MANAGUA – The job challenges facing U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli changed dramatically after Jan. 10, 2007, when the pro-U.S. administration of former President Enrique Bolaños left office and was replaced by former Cold War nemesis Daniel Ortega.
Ten months later, and more than two years into Trivelli’s three-year post here, diplomacy remains a tricky art at times. President Ortega has escalated his anti- U.S. rhetoric in past weeks and there have been several unsettling moments involving the security of U.S. investors, including the government’s temporary takeover of a facility belonging to a subsidiary of U.S. oil giant Exxon (NT, Aug. 31).
Trivelli admits that “there is not much doubt” that the United States has had “closer relationships” with previous governments in Nicaragua during the past 15 years, adding that “the depth of the relationship and degree of cooperativeness obviously has changed.”
Still, he says the official relationship between the U.S. and Nicaraguan governments remains “satisfactory” and that “the broader relationship has not change, and it’s not likely to.”
“We have a broader U.S.-Nicaraguan relationship that, to me, is extremely deep,” Trivelli told The Nica Times during an interview in the old embassy, surrounded by boxes being packed in preparation for the move to the new embassy installations (see separate story). “We are both members of CAFTA (the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States); there are more than half a million Nicaraguans living in the United States; we are the country’s largest trading partner; the country’s largest source of foreign investment; Nicaraguans who live in the United States send perhaps $500 million a year here; we have a long history together; assistance programs in social areas and with the police and army; and there’s the Millennium Challenge Account and (humanitarian relief) after Hurricane Felix.
“That part of the relationship hasn’t changed,” the ambassador stressed. “We have a deep commitment.”
Dealing with Daniel
Though Ortega managed to curb his traditional anti-yanqui discourse during much of the campaign last year, since returning to office the President appears to be less shy about using the old revolutionary rhetoric and throwing around the “y” word.
The President’s most infamous outburst so far was before the U.N. General Assembly last month, when he accused the United States of being “the biggest and most impressive dictatorship” in history (NT, Oct. 5).
Trivelli said, “Certainly the rhetoric is not helpful, particularly for investment. When heads of foreign companies hear those words they take them into account because a globalized world is a competitive world and anyone with money to invest doesn’t have to invest it in Nicaragua, they can invest it in Costa Rica, Eastern Europe or China.
“Capital tends to go where the people feel that the risk is manageable,” the ambassador added. “And when they hear rhetoric they start to worry about and measure their risk.”
Still, Trivelli said, the feedback he has gotten from U.S. expatriates living here is that life goes on as normal under Ortega.
“I asked a question during a recent town hall meeting in Granada if people feel in their daily lives that things are different, and the answer I got was no, they don’t,” Trivelli said. “They don’t feel like they are in any way being harassed or targeted. So I think that is positive, and I am glad to see that.”
The ambassador did, however, make a distinction between those who are already living here and those who are potential investors.
“There are companies interested in freezones, but I think people who want to invest in beachfront property may want to think twice about investing here given the events of the last 10 months,” Trivelli said, referring to recent land-title problems in Tola, on the southern Pacific coast. “It’s a rather mixed bag and it comes down to a potential investor’s stomach for risk.”
Walking the Line
The new chapter in U.S.-Nicaraguan relations is defined by a combination of positives and negatives, according to Trivelli.
On the positive side of the spectrum, the ambassador notes that the two governments have started a constructive dialogue on the issue of the SAM-7 shoulder-launch missiles, which the United States wants Nicaragua to destroy, and says that a working relationship has been established with ministry officials to move ahead on U.S. assistance programs.
The country has “maintained at least a democratic framework,” Trivelli said, and CAFTA has led to a 20% increase in Nicaraguan exports to the United States in the past year.
On the negative side of the equation, Trivelli says, there continues to be concern over issues related to rule of law and the judicial system.
The Ortega government’s cozy relationship with Iran, Cuba and Venezuela is also something that the United States appears to be monitoring closely.
“I have said many times that countries can have relationships with whomever they like,” Trivelli said; “however, one would hope that Nicaragua would look for partners that are positive rather than problematic.”
Still, despite some troubling moments, Ortega’s relationship with leftist leaders has so far not hurt relations with the United States.
“It’s obvious that [Ortega] wants to maintain a relationship with both sides,” Trivelli said. “Our relationship [with the Ortega administration] is a reasonable working relationship … so in that sense he continues to sort of walk that line.”
On the Radar
Trivelli say Nicaragua may not be the United States’ main focus in the world these days, but that there is growing interest in what’s going on here.
“Washington was focused on Nicaragua during the election period here, and [now] they are also focused on trying to build a reasonable relationship with this government,” the ambassador said. “I think there is interest in Washington.”
As Trivelli, 54, enters his last year here as U.S. envoy, he is both looking back on what he calls a “very pleasant assignment” in Nicaragua, and forward to what he hopes
will be a brighter future for the country.
Trivelli, who first served here as the economic officer from 1998-2002, says he has always been treated well by Nicaraguans.
“I think what always impresses me about Nicaragua is the warmth of its people and the fact that a majority of Nicaraguans have a genuinely positive attitude toward the United States,” he said.
What the ambassador hopes for in the future is for Nicaragua to take advantage of the opportunities it has been presented since the end of the Contra war to “get on the path of becoming a middle income country.”
“If Nicaragua can get the politics and economic policy right to a greater extent, there is no reason why there shouldn’t be 8-10% growth in a country like this,” he said.