San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Europeans Question Ortega’s Commitment to Democracy

MANAGUA – Sandinista diplomacy skills once again have come under fire following the government’s abrupt attempt to expel a member of the European Parliament and for belittling The Netherlands as a “paisucho,” or “a crappy little country.”

On Nov. 11, Deputy Foreign Minister Valdrack Jaentschke ordered visiting European parliamentarian Hans Van Baalen to leave Nicaragua for allegedly “interfering in internal affairs.” Acting Foreign Minister Manuel Coronel Kautz added insult to injury by then referring to Van Baalen’s native country as a paisucho – a comment Nicaragua was later forced to apologize for in writing.

Holland is one of Nicaragua’s most steadfast European allies and is head of the European budget support group for Nicaragua.

The latest Sandinista diplomatic outburst has been sharply criticized both in Nicaragua and in Europe.

“The expulsion order issued by the Nicaraguan Government is totally unacceptable,” said former Belgium Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, president of the European parliamentary bloc The Alliance of Liberals and Democrats of Europe (ALDE). “If [President] Daniel Ortega is not prepared to countenance free speech and open criticism, he has little understanding of democracy and doesn’t deserve a new mandate.”

Annemie Neyts, president of the European Liberal Democrats, added, “Things are clearly deteriorating in Nicaragua.”

In Nicaragua, the opposition agrees with that assessment.

“This shows how out of touch the Sandinista government is with reality, and how radical it has become,” said opposition lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, ex-foreign minister and president of the National Assembly’s Commission on Foreign Affairs.

Aguirre, who’s also a member of the Budget Commission, said last week’s outburst also won’t help Nicaragua’s efforts to unthaw European budget aid or warm European officials to Nicaragua’s request for more money as part of Central America’s negotiations of an EU Association Agreement.

“The Dutch feel slighted by this,” Aguirre said. “I don’t want to say this is another nail in the coffin, but it’s certainly not going to help things.”

Liberal Party Unity

Van Baalen, who was invited to Nicaragua by opposition Liberal Party leader Eduardo Montealegre, spent three days here meeting with the divided opposition leaders, attempting to convince them to unite to defeat President Ortega in the 2011 elections.

The product of that effort is an agreement called “The Contract of Managua,” which was signed by both Montealegre and former President and ex-convict Arnoldo Alemán, president of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC). Under the “contract,” the divided Liberal parties agree to unite behind a single presidential candidate, who has yet to be determined.

“Every time the opposition [in Nicaragua] unites, they win the elections,” Van Baalen told The Nica Times. “The Liberals themselves have to come together. I can help the talks, but I can’t decide the outcome.”

Still, Van Baalen said, he plans to return to Nicaragua within two months to help the unification process “in hopes of a speedy checkout of President Daniel Ortega in 2011.”

Van Baalen joked that when he returns, he hopes that “Mr. Jaentschke will come to the  border to welcome me,” after the Sandinistaofficial asked him to leave last week.

Strong Words

In a country where some critics are starting to hold their tongues out of fear of government reprisal, the boldness with which Van Baalen spoke last week startled many in the ruling Sandinista party, and seems to have somewhat emboldened the opposition.

Van Baalen bluntly called last year’s municipal elections “fraudulent” and accused Ortega of “illegally” manipulating the constitution to seek reelection. He said the 2011 elections “will determine whether Nicaragua is a true democracy or not.”

Van Baalen warned that if the Liberals don’t unite before the next elections, “There will be a third term for Mr. Ortega, which I think is bad for the economy and for democracy.”

The Dutch parliamentarian also dismissed the Sandinista government’s warnings that his criticism represents illegal meddling in Nicaragua’s internal affairs.

“Jaentschke has told me I should leave the country because I am interfering in national affairs,” Van Baalen said. “But I say to Mr. Jaentschke, where have you been? Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, human rights, civil liberties and democracy are international matters” and not domestic issues.

“People from foreign countries can criticize my country, Holland, so I can speak out against fraudulent elections, and fraudulent behavior in Nicaragua,” he said.

Van Baalen also criticized the Organization of American States (OAS) for focusing on Honduras and not taking a stance on Nicaragua. He accused the international body of being a “lobby group” for Venezuela’s left-wing President Hugo Chávez.

Mob Media

As part of the Ortega administration’s new tactic to intimidate its opponents, the government sicced its journalists on Van Baalen – a mob-media tactic the Sandinistas use to hound, harass and ruffle opponents in the name of journalism.

The Sandinistas pulled out their full arsenal for the Nov. 11 Van Baalen press conference, sending more than 10 reporters and cameramen from all their news agencies to interrupt the event by yelling insults, pushing, shouting, attempting to prevent other journalists from asking questions, and ultimately try to deter Van Baalen from commenting on the political situation here.

Similar Sandinista media-interference tactic have worked to frustrate press conferences by U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan and others. But Van Baalen stood his ground and kept his cool, even when the Sandinista reporters crowded him and called him a “fascist.”

When one Sandinista journalist interrupted one of Van Baalen’s answers by yelling  at him to speak in Spanish, Van Baalen, who was speaking English and using a Spanish translator, calmly answered: “We could do this in Dutch, if you’d like.”

And when Radio Sandino reporter Luis Padilla menacingly said that Van Baalen should be “put on the border naked,” the European laughed and answered: “Don’t even try it; that would only help the democratic opposition if you throw out a member of a democratically elected parliament.”

Van Baalen said that President Ortega “shouldn’t be afraid of the president of Liberal International”, because “I’m not afraid” of Ortega.

“Politics is not for people who are afraid of speaking out,” he said. “I spoke out in Eastern Europe, in South Africa during apartheid, and in Indonesia during [the government of former dictator] Suharto. I will always speak out in the name of freedom and I am not afraid.”

Van Baalen ended by saying he’ll be back.

“Your government says that freedom of expression is guaranteed in Nicaragua, so the next time I come I will use the same words that I used today and yesterday. And I will not be shy, not at all.”


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