Nicaragua needs new friends

Nicaragua’s vote against this week's UN resolution on Crimea shows the Sandinistas’ persistent tendency to follow the wrong crowd


Nicaragua voted 'NO' on the UN resolution reaffirming the Ukraine's territorial integrity. The other NO votes were cast by Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe

Nicaragua voted 'NO' on the UN resolution reaffirming the Ukraine's territorial integrity. The other NO votes were cast by Armenia, Belarus, Bolivia, Cuba, North Korea, Russia, Sudan, Syria, Venezuela and Zimbabwe

With an obsequious bow to Russian expansionism, Nicaragua this week joined North Korea, Syria, Sudan, Venezuela, Zimbabwe and five other model democracies in rejecting a UN resolution that reaffirms the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Ukraine.

The UN resolution, which calls the Crimea referendum invalid and urges a “peaceful resolution” to the crisis following Russia’s annexation of the peninsula, was supported by 100 nations and rejected by 11. Another 58 countries abstained from voting in the non-binding resolution.

Prior to Thursday’s vote, Nicaragua’s ambassador to the UN, Mary Rubiales, delivered an unmemorable statement to the General Assembly citing President Daniel Ortega’s global concerns for democracy, peace and autonomy. Her speech included a reference to deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya but failed to make any mention Russia, Crimea, or the military occupation of the peninsula, which was sort of why everyone else had gathered at the UN.

In kowtowing to Russia, Nicaragua once again put itself in the unfortunate company of hotheads, tyrants, and wacko nations seated at the losers’ table in the cafeteria of international relations (Armenia, can you please pass the mustard?).

In politics and life, you’re known by the company you keep. Nicaragua needs better friends. Rather than elbowing itself up to the table between North Korea, Zimbabwe and Syria, Nicaragua would have been smarter to take it’s lunch tray somewhere else.

International image counts for a country that’s trying to be taken seriously as an emerging destination for tourism and foreign investment. Message counts too. And Nicaragua’s blind support for Russian expansionism is counterproductive to the Sandinistas’ efforts to champion Nicaraguan sovereignty and territorial integrity in border conflicts with Costa Rica and Colombia. And it makes President Ortega’s recent challenge to the legitimacy of Costa Rica’s 1824 annexation of Guanacaste appear insincere, in addition to ridiculous.

Over the past seven and a half years, Nicaragua’s higgledy-piggledy foreign policy has mostly been cause for wonderment and laughs over beers.

The country’s effort to befriend Abkhazia and South Ossetia in 2008 was endearing and silly, and paid off big when the South Ossetian government was one of the few to congratulate Ortega on his controversial reelection in 2011.

It was fun to watch the Nicaraguan government apologize repeatedly for the nutty outbursts by deputy foreign minister Manuel Coronel Kautz, who called Swedish Ambassador Eva Zetterberg “the devil” (apology #1), called Holland as a “shitty little country” and said all European diplomats in Managua are “cats in heat” (apology #2), and then accused the U.S. of “killing people everywhere always with bombs everywhere” (apology #3). (Kautz was eventually promoted to head the Interoceanic Canal Commission, where he’s now in charge of maintaining Nicaragua’s pen-pal relationship with Chinese businessman Wang Jing).

Political watchers also got a chuckle out of the Ortega administration’s tender eulogy for North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il, whom First Lady Rosario Murillo hailed for his lifetime of dedication to “constructing more peace and more prosperity for all the families of that country.”

But kidding aside, the Sandinistas’ repeated defense of anti-democratic regimes and its sadly servile relationship with Russia and Venezuela is an embarrassment that’s harmful to the country’s standing in the world. Not only is it bad PR to pal around with international outcasts, it’s also an inaccurate representation of the open, embracing and western-friendly country that Nicaragua has become.

If you were to have visited Nicaragua this week, you would have seen U.S. tourists, Canadian backpackers and European expats. You would not have seen any goose-stepping North Korean tourists, Syrian surfers, or South Ossetian investors. If you looked really hard you would have seen the only Russian tourists visiting the country: a small and disheveled-looking delegation from the Duma, whose visit got way more play in the official media than it deserved.

Nicaragua — in many ways — is a country that’s coming into its own. It’s growing slowly but surely into a maturing destination for tourism and foreign investment. The Nicaragua brand name is now starting to be associated with good things, not just war, poverty and severe dysfunction. Sandinista handlers need to do more to encourage those positive changes, rather than risking it all by palling around with the nutjobs of the world.

