Nicaragua’s electoral farce augurs a conflict with whoever wins in the US
Deputy foreign minister during the revolutionary years,
the author recalls the general lines of US-Nicaraguan relations then
and analyzes the possible scenarios for that relationship
after the upcoming elections in both countries.
Victor Hugo Tinoco
Deputy foreign minister during the revolutionary years,
the author recalls the general lines of US-Nicaraguan relations then
and analyzes the possible scenarios for that relationship
after the upcoming elections in both countries.
Ataught tranquility has predominated in the relations between the US and Nicaraguan governments during these nine or so years of the Ortega administration. For the past few months, however, the disruption caused by Ortega’s decision to assure his continuation in power via elections with no transparency, competition, observers or genuine opponents and to bank on a dynastic succession by naming his wife as his running mate has put Nicaragua back on the radar of both Republicans and Democrats in the United States. It is an endogenous, internal factor that augurs conflicts and friction in the relations between the two governments.
Endogenous factors today,exogenous ones in the eighties
Quickly looking back over the conflictive relations between these two countries in the revolutionary years, the emphasis was on external factors. A clash had been growing between the two contradictory, antagonistic global visions since the 1960s. On one side insurgent, revolutionary liberation movements were on the rise and developing in Africa, parts of Asia and Latin America. All were putting forward a leftist nationalist agenda, with more or less Marxist characteristics in some cases, while others had a less doctrinaire progressive vision. On the other side, a neoconservative movement was on the rise and developing in the United States, one determined to put a halt to these revolutionary movements. The neoconservatives strongly questioned not only the Democratic administration of Jimmy Carter (1977-1980) and his human rights policy, but also the previous Republican administrations of both Richard Nixon (1969-74) and Gerald Ford (1974-77) for their policy of détente with the socialist bloc in Eastern Europe. The neocons, as they are known in US political parlance, found their best representative in cowboy actor Ronald Reagan, who had his own particular charisma.
To understand the Nicaraguan revolution’s contradiction with the United States and the wars in Central America during those years, they must be placed in the context of the global contradiction between those two movements dominating planetary society: anti-colonialist or anti-dictatorial liberation movements and the US establishment that, with its own particular Cold War reading of that global reality, was determined to put a stop to those movements.
A threat to the Monroe Doctrine and to US imperial interests
I believe US foreign policy toward Latin America has always been predicated on the Monroe Doctrine of a century and a half ago, which can be summarized as “America for the Americans,” or cynically paraphrased by some as “the Americas for America.” Adherents of that doctrine consider this hemisphere the undisputed US sphere of influence and the Caribbean and Central America as their back yard. The neoconservatives saw the liberation movements as tantamount to Soviet advances in a continent they considered theirs. It already had Cuba, now Nicaragua and was threatening El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. They also saw leftists in Panama with Torrijos, Grenada with Bishop and Guyana with Burnham… The Monroe Doctrine was under threat.
I also believe the global confrontation between the two world super-powers of the time, the United States and the then-USSR, now Russia, has been an inter-imperialist competition, a clash of interests rather than an ideological confrontation between the Marxist socialist model and the capitalist one, although that indeed existed. Evidence of that is that the Soviet Union’s centralized economic model was dismantled at the end of the 1980s, yet the US conflict with Russia is still going on today. In the current US Republican platform, Russia continues to be seen as the enemy, the global power from which the United States must defend itself.
The Santa Fe Document of 1980
Neoconservative thinking with respect to Latin America during the Reagan administration is conceptually summarized in the Santa Fe Document of 1980, written by Reagan’s campaign advisers, which I’ve just reviewed again. It openly criticizes Carter’s human rights policy for having weakened the Latin American governments of the Southern Cone, unconcerned that they were authoritarian military dictatorships. It also criticized the fact that Carter didn’t apply his human rights policy with the same energy to Cuba. For the neocons, the revolutionary movements in Latin America demonstrated the failure of that policy and the weakening of the United States vis-à-vis the Soviet bloc. Given the supposed Soviet advances it was urgent that the United States recover its influence on the continent.
That thinking predominated Reagan’s eight years and Bush Sr.’s succeeding four. With things being seen from that perspective in the US power circles while we were seeing what was happening to our liberation from a half century of US-backed dictatorship, a clash was inevitable, especially as more schematic Marxist visions coexisted with other, simply progressive ones among us. That clash sparked both the contra war in Nicaragua and the insurrectionary wars in other Central American countries throughout the 1980s.
