MANAGUA – Despite historical and ideological differences, President Daniel Ortega has built a solid working relationship with the U.S. government based on personal trust and close friendships with several heavy hitters in the Bush administration, according to Nicaragua’s Ambassador to the United States.
Ambassador Arturo Cruz Jr. says that a year after presenting his credentials in Washington, D.C., he is confident that the United States for the first time ever is working to normalize relations with the Sandinista government.
“We are in the process of building a relationship of more confidence,” Cruz said in a private meeting of business leaders belonging to the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM).
While the institutional foundation of the bilateral relationship is built on the Central American Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA), the Millennium Challenge Account, private investment initiatives and even humanitarian efforts such as the Peace Corps, the relationship is also being held together by a new spirit of personal friendship with Ortega, Ambassador Cruz said.
Cruz, a tenured professor at INCAE business school in Managua, with a background of working with the Contras to destabilize the first Sandinista government, says it has been interesting to see how Ortega has befriended members of the Bush administration and how those friendships have helped diplomatically.
“It’s very interesting the personal relationship that Ortega has with important members of U.S. political society,” Cruz said. “The reality is that he has formed great and close friendships with Shannon [Thomas Shannon, assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs], with Commerce Secretary [Carlos] Gutierrez, with [John] Danilovich of the Millennium Challenge Account, with [Robert] Mosbacher [president of the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC)], and with [Mike] Leavitt, the secretary of health and human services.
“The truth is,” Cruz added, “that he has formed a good group that constantly maintains this personal relationship and commitment to permanent dialogue with Nicaragua.”
The ambassador said that this “tremendous sympathy” for Ortega is due in part to the fact that the Nicaraguan president stands by his word – something that has won him political capital even among those who disagree with him on ideological grounds.
“In complicated moments, when he says he is going to do something, he does it,”Cruz said, adding that Ortega’s track record of holding to his word has earned him “the benefit of the doubt in complicated moments.”
If it weren’t for these personal friendships and trust, “it would be difficult otherwise to explain the stable relationship with the United States,” Cruz said.
Understanding the Score
Ambassador Cruz said Nicaragua’s situation of extreme poverty, poor infrastructure and weak government institutions has led to an “understanding” in Washington, D.C., about the domestic challenges facing Ortega.
“There is understanding about how difficult it is to govern Nicaragua, a country where 80% of the population lives on less than $2 a day, the infrastructure is in critical condition, including the electrical system, the budget is less than $2 billion and petroleum is at $100 a barrel,” Cruz said. “From this perspective I think the political society in the U.S. says that if we can govern Nicaragua with a minimum of stability and within the framework of an electoral democracy, then that is already doing a lot.”
Cruz said that understanding also helps some in the U.S. government to comprehend Ortega’s relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, who is helping the country to meet its immediate resource demands.
The ambassador is confident that the U.S. policy of personal engagement will continue, at least in the near future. Unlike some who have expressed concern over Bush’s recent nomination of Robert Callahan, a former aid to Contra war architect John Negroponte, as the next ambassador to Nicaragua, Cruz is optimistic.
“I think that when Ambassador Callahan comes in September, part of his mandate will be to establish for the first time a personal relationship with President Ortega and the Sandinista Front. They are going to try for the first time to normalize relations,” Cruz said. “So I think this will be an important personal engagement to build confidence and then discuss public policy.”
Outgoing U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli, for his part, acknowledged that the relationship with Ortega is based on engagement and communication.
“One continues to attempt to keep dialogue going with Ortega and the Sandinista government,” Trivelli said.
Part of the normalization of relations with the U.S. government has to do with establishing ties at an executive level. Unlike the 1980s, when Ortega faced a bellicose Ronald Reagan White House and had to turn to U.S. civil society and sympathetic Democratic members of Congress, the Sandinista government is now prioritizing relations with the State Department.
“We have prioritized relations with the executive branch, the Department of State, and not so much so with Congress,” Cruz said. “This was not the case in the ’80s, obviously, because the executives were adversaries. But this government has very fluid relations with the State Department, and that is the priority.”
Cruz said that Ortega’s graciousness in receiving officials from the Bush administration – including a visit last week from John Feeley, the state department’s director of Central American affairs who came to start negotiating the missiles for medical equipment deal Ortega proposed last year – is also helping to pave the way for more visits from high-level delegations in the future.
Soon to visit, the ambassador said, is a U.S. delegation of representatives from the departments of state, treasury, commerce, labor and health to work with their respective ministries here. Cruz said there is also the possibility of a visit by high-ranking members of U.S. Congress and top level trade and investment delegation that will be led by Secretary Gutierrez.
“In great part, one of the reasons for Gutierrez’s insistence on doing this trip here is precisely because of the personal relationship that he has formed with President Ortega,” Cruz insisted.
As for the next U.S. government, Cruz says he doesn’t see any reason to believe that macro changes to U.S. foreign policy will affect relations with Nicaragua one way or another.
Even political analysts who are normally critical of Ortega are tipping their hats to his ability to maintain strong relations with the United States despite his anti-yanqui discourse and his revolutionary alliances.
Renowned analyst and ex-Foreign Minister Emilio Alvarez said that Ortega has continued to show a nimble ability to dance between rhetoric and reality, and between Venezuela and the United States.
Surprisingly, he said, Ortega seems to have found a willing dance partner in the U.S. government.
“The U.S. is following Ortega’s lead, and dancing well with him,” Alvarez told The Nica Times. “Partners dance well when they don’t step on one another’s feet, and so far no one has done so.”
Carlos Tünnermann, former Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United States under the first Sandinista government in the 1980s, said that the Ortega who delivers inflammatory anti-imperialist speeches in the plaza is different from the Ortega who courteously receives guests from the U.S. State Department.
The United States, Tünnermann said, is interested in the war on drugs, terrorism, free trade and a market economy – a checklist that the Ortega government is complying with.
“Ortega is intelligent not to break the relations in this sense,” Tünnermann said.
Both Tünnermann and Alvarez agree that Ortega’s juggling act could be upset in the event that Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez pressures him to move beyond rhetoric and into conflict with Colombia or the United States.
“The East-West conflict of the Cold War is over, but Ortega has to be careful not to fall into a new North-South conflict,” Tünnermann told The Nica Times.
“Ortega’s dance would get a lot harder to coordinate with four dance partners,” Alvarez added.