San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

U.S. Envoy Tackles Tricky Relationship


Robert J. Callahan worked in the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa in the early 1980s, he represented an aggressive U.S. administration that sought to undermine Nicaragua’s Sandinista government by arming and training counterrevolutionary insurgents based in Honduras. As the political gods would have it, 25 years later Callahan is back in the neighborhood, only this time as the U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua where his mandate is entirely different: to work in cooperation and support of the Sandinista government.

Both history and current events make that a daunting task.

Though Ambassador Callahan and President Daniel Ortega have expressed a desire to work together to strengthen bilateral relations, ideological differences, an aggressive Sandinista discourse and polarizing geopolitical alliances are already presenting tall hurdles.

Following Ortega’s recent recognition of the Georgian separatist provinces of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutiérrez – one of Ortega’s most sympathetic allies in the U.S. government – cancelled his programmed visit here for this week, saying that “international circumstances have changed.”

That decision has sparked concern among Nicaraguan foreign policy experts and business leaders that U.S.-Nicaraguan relations have reached a “point of inflection” and are starting to chill (NT, Sept. 19).

Callahan acknowledges the relationship is “fraught with difficulty” but insists there’s no “reason for undo concern” because the problems in the relationship are not “insuperable.” “I can’t sit here and say we don’t have problems.

We do. And probably more problems than we have with certain other countries, certainly in the region,” Callahan told The Nica Times, in his first exclusive interview since presenting his credentials as ambassador Aug. 27.

But, Callahan said, the U.S. government continues to maintain a high level of interest in Nicaragua and the intention is to continue that relationship.

“There’s always a concern about maintaining the relationship and when possible improving it, but I wouldn’t consider the relationship in any way deteriorating,” Callahan said. “There are clearly disagreements in how we look at the world, and how we choose our friends and allies, and how we choose to speak to each other, but it’s something that we are perfectly aware of. It’s one of the things that I am down here to improve, if possible.”

A well-respected veteran member of the U.S. foreign service, “Bob” Callahan first served in the U.S. embassy in Costa Rica in 1980 before moving to the embassy in Honduras, where he worked for four years under Ambassador John Negroponte as cultural attaché and then press officer.

Then he was stationed in London for a four-year post working as embassy press attaché and speech writer before returning to Latin America in 1989 to work as the counselor of public affairs at the embassy in Bolivia. Callahan has also served in the embassies in Athens and Rome, and has taught at the National War College in Washington, D.C.

More recently, Callahan served as embassy spokesman and press attaché for the U.S. embassy in Baghdad, in 2004. Long married to his wife Deborah, with whom he has two grown sons, Callahan jokes his wife has been at his side during all of his globetrotting, “except for in Baghdad.”

Originally from Chicago, Callahan, 60, is a long-suffering Cubs fan who has a hard time concealing his youthful zeal for baseball, much like his suit jacket has a hard time concealing the Cubs watch he wears on his left wrist. On more than one occasion during his brief four weeks here, Callahan has publically mentioned his excitement about being posted in a baseball country – a topic that has already helped him to find some common ground with high-ranking Sandinista officials.

Callahan sat down with The Nica Times last week to discuss the state of past, present and future U.S.-Nicaraguan relations, and – of course – the fantasy scenario of what would happen if the first-place Cubs were to go all the way this year:

NT: There’s speculation that the next government in the United States, regardless of who wins, could take a different approach to Latin America and redefine U.S. policy in the region. How does that possibility affect your job in these interim months?

RC: Because of my personal interests and my professional history here, I’ve followed Latin American affairs really closely and I would say that really since the late 1970s, with President (Jimmy) Carter’s strong and vocal promotion of democracy, our policy towards Latin America really hasn’t changed.

The emphasis at times has changed, but fundamentally it has been one of democracy promotion and economic assistance … I don’t see our policy toward Latin America changing fundamentally with a new administration, whether that be a McCain or an Obama administration.

