Does the U.S. Still Care About Nicaragua?

August 27, 2010

MANAGUA – “Nicaraguans always say to me, what’s going on in Washington? The United States isn’t worried about Nicaragua anymore? Are we forgotten?”

With those words, Richard Feinberg, a former top U.S. government policy analyst on Latin America, opened a speech Aug. 19 to a room full of Nicaraguan business leaders, many of whom nodded in identification with the questions.

The mood in the room was already charged after a fiery introductory speech by Roger Arteaga, president of the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM). Arteaga blasted President Daniel Ortega for his “obsessive and messianic need to get himself reelected, even though the constitution prohibits it.”

Arteaga referred to Nicaragua as a “failed state” plagued by a “lack of institutionalism.” In trying times of “crisis upon crisis,” Arteaga said, Nicaragua’s relationship with the United States is of “special importance.”

Feinberg tried to convince the business leaders in attendance at the AMCHAM luncheon that Nicaragua is still important to the United States, too. The former director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs during the administration of U.S. President Bill Clinton said trade agreements, bilateral aid and private sector initiatives between the United States and Nicaragua offer proof that the relationship is still vibrant and valued.

Yet he admitted that Nicaragua no longer holds the same importance that it represented to U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s, when then-President Ronald Reagan secretly financed an illegal war on the Sandinista government. Indeed, the Reagan administration’s obsession with Ortega and Nicaragua does not seem to be shared even slightly by U.S. President Barack Obama.

“When Barack Obama opens his eyes in the morning, I doubt that the first thing he asks (U.S. First Lady) Michelle is, ‘What do you think Ortega and (First Lady Rosario) Murillo are doing today?’” Feinberg said. “That’s just not what happens, and it would be a lie to think that is happening. It would be weird, too.”

Hyperbole aside, some wonder if anyone in the White House is paying attention to what’s going on in Nicaragua. Feinberg, who is now a university professor in San Diego and is outside the Washington beltway, insists Nicaragua does still matter to Uncle Sam.

But that message didn’t convince everyone in attendance at his speech last week.

“They can say whatever they want, but they just don’t care about Nicaragua in Washington. We are simply not on their radar,” said Francisco Aguirre, head of the National Assembly’s Commission on Foreign Affairs and a former Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United States.

Aguirre, who earlier this year traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with top officials from the Obama administration, added, “For Obama, Latin America is not job 1, 2, 3, 4 or 5.”

He noted that Obama has already “has his plate full” with two wars and problems in North Korea, Pakistan and the Middle East. The last thing the White House wants now – leading up to the contentious mid-term congressional elections – is to get involved in another controversy with Nicaragua, Aguirre said.

Washington insiders agree that the Obama administration is not eager to stick its nose in Nicaragua’s mess – especially when no one else in the region seems too worried about what Ortega is doing here.

“Other governments in the region do not seem to be too concerned about what is happening politically in Nicaragua. Mexico is so consumed by its internal problems and it is simply not focused on creeping authoritarian rule in Nicaragua,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a leading Washington think tank on U.S. policy in Latin America.

Shifter added, “The Obama administration is reluctant to get out in front on this one, with the possibility of being isolated from the rest of the hemisphere.

“The concern is great,” he said, “but policy options are quite limited.”

Feinberg, meanwhile, says the United States doesn’t have the same reasons to be as concerned about Latin America as other parts of the world.

“In Latin America there are no nuclear arms, no al-Qaeda. It’s a zone of relative peace compared to Africa, the Middle East and parts of Europe,” he said. “International policy is based on reacting to the strongest conflicts, so obviously the generals and the Department of Defense don’t have to worry too much about Latin America.”

And that’s a good thing, Feinberg said.

“You don’t want to be in the crosshairs of those guys,” he stressed.

Many Nicaraguans, who remember what it was like to be in Washington’s crosshairs in the 1980s, would most likely agree with that statement.

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