A week ago the Heritage Foundation in Washington D.C. published an article (also carried in The Nicaragua Dispatch) I had written with Dr. Ray Walser. In the piece, we argue that the United States should deny the property waiver to Nicaragua, an action that would oblige the United States to vote against Nicaraguan loan applications at international lending institutions, such as the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank. Our position provoked an immediate reaction in Nicaragua, both in favor and opposed, and led to several personal attacks that impugned my motives and questioned my integrity. I think I owe the Nicaraguan people, and those Americans who follow events in the country, a fuller explanation of why I now believe it is in the interest of Nicaragua and the United States to deny the waiver.
In appearing before the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the House of Representatives last November, some four months after leaving my post in Nicaragua, I advocated that we maintain our aid programs to Nicaragua despite deeply flawed national elections and Daniel Ortega’s illegal and unconstitutional candidacy. I expressed the hope that the political opposition might still come together and, in so doing, restrain Ortega’s most authoritarian impulses. I noted that members of the civil society needed our support. I pointed out that most of the European embassies had closed and that we were among the few democratic donor nations still active in Nicaragua.
I did say, however, that “we must be prepared to reduce or eliminate aid and reconsider our diplomatic presence” if over the next several months the political situation did not improve.
We are now over a half year removed from that testimony and there has been no improvement. In fact, the situation has deteriorated. How so?
In the first instance, the Ortega government has refused to reform the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), the instrument of massive voter fraud and, if repeated articles in respected newspapers are to be believed, the refuge for one of the most corrupt officials in all of the Americas. For so long as the current judges remain in place, there is no possibility of free, fair, and observed elections in Nicaragua. The opposition knows this of course and may not contest the municipal elections scheduled for November. In addition to the judges on the CSE, another 20 or so senior government officials remain in office even though their terms have expired.
The Ortegas continue to buy independent media and transform them into propaganda agents for themselves and the Sandinista government. Daniel and increasingly his wife, Rosario Murillo, also continue to appear on billboards throughout Nicaragua, smiling beatifically on the masses. The cult of personality grows. And it works. According to reliable polls, both Ortega and Murillo enjoy unprecedented personal popularity among the Nicaraguan people.
Finally, Ortega and his cronies are getting richer. Using their power in government and the millions of dollars in unaccounted aid from Venezuela, they are now among the plutocrats. They own hotels, ranches, and abattoirs, live in mansions, educate their children in private schools, drive expensive cars, and travel in style, including in their own planes.
Although now more aware of the need to maintain the appearance of democracy, the Ortega regime, with its ceaseless propaganda, staged rallies, organized bullying, and cult of personality calls to mind Mussolini’s Italy. Like Il Duce, Daniel seeks to build a corporatist state.
He has succumbed to the arrogance of power and seems to do things because he can, like Caligula naming his horse to the Roman Senate. How else to explain why, despite his ill-gotten super majority there, he refuses to have officials confirmed by the Assembly, as the Constitution stipulates? And why does he never grant an interview to an independent journalist or hold a press conference? Why does he surround himself with blue-shirted Sandinista security when he has police protection?
Daniel Ortega, through his systematic abuse of the Constitution and blatant misuse of state power, has forfeited any claim on America’s aid and has shown, through word and deed, that he does not intend to alter his approach. He is a clear and present threat to democracy in Nicaragua.
That is the principal reason that I have now concluded that America must deny the property waiver.
And the opposition? Where have they been? What have they done?
In truth, they have done virtually nothing to arrest Nicaragua’s slide toward one-man rule. They have not been able to agree on a strategy or a leader. Many have accommodated themselves to Ortega in order to protect their investments and safeguard their businesses. Many have been co-opted and silenced, others paid off and placated.
Not all of them, to be sure, but enough of them. There are still many honorable men and women in business, politics, and civil society groups. They continue to resist, and at great peril to their wealth and welfare. But with so many of the influential now muted, with large opposition parties in disarray, with traditional political leaders refusing to compromise or seek common ground, these good men and women must feel abandoned and alone. Yet they persist. I marvel at their courage and admire their tenacity.
It was they, and the mass of poor Nicaraguans, whom I thought of when contemplating the waiver. Would they benefit over time, I asked myself, if the waiver were denied? For sure, the contented and comfortable, many of whom have been the most vociferous in urging that the waiver be granted, might suffer a bit, but since most of them have cut their deal with Ortega, they will find a way to survive, perhaps even thrive.
But, again, what about the honorable opposition, civil society, and the poor? How will they fare if the waiver is denied? Although no one can know with any confidence, I do believe that in the long term they will emerge more prosperous and certainly freer. Meanwhile, in the absence of a waiver and its consequent effects on the economy, Nicaragua’s true democrats will be able to argue more cogently that the Sandinista model is inherently flawed. They will point to growing corruption, intimidation, and nepotism, as the Sandinistas themselves did during the long years of Somoza rule, and the people will listen. Perhaps protests, on the scale now seen in the Middle East, will ensue. If the waiver is denied, it may serve as a catalyst for real change.
Nicaragua cannot afford to allow its democracy to deteriorate further. The country has suffered a frightful history of violent change and political upheaval that has rent the social fabric and beggared the economy. At great cost to the people, the old was extirpated and the new imposed, all in the name of stability or progress, revolution or freedom. Think of Zelaya and Somoza, the Sandinistas and now the Orteguistas.
Doña Violeta and her government made a Herculean effort to reconcile competing factions in the body politic, restore democracy, and restart the economy. Through example and temperament, Don Enrique demonstrated that integrity, transparency, and accountability were essential to a functioning democracy, and he continues to do so through his library. (Contrast that with the current government’s hermetic silence on everything from the health of its officials to the use of Venezuelan money.)
If Ortega is allowed to consolidate his power, if he continues to run roughshod over the Constitution and grows more imperious, he will reverse completely the fragile progress that Nicaragua has made over the past two decades. Then, when this regime passes from the scene, as it inevitably must, Nicaraguans will once again have to start anew, with their democratic institutions undermined, their society polarized, and their economy in shambles.
The Nicaraguans themselves must accept the challenge and stop the decay. The United States can and should support them. That is why I have concluded that, in the interest of the Nicaraguan people and their future, the United States should deny the waiver.
Ambassador Robert J. Callahan is a retired career foreign service officer who served as the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua from 2008 to 2011.