MANAGUA, Nicaragua— When U.S. Ambassador Phyllis Powers arrived in Nicaragua four months ago, she quite literally hit the ground running.
Less than two weeks after presenting her credentials to President Daniel Ortega, Ambassador Powers laced up her running shoes and won second place in Nicaragua’s inaugural 5-K “Green Race.”
“To be honest, I came in second for my age group (55-99),” Powers says with a smile. “But I was pleased; it was the first time I ever won anything.”
Powers has also hit the ground running diplomatically. After making the rounds of introductory kaffeeklatsch with government ministers and Sandinista apparatchiks, Powers delivered the cymbal crash to the prolonged drum roll over the fiscal-transparency and property waivers. It gave her the chance to deliver bad news and good news back to back.
Now that the initial diplomatic sprint is over, Powers is settling into a more measured pace for the marathon ahead. The ambassador says she has already met with “every minister that we have any type of connection with” and that the Ortega administration has been “very open to meeting with me” and “cordial and professional” in doing so.
Powers says she hopes to develop a closer relationship with President Ortega himself in the months to come.
“You start on the ministerial level and you have to build those relationships before you start knocking on the door of the president,” she says. “But hopefully, in the not too distance future, those relations will be that extra level of communication that will help me better inform our president back in Washington.”
Moving to Nicaragua
Sitting in a decorous occasional chair in a pleasantly appointed and cheerfully sun-lit parlor in the embassy’s newly rented ambassador’s digs—a modern and palatial hilltop home that replaced the previous residence, which felt like an outmoded set from a 1970s family sitcom—Powers recently spoke at length with The Nicaragua Dispatch about her career in the foreign service, the challenges of her new job post, and her first impressions of Nicaragua.
Powers, a managerial and drug-war expert, has spent much of her 34-year diplomatic career in overseas assignments in the Middle East, Eastern Europe and Latin America, including posts in Iraq, Peru, Colombia and Panama. She has also held a series of desk jobs in Washington, where she kept a watchful eye on Middle East unrest.
Unmarried and without children, the New York native keeps the playful company of a bouncy Miniature Pinscher named Lexi, whose curiosity about the unfamiliar tropical smells of her new backyard has yet to wane.
This is Lexi’s first foreign post, but Powers has spent much of her life living overseas. It takes her a few moments—and careful counting on the fingers of both hands—to remember all the stamps she has collected in her diplomatic passport before arriving in Nicaragua.
“Be thankful I don’t have to take off my shoes to finish counting,” she says with a laugh, after rattling off the nine foreign countries in which she’s served.
Tough enough for Nicaragua
While good natured and easy with a laugh, Powers is mostly serious and soft-spoken—a unique trait in a country where politics is often conducted loudly and jocularly. But those who know the ambassador don’t confuse her polished quietude for meekness.
In fact, when Powers’ nomination came up for vote in U.S. Congress last March, she was approved without harrumph—even by Republican hardliners who rejected President Barack Obama’s first pick for the job because he wasn’t considered tough enough.
So does Powers think she is tough enough for Nicaragua?
“Well, seven years in Colombia, two years in Iraq…yeah, I think so,” Powers says in a confident whisper, which definitely sounded tough enough.
The Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) also got a taste of Powers’ pluck during her first speaking appearance as ambassador, when she told business leaders last May that the U.S. government remains concerned about the state of democracy in Nicaragua and the then-pending waiver decisions.
“The ambassador was diplomatic, but direct and strong in her message,” Yalí Molina, president of AMCHAM, told The Nicaragua Dispatch following the May 11 luncheon. “I think everyone was a little surprised with how direct she was. I think this is going to be the beginning in new phase in the relationship between the U.S. and Nicaragua.”
Powers, however, seems a little surprised that directness is considered toughness in Nicaragua. Regarding her speech to AMCHAM, she says, “I didn’t shout, I just told the truth.”
