What do US elections mean for Nicaragua?

News Analysis.

Most Nicaraguans following today’s presidential election in the United States are pulling for incumbent candidate Barack Obama—and not just because the Sandinistas have a particularly strong urge to reelect politicians.

According to a recent M&R Consultants poll, 51% of Nicaraguans want Obama to beat Republican challenger Mitt Romney, who has the support of less than 6% of Nicaraguans. Though Romney polls slightly better among those who identify as members of Nicaragua’s right-wing opposition, even the Liberals favor Obama 2:1, according to the M&R poll. Meanwhile, 60% of Sandinistas want Obama to win—or, as Roberto Rivas calls it, 87%.

While most Nicaraguans seem fond of the U.S. president, they will probably be following his final push for reelection from the netting of their hammocks, rather than the edge of their seats. The same M&R poll suggest that 42% of all Nicaraguans—and an astonishing 47% of the opposition—don’t care or don’t have an opinion about the U.S. elections. That suggests a sharp decline in the influence of U.S. politics on Nicaragua, or at least the perception of such.

During the difficult days of the Bolaños administration, when Nicaragua’s beleaguered president was pinned against the ropes and appealing to the U.S. and the OAS for help against what was later dubbed a “creeping coup” by caudillos Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, the U.S. government was perceived to be a major player in Nicaraguan politics. When Nicaraguans were polled by M&R Consultants in 2005 and asked “Who has the power in Nicaragua?”, nearly 17% answered “The United States.” By comparison, only 12.5% said “the FSLN” and less than 9% said “President Enrique Bolaños.”

Seven years later, when Nicaraguans were asked the same question in an M&R poll conducted three months ago, the U.S. didn’t even make the list of political powerbrokers.

If Nicaraguans are feeling indifferent toward the U.S. presidential election, it’s perhaps because the feeling seems mutual. Latin America in general—and Nicaragua in particular—was not an issue in this year’s U.S. presidential campaign, other than a few passing comments from Romney who expressed a desire to engage the hemisphere and increase trade with Latin America.

But Nicaraguans who support Romney seem to be doing so for his get-tough political talk rather than his stance on free-trade and investment. Now that Democrats and Republicans (and Sandinistas, for that matter) basically have the same stance on free-trade, the commercial agenda has essentially become a nonfactor.

Over the past five years, with a Democratic White House in Washington and a Sandinista presidential bunker in Managua, bilateral trade and investment have doubled, setting new records in both categories. No one still argues that the Republicans are better for trade; as such, Nicaragua’s business sector seems to have lost a bit of its enthusiasm for the G.O.P.

Politics is the issue now. And judging by the comments made by Romney supporters on The Nicaragua Dispatch, Nicaraguans who support the Republican candidate seem to do so mostly punitive reasons; they think a President Romney would turn the screws on President Ortega and his ALBA allies.

Would a Romney White House treat Nicaragua differently?

Latin America analysts disagree over whether there would be a shift in Latin American policy under a Romney administration. Since it wasn’t a topic of debate during the campaign, there aren’t many clues to go on.

Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., says a Romney administration would probably turn up the rhetoric on Latin America’s leftist firebrands such as Ortega and Hugo Chávez, but U.S. policy toward the region probably wouldn’t change too much.

 “There are some minor differences between Obama and Romney on Latin America,” Shifter told The Nicaragua Dispatch during a recent trip to Managua. “On Venezuela, for example, Obama said Chávez is not a national security threat and the Romney campaign jumped on that. So there is tougher rhetoric against Chávez and the Castro brothers, but it’s unclear what Romney would do any differently than Obama.”

Shifter says Romney would probably be more sensitive to Ortega’s occasional histrionic outbursts against the evils  of the yanqui empire and his unconvincing boilerplate about “savage capitalism.”

“They would not go as unanswered as we have seen under Obama, who has been very careful and restrained and doesn’t want to play into the hands of Ortega or Chávez,” Shifter says. “I think that under a Romney administration, there would be people in the administration—or even Romney himself—who would be more inclined to respond and have a tit for tat; not just sit back and listen to the strong rhetoric.”

But other than exchanging occasional sneers, it’s unclear what a Romney administration would do differently in the region, Shifter says.

“Even a Republican administration has to be careful about not alienating the rest of the region and I think any kind of punitive approach or policy could provoke a strong reaction from other Latin American countries,” Shifter says.  

Perhaps the bigger questions are, Who would be part of Romney’s administration? And how far right would he be tugged if he gets elected?

The Miami contingent of hard-line Republican lawmakers—House Western Hemisphere Subcommittee Chairman Connie Mack, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, House Rep. David Rivera and Senator Marco Rubio—have all spoken out strongly against Ortega, and are all close to Romney campaign.

