San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Obama Challenged to Engage Region

MANAGUA – As U.S. President-elect Barack Obama prepares to take office on Jan. 20, Nicaragua and the rest of Latin America will be watching closely to see what trickledown effect the change he has promised to bring to the White House will have on the rest of the hemisphere.

For the past two centuries, the history of Latin America – and especially Nicaragua – is a process that has been intimately shaped and moved by its relations with the United States, for better, and oftentimes, for worse.

Nicaraguans understand that relationship more intimately that most; this country has been directly intervened by the United States more than any other country in Latin America. That violent and meddlesome history continues to shape the current Sandinista government’s political discourse and world vision.

President Daniel Ortega, the erstwhile poster child of Latin American resistance in the 1980s when his revolutionary Sandinista government battled U.S.-backed Contra raiders, is still convinced today that the problems of his government are due to an elaborate U.S.-led conspiracy to destabilize his administration.

Though Ortega once hailed Obama’s presidential campaign as “revolutionary” when the Democratic pre-candidate was still considered a long-shot for his party’s nomination, the Sandinista leader has since tried to lower expectations that the political relationship between the two will become cozier now that both countries will be led by “leftist” leaders.

During a meeting last month with Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Ortega warned that Obama’s opponents could try to kill him if he tries to promote the change he has promised.

“He is a prisoner of the empire,” Ortega said during the meeting in Caracas. “I hope they don’t kill him,” Chávez added.

Others in Ortega’s administration have also offered barbed words of warning to Obama. Omar Cabezas, Ortega’s Human Rights Ombudsman, last week referred to Obama as “el negrito,” or the little black boy, and warned that “ultra-right wing” interests in the current U.S. administration were going to conspire to complicate the incoming president’s job before handing over the White House in January.

That alleged right-wing conspiracy is part of the same one that the Ortega administration has repeatedly blamed for trying to “destabilize” the Nicaraguan government, too. But specialists in international relations consulted by The Nica Times claim that the Latin America of today is shaped more by the absence of U.S. influence than by its meddlesome presence, covert or otherwise.

While some are calling on the next U.S. president to reengage the hemisphere in a positive way, others say the United States’ waning role in the hemisphere has actually helped the region come of age and find its own path in a globalized world.

Former Uruguay Ambassador and academic Agustín Espinosa says Latin America’s emerging new model of development, cooperation and integration has been “a consequence of the great lack of interest by the United States in the region.”

“I would say the United States has lost lots of influence in the region,” Espinosa said. “We all know that the United States’ attention has been on other parts of the world. On the U.S. agenda, Latin America hasn’t had the importance that it deserves, firstly as a neighbor and secondly for historical reasons.”

Espinosa said that in the absence of the United States, Latin America has begun to “change its paradigm” about the role the  region plays in the world and has taken a homegrown initiative to integrate and find its own identity.

He pointed to last week’s summit in Brazil among all Latin American and the Caribbean nations – and without the United States – as a historic first – a meeting where the region is getting to know itself and strengthen ties without depending on U.S. leadership.

However, he added, most of Latin America still wants to have a much closer relation with “our great neighbor to the north.”

Espinosa added, “The United States has declined its role voluntarily, and we wish it would recover it. We are awaiting anxiously for the first statements of the new president, and his first visit to Latin America – which country is he going to chose, and what will his message be? Sadly, Obama has not made any real concrete statements toward the region.”

Others, however, have found early reason for optimism in Obama’s first picks for key Cabinet posts.

Marco Vinicio Ruiz, Costa Rica’s minister of foreign trade, says Obama’s nomination of former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as secretary of commerce is a positive sign for Latin America. Richardson, who was raised partially in Mexico by a Nicaragua-born father, has an expressed and proven interest in Latin America, and a passport to prove it. As a politician, Richardson has visited Nicaragua, Guatemala, Cuba and Peru.

“Richardson was an important nomination,” Ruiz told The Nica Times. “But Latin America’s relationship with the United States can’t be just a trade agreement. That’s a very important element, but they have to accompany us in other processes, too.”

Ruiz acknowledges that the United States has “given a bit of aid” over the past two decades, but laments that “there was a lot more of it when we were the center of wars than there is now.”

Michael Shifter, a vice president of policy for the Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S. think tank on Latin America, considers it unlikely that the Obama administration will devote more attention to Latin America than his predecessor did.

However, he added, the White House’s attitude toward the region will most likely improve under Obama.

“It is not that Obama will necessarily engage more with Latin America, it is that he will do so in a different, more respectful way than previous presidents,” Shifter said in an e-mail from Peru. “That reflects the United States’ declining capacity to influence the region’s politics, along with the rise of regional powers such as Brazil.”

Some analysts think that current events in Latin America – especially in Nicaragua, where the United States and its European allies have expressed growing concern over the state of the country’s democracy – will require the next administration to get more involved in certain cases.

Kevin Casas, a former vice president of Costa Rica and now senior Latin American foreign policy analyst at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C., said he thinks “there’s not a chance that Latin America will have any priority for Obama,” but that there will be “specific issues,” such as Nicaragua, that “require attention.”

“What is happening (in Nicaragua) is serious and the international community must not stand idle before it,” Casas told The Nica Times this week. “The good thing is that as opposed to, say, Russia, which can overtly defy the international community with near total impunity, Nicaragua simply cannot afford to do that. So I guess that at some point the Obama administration will utter something regarding Nicaragua.”

The first challenge facing Obama-Ortega relations – and a potential bellwether for the future of bilateral relations over the next several years – will occur in March, when the new U.S. administration meets again to decide the fate of the $175 million Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) compact for Nicaragua, which has been partially suspended due to U.S. concerns over the Nov. 9 municipal elections here and the state of democracy under Ortega.

If the Obama administration shares those concerns, or takes them a step further by cancelling the MCC compact for Nicaragua, bilateral relations would become increasingly strained.

Ultimately, however, it will be up to Latin America to respond to the situation in Nicaragua, Casas said.


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