MANAGUA – Speaking with his customary cowboy virility and bluntness, former Mexican President and businessman Vicente Fox urged Nicaraguans this week to defend their country’s fragile democracy from the “backwards looking” government of President Daniel Ortega, who he accused of “tripping over the same stone twice.”
Invited to Nicaragua by the International Republican Institute, which is politically unaffiliated but ideologically aligned with the U.S. Republican Party, Fox warned of a return to a dictatorship under Ortega, and stressed that Nicaraguans need to avoid “wasting their time again,” in reference to voting for the Sandinistas in the upcoming municipal elections in November.
The former president and Coca Cola executive said that Nicaragua has a “great opportunity” in the next municipal elections to put the country back on a democratic path by voting against the Sandinista project, which he claims represents “an adventure that doesn’t lead anywhere” and a “personalization of power that tricks people with (promises of) democracy.”
Fox, whose 2000 presidential victory in Mexico marked the end of 72 years of continuous rule by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) – a government dubbed the “perfect dictatorship” – urged Nicaraguans to build democracy and not surrender to political apathy.
Citizen participation, he said, is key to strengthening government institutions and maintaining checks and balances.
Participation, he stressed, will be equally important on election day, Nov. 9. “Nicaragua has a very important opportunity in front of it with the municipal elections,” Fox said. “The democracies of Latin America and the world are paying attention because we don’t want a return to the past, to rerun the movie.”
Fox also spoke out strongly against Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and the firebrand’s version of “21st century socialism” to which he and Ortega adhere. As Chávez continues to gain traction in the region, Fox’s advocacy for a pro-market democracy appears to be setting him up as the Latin strongman on the right to oppose the Venezuelan leader’s influence.
“A responsible market economy is the only way to achieve wealth to get a country out of poverty,” Fox bellowed, in stark ideological opposition to Chávez. Fox, however, was also clear to distance himself from the United States.
Fox called U.S. immigration policy, including the construction of a border wall, an “historic error,” adding that “the United States should be building bridges, not walls.” “How will their economy compete without Mexicans and Central Americans,” Fox demanded. “Who will be on the inside of the wall, and who will be left on the outside?”
Carlos Espinosa, IRI resident program officers for Nicaragua, said Fox wasn’t brought to Nicaragua in an attempt to present an ideological counterweight to Chávez or Ortega.
Fox, he said, happened to already be on his own tour of Latin America to promote his new Centro Fox organization in Mexico, so the timing worked out.
But Espinosa said the IRI is working to get other “pro-democratic” Latin American leaders to come speak in Nicaragua, including Ortega’s regional nemesis, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe.
Regardless whether Fox sees himself as a political ballast to Chávez, he could be an interesting candidate if he sticks with it, according to veteran Nicaraguan political analyst Emilio Alvarez.
“(Fox) is an imposing figure, both for his physical stature as well as his style for conducting international relations,” Alvarez said. “He could be a figure, so long as he’s not just a firework in the night. There has to be continuance.”
Ortega Strikes Back
The Sandinista leadership was not impressed with what Fox had to say.
Speaking in a televised address later that evening, Ortega accused Fox of being a “liar” who came to Nicaragua to “foam at the mouth.”
Ortega said Fox was performing a “lamentable role” of “serving the empire” with a message that was intended to intimidate and scare Nicaraguans from voting for the Sandinista Front in the elections.
Tomás Borge, the last living founder of the Sandinista Front, called Fox a racist.
Ortega also railed against Fox for a statement he made earlier that day on a morning talk show, when the former Mexican president commented on the number of poor children and the amount of trash lining the streets of Managua, which he said “looks like Africa.”
“(Fox) was alarmed by young people on the streets of Nicaragua, when in Mexico they have millions of poor people on the street. Only here the kids have hope, but the kids in Mexico are without hope,” Ortega retorted.
Ortega said Fox was just the beginning of another international campaign to persuade Nicaraguans to vote against the Sandinistas in the municipal elections, and called on his countrymen to not be “manipulated by these devils.
“What we are seeing is a parade of the dead,” Ortega said. “These people are dead in their own countries, so they come here and try to scare our people using pressure and fear.”