In the Santa Fe Document, the neoconservatives took their hardest line on Cuba, proposing to support and push a “national liberation war,” which was their euphemism for a counterrevolutionary war. I couldn’t find in that document any plan or allusion to promoting a war of that nature in Nicaragua. Nevertheless, they began to apply it in Nicaragua almost immediately, because the training of armed counterrevolutionary groups and covert financial support for the war in Nicaragua had already begun by early 1981 with the arrival of the Reagan administration.
The US ended up isolated
With neoconservative positions on the rise in the United States and a revolutionary vision on the rise in Nicaragua and much of the rest of Central America, it was hard to find any common ground. The end to the conflict would only come some years later due to exhaustion with the war both by those of us suffering it in Central America and by the United States due to its failure to solve the Central American problem.
In fact the solutions to the conflict were ultimately the same ones pushed one way or the other since the beginning. When we look back at the early proposals made by then-Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Thomas Enders and those we made in the nine negotiation sessions we had in Manzanillo, México, in 1984, we can see that the solution laid out in the 1987 Esquipulas agreement to end the war was already there years earlier. What was lacking were the conditions for accepting it.
Those conditions were being created in Nicaragua by the bloodshed and exhaustion with the war, but they were also being created in the United States because Reagan didn’t have it easy. He maintained the counterrevolutionary forces covertly in 1981 and 1982, arguing that he was only trying to prevent arms transshipments to the Salvadoran insurgents. But by the end of 1983 he had to recognize that he was in fact supporting an armed counterrevolutionary movement in Nicaragua, and that admission began to isolate the Reagan government. I recall a New York Times headline on the debates in the UN Security Council about this conflict that described the United States as alone on this issue. That plus the internal contradictions Reagan sparked with the Democratic Party, not to mention the discovery of the illegitimate financing of the Contra known as Iran-Contragate, forced Washington to rethink its policy against Nicaragua. We reached the peak of the war in 1985 and by 1987 we got the Esquipulas Agreement.
The Reagan Administration still wasn’t sure about backing the negotiations among the Central American Presidents that resulted in the Esquipulas Agreements. But in the end it had no choice, because the Central Americans stood firm. No one wanted more war, not Vinicio Cerezo in Guatemala, Napoleón Duarte in El Salvador, José Azcona in Honduras or Oscar Arias in Costa Rica. But the country most interested in the peace agreement was Nicaragua, desperate to put an end to the country’s destruction.
Esquipulas was a trade-off
In essence, the Esquipulas agreements were a trade-off: the end of the armed conflict in exchange for free elections throughout the region. Identical commitments were established for all Central American countries: free elections, demobilization of the irregular forces, opening of pluralist political spaces and guarantees for democratic freedoms. These identical commitments were also meant to be simultaneous, which was the other essence of Esquipulas, although that didn’t happen because the conditions were different in each country. Nicaragua moved ahead most rapidly: we brought the elections up nearly a year and began negotiations with the Contra, all to bring the armed conflict to an end and achieve enough political coexistence to translate into social stability.
Although the agreement wasn’t implemented simultaneously, it was successful. It put an end to the conflict in Nicaragua in 1990, in El Salvador two years later, and in Guatemala four years after that, in 1996. It resolved the fundamental problem of war and peace with free elections and democratic liberties throughout the region, but other problems subsequently emerged and the social and political conflictiveness didn’t end, even if war did.
Virtually all the military dictatorships in Latin America were disappearing at the end of the 1980s. That was one of the sub-products of the Nicaraguan revolution and the neoconservative reaction to it. The military governments of Argentina and Brazil began to reform and transfer power to the civilian sectors. It is a fact specialists will have to analyze in retrospect.
A war of aggression or a civil war?
Was Nicaragua’s military conflict in the 1980s a civil war or a US war of aggression? Looking back, we must recognize that it was a civil war because important sectors of the Nicaraguan population sided with one of the two axes of the global East-West confrontation. Did we see it that way in 1985? No we didn’t, because one doesn’t see things the same from a position of power. That’s why I can understand how Ortega and his followers don’t see the harm being done to Nicaragua. If power blinds, absolute power blinds absolutely. Today we have to accept that just as the United States supported and guaranteed the counterrevolution, the socialist countries supported and guaranteed the Nicaraguan government through the economic and military support they offered us. I think the war would have happened in any event, but it acquired the dimensions it did because Nicaragua was trapped in the East-West confrontation and we Nicaraguans were divided, with some supporting the revolution and others against it. Yes, it was a civil war, although no less cruel and destructive because of it.
