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U.N. Speech Gets Chilly Response

MANAGUA – President Daniel Ortega’s fiery speech to the 62nd General Assembly of the United Nations, in which he excoriated the imperialist project of global capitalism, has ruffled feathers at home,where critics are calling the discourse a “missed opportunity” and a “tired diatribe.”

President Ortega, in his first address to the United Nations in 18 years, railed the United States as the “biggest and most impressive dictatorship that has existed in the long history of humanity.”

Ortega, who took the podium several hours after U.S. President George W. Bush addressed the same General Assembly, argued that Bush is no better than former U.S. President and erstwhile Cold War nemesis President Ronald Reagan, who backed the Contra war against Ortega’s first Sandinista government in the 1980s.

Ortega said that the Presidents of the United States change office, but the circumstances of U.S. tyranny and imperialism transcend through the years.

“It’s not only the same discourse, but the same circumstances of oppression, violence and terror that threaten humanity more today than 18 years ago,” Ortega said, referring to Bush’s U.N. address.

Critics, however, claim it’s Ortega who hasn’t changed.

“This is Ortega’s same repetitive and tired diatribe (from the 1980s),” said Emilio Alvarez, political analyst and former Minister of Foreign Relations.

Alvarez repeated the same sentiment expressed by many Nicaraguans this week, that Ortega missed a golden opportunity to put politics aside and win international sympathy by thanking the world for its outpouring of solidarity in the wake of Hurricane Felix and asking for more assistance to help rebuild the country’s devastated North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN) in the months to come.

Ortega, who had promised regional leaders of the RAAN that he would address the region’s plight and appeal for help, made only cursory mention of the “Miskitos, Mayangnas and Afro-descendants who were victims of Hurricane Felix.” Instead of elaborating on the tragedy that affected many of his fellow citizens, Ortega chose to lump them into a long historical list of other “victims of colonialism and neocolonialism,” including victims of the holocaust, victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and victims of South African apartheid.

“Ortega didn’t offer any new options for a country in crisis,” Alvarez told The Nica Times. “Instead of talking about the tragedy and generating commiseration, he focused 90% of his discourse on international affairs.”

In discussing international affairs, Ortega, as is his custom, wandered through the timespace continuum, denouncing imperialism and capitalism over the years, and invoking the images of famous historic revolutionaries, from Russia’s Vladimir Lenin to legendary Incan leader Tupac Amaru.

The Nicaraguan President also had a long list of objections to U.S. policies, including the embargo against Cuba, the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq, the “neo-colonization” of Puerto Rico, the treatment of Latin American immigrants and efforts to block Iran’s nuclear energy program.

Ortega took his support for Iran a step further the next day by reportedly proposing to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that their two countries form a common “Front to Fight for Peace.”

Bad Press

Most Nicaraguans, who feel strong ties to the United States, seemed to wince at Ortega’s diatribe. So, too, did leaders of the country’s struggling tourism sector.

Lucy Valenti, president of the private National Tourism Chamber (CANATUR), told The Nica Times this week that she fears Ortega’s U.N. address will have a negative ripple effect on tourism in one of the country’s principal markets.

“This speech is making news in the United States just when people there are starting to plan their vacations for the coming high season,” Valenti said. “This will create the immediate impression that Nicaragua is not a friendly country for Americans.”

Though Valenti said the impact of the speech will fade with time, it could have a negative short-term impact.

Though tourism has become the country’s number-one economic engine, with the number of annual tourists visiting Nicaragua up 50% from 2000, Valenti and other industry leaders claim the Ortega administration has not been doing enough to promote continued growth. The floundering situation of the Nicaraguan Tourism Institute (INTUR), which in eight months has gone from being one of the best run government institutions to one that is barely functioning, is an indication that the Ortega administration is not giving tourism its due priority, Valenti charged.

However, she added, there is still hope among the sector that Ortega will “turn the wheel around” and get the tourism industry pointed back in the right direction again.

Investors and realtors were also left shaking their heads following Ortega’s attack on the United States and overtures toward Iran.

Realtors, who are already reporting a 20-50% decrease in property sales from last year, said Ortega’s antics serve only to reinforce the fears of many U.S. investors and potential buyers.

More Bark than Bite

While Ortega’s comments have perhaps contributed to the country’s continued image problem, they will most likely not translate into any diplomatic rupture or worsening of relations with other countries, most analysts agree.

Carlos Tünnermann, former Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United States during the first Ortega administration, said most foreign policy makers who heard Ortega’s speech probably took it with a grain of salt because they can “separate the rhetoric from the actions.”

For example, Tünnermann said, Ortega blasted U.S.-hatched free-trade accords, such as the Central America Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), but that same trade agreement was passed here thanks to support from Sandinista lawmakers.

However, Tünnermann added, it is not smart politicking to lash out at friendly countries that subsidize Nicaragua’s budget each year, in addition to being the first to respond to Nicaragua’s recent call for international help following the destruction of Hurricane Felix last month.

“Forty percent of Nicaragua’s budget is provided by the countries that Ortega gunned down in his speech,” Tünnermann noted.

Policy analysts in the United States agree that Ortega’s speech, despite its venomous attacks, will probably not find much echo in Washington, D.C.

“Ortega’s U.N. speech was filled with predictable rhetoric,” said Michael Shifter, vicepresident for policy at the Washington, D.C. think tank Inter-American Dialogue. “I doubt anyone in Washington was surprised by what he said.”

Still, Shifter added, what most worries the U.S. government about Ortega is his relationship with Iran.

“Most observers believe the relationship is more symbolic than anything else, and will probably not amount to very much, and will not pose a serious strategic threat to the United States,” Shifter told The Nica Times.

“But it is safe to assume that the relationship will be watched very closely in Washington, not only by the Bush administration but by the Democratic majority in Congress.”



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