people and continuing to try to help strengthen the democracy that was growing for the last 20 years.”
Democracy isn’t just a nice idea, Powers says, it’s something the Nicaraguan people deserve and something the country has pledged itself to as a signatory of the OAS’ Democratic Charter.
“These are great people here. They deserve a voice. They deserve strong democratic institutions,” Powers says. “I’m impressed with Nicaraguans.”