MATAGALPA – With words of warning to not interfere in Nicaragua’s “democratic process,” President Daniel Ortega last week presented new U.S. Ambassador Robert J. Callahan with his diplomatic credentials before a crowd of several thousand Sandinista supporters gathered at a government rally in the picturesque foothills of Matagalpa.
The event, backdropped by the unfamiliar site of a red-and-black Sandinista flag hanging next to a U.S. flag, served to illustrate the mixed signals of an Ortega foreign policy that is defined by a double discourse of respect and aggression, and actions of engagement and isolationism.
Standing next to Ambassador Callahan, President Ortega demonstrated his unique diplomatic style by calling for a “respectful relationship” with the United States government, then – in almost the same breath – referring to Callahan as a “yanqui,” prompting snickers from the crowd.
Callahan, for his part, acknowledged that the U.S. and Nicaraguan governments “will not always be in agreement on everything.” In fact, he said, “It’s almost certain that we are going to disagree.”
However, the new ambassador stressed, “When this occurs, I hope that we can discuss our differences in a respectful manner and find an acceptable agreement to continue forward.”
Callahan said the ties that bind the United States and Nicaragua – “our position as neighbors in the hemisphere, our commercial and family ties and even our love for baseball” – is ultimately more important than any points of disagreement between the two nations. Ortega nodded in agreement.
Ironically, Ortega’s relationship with the United States – despite his constant railings against “yanqui imperialism” – now appears to be a bright spot for international relations as his image becomes increasingly negative in other parts of the world.
Within the past several weeks, Ortega – or those in his administration – has insulted Mexico as a country full of impoverished and hopeless children, has launched a smear campaign against Paraguay’s new minister of women’s affairs (after she called him a rapist), has accused the Colombian government of state terrorism, and has threatened to forsake the entire hemisphere by pulling Nicaragua out of the Organization of American States (OAS). And that’s not considering the damage he’s caused on the other side of the Atlantic, where Ortega and his government have offended the Spanish crown, blasted the outgoing Swedish ambassador as the “devil,” and compared the entire European donor community in Nicaragua to meddlesome “flies that land of filth.”
His personal and political antics – both past and present – have resulted in growing protest by feminists in Paraguay, Honduras and El Salvador, and scorn from leading international intellectuals, poets and authors who once sided with the Sandinistas’ leftwing government in the 1980s (see separate story, pg N2).
The administration’s response to criticism, as always, has been to discredit and slander all its naysayers.
Indeed, analysts note, there appears to be some discrepancy between Ortega’s discourse of “peace, unity and reconciliation” and actions that threaten to distance Nicaragua from many of its traditional friends.
Jamileth Bonilla, a Liberal Party lawmaker and president of the National Assembly’s Foreign Relations Commission, told The Nica Times this week that Ortega’s foreign policy has been “totally contradictory and incoherent” since he took office in 2007. His presidency, she said, has caused damage to Nicaragua’s international image.
Liberal legislator and ex-Foreign Minister Francisco Aguirre said the United States seems to have “adopted a cautious, accommodating posture towards Ortega,” but that the European countries, which are among Nicaragua’s biggest donors since the 1980s, “are increasingly fed up with Latin America’s enfant terrible.” He said exhaustion with Ortega is leading Nicaragua into a position that is “increasingly isolated from the concert of nations.”
ALBA: Helping or Hurting?
At the center of Ortega’s foreign policy – and a linchpin in his apparent attempt to recreate the international protagonist role he played as a leader in the non-aligned movement of the 1980s – is the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas, or ALBA.
Though the socialist cooperation and development agreement was invented by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, and is ultimately bankrolled by that country’s oil funds, Ortega has become one of ALBA’s biggest international champions. But his enthusiasm for ALBA could be affecting the balancing act he once managed with other nations, some analysts warn.
“Ortega’s international relations are all about ALBA,” said political analyst Carlos Tünnermann, who served as Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States during the first Sandinista government. “He thinks that the solution to all the country’s problems is going to come from Chávez, which is absurd. Venezuela doesn’t have the capacity.”
Tünnermann said that Venezuela’s ability to help is going to be stretched even thinner now that Honduras has joined ALBA and oil prices have fallen from their historic heights earlier this year.
“It’s unlikely that Chávez will be able to deliver on all the promises he’s made to Nicaragua because now he’s making new promises to Honduras,” he said.
