The proverbial “atomic bomb” that many feared would lay waste to Nicaragua’s budding economy was not deployed. Instead, the U.S. government yesterday dropped another property waiver on Nicaragua, successfully concluding another politically tense go-round between the two countries, this time with far more nail-biting than Managua would like.
Business leaders and government officials are soberly celebrating the waiver extension with audible sighs of relief, but no one is dancing in the end zone. Even the Sandinista media, which gives spectacularly triumphant video- montage coverage to mundane occurrences such as zinc handouts in marginalized neighborhoods, has downplayed the victory of the waiver extension. First Lady Rosario Murillo, who normally has a lot to say about everything, limited herself to reading the U.S. embassy’s pithy release without further comment or superfluous veneration of the Blessed Virgin.
“This is good news, but it’s not a time to celebrate,” says private sector leader César Zamora, who helped organize last month’s Washington outreach efforts on the eve of the waiver decision.
“The Obama administration has extended its hand in an effort to reestablish a working relationship with Nicaragua, and that’s important,” Zamora says. “Moderation won the day and that gives us a new opportunity to improve relations with the United States.”
The photo finish to this year’s waiver round should also be a moment of reflective pause for Nicaragua, Zamora said. For the past five-plus years, Nicaragua has been managing its affairs with the United States under the hopeful notion that U.S. strategic interests in the hemisphere are far more important to Washington that Nicaragua’s institutionalism and rule of law. To continue forward under the same premise would be a mistake, Zamora says.
“We can’t think that democratic institutionalism here is not important to the United States, because it is,” Zamora said.
It should also be important to Nicaragua, for that matter. The difficult work of reestablishing Nicaragua’s constitutional rule of law remains urgently pending, Zamora stressed.
The Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) released a statement yesterday saying the approval of the waiver offers the Nicaraguan government an opportunity to return the country to the path of democratic institutionalism, starting with the naming new magistrates, judges and other officials whose terms in office have expired.
The political opposition, meanwhile, claims the waiver extension proves that rule of law is doing just fine…at least in the United States.
Liberal Independent Party (PLI) congressman Eliseo Núñez thinks Tio Sam suspended political judgment and applied technical measures to extend the property waiver until 2013, which he says “speaks more about the rule of law in the U.S. than it does in Nicaragua.”
But Núñez disagrees that the decision represents a new opportunity for the Ortega government to improve its political relations with the United States. The United States, he argues, has no interest in political relations with Nicaragua.
“The United States is not interested in having political relations with Nicaragua and the United States is not much interested in Latin America. In fact, they’ve shown an absolute disinterest in the region,” says Núñez, who worked as campaign boss for opposition candidate Fabio Gadea’s failed presidential bid last year.
The PLI leader says the U.S.’ only interest in Nicaragua beyond national security is economics. If anything, Núñez says, the waiver approval shows that Nicaraguans themselves will have to roll up their sleeves and get under the hood to fix their country’s institutionalism, if that constant rattling noise from the engine still bothers anyone.
Political analyst Arturo Cruz says the engine rattling could get louder if Nicaragua takes its next electoral turn at a reckless speed.
Cruz, who correctly anticipated that the U.S. would cancel the transparency waiver but approve the property waiver, sees the decision to extend the second waiver as a move by the Obama administration to “postpone the harsher decisions on Nicaragua for later.”
Later, however, might be right around the next electoral corner if the Sandinista regime makes a mockery of another polling process.
“The municipal elections in November will be closely watched,” Cruz predicts. “There’s no more room for mistakes.”
Cruz says the Obama administration is clearly trying to maintain some semblance of a working relationship with Ortega, but the situation has become far more precarious than it was five years ago. Cruz says the combination of congressional calls to action, a Washington lobby that thinks the “Arab Spring” could come to Latin America with a little nudging, and a strong Secretary of State who’s not afraid to take decisive action, will make U.S.-Nicaragua relations increasingly tricky.
The Sandinistas’ electoral track record makes that formula even more volatile, Cruz warns. Any electoral mischief in the November municipal elections could be the ballot that breaks the donkey’s back, to confuse an idiom.
“Maintaining relations with Washington is going to require a lot more management and greater effort than before,” Cruz says.
In the meantime, the former ambassador to Washington says, the waiver decision shouldn’t be interpreted with elaborate explanation.
“The waiver approval doesn’t mean anything more than it was approved,” he says.