San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Daniel Ortega: Pariah or Survivor?

A string of questionable foreign policy moves by the Sandinista government in recent weeks has critics once again raising their voices in protest over the management – or mismanagement – of international relations by the administration of President Daniel Ortega.

Instead of attending last week’s presidential summit of the Central American Integration  System (SICA) in neighboring El Salvador, President Daniel Ortega remained in Managua hosting the leaders of the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia – aspiring countries that are recognized by only four governments in the world and which have no economic relations with Nicaragua.

After playing hooky from the neighborhood integration meeting – the second consecutive Central American presidential summit Ortega has skipped – the Nicaraguan president blasted the decision made in his absence to allow Honduras back into SICA.

Ortega called the decision to reincorporate Honduras “absurd” and “ridiculous” and said it was in violation of the institutions norms, since Nicaragua was not part of the vote.

Analysts claim it’s Ortega who looks absurd and out of step with the region. “I think that what happened in San Salvador is very telling. Everybody is fed up with him. He’s totally erratic and a very unpleasant character,” said Kevin Casas, a former vice president of Costa Rica and Latin American analyst for The Brookings Institution, a political think tank in Washington, D.C. “He has a terrible reputation that the other presidents were willing to overlook as long as he behaved constructively. But if he doesn’t, they won’t have any patience with him.”

Casas said Ortega has had a bad reputation for a long time, offending different groups for different reasons.

“The reasons for this are many, not least the terrible allegations of sexual abuse made public by his stepdaughter. That made him a pariah with women’s groups,” Casas said. “And for the traditional left, Ortega is also a pariah because they consider him a crook, plain and simple.”

Analysts say the only clique where Ortega can feel comfortable these days is in the club of countries belonging to the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).

“Ortega’s foreign policy is a disaster. He has gradually made himself an outcast where it most counts, in the Central American neighborhood,” said Nicaraguan lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, ex-minister of foreign relations and current president of the legislative commission on foreign affairs.

Aguirre added, “In his effort to exclude Honduras from SICA and the OAS, Ortega has only managed to marginalize himself. His circle of friends is shrinking to the ALBA countries, Russia, Abkhazia and South Ossetia and, of course, Iran. We mustn’t forget Iran.”

Ortega has starting avoiding other regional forums and meetings as well. Aguirre notes that Ortega has not gone back to the UN General Assembly since his infamous 2007 diatribe, when he railed against the United States, calling it “the biggest and most impressive dictatorship that has existed in the long history of humanity” (NT, Oct. 5, 2007).

Ortega has regularly skipped SICA meetings since his pro-tempore presidency ended at the beginning of 2009, and he also bagged on the recent EU-Latin American and Caribbean Summit held in Madrid last May.

Ortega even missed the last ALBA summit in held last month in Venezuela.

And on the rare occasion Ortega does show up for international events, such as the inauguration of Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla last May, he sneaks into the party late and leaves early – and still gets booed in the process.

Opponents also worry that the Ortega administration has become increasingly aggresive toward Nicaragua’s traditional allies, and gets in trouble by sticking its nose into conflicts that it shouldn’t get involved in, such as the troubles between Venezuela and Colombia.

During the July 22 extraordinary session of the Organization of American States (OAS), Nicaraguan Ambassador Dennis Moncada spoke out against Colombia and in defense of Venezuela. Moncada compared the escalating tensions between the two South American countries to Nicaragua’s historic problems with Colombia, which resulted in Nicaragua losing SanAndresIsland in 1928.

“The expansionist pretensions of Colombia, with the complicity of the imperial interests of the United States, have also struck the people of Nicaragua,” Moncada said.


Is This as Good as it Gets?


Despite the criticism of Ortega’s foreign policy, some international relations experts claim the president is doing a remarkable – albeit unorthodox – job of maintaining the tricky balancing act needed to keep Nicaragua from coming completely unglued.

Arturo Cruz, a former Nicaraguan ambassador and political scientist at the INCAE business school in Managua, gives Ortega high marks for being able to “reconcile” the macroeconomic demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the political demands of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, whose $1.1 billion in aid to Nicaragua has helped keep the country afloat during times of world economic crisis.

He said Ortega’s sweetheart relationship with Venezuela – although tied to political strings – has given Nicaragua a fighting chance to survive by providing some semblance of stability.

Under normal circumstances, Cruz said, Nicaragua is not a country that can afford to keep the lights on 24 hours a day, especially when the price of oil reaches $100 a barrel. If it weren’t for Chávez, Cruz said, Nicaragua would be in the dark in more ways than one.

“Objectively speaking, Nicaragua is not a country that can afford electricity,” Cruz told The Nica Times.

Cruz notes that Nicaragua’s annual budget of $1.5 billion gives the president “zero discretional funding,” meaning he needs a benefactor with deep pockets just to get through the day.

The former ambassador to Washington, D.C., said that the U.S. government realizes Nicaragua’s precarious situation, and in a way is grateful for Ortega’s relationship with Venezuela, which has allowed the country to maintain short-term social and economic stability during trying times.

Cruz, whose assessment of Nicaraguan reality is pragmatic and sobering to the point of being a bit frightening, says that any criticism of Ortega should be tempered by country’s grim economic reality and democratic limitations. According to this way of thinking, if the sun rises in the morning and sets in the evening, and people are able to eat a couple of times in between, it was a good day for Nicaragua.

“Ortega is providing short-term stability; the hope is that he will also give the country a future,” Cruz said.

Ex-Foreign Minister Emilio Alvarez, whose 91 years of observing Nicaraguan politics has also given him an unequaled perspective, has also developed a painfully pragmatic view of his country’s limitations.

Alvarez, whose assessment is even colder than Cruz’s, says that Nicaragua is essentially a primitive, tribal nation, and if people aren’t fighting in the streets then things are going pretty well.

“This is a tribal country,” Alvarez told The Nica Times this week. “The political culture is so backwards here that it’s like something from the 19th century – it’s shortsighted, authoritarian and public office is used by politicians to get rich.”

Nicaragua, Alvarez, said, has “very little capacity for democracy.”

In many ways, the analyst said, the country is stuck in a political model that looks more like the Spanish conquest than anything resembling a modern democracy. So the reality of the country has to be understood before any criticism of the government makes sense, he said.

Though Alvarez has been critical of Ortega in the past, he gives the president credit for being “politically astute” when it comes to managing international relations and balancing the interests of the United States and the leftist bloc led by Venezuela.

Alvarez said Ortega realizes that as long as he complies with the U.S. government’s primary national security interests by being an ally in the wars on drugs and terrorism, relations between the two countries are good enough for government work. And if that foundation remains solid, Ortega’s “antiyanqui” rhetoric becomes harmless background noise.

Nicaragua is a country in survival mode, he said; when people are eating, things are going relatively well – even if the possibility for positive long-term change is distant.

“When I was a young man, I wanted change and I fought against the Somoza dictatorship,” Alvarez said. “But now, from an old man’s point of view, I just want stability so I can survive my last years of life.” And if Ortega is able to provide that stability, as tenuous as it may be, that might just be good enough for Alvarez.

Whether it works for Nicaragua in the long term is yet to be seen.

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