Instead of glad-handing with glassy-eyed Russians and blowhard Bolivarian basket cases, or courting meaningless friendships with obscure breakaway Georgian republics whose names I have to google every time I write about them, the Sandinista government should do more to improve relations with its immediate neighbors in Central America and other nations whose friendships actually contribute to Nicaragua’s growth and wellbeing. Nicaragua should also do more to reach out to the truly progressive and prosperous countries in Latin America, such as Uruguay, Brazil and Chile.

Nicaragua needs to look in the mirror and remind itself that it has a lot to offer the world. The country is a natural beauty, full of innovative, intelligent, industrious and friendly people. Nicaragua deserves to have better friends — and it certainly has no excuse to continue hanging out down by the train tracks with all the international misfits, pipeheads and crackpots.

  • Pepe Turcon

    Dear Tim, you remind me the story of the scorpio and the turtle before crossing a river. After a long talk the scorpio promised the turtle not to bite and half way it did. The scorpio answered: It’s my nature and both died.
    They are all communists which is another Word for criminals and it is indeed their nature.
    How they fool people, well…ask Obamites, Castristas, Chavistas and Orteguistas.
    The West has to eliminate them and the USA is the only hope.
    Otherwise we move into the dark ages, and it’s better to push the button and die.
    Trust me I have been there, thing is, they are cowards and they blink first.

  • randypower

    Good article. It reminds me of journalism a few decades ago when authors were expected to have an opinion.

  • Nick

    It’s not just “western-friendly”

  • John Perry

    Tim, for once I agree with some of what you say and also that it’s an enjoyable piece. What I agree with is that Nicaragua does have a tendency for questionable alignments with countries outside Latin America, about which many Nicaraguans only know what they hear from local politicians (e.g. Assad’s Syria). However, you miss two important things. The first is that – whatever you think about politics in Venezuela – its help for Nicaragua has been enormous and (unlike US help) has few conditions attached. The second and in this context bigger issue is not to see the hypocrisy of the ‘West’ in criticising Russia. Here are some reasons:

    First, whatever the legalities its pretty obvious that most people in Crimea support what’s happened and it was at least bloodless. Second, where was the western criticism when the much bloodier and devastating invasion of Chechnya took place (George Bush and Tony Blair sat on their hands)? Third, what about when a western ally annexes adjoining territory (Israel)? And finally, what about the US’s own track record in this part of the world (Panama, Haiti, Grenada, etc) quite apart from the Middle East? Never mind scorpions and turtles, Pepe Turcon, how about people in glasshouses?

  • Indio Jones


    Thoughtful article. Don’t know much about politics, though I have a tendency to believe I do. Pursuing economic, political, or social “relationships” with nations that seldom violate human rights as defined by United Nations seems like a good standard. Even with this rule, you will find many nations that appear flexible.

  • Ken Morris

    Slow down, caballero. Whereas the enemy-of-my-enemy-is-my-friend foreign policy of Ortega-Murillo is worrisome, especially when it comes to supporting brutal dictatorships like North Korea, you may not be right about Crimea and possibly other cases. You are not right, I think, to suggest that economic self-interest should guide foreign policy.

    Why should markets trump morality? In fact, the deeper criticism of Ortega-Murillo is that they are far too loyal to regimes in countries like North Korea and Venezuela that have in the past provided the Sandinistas with aid or continue to do so. Thus, while I agree that the pattern of international alliances Nicaragua is forging is worrisome, I disagree with your thesis that Nicaragua’s foreign policy should be guided by befriending the countries that provide the investment dollars and supply the tourists. My preference would be for Nicaragua’s foreign policy to be guided by standards like human rights, not money.

    Also, with respect to Crimea (and Guanacaste, since you brought it up) as well as other cases, the unrecognized elephant in the room is the nation-state system. We now take it for granted that the world is properly divided up into nation-states, even though this is a historically new way to organize the world politically and doesn’t work particularly well. Roughly a third of the world’s nation-states are now failed or failing states–a pretty dismal track record for this form of political organization–while even the supposedly successful nation-states give pause. The UK and Canada face persistent threats of breakway republics, as also obviously did Ukraine, and frankly Guanacaste in Costa Rica is reasonably iffy. It is regarded as cultural distinct from the rest of the country, the circumstances of the referendum that led to its inclusion in Costa Rica are questionable, and it’s not terribly farfetched to suggest that it is today owned by wealthy foreigners and worked by poor Nicas despite being nominally a part of Costa Rica.

    No, I don’t think Costa Rica (or the UK or Canada etc.) will splinter apart anytime soon, or that it would be wise for this to happen, but fast forward a century or so and I at least find it hard to predict the persistence of the nation-state form of global political organization or believe that would be wise. Yet, the voting units of the UN are existing nation-states, which makes it a foregone conclusion that it will support existing nation-states (and probably support the nation-states that provide the elites in the member nation-states with the most money). So I’m not sure how much weight to place on a UN vote opposing a reconfiguration of a so-called nation-state. Long term the UN may prove to be an obstacle to a division of the world into workable political units.

