In a typical show of Sandinista mixed-message diplomacy, President Daniel Ortega last week received and hugged Honduran President Porfirio Lobo and then signed a series of bilateral agreements, but stopped shy of officially recognizing the new Honduran government.
Nicaragua is the only country in Central America that has not recognized the Lobo government. Lobo took office Jan. 27 effectively ending the seven-month de facto government of Honduran coup leader Roberto Micheletti. President Ortega, a close ally of deposed Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, had said for months that Nicaragua would not recognize the Lobo administration because it was “the product of a coup.”
But Ortega’s efforts to marginalize the new Honduran government backfired when the rest of Central America recognized the Lobo administration, making Nicaragua, not Honduras, look like the region’s outcast.
Leaders of Nicaragua’s business sector, which exports 17 percent of its products through Honduras’ Puerto Cortes, also implored Ortega to recognize the Honduran government and not allow political concerns to interfere with the economy.
Then, when Guatemala briefly closed its borders to Nicaraguan beef exports last month, analysts here speculated that the decision was an attempt by Guatemala to pressure Ortega into recognizing the Honduran government, although no official explanation for the border closing was given.
Both Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom and Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes have lobbied Ortega to recognize Honduras and not jeopardize regional integration efforts under the Central American Integration System (SICA) – a process Ortega claims to champion.
Colom traveled to Managua last week to meet with Ortega and help lay the foundation for an April 11 meeting in Guatemala City, in which the Nicaraguan president was expected to announce his government’s official recognition of Honduras and support for the regional integration process. But the meeting was canceled at the last minute when El Salvador’s Funes announced he couldn’t make it due to scheduling problems.
While some have speculated that Ortega’s anticipated recognition of Honduras will be postponed, ex-Foreign Minister Emilio Alvarez says he thinks last week’s quieter meet-and-greet with Lobo is as far as Ortega is willing to go.
Ortega’s meeting with Lobo was essentially a “de facto recognition of Honduras,” Alvarez said. The former Nicaraguan foreign minister said the fact that Ortega went to the airport to officially receive Lobo, referred to him as the “president of Honduras” and then proceeded to sign a bilateral maritime accord qualifies as official recognition, even if Ortega didn’t say as much in words.
“This was a low-key event to save face,” Alvarez told The Nica Times. “It was a substitute for an official ceremony.” Alvarez said that in Ortega’s thinking, it was also important that Lobo come to him for the meeting. The analyst said it’s important to Ortega’s sense of “vanity” that other regional leaders come to him, rather than him seeking them out. “He likes to think he’s the big leader of Central America and people have to come see him,” Alvarez said.
But the big question now, Alvarez said, is how Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Ortega’s main political ally and economic benefactor, will react to the Sandinista government’s tacit recognition of the Lobo government.
Nicaragua is the only member of the Chávez-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) that has shown a willingness to work with the Honduran government.
The rest of ALBA – and most of South America, for that matter – does not recognize the Lobo government. So it remains to be seen how Ortega’s apparent dissidence will be treated by Chávez.
In Central America, however, Ortega’s move is being celebrated as an important step towards normalizing regional relations.
“We have had a very open and honest dialogue and we both have great hopes that Central America will be united in all aspects of our relationship,” Lobo said following his meeting with Ortega.