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Ortega Seeks Converts at Regional Food Summit

MANAGUA – Efforts by President Daniel Ortega to assume a regional leadership role in confronting the food crisis received mixed reviews by analysts and various heads of state who attended last week’s “Food for Life” summit organized by the Nicaraguan leader.

Ortega, who convened the summit among 14 countries from Central America, the Caribbean and leftist member-states of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), has been both praised for assuming a leadership role on this important issue, and chastised for doing so in an ineffective and overly politicized manner.

Many of the government leaders in attendance at the meeting opened their speeches by thanking Ortega for taking the initiative to organize the summit and identifying the issue of food security as a priority for the region. Even more conservative governments, such as that of El Salvador, which was represented by its Foreign Minister Marisol Argueta, gave a nod to Ortega for taking a leadership role.

Yet political analysts and opposition leaders in Nicaragua are more critical of Ortega’s performance, calling the summit a missed opportunity and a clumsy attempt by Ortega and his ALBA allies to mix their leftist political ideology with the sensitive issue of food security.

“This was a propaganda campaign for ALBA,” says political analyst Cirilo Otero. “There were no concrete solutions, just political show.”

Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who has long been at ideological odds with Ortega despite recent efforts to play the role of cordial neighbor, also balked at the final declaration, which the Tico delegation claims was altered in its language and tone at the 11th hour, after having been circulated among the countries and agreed upon 48 hours earlier. Last minute revisions, including the insertion of seven new points by Venezuela, nixed the deal for Costa Rica and El Salvador – the only two countries that withheld their signatures.

“There are some value judgments, concepts that I don’t agree with,” Arias said. Opposition politicians have pointed to Costa Rica and El Salvador’s refusal to sign the accord as a failure by Ortega to establish leadership in Central America. Others, however, claim the summit was a flop even before it began.

Political analyst and former Foreign Minister Emilio Alvarez says the fact that the presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador and Panama didn’t show up to the summit shows that Ortega doesn’t have the leadership to convoke a top-level meeting among Central American presidents. And the no-show by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who bailed at the last minute supposedly for health reasons, was, Alvarez claims, most likely to save face among other regional leaders who canceled their attendance – an absence that can be interpreted as a rejection of the ideological advances of ALBA, according to the analyst.

Alvarez says that Chávez probably didn’t want to play the “rich uncle” at the meeting, handing out more financial promises to his impoverished nephews in Central America.

The Politics of Food

Alvarez says that the summit, far from focusing on the issue of food security, represented a “clash of political philosophy” between those who believe in the free-market and those who believe in a state economy.

Honduras’ center-left President Manuel Zelaya, who has flirted with ALBA in the past, sided with Ortega and company by urging the governments of Central America to take a more active role in their countries’ economic development. He even called for a revival of the “agrarian reform” policies of the 1980s, in an apparent reference to the land redistribution programs of the first Sandinista government, which led to land confiscations in the 1980s.

A clause was included in the final declaration in support of agrarian reform, a vague term that is sure to have raised the neckhairs of the two more conservative countries that abstained from signing.

Yet despite the leftist sympathies of the governments such as Honduras and Ecuador, neither of those countries have actually taken the next step by signing on to ALBA, a leftist cooperation agreement among Nicaragua, Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia.

Michael Shifter, of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank on Latin America, says the cushy promises of ALBA might seem attractive to poor countries, but ultimately most countries may be too leery of their own recent past to get sucked in entirely.

“Though some governments may be tempted by the lure of ALBA, at the same they will resist being under the tutelage of Chávez,” Shifter told The Nica Times. “The various crises may well lead to pressures for the state to play a greater role in the economy, but I doubt most Central Americans will see that as a solution to their current predicament. They remember that such prescriptions failed when they were applied in the past.”


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