Is US out of ideas on Nicaragua?

Richard Feinberg says US election results could lead the White House to take a new look at Latin American issues, including drug-war policy

MANAGUA—One of the Clinton administration’s former top advisors on Latin America says he thinks the U.S. government doesn’t know what to do about Nicaragua.

Since 2008, the U.S. has repeatedly expressed concerns over Nicaragua’s eroding democracy, and slashed bilateral aid by the millions to show they mean it. The pressure tactics haven’t worked. Four years later, Nicaragua’s economy continues to expand while its political system continues to contract—a situation neatly illustrated last week by the country’s third dubious election process in four years.

Washington, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have any low-suit cards left to play.

“People don’t really know what to do. They don’t know what to do,” says Richard Feinberg, who served as special assistant to President Bill Clinton and senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs.

“The State Department is concerned about the erosion of democratic institutions here and they have made that very clear, but the U.S. doesn’t have at its ready disposal levers to solve these problems; it’s largely up to the Nicaraguans themselves,” Feinberg told The Nicaragua Dispatch during a visit here this week.

Nicaragua, Feinberg says, is a complicated case. On one hand the U.S. recognizes that Nicaragua’s economy is doing well and that the Sandinista government is working well with multilateral lending institutions and the private sector. But on the “more problematic side,” Feinberg says, folks in Washington are “deeply worried” about Nicaragua’s election system and the “erosion of its democratic constitutional government.”

Nicaragua’s feckless and balkanized opposition isn’t helping the situation.

“After a couple of beers, people in the State Department might say, ‘We, as an outside power, cannot do what the domestic political process in Nicaragua is unable to do. We can’t do the work of the opposition for it. If they are unable to get themselves more organized and put forward attractive political positions, we can’t do that for them,” says Feinberg, who head of the Inter-American Dialogue in the early 1990s and is now a nonresident Senior Fellow for the Brookings Institution’s Latin America Initiative.

Plus, the analyst says, the U.S.’ democracy-building efforts in other parts of the world aren’t exactly seamless.

“Even in the places where we have boots on the ground in Afghanistan and Iraq, how well is that going in terms of building political institutions? I would say problematic at best,” Feinberg says.

Nicaraguans are also conflicted over what role, if any, the U.S. should play in helping their country stay on the rails of democracy. While many Nicaraguans have traditionally looked to the U.S. for help with things get wonky in their own country, no one wants to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

“Nicaraguans see their economy doing well and being managed responsibly, so they wouldn’t want economic sanctions. So what are the levers that the U.S. has at this point?” Feinberg says. “(Nicaragua) is not vulnerable to marginal economic pressures, so U.S. leverage with regard to the internal politics of Nicaragua is limited, it’s quite circumspect.”

Feinberg thinks the U.S. will also continue to take it easy with Venezuela. He says the Obama administration’s approach with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has been to let him talk alone without getting into rhetorical jousting matches.

“The view is that responding in kind to hostile rhetoric is exactly what he wants, and it’s silly to feed into that,” Feinberg says. “I think the general view is that his health is bad, and, though nobody knows for sure, he is unlikely to last out his term, so (the U.S. should continue) to play the long game in Venezuela.”

Presidente Obama’s latino constituency

Feinberg rejects the argument that the Obama administration mostly ignored Central America during its first term in office. He says the region didn’t make many international headlines, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“You don’t want to be in the headlines. What does it mean to be in the headlines? It means you have a civil war, blood in the streets, your economy is in total collapse, you have nuclear weapons or terrorists running around, and isn’t it nice that is not the situation in Central America or Latin America these days?” Feinberg says.

The difficulty in addressing Latin American relations is that most of the major issues—drug war, immigration, trade—all contain strong domestic components in the United States. So addressing these issues means bringing everyone onboard, from State Department and Congress to the White House and special interest groups.

Still, after winning reelection with a strong latino constituency, el presidente will now be more likely to take a stronger look at the issues concerning the Hispanic population, and there Latin America in general. That is especially true for immigration reform and anti-narcotics policies, Feinberg predicts.

“If Obama can give citizenship to 10 million latinos in the U.S., that’s 10 million families who will always be Democrats. So I do think Obama will make an effort at comprehensive immigration reform,” Feinberg says.

Is the White House rethinking drug policy?

Another interesting lesson from the U.S. elections was the news that voters in Colorado and Washington State approved the ballot measures to legalize marijuana without so much as a peep of protest from the Department of Justice.

