As the United States prepares to elect its next president Nov. 4, many Nicaraguans are wondering what a change in White House leadership will mean for their country, especially now that President Daniel Ortega, the United States’ erstwhile Cold War nemesis, is back in power.
Though Central America – and even Latin America – have taken a back seat in the U.S. presidential campaign to the financial crisis and foreign wars, the candidates’ pasts and their campaign comments on Latin America may offer clues about what the future may hold in store, analysts say.
Republican candidate Sen. John McCain has been linked to groups that supported Contra rebels that tried to topple Nicaragua’s Sandinista government in the 1980s, and was said to have roughed up a Sandinista official during a diplomatic visit to Managua two decades ago.
More recently, Ortega has shown his preference by calling the campaign of Democratic candidate Sen. Barack Obama “revolutionary.”
The two presidential candidates are squaring off as U.S.-Nicaraguan relations chill and Ortega is accused at home and abroad of persecuting his critics, harboring Colombian rebels considered terrorists by the United States and strengthening ties with anti-U.S. leaders in Venezuela, Russia and Iran.
Ortega’s pro-Obama leanings and McCain’s anti-Sandinista past are among the few clues that analysts have to predict how each of the candidates looking to fill George W. Bush’s shoes might affect relations with Central America and particularly Nicaragua.
“Latin America hasn’t been an issue during this presidential campaign,” said Juan Carlos Hidalgo, the Latin America director for the Cato Institute, a conservative Washington, D.C.-based think-tank.
He says that predicting how each candidate will take on the region involves a bit of speculation, “given the lack of statements from the candidates regarding Central America and Nicaragua.”
When Nicaragua has been mentioned during the campaign, it’s mostly been in relation to its close ties to Venezuela.
Speaking to supporters on Cuban Independence Day in Miami, McCain pledged to “prevent” leftist Latin countries from “taking the same road to failure Castro has paved for Cuba.”
A resident of Arizona, a state which borders Mexico, McCain’s policy toward Latin America likely won’t stray much from Bush’s, Hidalgo said. McCain will likely continue to ignore Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez publicly and maintain the trade embargo with Cuba. McCain has chided Obama for his plans to sit down with anti-U.S. leaders such as Chávez.
Hidalgo expects that a McCain presidency would take a tougher stance toward Nicaragua, and might even threaten to remove Nicaragua from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) if Ortega continues to undermine democratic institutions, as his opposition alleges.
“Other forms of aid could be suspended too. But Nicaragua has already implemented CAFTA, so trade sanctions are no longer an option for the next U.S. president. Nor should they be an option,” Hidalgo said, in reference to the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA).
Obama, on the other hand, promised to reverse the Bush administration’s “trade, not aid” policy in the hemisphere by boosting aid and revisiting trade agreements.
Obama, who opposed CAFTA “because the needs of workers were not adequately addressed,” promise to “substantially increase” aid to the region.
Under Obama, pending trade pacts with Colombia and Panama would likely not be approved, Hidalgo said. Obama does, however, promised to enforce environmental standards under CAFTA and other trade deals.
The Illinois senator told the Miami crowd he will engage in “direct diplomacy” with the region’s leaders, in hopes of undoing the Bush administration’s “negligent policy” that has empowered “demagogues” like Chávez in the region.
“The United States is so alienated from the rest of the Americas that (Chávez’s) stale vision has gone unchallenged, and has even made inroads from Bolivia to Nicaragua,” Obama said.
Obama said he’ll boost support for the war on drugs and will support “clean energy” in the hemisphere by investing in low-carbon energy projects, increasing research and development of alternative energy in the region, and sending an Energy Corps abroad to support alternative energy projects.
Having lived under an authoritarian regime in Indonesia as a child, Obama said there is no place for tyranny in the hemisphere, adding that the United States “must be a relentless advocate for democracy.”
In Cuba, for instance, he said he’ll allow unlimited family travel and remittances, but will maintain the embargo until Cuba frees political prisoners.
