The Sandinista-controlled city council of León has declared U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan persona non-grata in their city, following a political spat over the scheduled inauguration of a highway built with U.S. funding.
The city government’s declaration – signed by four Sandinista city council members and the Sandinista vice-mayor – was issued March 26, following the U.S. Embassy’s refusal to allow León’s controversial Mayor Manuel Calderón to participate in the inauguration of the newly constructedLeón-Ponoloya Highway
The highway was built with U.S. funds from the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which canceled all new projects in Nicaragua following the allegedly fraudulent 2008 municipal elections in which the Sandinistas are accused of stealing some 40 mayor’s offices, including that of León.
The Sandinistas’ non-grata declaration, which has been contested by opposition city councilmen who claim they were not notified of the meeting, was read aloud in the central park, where some 200 Sandinistas gathered for the occasion to cheer and fire homemade mortars in celebration.
The MCC-Nicaragua, meanwhile, closed its offices March 25 and 26 and sent workers home early as a “preventive measure” as rumors circulated that the Sandinistas planned to march to the building. But the march never happened.
After a week-long break for Semana Santa, the MCC-Nicaragua reopened its local office this week to resume work as normal and analyze its current situation. A local spokeswoman for MCC-Nicaragua, which still has $15 million in remaining funds to execute on development projects in Nicaragua before May 2011, said the national board of directors was scheduled to meet this week to discuss the latest occurrences and decide how they may affect upcoming programs and events, including the pending highway inauguration tentatively scheduled for the end of April.
The source said any other decisions about remaining MCC aid for Nicaragua would have to be taken by the central office in Washington, D.C.
“MCC Washington is aware of the protests in León and continues to carefully monitor the situation in coordination with the U.S. Embassy,” an MCC spokesperson in Washington, D.C., told The Nica Times this week in an email.
The source added, “Since December 2008, when the MCC Board suspended assistance … the Government of Nicaragua has not taken any significant steps to address widespread concerns about its handling of the November 2008 municipal elections.” As a result, the spokesperson explained, in June 2009 the MCC Board decided to reduce total assistance to Nicaragua by $61.5 million.
“MCC continues to have concerns regarding the Government of Nicaraga’s policy performance, as demonstrated by its continued decline in MCC scorecard indicators during the past several years,” the source said.
Calderón’s Contentious Past In addition to being accused of electoral theft, Calderón was denied a U.S. visa last year for human-rights abuses dating back to his leadership role in the Sandinista Front’s 1981 indigenous relocation and massacre known as “Red Christmas.”
On June 7, 2006, Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights (CPDH) formally accused Calderón and 13 other Sandinista leaders and collaborators – including President Daniel Ortega – of genocide and crimes against humanity.
The accusation, filed before the Public Prosecutors’ Office on behalf of 100 Miskito Indians, includes testimonial evidence to support charges of 64 civilian assassinations, 13 cases of torture, and 15 disappearances (NT, June 16, 2006).
Almost four years later, the Prosecutors’ Office has yet to respond to the request to open an investigation, according to Marcos Carmona, executive director of CPDH. Carmona told The Nica Times this week that after four years of failing to act, the Prosecutors’ Office has essentially become an “accomplice” to the massacre.
“The Public Prosecutors’ Office is supposed to side with the people, but the way they operate here leaves a lot to be desired,” Carmona said.
The rights activist claims there are political motives behind the state’s inaction. Calderón, meanwhile, made headlines again in 2008 when, as a mayoral candidate, he was pictured in the daily newspapers attacking anti-riot police with a club during a Sandinista protest outside of León. Several months later, he was accused of electoral theft.
So when the Sandinista government insisted that Calderón participate in the MCC’s highway inauguration, the U.S. Embassy balked.
Ambassador Callahan told the press March 24 that the U.S. considers the 2008 municipal elections fraudulent and will not partner with any of the mayors put in office as a result of vote fraud.
Callahan said specifically that he “cannot meet” with Calderón due to U.S. concerns about election fraud and previous human rights abuses.
The Sandinista Front’s local secretary in León, Manuel Alvarado, responded to Callahan’s remarks by warning the U.S. Ambassador to be careful what he says. Alvarado said the Sandinista Front will not take responsibility for any reprisals against the ambassador or the U.S. Embassy for meddling in Nicaraguan affairs.
The following day the Sandinista city council members announced their decision to declare Callahan non-grata.
The U.S. Embassy has not issued any further statement on the ambassador’s non grata status, or issued any warnings to U.S. citizens living or visiting León. At press time, no further incidents had been reported.