Feinberg, who teaches at University of California’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies in San Diego, recalls that a similar ballot initiative in California was narrowly defeated two years ago when the Department of Justice came out in strong opposition right before the vote. So the administration’s silence this time is telling.

“That silence is a signal that the administration has second thoughts,” Feinberg says. “I have no doubt in my mind the White House was involved in the decision by Justice Department to not inject itself in the debate on the state level on marijuana decriminalization and legalization.”

When the silence eventually breaks, it could be the beginning of a more rational and measured discussion on the U.S. drug policy, and how it affects Latin America, Feinberg predicts.

“The issue is on the agenda. There is a recognition that counternarcotics policies have not had desired results over the decades. Drugs continue to flow and the collateral damage in Latin America and the U.S. is unacceptable. So we need to be open-minded and look at alternative ways to address the problem,” Feinberg says. “The basic idea is that we need to differentiate among drugs; they are not all the same and we may want to think about different approaches to different types of drugs. That is a signal coming out of these referendums on the treatment of marijuana in Colorado in Washington.”

In that context, leaders and intellectuals in Latin America who have been calling for a new approach to the drug war might start to find more echo in Washington.

“The increasing upsurge in voices from Latin America are all saying, ‘What we have been doing hasn’t been producing desirable results, so if we keep doing the same thing and expect different results, that’s the definition of stupid’,” Feinberg says. “I think one of the first starting points for a more rational discussion is to start to differentiate between types of drugs and that is starting to happen as a result of the referendums in these two states.”


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  • Carlos Briones

    Latin America is a pendulum swiftly swinging from the far right to the far left. There is nothing Washington presently can do change this pattern. Indeed, waiting for Chavez to pass on is not a bad idea. Once he is gone, Ortega’s resources will dry up and the opposition will have an even field in which to play.

  • John Shepard

    I see the question as two-fold: What are Mr Ortega’s ultimate intentions? Is it a power grab for the sake of the power, or does he have the best interests of the Nicaraguan people at heart, and feels he is the best solution at this point in time; and, is the trade-off in stability, growth, and improved infrastructure for the stronger hand a fair bargain?

    Only the Nicaraguan people can answer this.

    Toning down the rhetoric from the US gives Mr Ortega less opportunity to use the US as his whipping boy and as an excuse for any shortcomings. The US is the obvious investor in the Nicaraguan canal, for any number of good reasons. Increased civility from both sides might be in everyone’s best interests.

  • Daddy-yo

    Why should the U.S. government do anything about the way the Nicaraguan government conducts itself so long as there are no blatant abuses of its citizens’ human rights, and we do business together, and I and my Nica wife can go back & forth?

    I mean I’m more concerned about the erosion of democracy in the USA. Sure Obama’s OK & Romney’s OK, but neither have the balls to stand up to Wall St/global finance and represent the majority of Americans. We have the sham-show of ‘democracy’. The majority of ‘our representatives’ have sold out to higher bidders. Sad, but it’s just the way it is at present. Money talks!

    Nicaragua has shifted into the authoritarian mode of governance, a la China, our biggest trading partner, and Russia, our post-cold-war semi-friends. So what? Are they about to take up arms against the US war machine, better funded than the next 13 countries with the highest defense budgets COMBINED???

    And drugs? Please. It’s us gringos that are the dopers (not just the illegal stuff, you realize) who demand more to be able to withstand being a cog in the great juggernaut machine.

    Get over the Big Brother complex folks.

    • Nicagringo

      The whole concept that the US should be concerned with Nicaragua politics is silly. Ortega is hugely popular because he is doing a good job. He won’t be popular if he isn’t. The Nicaraguan people can handle their own affairs. The US has enough problems of its own to tend to.

  • Nicagringo

    Furthermore, the idea that Nicaragua has moved to the left is absurd. When you look objectively at the data, Nicaragua has a more capitalist system than the US. Capitalism is really a measure of democracy. The US has a socialist based special interest guided system masquerading as a capitalist democracy. Congress is holding the US hostage with polarization. It won’t be broken until things get much worse. Congressman votes are guided by their financial support base and devise schemes for pork barrel projects for their states.

    Remember past performance is not necessarily indicative of future returns. The US used to be the best growth vehicle in the global economy…those days are now gone. The US constitution needs to be amended to deal with the realities of today.

  • John Shepard

    I certainly agree with the comment about Nica capitalism (or whatever it is). The US is rapidly becoming an entitlement-driven nanny state, and I’m not talking about social security and medicare.

