Ambassador Powers faces weight of history in Nicaragua

Second in an exclusive two-part interview with US Ambassador Phyllis Powers

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.

Ambassador Powers admits Washington has more interest in Nicaragua than she expected (photo/ Tim Rogers)

“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.

Land grabs are on the rise, Powers says (photo/ Tim Rogers)

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.

Nicaragua deserves a strong democracy, the ambassador says (photo/ Tim Rogers)

“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.”

  • John Shepard

    Pragmatism and moderation from the US, stability provided by another 4+ years of Ortega – (regardless of what you think about the legitimacy of his presidency; in this context it doesn’t matter), – could help Nicaragua turn the corner. It’s time to move on and realize the potential of Nicaragua.

  • http://GemmaDesignCorporationBWW Gloria H Mallorca Von Kremer

    It is good attitude from United States of America to be friendly, and to respect its citizens and its citizens properties and investment all over the world ,but Nicaragua has a double standard Politics one is that of an undercover Marxist Communist Theory Government ,and the other is a cover up Democracy in the eyes of America .The first one was applied and coordinated with Cuba it has been like that long before then 1979 as in 1958-1960 young leader Pedro J Chamorro, made a pact a political one directly with Cuba ,and others allied with Fidel Cstro to bring down President Anastacio Somoza Debayle a graduate of West Point Academy ,and not Rusia or a trained guerrilla of Cuba,and his trained National Guard trained by the USA ,and other powerful organizations.It is obvious that Chamorro and the guerillas movement of those times were allieds as you can see in1979 in the takeover of Mrs Chamorroand inthe repeated trips of former Newspaper Editor Pedro J Chamorro to Cuba inthe 1958-1960 and so on until Somoza was overturned to the Sandinista Regime , and Sergio Ramirez Mercado Gral trained and graduated in Rusia and Cuba Joaquin Cuadra Lacayo and all the rest of the 12th.Needless to say Ortega has been the powerfull man behind the orchestra of Guerillas and the new Army where it is not a neutral Army but an Army that serves solely the interest of Cuba and the President of the Council of State of Nicaragua Daniel Ortega Saavedra ,and Rosario Murillo ,and others like Hesllevan his bests friend in the Army ,in the high upper command.The Police and them follow only the directions of the Commmittees of the Government the assigned compromises of political assignments directed by Cuba .and political compromises Ortega has with Cuba He follows the same politics of Cuba ,he is rather astute man trained in Cuba as a matter of fact Cuba is his first or second Motherland as this is his Model to make of Nicaragua a Model of Cuba. He left cleverly, and patiently governed other Presidents but under his Command being him the men that controls the Army all through these years from 1979 to 2012, and forward as he will never leave the Post He allready change the Constitution to his favor ,he pretends to let the power to his wife Rosario Murillo when in accordance with Cuba not the OAS or United Nations or Nato or the United States whom he calls the Imperialists regimes. This marxist rhetoric has never finish with him. This is the reason why so many lands and investments were cofiscated as in 1979 ,and still are !and on and then again only in times of former President Aleman when he took power and Violeta Chamorro that SOME OF THE INVESTMENTS WERE returned but not all of them for example Mombacho was never return to my Family and was usurped stolen from my family by Gral Joaquin Cuadra Lacayo AND then TRANSFER to Mrs Chamorro when my Dad had given all the money from his hard work as Auditor and Financial Consultant to buy this hacienda long time ago ,money to buy it ,and was producing Coffee and was for Tourism and so on and this is just one of the Plantatations.they had taken away from us from our Heritage. Recently they did something terrible to one of the Conservative Party Families Luvy Rappaccioli-Navas an Italian Spaniard Nicaraguan family. one of the FSLN neighbors They came over her Coffee Hacienda and Horse Breeding Farm and abruptly with 30 to 50 men BEATEN her up and allmost strangling her to USURPED the Hacienda, and all this documented in the Cenith offices of Human Rights and in the hands of Constitutional Lawyer Civil Rights Activists Joan Estrada ,Rappaccioli Navas Plantations are a very wealthy Plantation of coffee and Horse Breaders , yet look what they had done to her,videos and her Case is all over the Internet of the abuse of power committed against her and her Family and Estate .!Another ocurr in the Investments of a Sweedish Man and Associates in more than 1000 acres of investment for Tourism what sold by a Conservative Party member very soon they confiscated it and they confiscate part of this land for Former Commander Eden Pastora. LatinAmerican has been undermined, look as a Small Banana Country all of Central America and South America by America but look at Castro he is a genius in Geographical Political Studies he knew that by taking over Nicaragua he had access to land ,and territory to advance to all of Central America including South America and now with the Canal matters will be much better for them ,further more look at Mexico as Commander Marcos is there in the Yucatan Peninsula he is in full control no one can even pass not even Tourists. America has fallen in a long sleep smiling of the Romantic Revolution of Cuba , thinking is nothing what has happened to Nicaragua but it will affect you as Daniels ambition ,and their terrorist squad is to pass the Rio Grande ,Daniel is a big threat to United States of America ..he is not just the remembrance of the young guerilla Ortega and Castros Coronels and many others that invaded Nicaragua in 1979 and 25 years before 1979 killing all of Nicaraguan Guards and all those Somozas merciless without sanctions of laws ,Daniel Ortega order the ellimination of Somoza for more than 30 million dollars without any international sanctions during the Chamorro Government ,but this is not the case Castro has advance terribly, and after him his brother,and after him his children all grown up now guerillas trained and trained in power , and it is not going to be stopped the suffering of the Nicaraguan people will continue ,the confiscation, the deaths that have allready ocurred in masacres of humble honest people when they claim thier rights against the FSLN Government ,and in the Mountains and small villages that have protested Nicaraguans are not going to vote at all its ridiculous to vote when Ortega just wants to be himself. he patiently waited for all to supposely governed Nicaragua ,but he took over now for the forth time .He plays Democracy in front of the USA but underneath there is evidence all over the world of his double standard he is bright he is intelligent he knows all of Latin America will be control by Cuba as Venezuela is allready ,and many others.The Bank of Venezuela will be the Reserve Bank of the Latin American world.the Gold Reserve.instead of New York and others in Europe. Cuba is a threat for the World !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!I you want to know how Nicaragua is!!! open the pages of Attorney at Law Joan Estrada humble intelligent woman Attorney and Doctorate in Human Rights true Presidential Candidate for Nicaragua and Dr Alejandro Lagos Espinoza who are so aware of the truth of Nicaragua Investigate and you will find out all the cases she has in her hands of different political parties !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Dj jazzy Geoff

    Tim, you got mad skills yo!

  • Mark P. Sullivan

    Excellently written, the first section of this 2nd part series does impeccable justice to the intricacies that influence the U.S./Nicaragua relations. I look forward to seeing with Ambassador Powers can accomplish with her refreshingly direct, respectful approach to Nicaraguan affairs.

    On a side note, I’m thrilled to have discovered Nicaragua Dispatch and it’s remarkably professional, English-language journalism in a country that has a long history of a bold, robust, journalistic precedent. Hats off to Tim Rogers and his team for producing some of the best content I’ve seen on Nicaragua news since deciding to relocate there back in 2006. I’m especially grateful now that I no longer live in the country and need a reliable source of news that I can recommend to my consulting clients.

  • john tansey

    Boy Tim, you are simply a spectacular writer. We are so very lucky to have you here in Nicaragua. Your insight is amazing and your ability with words is magic! Thanks!