All four lawmakers have called for tougher actions against Ortega and the ALBA alliance. Ros-Lehtien has warned of Iran’s growing influence in Nicaragua and other ALBA nations for the past year, and urged the U.S. government to take action. Israeli rumors of Hezbollah activity in Nicaragua might also be met with more public reaction from a tough-talking Republican Whitehouse.

But with a large spectrum of views within the Republican Party, it remains to be seen which interest group would be the most successful at cozying up to Romney.

 “Romney, of course, has support from all different sectors of the Republican Party, so one big question is, if he is elected, who is he going to listen to?” Shifter said.

Republican hardliners such as Robert Zoellick, pictured here in Managua in 2005, could have a prominent role in shaping Latin American policy under a Romney administration, Aguirre says (photo/ Tim Rogers)

Francisco Aguirre, a former Nicaraguan Ambassador to Washington, says former Cold War hawks such as Elliot Abrams, a main player in the Iran-Contra affair, and Robert Zoellick, would most likely have Romney’s ear on Latin American policy. And if that happens, it could get uncomfortable for Ortega, Aguirre says.

“Romney is not the issue, but his advisors would be, and they would not cut Ortega the slack that Obama has cut him so far,” Aguirre says. “The Western Hemisphere would get more attention under a Republican administration.”

Aguirre thinks a Republican administration would apply pressure on Ortega because they can. The property waiver would almost certainly be canceled next July, Aguirre speculates, and the U.S. would act out some of its Venezuelan frustrations on Nicaragua.

“The Romney administration would cherry-pick, and Ortega would be the low-hanging fruit,” Aguirre says.

Shifter doesn’t think the U.S. is still as likely to employ a kick-the-skinny-dog foreign policy with Nicaragua.

“Nicaragua has enough people who do business here that it gives them some protection, and Nicaragua has been quite skillful in managing good relations with IMF and World Bank,” Shifter says. “The Republicans might not support the politics of Nicaragua, but continue to support the business here because they feel things are going well economically.”

That is essentially what the Obama administration’s policy has been towards Nicaragua: to dial back the political relations, but encourage the country’s continued economic growth. Shifter says a Romney administration probably wouldn’t do things too much differently because  there is no appetite in Washington—and no tolerance in Latin America—for a more aggressive approach.

Aguirre, however, thinks the Republicans might find some room to implement a more aggressive policy, without becoming openly hostile.

“If Obama wins, it will be business as usual,” he says; “but if Romney wins, all bets are off.”

  • AguaMan

    Escojo a Romney porque podría haber un cambio hacia America Latina. Aunque con la pasividad del Sr. Obama tendríamos a un mediano plazo la amenaza nuclear sobre centroamerica y la parte norte de America del Sur. Para cuando los Estados Unidos hayan cambiado su imagen anterior en AL . La estrategia del Sr. Obama estara permitiendo que se fortalezcan esas relaciones de Venezuela y países del Alba con Iran. Quien puede garantizar que lo acontendido hace unoa 40 años con Cuba, Estados Unidos, y la Union Sovietica (desaparecida) pueda repetirse con éxito. Para los nicaragüenses Romney podría representar una amenaza belica a corto plazo. Sin embargo por la seguridad nacional en el continente americano podría sus ideas convertirlas en sabias y acertadas para todos en la región

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  • Robert

    Tim, I am sorry but you are so wrong. The majority on Nicaraguan’s in Miami are voting for Romney for the simple fact that Obama let Ortega ran presidency even though Ortega was un constitutional! We will not forget this! We want Obama out!

    • Tim Rogers

      Hi Robert, the M&R poll cited in the article refers to Nicaraguans in Nicaragua, it didn’t include Nicaraguans living in Miami. Thanks for clarifying.

    • Ana Isabel

      “Obama let Ortega ran presidency” A) Check your grammar and B) So you want the U.S. to rule Nicaragua from afar?? Awesome! So glad you’re voting for President on the basis of what is good for the American people..Oh wait..

      • Don Jax

        Ana Isabel, stop being harsh because someone may have made a typo, or is writing in other than his/her first language. Stick to the issues and avoid the unnecessary pot shots.

  • Don Jax

    I marvel at the accuracy of “Rivas math” in the second paragraph of the article. The piece was, in large measure, right on point in what to expect from the winner of the US presidential election.

  • Ken

    No disagreements, but I would forecast another probably more important change for Latin America coming from Obama’s win. I suspect that Obama will quietly side with those voices in Latin America who want to decriminalize many illegal drugs. This will in turn roll back the “war on drugs” that has been hideously costly both financially and in terms of innocent lives lost in Latin America.