President Daniel Ortega appears to be doing something that no politician in Washington has been able to pull off in years: get Republicans and Democrats to finally agree on something.
Unfortunately for the Sandinista strongman, the point of concurrence is that his government must be held to account for Nicaragua’s Nov. 6 electoral flop.
After three weeks of quietly fussing and fretting in private correspondences, Republicans and Democrats in both the House and Senate today are expected to publically address the “Nicaragua situation” in no uncertain terms.
Washington insiders tell The Nicaragua Dispatch that today could be the beginning of a new U.S.-led effort to push back against Ortega’s power grab, and the first shouts in a rallying cry to get the international community—the EU and the Organization of American States (OAS)—to turn the screws on the Sandinista government.
As usual, lead fiddle will be played by Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the archconservative Republican congresswoman from Florida who will head the Republican’s assault on Ortega from her post as chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Ros-Lehtinen has convoked a committee hearing for this morning (Dec. 1) under the title, “Democracy Held Hostage in Nicaragua: Part I.”
Former U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan, the U.S.’s last envoy to Nicaragua, and Costa Rican Ambassador Jaime Daremblum, a Senior Fellow for Latin America at the Hudson Institute and a former Tico ambassador to Washington, D.C., will be the Republicans’ two key witnesses in today’s hearing. The Democrats, meanwhile, are expected to call a witness from the Carter Center.
The Nicaragua Dispatch has also learned that the Senate’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere is also expected to emit a resolution today on the Nicaraguan elections. The wording of the second resolution is not yet known, but it’s reportedly a bipartisan effort.
And if Tuesday’s saber-rattling by Western Hemisphere committee member Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) was any indication of what tone the Senate resolution will take, expect fireworks.
“The U.S. should immediately adopt significant bilateral and regional measures to encourage a return to constitutional order in Nicaragua,” Rubio said Tuesday, in his call for tougher U.S. policy towards Latin America.
“Rather than standing up to tyrants and promoting democracy, this Administration’s policy towards Latin America has been defined by appeasement, weakness and the alienation of our allies,” Rubio emoted.
The House committee hearing, set for 10 a.m. Washington time, is expected to be equally edgy.
“Ortega continues to expand his own authorities at the expense of freedom and democracy in Nicaragua..Ortega flat-out disregarded the part in the constitution barring him from running for another term as President,” House committee chairwoman Ros-Lehtinen said Tuesday. “The will of the people is ignored; it has become another casualty of Ortega’s pursuit of absolute power at any cost.”
Arm flapping or tidal shift?
Although those taking the lead in today’s congressional dust-up have a clear agenda, what’s unclear is how much traction they’ll gain in a city that’s already up to its powdered wigs in problems domestic and foreign.
The Ortega issue could also prove to be an interesting test on Capitol Hill of who is setting the pace for U.S.’ Latin America policy: the shield-banging, foot-stomping ideologues in Congress, or the more reserved and calculating—not to say distracted—President?
Says Ros-Lehtinen, “(Thursday’s) hearing will also assess the implications of Ortega’s actions for regional stability and U.S. interests, as well as U.S. policy toward Nicaragua going forward. Responsible nations cannot afford to ignore the blatant trampling of democracy in the Western Hemisphere.”
Some analysts think the Republicans’ huffing and puffing won’t amount to much.
“Among Republicans, (Thursday’s House hearing) will have some impact. But the Administration does not seem interested at all in getting bogged down with a dispute about the elections in Nicaragua,” says Kevin Casas-Zamora, director of the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution.
Others, however, claim there is an emerging bipartisan agreement that Ortega has overstepped the bounds of democratic propriety, and must be pulled back.
“There is growing consensus in Washington that the U.S. and other democratic nations need to stand up for their principles and hold Ortega accountable by putting pressure on him in the OAS,” said a Washington source, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The source said OAS’ electoral report, coupled with Nicaraguan Ambassador Denis Moncada’s silly conspiracy theories, has turned the rest of the hemisphere’s slow nod of disapproval into a more focused understanding that something must be done about Nicaragua.
And while Ortega and other members of ALBA nations excitedly pack their suitcases for this weekend’s inaugural huddle of the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC)—a Venezuela-funded organization that hopes to rival or replace the U.S.-funded OAS—the OAS might feel the need to show it can still dunk, despite looking like a wobbly old man with bad knees.
“There could be a push in the OAS to invoke the Democratic Charter against Nicaragua,” the source said. “The OAS needs to prove its relevance, and it wouldn’t have to go out on a limb to invoke the Democratic Charter against Nicaragua.”
Confusion of topics
Another diplomatic insider consulted by the Nicaragua Dispatch said the testimony of Costa Rica’s Daremblum at today’s House committee hearing could get messy for Nicaragua if the former Tico ambassador brings the Río San Juan conflict into the mix.
The source, who also wished to remain unidentified (a frequently reoccurring request in Nicaraguan politics) said Daremblum is a smooth political operator who could use Nicaragua’s electoral fiasco to strike while the iron is hot.
The issue of the Río San Juan, which has again flared as Costa Rica tries to build a highway parallel to the Nicaraguan river, could get entangled in Nicaragua’s political mess, the source said. As a result, Costa Rica, which only a year ago looked ludicrous in its flailing position on the border issue, could now take advantage of Nicaragua’s position of democratic weakness to swing public opinion in its favor, even as it recklessly bulldozes ahead with its preposterous river-side highway.
Back on Capitol Hill, it remains to be seen if the ideological fire of Republican lawmakers such as Ros-Lehtinen and Rubio, or the firmness of Democrat leaders such as Bob Menendez, of the Senate’s Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere, will be able to channel Washington’s Ortega fatigue into something more aggressive.
But perhaps the bigger question is: Does Ortega care what anyone in Washington thinks about democracy in Nicaragua?