Perhaps that’s a novelty in Nicaraguan politics, but Powers says it’s how she does business.
“I am a diplomat, but sometimes I am not terribly diplomatic because you have to be able to tell people the truth,” the ambassador says.
Powers says the ambassador’s role should be to deliver a clear and honest message, without trying to be cryptic, abrasive or disrespectful.
“I firmly believe as a diplomat in doing things in a respectable way to not insult the people,” she says. “Sometimes you can’t help but annoy the government, but you want to make sure that the message you are giving the entire population is a clear picture of what the U.S. is about. And so that means getting out, meeting people and letting them see who we are in more ways than one.”
For Powers, meeting people is also about hearing from diverse voices in society and politics to form a more complete picture of all that is happening in Nicaragua.
The ambassador says she does not pretend to understand Nicaragua more than she does. She says she is not here to tell Nicaragua what to do, rather to gauge where the country is and determine where it’s heading.
“The complexity here is such that I am certainly not going to be so presumptuous as to jump in with both feet and say I know the right thing (for Nicaragua),” Powers says. “I don’t.”
One area where the ambassador is eager to get to work is that of citizen-formation—or teaching people how to be productive members of a democratic society, rather than lumpen subjects waiting for government handouts.
While the ambassador says her drug-war experience in Colombia has helped prepare her for Nicaragua (Powers was Director of the Narcotics Affairs Section responsible for Plan Colombia) she says her democracy-building experiences in Iraq have helped her understand the importance of teaching people how to be citizens in a free and functioning society.
“Real governance requires the participation of everybody,” she says. And participation needs to be taught, she says.
“You can’t just say go forth and do,” she says. “You have got to build it up, and the only way it is going to be effective is to start at the grassroots level and have them understand this is how you reach to the next level of government , which then has to reach to the next level.”
Powers adds, “It was fascinating to watch that evolve in Iraq around the country as we worked with local and provincial governments, showing and helping them connect to each other and then the central government.”
Promoting citizen diplomacy and private aid
Powers claims the U.S. government’s aid cuts associated with the suspension of the fiscal-transparency waiver—an amount that comes to less than $3 million for 2012—won’t have too much affect on relations between the two countries.
“It doesn’t have a huge impact on operations or assistance by the embassy, because the vast majority (of U.S. aid) was already directed through NGOs and civil society… so that will continue,” the ambassador says. “While every bit helps, and part of that aid has gone away, we will continue to do what we can through the programs that we still have to assist the Nicaraguan people.”
Powers says the embassy also wants to help promote all of the various forms of citizen diplomacy and private U.S. aid that American volunteer groups bring down on the plane each day. She says one of her goals as ambassador is to reach out to all the various U.S. volunteer groups and goodwill missions—conservatively estimated to be around 360 groups a year—to see what role the embassy can play in promoting and facilitating their work here, which she says “is just phenomenal.”
“You can’t get on the plane in Miami without running into a group that is coming down to Nicaragua to help,” she says. “The amount of assistance that is coming from private citizens to Nicaragua is quite significant. I don’t think anyone is fully aware of the impact of that…these people are doing wonderful work.”
Powers says the purpose of her intended outreach to U.S. volunteer groups is to see how the embassy can promote and maximize their work here, “without stepping on anyone’s prerogative.”
“I don’t want them to think we are directing, but I want to promote what they are doing,” she says. “This is good work; this is something that we should be proud of…it’s something that we need to be shouting about and letting people know.”
Overall, Powers says, her first impressions of Nicaragua are positive and she thinks the country has a lot of promise.
“It’s a country with real possibilities to grow their economy and it’s a country that is dealing with their own issues as they move forward in building a democracy, which takes centuries as we know from our own country,” Powers says. “So it’s a very diverse and interesting country with a lot going on.”
Next: Part II of Powers Interview: concerns for democracy, the property issue, the upcoming municipal elections, and why Nicaragua still matters to Washington. Read part II here.