    None of which is to say that I have an opinion about Crimea. I don’t. Neither do I really have one about Guanacaste, although I do entertain myself with the hypothetical: With which country, Costa Rica or Nicaragua, would Guanacaste affiliate today if a competitive referendum were held in which every resident could vote, and should such a referendum be binding? Under present conditions that only allow citizens of Costa Rica to vote, of course Guanacaste would vote to remain part of Costa Rica, but is it a fair vote that excludes those who live there without citizenship? Suppose then that the referendum allowed everyone to vote, and further suppose that Nicaragua campaigned hard to attract the investor class with tax concessions and the working class with labor rights guarantees. Under these hypothetical conditions, Guanacaste could vote to leave Costa Rica and join Nicaragua. But would such a vote be binding? Why should a referendum held in 2014 trump one in 1824, or the reverse? Indeed, is affiliation with one or another nation-state merely a matter of cultural preference? Might it be a matter of consumer preference? What glue binds nation-states together? What glue should bind them together? And what role should force play? Most nation-states today are actually products of imperial conquest, so with what moral authority does anyone say that the existing divisions are just and further force isn’t?

    This said, short term I agree that the pattern of foreign alliances spilling out of the Ortega-Murillo regime is troubling, but I’d hate to see that pattern rejiggered with an eye only to which countries invest the most money and send the most tourists. If this became the foreign policy model, Nicaragua would become an extension of Guanacaste and it might annex Nicaragua.

  • July

    I ‘m not sure of what “best friends” are you talking…And is hard to confuse the nature beauty of Nicaragua with this votation in the UN. In the end tourist of everywhere come to enjoy and forget the reality that they live in their countries.

  • Ben

    Tim, Great Forum. I am proud of you for hosting this and making it all possible.

  • Gattaca Pastora

    While it’s clear Nicaragua should embrace a more open and less hostile approach to other nations for its own interests, the reasoning for Nica’s NO vote on Ukraine wasn’t as stupid as the author makes it out to be. Here’s a fuller and less misconstrued summary of Rubiales’ statement at the UN:

    “MARÍA RUBIALES DE CHAMORRO ( Nicaragua), emphasizing the
    importance of non-interference in the internal affairs of States,
    pointed out that those speaking of democracy had used anti-democratic
    methods. Policies based on double standards were the true threat to
    international peace and security, she said, adding that the world had
    seen how some had directed terrorist actions from abroad in countries
    that failed to submit to their interests in a desire to establish new
    forms of colonization and slavery. Nicaragua supported the principle of
    peaceful, legitimate self-determination through the ballot box and
    rejected unilateral methods, including political and economic sanctions
    against the Russian Federation, which were in violation of international
    law, she said, stressing that her delegation supported an “inclusive
    political resolution” to the situation in Ukraine and would vote against
    the draft resolution.”

    Some might dismiss this as a critique of yanqui imperialism, let’s not kid ourselves into believing that there are clear “good guys” and “bad guys” on the world stage. And siding with the US on international policy is most definitely not inherently aligning one’s self with the “good guys.” Ask families in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Yemen about that.

  • Carla Chamorro

    First of all I would like to thank you for your very well written article. In Nica I have been told by my family to stay a bit foreign and I guess it is because I should not get to involved with the heavy local traditions in politics above all. For the Nicas, and I understand, the fresh and independent view you have is hard to have as most have been collaged into despair by events. The Manuel Coronel you mentioned is a dumb good for nothing bullshitter who spent most of the revolution time in 1979 drinking rum with my father and just talking revolution. Murillo the now first lady was and is still an outsider to the Frente club and to many she shoved her daughter into Daniel’s bed for kicks. Thing is trying to detach from the local boloni is hard. Otherwise every bit you shared is a breath of fresh air, if people would just open their windows.

  • Davecardin

    Biting the hand that feeds you doesn’t sound what???? Transparency isn’t a bad exchange for reaping investments y tourists directly related to a better economic standard being felt. Who also imports the most Nicaragua products? Inflow is needed and wanted, who is supplying it?

  • Pepe Turcon

    Dear Tim,

    I would like to add an excellent article from today’s La Prensa and sure it will add to this conversation. For those who need Engligh you can use the Google translator. Regards

  • Ricardo Marenco

    Great article, though I disagree with some points. Most of my disagreements are eloquently addressed by Ken Morris.