    What this really means is, someone who WANTS to work and build something of value is at significant disadvantage. Perhaps the changes in NIcaragua will allow the cream to rise to the top, as it once did in the US. Now the US is all about public sector jobs, unions, and the mediocrity associated with these attitudes. Those pictures of the striking Chicago school teachers show the new face of the US.


    Mr. Feinberg failed to mentioned the LAND PROBLEM. I´m an American Citizen which land is been taken by the Nicaraguan Governement, the Justice Department, We have land taken by the a menber of the Supreme Court , Armend Forces, Ministry of Transport, The Mayor of Nagarote and ALBANISA, plus additional Companies and People close or related to the Ruling Government Party.
    I´m a private citizen our family is not political (that may be the problem), there is “no justice” in Nicaragua and the Nicaraguan People don´t care about anybody´s problem, as long as they are not been touch. Our only hope is pressure from the US Government.

  • http://no Damian

    Latin America is going forward. Nicaragua is also moving forward: The economy is moving in a good direction, renewable energy makes a lot of ecological and economic sense. And as an investor in Nicaragua, I feel my rights are protected. Regarding democracy: The majority of Nicaraguans are voting for the FSNL. The opposition in Nicaragua needs to rebuild their base rather then playing the blame game and shouting corruption. In the USA they do not allowe electoral observers while in all Latin American countries the observers are invited. The OAS came to Nicaragua for this current election and observed a free and democratic election. It is interesting that the USA and ND keeps on using words that undermine the FSNL achievements and fair victory.
    Here is the OAS official statement with their observation of the municipal elections. In a summary: They are doing well, it was free and civil. Yes, there are some suggestions to improve the system.

    Regarding Venezuela: Ex-president Carter’s organization said that Venezuela has the most advanced and democratic electoral system in the whole world. Democracy is on the rise in Latin America and it is time that the USA starts recalibrating their views on this continent. Policies based on equal playing fields, respect and cooperation can be mutually beneficial to all stakeholders. With Romney this would have been impossible. But with Obama, I do have hopes. 2nd term presidents usually focus on foreign policies so it’s time to build long lasting friendships in the American continent.

  • Ken

    Odd for me, I’m in general agreement with both Feinberg and the various posts. However, nobody is mentioning what strikes me as the next crucial juncture, which is the next presidential election. If the opposition doesn’t have its act together by then and an Ortega surrogate (Rosario?) easily takes over, I fear for the future. Mind, it will be fine if the FSLN continues to win–but only if it does so fairly in the context of genuine political pluralism. The challenge of building the institutions required for fair elections and political pluralism cannot be overestimated, and that challenge is an immediate one. If everyone waits until the next presidential election (and then carps about it) I’m afraid the game will be lost. But it is up to the Nicas, not the US.

    • MHWE

      Well said, Ken!

  • A. William

    The United States is failing to take the lead in Central America generally and instead offers only rhetoric. Rather than worry about the leaders who the people elect in places like Nicaragua, the United States should be helping its business community learn about opportunities.

    Businesses from countries like China and Russia are taking the lead in building the infrastructure in Nicaragua. It’s Russia’s Yota that has a 4G network, while no United States telecom carrier has a presence. It’s China that is interested in Nicaragua’s plan to launch a satellite and build a canal. It’s Italian businesses that joined with Nicaragua to create a startup airline. The new buses providing transportation in Nicaragua were made in Russia.

    Soon when the United States talks, Nicaragua’s people will say, “What is this complaining country? Oh, it’s just the McDonalds and Burger King people.”

  • Robert Broughton

    Here’s a revolutionary idea: JUST LEAVE NICARAGUA ALONE. The US has plenty of problems of its own to deal with.

  • carlos

    Mr Feinberg is a extreme fanatic Zionist supporter of the New American Century if imperialism. He will have nothing good to say about the independent attitude of Nicaragua. Nicaragua will develop now because is not being sucked up dry by the USA empire bankers. thats is what MR Feinberg deslike but he better get used to it as Nicaragua is not peoducing a new Violeta Chamorro neither another Somoza in the short term. the game is up for the USA empire in Nicaragua.

  • Harold Sotomayor

    The United States has had a long history of meddling in the affairs of hispanic countries, each resulting in death and destruction for the country that they “help”.

    I long for the day when it will be the hispanic countries that must have ‘helpful ideas’ for the United States.