COHA’s Nicaragua Staff Memorandum: Ortega’s Nicaragua—Fish or Fowl? Does Nicaragua, Along with the Rest of Central America, Need a Remedial Course in Democracy?

According to former Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage (who played a major role in the outing of CIA operative Valerie Plame), Central America might have to enroll in a specialized course in order to spend time being tutored in the basic ingredients of a functioning constitutional political system. In Nicaragua, over the years, the belief that democracy can supply a curative formula for solving the country’s deep-rooted social and economic handicaps has more often than not ended in continuous frustration, with the nation witnessing a ‘corruptocracy’ far more predictable than democracy.

It remains to be seen whether Nicaragua’s pessimistic expectations are realistic, given the magnitude of the nation’s problems and inadequacy of available resources to address them, and whether such shortcomings will continue to bedevil democratic governance in the country. In addition, if recently re-elected President Daniel Ortega is unable to jump start Nicaragua’s economy, this undoubtedly will boost U.S. skepticism that Ortega will be up to the task of reformulating his Cold War Marxist ideology in order to better please his anti-Marxist foes abroad.

Nicaragua: In the Past and Today

In 1979, the Sandinistas, led by Daniel Ortega, overthrew the Anastasio Somoza Debayle dictatorship shortly before Ronald Reagan assumed the U.S. presidency. One of Reagan’s first policy initiatives in Latin America was to build upon the Carter administration’s earlier hostile stance toward Managua and to attempt to undermine Ortega’s rule by secretly forming the paramilitary-backed group, known as the Contras. These efforts continued until 1990 when, in an electoral campaign heavily-financed by the CIA and NED, Ortega was defeated by the Washington-backed candidate, Violetta Barrios de Chamorro. It was not until almost 16 years later that Ortega got another chance at being president after failing to successfully contest a series of presidential elections in the interim. With his ultimate victory in November of 2006, Ortega, for a second time, has been provided with the opportunity to implement a Sandinista platform, although probably with a decidedly modern-day and probably more moderate spin.

Today, President Ortega faces a precarious economic environment in Nicaragua, as a legacy of devastating poverty has immersed the population in a mire of desperation. At the same time, many Nicaraguans look hopefully to the Ortega administration to provide relief for the country’s present economic doldrums. In response to urgent calls for change, Ortega must choose to move in the direction of a socialist society or maintain its present export version of Washington’s free market economy.

U.S. Concerns—Unjustified and Perhaps Ill-founded?
In the opinion of the U.S., either direction that Ortega decides to take will be risky, with the Nicaraguan government not being able to effectively implement even a poorly-funded social and economic strategy, due to the different expectations of an impatient, almost desperate public. Since the re-election of Ortega, the U.S. State Department anxiously has been looking for signs that will confirm its worst fears— that the former rebel will institute disruptive socialist reforms. U.S. policy-makers also have been watching for any indication that Ortega will not be able to resist mimicking the populist tactics of several of his regional neighbors, namely Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia. The fear is that Nicaragua will ultimately descend into new depths of dangerous macroeconomic instability, followed by unrest and an absence of focus.

No Target Yet for Washington’s Sharp Shooters

Such fears on the White House’s part may be unwarranted, given Ortega’s relatively sure-footed movements since taking office. In the first five months of his term, Ortega has met with President Chavez on several occasions, as well as with high-ranking Cuban officials, including, to celebrate his electoral victory over conservative presidential candidate Eduardo Montealegre. In Ortega’s first month in office, the Nicaraguan president signed ALBA, a free trade agreement which purports to replace what many of its supporters view as self-serving factors and non-solidarity foundations of U.S. trade strategies as well as its exclusive sanctioning of market-based economies. Recently, President Chavez sent eight electricity generators to Nicaragua, a clear signal of his willingness to firmly support his fellow comandante. Meanwhile, Ortega is taking the preliminary steps needed to provide free education and health to all Nicaraguans, which, in the past, have been contentious issues for the country’s public planners.

At the same time, Ortega has maintained a consistent and respectful attitude towards Washington. For example, Nicaragua remains part of the DR-CAFTA, which promotes a free trade model between Central America and the U.S. and which has been a target of left-learning governments throughout the region. Ortega has yet to cut ties to American backed multilateral lending banks, like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Rather, he has opened up communications with these financial institutions trying to fuse a mutual agreement regarding the future of Nicaragua’s economy. At the beginning of May, Ortega partnered with the United Nations Food Programme and jointly launched Hambre Cero, a program which attempts to combat extreme poverty in Nicaragua.

A More Diplomatic Ortega Than In Years Past?

Campaign slogans such as ‘give peace a chance’ and the pending inauguration of additional poverty relief programs, suggest that Ortega has given up on radical ideology, at least when it concerns style, in return for a guardedly business-like relationship with the U.S.— but all the while remaining in the rhetorical orb established by Hugo Chavez and several of his ‘pink tide’ leftist reformers. Up to this point, Ortega seems to be successfully maneuvering for a position which straddles financial ties with the U.S. while adopting the enthusiasm, vision and rhetorical bravura of a Chavez.

Financial support from the U.S. would certainly facilitate Ortega’s goal of freeing Nicaragua from a future riddled with poverty and low-grade economic development, but Washington is only likely to consider this as long as Managua adheres to the U.S. version of democratic-institution building and a commitment to market ideals that are intended to stabilize Central America as a neoliberal redoubt. Whether or not these restrictive guidelines will promote stability or eventual chaos in Nicaragua is likely to primarily depend on the success of Ortega in learning well the essential theories, as well as the necessary practices behind constitutional democracy, fused with an open mind regarding the path to social justice and improved living standards, which to an extent was what helped bring him to power in the first place.