San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Is Nicaragua’s Democracy Maxed Out?

MANAGUA – Questionable political maneuverings by President Daniel Ortega and fading idealism in the United States’ approach to foreign policy have combined to lower the expectations of the U.S. for Nicaragua’s democratic capabilities, according to former Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United States Arturo Cruz Jr.

And perhaps with good reason.

While former U.S. President George W. Bush conducted foreign policy based on the quaint premise that all nations long to establish modern democracies, President Barack Obama’s government seems to be taking a more grounded approach to dealing with the political aspirations and democratic limitations of foreign governments, Cruz said.

For example, Cruz said, in the case of Afghanistan, the Bush administration’s goal was to help the beleaguered country establish a modern democracy.

But Obama, he says, seems to realize that the United States, “Can’t even consider building a nation state [in Afghanistan], much less a liberal democracy.”

“So the U.S. has evolved from a position of extreme idealism to extreme pragmatism,” Cruz told The Nica Times in a recent exclusive interview.

Though Cruz said Nicaragua has a “greater possibility for institutional development than Afghanistan,” he said the two countries can be “put in the same box.”

In the case of Nicaragua, according to a diplomatic source, Washington’s previous expectations that the country was moving towards a modern democracy have been lowered.

At this point, the hope is that Nicaragua will maintain its tropical-democracy status with a semblance of social order and some of the more basic democratic trimmings.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last week reiterated the Obama administration’s “worry” about Latin American countries such as Nicaragua where democratically elected presidents are moving to undermine constitutional order.

Yet despite cutting several aid programs to Nicaragua, former Ambassador Cruz says the United States has been too preoccupied with other parts of the world to focus much attention on Ortega or change its broader policies toward the country.

The next chapter in U.S.-Nicaraguan relations, he said, will mostly likely be written over the next two years, as Nicaragua heads into the 2011 presidential election cycle and the opposition tries to unite against Ortega’s aspirations to perpetuate himself in power.

But the biggest variable moving forward, Cruz said, is not the United States’ position on Ortega, but rather its position on former president and ex-convict Arnoldo Alemán. The question, he said, is whether the United States be “willing to swallow” Alemán as part of the anti-Sandinista alliance, and potentially even the opposition’s candidate in the 2011 elections.

Cruz said the former president – who’s prohibited from traveling to the United States, ranked on Transparency International’s list of the World’s Ten Most Corrupt leaders of all time and who is still under investigation for money laundering in Panama – is still a very real part of Nicaragua’s traditional caudillo political system. If the United States isn’t willing to accept him back into the fold, “he’ll have no choice but to re-pact with Ortega” and split the opposition, Cruz said.

Economic Limitations

Cruz, who earlier this year returned from his two-year stint as Ortega’s ambassador in Washington to reclaim his job as a professor of political science at the Harvard-affiliated INCAE business school in Managua, recently traveled back to the U.S. capital to participate, along with several other Nicaraguan politicians and pundits, in a panel forum called “Politics and Democracy in Nicaragua,” sponsored by the Inter-American Dialogue.

At the forum, Cruz presented his theory that Nicaragua is not ready for a modern democracy – and probably won’t be for a long time.

Quoting Indian author Fareed Zakaria, Cruz argued that a country can only start to transition to a modern democracy when it reaches a per-capita Gross National Product of between $3,000 and $6,000. Nicaragua, Cruz noted, has barely reached a per capita GNP of $1,000.

“Nicaragua hasn’t even made it up to the floor,” Cruz said.

Sadly, the analyst added, Nicaragua probably had a better chance of evolving into a modern democracy more than 30 years ago, under the Somoza family dictatorship.

“Another painful point is that in 1978, objectively speaking, we had a much better possibility of making the leap to a modern democracy than we do now,” Cruz told The Nica Times.

Cruz said that in the year before the triumph of the Sandinista revolution, Nicaragua had a “very robust middle class” as a product of many years of sustained economic growth.

Back then, he said, many Nicaraguans had moved beyond the immediate desperation of poverty and could aspire to something more, such as a pluralistic government that allowed for political participation, which the dictatorship did not allow.

But in 2009, he said, poverty is worse and “now the poor want a protector who alleviates their poverty and responds to their immediate demands.” In Nicaragua, Cruz said, it’s the traditional caudillos who fill that role, especially Ortega, who has the resources of the state and private Venezuelan aid at his disposal.

Today, Cruz said, the aspirations of most Nicaraguans are far too basic to worry about issues such as a modern democracy. People are more concerned with what they’re going to eat, where they can find work and how they’re going to put a roof over their family’s heads, Cruz said.

Ortega has been able to respond to those immediate needs with a series of “social programs” based – in good measure – on giving handouts to his traditional base of support.

By doing so, Cruz says, Ortega has solidified his 32 to 35 percent nucleus of support.

With an eye on the 2011 elections, Cruz said, “Ortega’s strategy is to maintain his base of support, fragment the opposition and promote voter abstention.”

If he’s able to do that, Cruz said, Ortega will win the elections, despite polling as the least popular president in Central America. Cruz, whose early roots are with the anti-Sandinista movement, says he gained great respect for President Ortega’s political cunning while serving as his ambassador to Washington from 2007 to 2009.

To underestimate Ortega’s political savvy and ability to pull off another electoral victory in 2011 would be a serious mistake, he said.

BMWs and Ox Carts

In the 2006 presidential campaign, the U.S. government – which has a long history of meddling in Nicaraguan elections – tried to paint the vote as a choice between Nicaragua’s past and future. During a visit to Managua, then- U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Thomas Shannon said presidential challengers Eduardo Montealegre and Herty Lewites  were “the two candidates who represent the future of the country” (NT, June 30, 2006).

By default, Ortega’s Sandinista Front and Alemán’s Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) represented the past, according to the United States’ electoral packaging.

Cruz believes framing the elections as a contest between past and future, rather than the time-proven anti-Sandinista versus Sandinista, was the opposition’s fatal flaw.

In Nicaragua’s caudillo-run political system, Cruz said, tradition still trumps modernity. The proof, he said, is in the numbers: a combined 64 percent of voters cast their ballots for the two caudillo-run traditional parties, while less than 35 percent voted for the two candidates running as reformers.

Cruz says the only way the opposition can hope to defeat Ortega’s well-greased party machinery in 2011 is to unify the increasingly diverse but majority anti-Sandinista forces: those who drive BMWs in the city and those who drive ox carts in the country.

“Unity will be difficult because it needs to have elements of the traditional society and the small but growing sector of the population that aspires for a modern democracy,” Cruz said.

In short, Cruz said, the opposition’s challenge is to translate the success of its Nov. 21 march against Ortega – which featured Managua’s economic elite marching alongside Alemán’s rural poor – into a single electoral formula.

“If the opposition can’t combine the Facebook crowd and the Alemán bus crowd, they’re not going to beat Ortega,” Cruz said.

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