MANAGUA – The U.S. Republican Party’s decisive victory in this month’s mid-term elections to take control of the House of Representatives is admittedly bad news for U.S. President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party.
It could also be bad news for Sandinista President Daniel Ortega.
Washington insiders consulted by The Nica Times this week predict that the Republican-dominated House is inclined to pay closer attention to perceived mischief in Nicaragua, and will have less patience for Sandinista shenanigans.
As one source put it, many Republican hawks in Washington, D.C., “still have a hard-on for Ortega.”
The Nicaraguan president, who was cast as the mustachioed Cold War villain by the Reagan administration in the 1980s, could soon find himself in the Republican’s foreign policy spotlight once again. That will be especially true if House Representatives Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Connie Mack, two ultra-conservative lawmakers from Florida, are given key leadership roles in foreign relations committees in the new Congress, as many expect.
Congresswoman Ros-Lehtinen is a favorite candidate to be Chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Connie Mack is considered a short-list bet for Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.
Both lawmakers have a stated mistrust and dislike for Ortega.
“We cannot allow the United States to be used as a pawn in Daniel Ortega’s scheme to subvert democracy in Nicaragua,” Rep. Ros-Lehtinen wrote in a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton last May, requesting that the U.S. government not accept the credentials of any Nicaraguan ambassador whose appointment was not confirmed by the Nicaraguan National Assembly, as required by law.
Rep. Ros-Lehtinen declined The Nica Times’ request for interview this week, but others in Washington say the mood towards Ortega on Capitol Hill could change dramatically if she gets the committee chair.
Otto Reich, a former senior official in the Republican administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, said he thinks the Florida congresswoman would be far less patient than her predecessor “with any budding autocrat in the region.”
In more specific terms, Reich said, the Republican-controlled House is expected to be far less tolerant towards Ortega than the Democratic-controlled Congress has been in recent years.
“For the past two years, there has been far too much silence on the part of the U.S. Administration and most in Congress (with a few valiant exceptions) in the face of continued violation of the law and manipulation of the Constitution in Nicaragua,” Reich told The Nica Times this week in an email. “It is to be hoped that the new Republican majority in the House will be more vocal in its support of human rights and rule of law than too many Democrats have been.”
Conservative think tanks in Washington also think the Republicans’ gain in the midterm elections could be bad news for Ortega.
“I believe that Daniel Ortega’s misdeeds will receive more scrutiny in the new Congress; he is an enduring thorn in the side of conservative-minded Americans,” said Ray Walser, senior policy analyst for The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.
Walser added, “Those likely to set the agenda and who have the power to call witnesses have little love for Ortega, (First Lady) Rosario (Murillo), and their narrow coterie.”
The analyst said he thinks the new Republican House will pay closer attention to “the steady erosion of democracy in Nicaragua and Ortega’s rise to caudillo status.”
Ranking Republican congressman are already gearing up for battle.
“As key chairmanships in the House are decided in this new Congress, dictators in the region should be nervous about the future of the free ride they have been given over the past two years,” Congressman Mack, the ranking Republican of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, told The Nica Times this week. “Congress and the Obama Administration must not continue to put up with the troublesome actions of thugocrats in Latin America like Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, which threaten the freedom, security and prosperity of the entire hemisphere.”
The congressman added, “There should be no tolerance for dictators who weaken personal and economic freedoms for their people and choose to align themselves with dangerous allies like Iran.”
Despite the strong words of warning, some Latin America analysts think little will change in practice.
“It is always hard to predict what will happen, but my sense is that while there might be harsher rhetoric against Ortega coming from Washington under the new Congress, in practical policy terms little is likely to change,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue. “Ortega has cleverly neutralized the most aggressive policy options through his successful courting of international financial institutions and his accommodating approach towards Nicaragua’s business community.”
Shifter said that the Republicans, despite their dislike for Ortega, will probably focus most of their efforts on Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez.
“Ortega is viewed as a corrupt figure intent on staying in power, whereas Chávez is seen as more of a menace and a problem for the United States, not only in the hemisphere but throughout the world,” Shifter said.
“The new Republican leadership will have to set their priorities in Latin American policy,” he added.
Those cynical of Washington politics agree that Nicaragua will probably continue to slide by under the radar of Congress, despite the Republicans’ huffing and puffing.
“I frankly doubt that there will be much change in foreign policy, and Nicaragua is so far off the radar that it will probably continue to be mostly ignored,” U.S. political activist and longtime Nicaragua watcher Noam Chomsky told The Nica Times this week in an email.
Relations of Respect
Since taking office in 2007, Ortega has consistently sent mixed messages to the United States. While at times he soberly calls for “a relationship of respect” with the U.S. government and even commends President Obama for promising a new chapter in U.S. -Latin America relations, at other moments Ortega lashes out angrily, accusing the U.S. government of wanting to topple or destabilize his government.
During one speech last year, Ortega uncharacteristically yelled, “Long live the people of the United States!” Yet on repeated other occasions, he has railed against the evils of the “yanqui imperialists.”
In private meetings with U.S. officials, Ortega has apparently been more even-keeled. Two weeks ago, Ortega received U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela at his Managua compound, where the two men reportedly talked about narco-trafficking, strengthening democratic institutions, and the importance of transparent electoral processes, among other issues (NT, Nov. 5).
That meeting, plus other meetings Valenzuela held with Nicaraguan officials, were reportedly conducted calmly and respectfully.
“It was a mature, healthy and respectful meeting – very respectful. We have good relations,” Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Samuel Santos told The Nica Times after coming out the Oct. 28 meeting with Valenzuela.
Arturo Cruz, Ortega’s previous ambassador to the United States, said he thinks Valenzuela’s visit was conducted prudently and with “great discretion.” Cruz thinks Valenzuela’s message was consistent, and that the few comments he made in public were reflective of what probably happened behind closed doors in private.
“He came to say, ‘Look, the political process (in Nicaragua) is your own choice and you have to make your own decisions. Clearly we identify with democracy and elections, but we will not micromanage,’” Cruz said.
That message, however, could change next year.
While certain Republicans will try to set a more aggressive tone starting with the new Congress in January, others say it will be the presidential elections in November, 2011, which will really seal the fate of U.S.-Nicaragua relations.
Says Richard Feinberg, former National Security Council advisor on Inter-American Affairs in the Clinton White House, “It will be Nicaragua’s own presidential elections of 2011 – and whether the international community judges them to be ‘free and fair’ – that will drive the tenor of U.S.-Nicaragua relations.”