In an unexpected move at the start of the Third Summit of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) held last month in Costa Rica, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega had a surprise for participants.
Just before closing his speech – during which he strongly criticized the United States for its decades-long embargo on Cuba and for what he described as U.S. colonization of Puerto Rico – Ortega said leaders of the Puerto Rican independence movement were part of the Nicaraguan delegation at the summit.
He told the region’s leaders that independentista leader Rubén Berríos, sitting behind him, would finish his participation.
Ortega left Costa Rica shortly after his evening speech, placing Berríos at the head of the Nicaraguan delegation.
The following week, criticism from the Nicaraguan opposition of Ortega’s decisions resounded in Managua.
While Edwin Castro, head of the ruling Sandinista (FSLN) bloc in the National Assembly – Nicaragua’s single-chamber parliament – praised Ortega as “a man who uses international forums to defend the people from the colonization imposed by the empire,” opposition lawmaker Eliseo Núñez said the president believes he owns Nicaragua.
“Ortega supposes he’s the owner of the country and can do anything with Nicaragua, even giving a passport and an identity card to someone who wasn’t even born here, nor applied for Nicaraguan citizenship, and who is really asking for another country’s independence,” Núñez told reporters.
“And adding the issue of giving a passport to someone who belongs to an organization that at one moment was accused of terrorism, Nicaragua could see itself on the famous list of countries promoting terrorism,” he warned, referring to the Partido Independentista Puertorriqueño (PIP), whose president is Berríos.
On PIP membership, Núñez, of the center-right Partido Liberal Independiente (PLI), said, “there are a couple of them who are in jail precisely for terrorist acts within the United States. They wanted to plant bombs, they wanted to commit massive attacks.”
In separate statements to local media, Víctor Hugo Tinoco, a former foreign vice minister during the Revolución Popular Sandinista (1979-1990) and now an opposition legislator with the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS), said, “It’s common to see Ortega trying to steal the show.”
“He likes to draw attention,” added Tinoco, a member of the FSLN splinter group founded in 1996 by Nicaraguan writer and former Vice President (1985-1990) Sergio Ramírez and other former FSLN leaders.
“Puerto Rico wasn’t a topic of discussion, even more so when its citizens have already decided to be in alliance with the United States,” he said.
According to Muaricio Díaz, a Nicaraguan opposition member of the Central American Parliament and former ambassador to Costa Rica, Ortega’s attitude at the CELAC summit “violated international regulations and the practice of international law.”
The president’s main message is: “I do as I please inside Nicaragua, and now I do as I please at the international level,” Díaz said.
“This is a smoke screen to hide the fact that he’s turning Nicaragua into a colony of the Chinese, and on the other hand, to hide the dramatic social and economic situation we’re living in Nicaragua, which has nothing to do with the official discourse,” he added.
Díaz referred to the awarding of construction of an interoceanic canal in Nicaragua to a Chinese company.
“The international community is realizing that Nicaragua is turning into tyranny. I don’t remember a president abusing power so much,” he stated.
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In his speech at the CELAC meeting in Belén, some 11 kilometers west of San José, Ortega said the summit was being held with “an absent Puerto Rico.”
Later, he told attendees that, “We, dear Latin American and Caribbean brothers, have included in the Nicaraguan delegation, … patriots from Puerto Rico.”
Introducing Berríos as “a great fighter [and] defender of our peoples’ sovereignty,” Ortega made the surprise announcement that, “to conclude my intervention, my words, I want to ask Rubén to conclude my words.” Ortega then offered Berríos his chair.
With the Nicaraguan president standing behind him, Berríos, a leader of PIP, told the summit that, “it’s time for CELAC to go from words to action.”
“CELAC must demand that the United States government release the [Puerto Rican] patriot Oscar López, the world’s oldest political prisoner, who’s been in jail for 34 years,” he said. “CELAC must keep a close watch on any attempt at perpetuating colonialism, with whatever new disguise, in Puerto Rico.”
Berríos continued: “Reaching independence is up to Puerto Ricans. But it is up to Latin America and the Caribbean to be supportive of our right to independence, and of our demand that the United States put an end to colonialism.”
Immediately after, Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís – who was about to pass on to Ecuadorean counterpart Rafael Correa the bloc’s yearly rotating presidency – said, “We take note of the friendly suggestions” made by Berríos, but the forum must follow established procedures regarding resolutions.
Ortega’s immediate reaction was to tell Solís, “You’re talking about procedure, and you’ve implemented procedure here at the start of this assembly when you decided to give the floor to the OAS, the Yankees’ colonial instrument, … and you decided to give the floor to the European Union.
“And here, Nicaragua is speaking as a state, as a nation, and the voice of Puerto Rico is the voice of Nicaragua. So, I ask some respect from you, Mr. President,” Ortega added.
The argument ended when Solís told Ortega, “If you’ve felt … offended, I apologize, because that wasn’t the presidency’s intention.”
At a joint press conference with Correa after the closing session the next afternoon, the Costa Rican president said that after his evening speech, Ortega had left the country, “appointing Berríos as head of his delegation, and, later, as a member of his delegation.”
When Berríos arrived before the summit’s closing session at a private meeting of heads of state and foreign ministers, he was told he could not take part in the gathering, Solís added.
Several leaders “objected to the participation of a person who was not part of the participating states,” but “the intransigence of Nicaragua’s delegation was absolute,” he added.
“They were told Mr. Berríos’ presence would not be accepted, … and it was very respectfully pointed out that it was not possible for him to participate; whereas the head of Nicaragua’s delegation at that moment, the vice minister of foreign affairs, could participate,” Solís said.
“We gave him the opportunity to talk with President Ortega, who maintained his position that Mr. Berríos was the representative,” he said. “We did everything possible.”
“And, since it was impossible to change the point of view of Nicaragua’s delegation –as we understand, with instructions from Managua and President Ortega – I had to make the decision to end the meeting and go on to the plenary [session],” he added.
A Spanish colony since 1493, Puerto Rico – and other colonies including Cuba and the Philippines – was ceded in 1899 to the United States, the year after the end of a three-month war between both countries.
The Spanish- and English-speaking Caribbean island’s political status is that of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico (Estado Libre Asociado, or Associated Free State).
Founded in 1949, the PIP, one of six major political parties in Puerto Rico, is a Social Democratic organization that proposes the island become a sovereign nation.
In the political struggle to reach its goal, PIP has resorted to civil disobedience such as a protest staged in 1999 by Berríos and other PIP leaders on U.S. Navy coastal grounds against the Navy’s use of the island of Vieques, some 15 kilometers east of the Puerto Rican mainland, as a bombing range.
Berríos and the other members of the group were arrested, but other groups continued the protest until the U.S. Navy withdrew from Vieques in 2003. Most of the island is now a national wildlife refuge.