Even if it doesn’t change fundamentally, there are ebbs and flows to the level of U.S. engagement over the years. Looking at the patterns you’ve spelled out, would you say that we’re moving towards a period of greater engagement?

Our level of engagement is fairly high … What applies to Nicaragua applies to the other Central American countries, given the geographical proximity … these countries, despite their relatively small size and small economies, nevertheless command a lot more attention than countries of comparable sizes and comparable economic power elsewhere.

You are someone who worked closely in the 1980s with U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte, a man who is viewed by the Ortega administration as a key architect of the Contra war. How do you reconcile that past experience of working to undermine the Sandinista government with your current post to work in support of the Ortega government?

Well, I am a professional diplomat. And my job is to promote the policies of the American government, which is precisely what I did and, frankly, what Ambassador Negroponte and the rest of us did when we were in Honduras. And we are, as I’ve said repeatedly, committed to working with this government, the Ortega government, the Sandinista government, to promote democracy and encourage economic development.

The Ortega government has a tendency to use revolutionary rhetoric, referring to the United States as “yanqui imperialists.” And personally, you have already been referred to you as the “yanqui ambassador” and the “Gringo ambassador.” Is there a threat that this rhetoric could strain either diplomatic or personal relations?

It’s hard to say. But as I said in my hearing before the Senate, it doesn’t help. When we speak to each other publicly, we should observe certain norms of polite discourse. That’s something that I would encourage.

I personally would never use insulting rhetoric publicly to refer to anyone in this government. It can’t be helpful when senior officials throughout Latin America chose to use that kind of language – it resonates in Washington, and it resonates among the American people.

The cancelation of several of the minority parties’ (legal status) has been something that some international NGOs and foreign governments have raised concerns about. What is the U.S. position on the state of democracy in Nicaragua heading into the elections? Are there any rough edges or areas of concern?

Well, what we want to see and what other democratic countries, especially those that are liberal contributors to the Nicaraguan economy, want to see is free, open and fair elections. We want to see the institutions of a democracy maintained and strengthened. And we stand ready to help with that.

We recognize that democracy is fairly recent here in Nicaragua and that it’s important to observe all the accoutrements of democracy – a free press, freedom of expression, civil society, multi-party elections – all the things that people recognize are essential to a democracy. So, yes, that’s what we are working to achieve in partnership with the Nicaraguans.

We are always vigilant in measuring the health of Nicaragua’s democracy.

Is there still a feeling that the Ortega government is committed to working in partnership with the United States, despite some of the rhetoric and double discourse?

There are many, many areas in which we cooperate very closely with Nicaragua. A very conspicuous example is in law enforcement and military relationship, which is very, very close and has produced some magnificent results – results that have really helped the United States.

Since I’ve been here, in a period of four weeks, Nicaraguan police have seized thousands and thousands of pounds of cocaine, much of which, obviously, was destined for American cities.

We have a huge investment on the part of Cone Denim – that’s $100 million investment; it’s not something a company would undertake lightly. We have very fluid travel agreements with the Nicaraguans. We have a robust bilateral-aid program. We have the Millennium Challenge Account, which is now beginning to produce real results.

Half a million Nicaraguans live in the United States, thousands of Americans live here, thousands more visit here. So obviously it’s a daily interchange of people, ideas, money and all those relationships that strengthen understanding between two people.

So (the relationship) is very, very important and in many respects very robust.

As a Cubs fan, you must be used to violent swings between infinite hope and crushing defeat. How does this mold your outlook and diplomatic skills?

(Laughing) In the interest of preserving my sanity and surviving physically, I have divorced my passion for the Cubs from everything else I do in life. Otherwise, it would have destroyed me many, many years ago. It’s a defense mechanism that I think all Cubs fans have developed over time.

If the Cubs were – and I wouldn’t want to jinx them – but if they were fortunate enough to get into the World Series and win the World Series, I have no idea how I would react. I don’t know if I would collapse in tears or jump in joy. But I’d like to experience it to see how I’d react.


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