Nicaraguan economist Adolfo Acevedo disagrees that Honduras’ inclusion in ALBA will affect Nicaragua’s position. He said the key arrangement under ALBA is providing member nations with Venezuelan oil, and Chávez still has plenty of petroleum to go around.
Ortega said oil sold to Nicaragua under ALBA has solved Nicaragua’s energy crisis, which led to power-rationing blackouts during much of 2006 -2007. But even those benefits might be offset by long-term damage to the country’s image, according to ex-Foreign Minister Emilio Alvarez.
“These countries are wasting time in a project that won’t go anywhere,” Alvarez told The Nica Times of ALBA. “Investors don’t want to invest in a country that changes directions one day to the next.”
Aguirre, president of the National Assembly’s Budget Commission, agreed that Ortega’s foreign policy objectives “could spell trouble for Nicaragua.”
“Unless Ortega changes course soon, he will prove that he not only could not govern Nicaragua in war during the 1980s, but also that he cannot manage the country in peace during the 21st century.”
Defining Moments in Ortega’s Foreign Relations 2007
Jan. 11 – During his first day in office, President Daniel Ortega incorporates Nicaragua into ALBA.
June 11 – Ortega visits Iran to meet with President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad – a relationship that has caused concern in the U.S., Israel and Nicaragua.
July 9 – U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon reaffirms that the U.S. government has “good working relations” with Ortega.
Aug. 27 – Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian travels to Nicaragua, calls Ortega his “best friend” and offers to help. A month later, on Sept. 13, Nicaragua enters a free-trade agreement with Taiwan.
Sept. 2 – Hurricane Felix rips across the northern Caribbean coast of Nicaragua as a Category 5 storm, leaving more than 20,000 homeless and causing $850 million in damage, prompting a wave of international support and goodwill.
Sept. 13 – The government and Esso Standard Oil sign an agreement ending a month-long embargo over customs duties, and easing a moment of tense relations between the Sandinistas and the subsidiary of U.S.’ largest oil company.
Sept. 26 – Ortega addresses the U.N. General Assembly and blasts the U.S. as a “dictatorship.” Ortega later says no harm was done by his speech.
Oct. 8 – Government announces successful negotiation of three-year, $112 million program with IMF.
March 6 – Ortega breaks relations with Colombia after Colombian military bombs a FARC camp in Ecuador, killing more than a dozen.
May 1 – Ortega accuses unidentified “agents” in the U.S. Embassy of conspiring against his government and inciting violent protests.
May 11 – Ortega charters a Nicaraguan Air Force plane to fly two alleged FARC survivors of the March 1 bombing in Ecuador to Nicaragua for asylum, prompting protest from Colombia. Ortega responds by calling Colombia a terrorist state. Ortega has granted asylum to all four survivors of the bombing.
May 20 – Nicaragua’s Budget Support Group, made up of EU countries plus Canada, raises concerns about issues related to transparency, human rights and democracy in Nicaragua, and warns that foreign aid is not a “blank check.” The donor community then puts its concerns in writing a month later, prompting Ortega to personally insult the EU ambassador to Nicaragua, Francesca Mosca, comparing her and other diplomats to “flies that land in filth,” and telling the support group to take its “30 coins and buy someone else.”
June 13 – Vice Foreign Minister Manuel Coronel Kautz warns that any foreign diplomat who interferes with domestic politics will be considered persona non grata. Two months later, he calls outgoing Swedish Ambassador Eva Zetterberg the “devil.” For the next several days, a group of government supporters protest outside the Swedish embassy.
Aug. 14 – Ortega cancels his trip to Paraguay to attend the swearing-in of President Fernando Lugo after Paraguay’s minister-elect for women’s affairs, Gloria Rubin, calls Ortega a “rapist,” in reference to the decade-old sexual abuse accusation by his stepdaughter, Zoilámerica Narváez. First Lady Rosario Murillo responds with a campaign to slander Rubin.
Aug. 22 – In solidarity with Narváez, Honduran Minister of Women’s Affairs Selma Estrada renounces her post in protest over Ortega’s visit to Tegucigalpa. A similar movement starts among feminists in El Salvador who petition to have Ortega declared persona non grata there.
Aug. 23 – Ortega threatens to withdraw Nicaragua from the Organization of American States (OAS), which is expected to make a declaration about the exclusion of minority parties in Nicaragua and is looking into the Narváez sexual abuse complaint against Ortega.