President Daniel Ortega’s 50-minute diatribe at last weekend’s Summit of the Americas, in which he blamed the United States for a litany of problems dating back to the 19th century, has been ridiculed internationally and lamented back home as another lost opportunity to improve U.S.-Nicaraguan relations.
Though some inside experts had had high expectations for the first face-to-face meeting between Ortega and U.S. President Barack Obama – and even predicted they might hit it off – there was no personal chemistry between the two.
Instead, Ortega will most likely be remembered for lambasting the United States and capitalism, referring to Obama as the “president of the empire” and denouncing a whole list of U.S. “terrorist policies” against Nicaragua and the region.
Obama, who sat patiently through Ortega’s rambling speech, later responded with succinct firmness and humor, even making a joke at Ortega’s expense.
“To move forward, we cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements,” Obama said, looking at Ortega and prompting applause from the other hemispheric leaders.
Referring to one of Ortega’s earlier comments about the Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961, Obama added, “I am grateful that President Ortega did not blame me for things that happened when I was three months old.”
The quip prompted laughter and more applause from the other leaders in the room. Obama again alluded to Ortega’s speech several moments later, saying, “Too often an opportunity to build a fresh partnership with the Americas has been undermined by stale debates. And we’ve heard all these arguments before.”
Asked afterwards by the press what he thought of Ortega’s speech, Obama said, “It was 50 minutes long, that’s what I thought.” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who next June will be heading the U.S. government’s review of suspended development aid for Nicaragua, wouldn’t even dignify Ortega’s speech with a reaction when pressed by the media afterwards.
U.S. analysts say Ortega’s speech didn’t win him any points in Washington, D.C. “Obama’s pragmatic, future-oriented attitude could not be more at odds with Ortega’s. I suspect Obama’s first impression of Ortega did not endear him to the Nicaraguan president,” said Michael Shifter, vice-president of policy the Inter-American Dialogue, a U.S. think tank on Latin America. “Bilateral relations will probably not change very much as a result of their encounter.”
Nicaraguan foreign policy experts echo that concern.
“Ortega poked Obama in the eye,” said lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, former Nicaraguan Ambassador to the U.S. “Ortega will be one of the few regional leaders that Obama remembers from the summit, and for all the wrong reasons.”
Aguirre added that Ortega’s litany of blame “fell flat on its face” because he “didn’t offer any concrete, pro-positive ideas.”
“Ortega lives in a time warp,” the former ambassador said. “He isn’t comfortable living in the present and he is even less comfortable living in the future. The only place he is comfortable is in his version of the past.”
Former Foreign Minister Emilio Alvarez said Ortega’s speech sounded like “crying over spilled milk” and revealed that he had underestimated Obama as a leader.
Out of Step
Ortega’s position at the summit was even out of sync with other leftist leaders in Latin America.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez shared a pleasant exchange with Obama, gave him a copy of Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano’s book “The Open Veins of Latin America” and echoed calls for a new chapter in hemispheric relations.
During the second day of the summit, Ortega seemed to change his tune a bit. In comments to his family run Sandinista media outlet, Ortega said he thought the summit represented “positive steps toward new relations with the U.S.”
Unfortunately, Ortega himself did not appear to take any of those steps.
Arturo Cruz Jr., the recently returned former Nicaraguan Ambassador to Washington, remains hopeful that in the long run Ortega’s pragmatism will win out in forming new relations with the U.S.
“I have always had the impression that President Ortega has a very realistic sense of the importance of this relation,” Cruz told The Nica Times in an exclusive interview last week.
Cruz, a professor at the INCAE business school in Managua and one of the few non-Sandinistas to serve in the Ortega administration, notes that Ortega has managed to maintain stable relations with the U.S. despite the rhetoric and even while other leftist allies, such as Bolivia and Venezuela, have expelled U.S. ambassadors from their countries.
“Independent of the historic complications, I always had the sensation that the president was interested in maintaining stable relations,” Cruz said.
Cruz says that even among the Sandinista bases, there is a “clear understanding that relations with the U.S. have to be fluid” because of the economic, emotional and family ties between the two countries. However, the former ambassador doesn’t think the Obama administration will give Nicaragua the same “special attention” that past U.S. administrations have.
He said that the recent changing of the guard in Washington gives Ortega a fresh chance to form new relations and personal connections with a younger administration that’s not so hung up on the 1980s.
He said that behind closed doors, Ortega can be very effective in one-on-one situations with U.S. government officials.
“The Daniel Ortega that I saw with U.S. government officials was always a very pragmatic Daniel. And he was a Daniel who managed his relationship in a very civilized and educated way,” Cruz said. “And U.S. officials were always impressed.”
Unfortunately, the Ortega who showed up at last weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago was not the “pragmatic Daniel” of behind-closed-doors, rather the Daniel who is prone to long ideological diatribes. And neither U.S. officials – nor the majority of other Latin American leaders in attendance – seemed very impressed.