San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

The Prisoner of the Past

The Fifth Summit of the Americas held last week in Trinidad and Tobago was truly a sad and embarrassing affair for Nicaragua. It was also a clear indication of the country’s continued slide toward pariah status under the leadership of President Daniel Ortega.

While the rest of the hemisphere embraced the fresh leadership in the Casa Blanca as an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a new North-South relationship in the Americas, President Ortega opted to drone on obsessively about the past.

In Nicaragua, Ortega’s rambling speeches have become the hallmarks of his so-called “Pueblo Presidente” performances, political theater that is supposed to bring the people closer to the presidency. These events, which travel around the country like a circus, are attended by Sandinistas who are bussed in to watch Ortega talk in loose association for one or two hours, touching on whatever topics happen to cross his mind. At best, these political spectacles can be considered quaint or folksy, but for many they are just excruciating.

Regardless of Ortega’s personal style of politicking, to subject the other leaders of the hemisphere to his 50-minute pueblo presidentesque musings in Port of Spain was disrespectful and embarrassing to Nicaraguans and everyone else. By comparison, U.S. President Barack Obama talked for only 17 minutes, and managed to say a whole lot more.

Even more embarrassing than the nature of Ortega’s speech was the outdated and bitter content, which was totally out of sync with the spirit of the summit. Ortega blasted the United States for supporting the Somoza dynasty 40 years ago, denounced the U.S. mining of Nicaragua’s harbors 20 years ago, and lamented the U.S.-backedBay of Pigs invasion of Cuba in 1961. It was as if Ortega had traveled to the summit in a time capsule which had taken a wrong turn on the way there.

While many of Ortega’s complaints are legitimate historical grievances, that’s exactly where they belong now – in history and not at an international summit where everyone else is trying to focus on the future. As Obama said in his address, “To move forward, we cannot let ourselves be prisoners of past disagreements.”

Ortega’s role at the summit was even more pathetic given the fact that other leftist leaders in the region extended a hand literally and figuratively to the Obama administration. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez exchanged pleasantries with Obama, complimented his intelligence and reportedly told him in English, “I want to be your friend.” Even Cuban leader Rául Castro, who was excluded from the summit, has told the U.S. government recently that Cuba is willing to discuss everything with Washington, D.C. as part of an effort to move beyond the divisions of the past.

The Nicaraguan government desperately needs to show that same spirit of cooperation, openness and willingness for a new beginning with the U.S., especially at a time when aid has been suspended and bilateral relations are chilling quickly. But instead, the self-proclaimed president of reconciliation and unity focused on the same old divisions and underlined all the reasons why Nicaragua shouldn’t give the United States another chance.

In playing the role of “ALBA attack dog,” one also has to wonder if Ortega wasn’t being used by his allies in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA).

The day before the summit began, the leaders of ALBA met in Venezuela to define a common position heading into the meeting. While they ultimately stuck together in refusing to sign the Summit’s final declaration, and Bolivia’s President Evo Morales raised his own criticisms of the U.S., it was Ortega who distinguished himself as the odd man out.

But there’s an even more disturbing possibility to explain Ortega’s abrasive position at the summit: maybe he’s incapable of change.

Sources close to Ortega say the Sandinista leader is facing enormous pressure from critics – including those from within his own party – who claim he has sold out the ideals of the revolution and become a “derechista” by climbing into bed with opposition party boss Arnoldo Alemán and leaders of the Catholic Church. And despite his diatribes against capitalism, Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo have allegedly become one of the wealthiest families in Nicaragua.

So maybe all that’s left for Ortega is his role as antagonist to the U.S. government, his one link to the revolutionary leader he was in the past. It definitely seems like that is what he was trying to do last weekend in Trinidad and Tobago.

Today more than ever, Nicaragua needs leadership that is both pragmatic and forward-looking. The only past Ortega needs to worry about right now is more recent – last year’s electoral fraud – which is the one topic in history he appears not to remember. It is also the issue that is most affecting his country’s current relations with the U.S.

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