An Obama position that pundits say could become problematic for U.S.-Nicaraguan relations is his pledge to support Colombia’s fight against the hemisphere’s biggest rebel group, the Armed Revolutionary Forces of Colombia (FARC), which the United States considers a terrorist organization.
“We will support Colombia’s right to strike terrorists who seek safe-haven across its borders. And we will shine a light on any support for the FARC that comes from neighboring governments. This behavior must be exposed to international condemnation, regional isolation, and – if need be – strong sanctions,” Obama said.
That statement, made in May, was a clear challenge to Chávez, who at the time was the FARC’s biggest international supporter.
Chávez has since backed down from that position and Ortega has taken his place as the FARC’s champion on the international stage. Ortega has given asylum to four alleged FARC rebels and allegedly met with FARC leaders clandestinely in Managua as part of his proposal to negotiate a peace agreement for the rebels.
“I could see that becoming an issue in USNicaragua relations,” said Peter Kornbluh, coauthor of “The Iran-Contra Scandal: The Declassified History.”
But for the most part, Kornbluh added, Latin America’s leftward tide hasn’t been enough to really catch the attention of Washington, D.C.
“It hasn’t made a difference except for Chávez, who is the real deal. He doesn’t run a dirt-poor country like Nicaragua. He has massive oil resources and power and ambition to use them and to challenge the United States,” Kornbluh said, adding that Ortega’s relationship with Chávez could cause U.S.- Nicaragua tensions in the future.
Ortega has also strengthened ties with Russia and Iran.
It was Ortega’s relationship with the Soviet Union in the 1980s that caught the attention of the administration of President Ronald Reagan during the heat of the Cold War, prompting the United States to fund a proxy war on the Sandinista government. When the Contra war began, John McCain was campaigning for the Senate seat he now holds.
In the early ’80s, McCain served on the advisory board of the U.S. chapter of the World Anti-Communist League, an international organization linked to former Nazi collaborators and right-wing death squads in Central America, according to an Associated Press report earlier this month.
The group aided rebels trying to overthrow the Sandinista government, which landed the group in the middle of the Iran-Contra affair and in legal trouble with the U.S. Internal Revenue Service, which revoked the charitable organization’s tax exemption, the Associated Press reported.
“Obviously, having the name of a war hero and a congressman on the board of that very, very extremist right-wing group was helpful for them to raise money for themselves,” Kornbluh said.
Controversy remains over whether McCain continued to support the group after U.S. Congress cut off military aid to the Contra rebels in 1984, at which point the Reagan administration continued to support the rebels covertly. McCain’s Contra ties were scrutinized last month after the McCain camp examined Obama’s relationship with William Ayers, a professor and U.S. antiwar activist who co-founded a radical leftist group that bombed buildings in the 1960s and 1970s.
Another snapshot of McCain’s past with the Sandinistas surfaced earlier in the campaign, when a Republican colleague of McCain said the Arizona senator, known for his hot temper, roughed up an unnamed Sandinista official on a diplomatic mission to Nicaragua in 1987.
“John had reached over and grabbed this guy by the shirt collar and had snatched him up like he was throwing him up out of the chair to tell him what he thought about him,” Republican Sen. Thad Cochran told the Sun Herald in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Sandinista legislator Edwin Castro said he remembers McCain as a Contra supporter.
“McCain was one of the links the Contras used to get money,” Castro told The Nica Times this week, “Not only did he support the Contras, but he was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal.”
Still, Castro said, the Sandinistas would be respectfully of whichever U.S. president is elected.
If McCain wins it could bring old baggage to U.S.-Nicaragua relations, analysts say.
“It is hard to imagine that McCain would see Ortega as anything but one of the bad guys in his Cold War-like, ‘friends-versusadversaries’ mindset that he applies to Latin America and the rest of the world,” said Michael Shifter of the Washington-based think tank Inter-American Dialogue.
On the other hand, Shifter said, if Obama wins, he probably “would not bother very much with Ortega.”