Shortly after joining the U.S. Senate in 1985, John Kerry traveled to Nicaragua on a fact-finding trip to glad-hand President Daniel Ortega and sniff out the truth about Uncle Sam’s martial mischief with the contras.
After returning to Washington, the then-freshmen Senator from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts reported to Congress on what he considered to be his “groundbreaking findings.” Subsequently, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee decided to investigate U.S. ties to the contras and uncovered the Iran-Contra scandal. Kerry’s involvement in uncovering that dark episode in U.S. foreign policy is point of pride in his long and distinguished career as a Senator.
But not everyone views Kerry’s early involvement with Nicaragua as valiant. Conservatives in Washington and Managua accused Kerry of aiding a nondemocratic leader and serving up Nicaragua to communist expansionists in Cuba and the Soviet Union.
More than 20 years after the end of the cold war, some folks are still grumbling about it. In an opinion article titled “John Kerry’s quest to communize Central America,” published last month on conservative website Townhall .com, author Humberto Fontova fumes that Kerry was “giddy” over Ortega, whom he calls a “communist cutthroat and pedophile.”
Kerry’s giddiness over the Sandinistas faded. In 2009, as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Kerry blasted Ortega’s reelection bid as a “power grab” that “reeks of the authoritarianism of the past.” In perhaps the strongest condemnation of Ortega by a U.S. official in the past six years, Kerry likened Ortega to the coup-plotters in Honduras who ousted President Manuel Zelaya in 2009. Kerry argued that democracy was being undermined in both Nicaragua and Honduras, creating a dangerous throwback for the region.
“Central America is too important for a return to authoritarianism,” Kerry argued. “Democratic order must be restored in both countries.”
Now, as the former Bay State Senator is sworn in as Secretary of State, it’s anyone’s guess whether Kerry will still think Central America is important enough to do something about as chief foreign affairs adviser to President Barack Obama.
Some lawmakers seem to think Secretary Kerry will be more active on Central America. On Wednesday, Congressman Hank Johnson, a Representative from Georgia’s 4th Congressional District, sent Kerry a letter signed by 57 colleagues calling for the investigation of alleged abuses by Honduran security forces and the possible role of DEA agents in the shooting death of four Hondurans on the Patuca River last May.
In addition, the letter expresses concern about “the grave human rights situation in Honduras, and in particular the dire situation of Afro-Indigenous Hondurans in the aftermath of the June 2009 military coup.”
The message of the lawmakers’ letter is clear: The U.S. needs to change its approach to dealing with Honduras.
Others on Capitol Hill are more concerned about U.S. policy toward Nicaragua. Republican congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee and one of Ortega’s leading critics in Washington, claims the Sandinista government “undermines U.S. security interests in the Hemisphere” and needs to be dealt with firmly.
“Giving the Ortega regime a slap on the wrist is an insult to the Nicaraguan people who look to our nation as a beacon of democracy,” Ros-Lehtinen said in one of several statements about Nicaragua last year. “The Nicaraguan people deserve better and we cannot afford to let democracy and rule of law be ignored.”
Ros-Lehtinen and her fellow conservative colleagues from Florida will most likely see Kerry’s move to the State Department as an opportunity to press again for tougher policies toward Nicaragua and the other left-wing ALBA nations.
Will Kerry remember Central America?
Analysts consulted this week by The Nicaragua Dispatch are divided over whether Secretary Kerry’s past experience and interest in Central America will translate into a change in policy—or even a harder look at the region.
“John Kerry has shown considerable interest in Latin America during his years in the Senate— especially Central America and Cuba. I think he recognizes that U.S. relations with the region have stagnated in recent years and that Latin American leaders are disappointed at how little progress has been made toward the ‘new partnership’ Obama promised in 2009,” says William LeoGrande, of American University’s School of Public Affairs. “Hopefully that experience will spur Kerry and the president to take a more pro-active approach to the region.”
Some share that optimism, even if guardedly.
“John Kerry is well known in Central America; he has played key roles in the region since the 1980s and has multiple liaisons with the region’s political and economic elites,” says Central American political analyst Luis Guillermo Solís. “His views on Nicaragua are, therefore, well grounded and are shared by many of us. Hence, I consider his nomination as a ‘plus’ for Central America, even when it is pretty clear that U.S. foreign policy in the region will continue to enjoy minimal priority in the broader map of U.S. strategic international interests.”
Others, however, say U.S. foreign policy doesn’t corner well and is unlikely to change directions under Secretary Kerry.
“I do not expect that Secretary Kerry will treat Latin America any differently than did Secretary Clinton. Although he has a better understanding of the region than did Hillary, I don’t expect this to translate into a different policy stance or emphasis,” says Francisco Aguirre, Nicaragua’s ex-Foreign Minister and former Ambassador to the United States.
Aguirre says Latin America will continue to remain on the U.S.’ “backburner” and that U.S. policy toward Nicaragua will “continue to be correct but cool.”
“I don’t expect to see any high level contacts from the U.S. (visit Nicaragua) until Comandante Ortega moderates his rhetoric towards the U.S., sheds some of his radioactive friends and moves towards a more democratic society internally,” Aguirre says.
Washington analysts are also skeptical that Kerry’s past interest in Central America will translate into any substantive policy change toward the region.
Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, notes that the real focus of Kerry’s foreign policy attentions in recent years has been on Afghanistan, Iraq and the Middle East, while his comments on Latin America have been “episodic,” making it “hard to discern a consistent view about U.S. policy towards the region.”
“It is reasonable to expect more continuity than change with Kerry in charge at the State Department,” Shifter tells The Nicaragua Dispatch. “Increasingly, the direction for US foreign policy is set at the White House, and there is no reason to believe that the second Obama administration will differ much from the first.”