That’s the only interpretation that allows me today to speak with Nicaraguans who were on the other side of the street than I was in the eighties. And I don’t talk to them because I pardon them for having been mercenaries. I do so because they weren’t mercenaries; they were Nicaraguans like us, trapped in the conflict between two world powers. It’s no accident that the dismantling of the East-West confrontation at the end of the eighties facilitated the dismantling of the war in Central America, specifically in Nicaragua.
Fast-forwarding to 2007
Let’s now move to the most recent stage in our analysis of Nicaragua’s relations with the United States, the one beginning with Ortega’s return to government in 2007.
The first thing that needs to be said is that the contradictions of 1979, when the global political currents were antagonistic to the triumph of the revolution, no longer existed in 2007. There was no administration in Washington assuming an exacerbated position comparable to that of the neoconservative movement at the end of the 1970s and the 1980s. And in Nicaragua, independent of the questioning of the 8% fraud alleged to have permitted Ortega to win the 2006 elections, the model he brought with him represented no contradiction with either the conservative or liberal US currents, either in the administration or outside of it. That lack of antagonism explains the relative smoothness of the US government’s relations with the Ortega government over the past nine years and virtually up to now.
Ortega didn’t return to office in 2007 with plans to reintroduce any of the progressive characteristics of the eighties model. He didn’t come in with ideas about relaunching anything revolutionary, such as another agrarian reform. In fact, he has developed an agrarian counter-reform, a re-concentration of land in the hands of the group in power, a policy expressed recently in threats against the peasant lands along the proposed canal route.
Nothing flapped the US in all these years
What he did, and is still doing, is base his government fundamentally on an alliance with big capital, particularly finance capital. We don’t have what could really be called big capital given Nicaragua’s size, so it’s more accurate to say that his alliance has been with Nicaragua’s biggest capitalists, the traditional ones. That alliance, which is essential, certainly wouldn’t make waves in the relationship with the United States. Quite to the contrary, it smoothed them.
That economic model and the one he maintained in political society explains why Nicaragua was off the US government’s radar even though Ortega was back in power: the external irritants that explain the polarization of the eighties no longer existed. It also helped that there was no social force that could act as a counterweight to Ortega’s conservative policy and that Ortega had become an excellent student of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), complying with all its mandates. Not even Ortega’s relationship with Chávez generated a conflict with the United States, even though Ortega’s project was fundamentally underpinned by Chávez and the Venezuelan oil agreement. No economic policy caused any tensions, even Ortega’s privatization of Venezuela’s generous cooperation and his use of it for dark and clientelist purposes that fostered corruption.
Nor did any aspect of Nicaragua’s relations with Cuba create problems. Not even the announcement of the construction of an interoceanic canal got a rise out of the United States, presumably because Washington viewed it as unviable. The only thing that rankled a little was Ortega’s anti-imperialist discourse, and since it was contradicted by his practice, it was understood that he needed to talk a good line for his followers… and talk, and talk some more.
The electoral processes certainly had irregularities but were more or less acceptable because everyone who wanted to run could, so it all stayed at a manageable level. Admittedly the US responded to the fraud in the 2008 municipal elections by cutting the Millennium Challenge Account resources, and the repeat in the 2011 presidential elections caused then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to announce “severe scrutiny” of the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank loans to Nicaragua, but that scrutiny never happened and relations returned to their previous ripple-free nature.
During those years all stars were aligned in Ortega’s favor and things went very well for him, above all the flood of Venezuelan resources—US$500 million a year not controlled by anyone since it didn’t pass through the budget. The most that happened was that the IMF asked the Central Bank to be a bit more transparent about how that money was spent on the grounds that it “helps stability.”
Today’s disruption of relations is all Ortega’s doing
Only now, in mid-2016, for the first time since the end of the war, have contradictions been created with the United States by Ortega’s definitive dismantling of free, transparent, competitive and pluralist elections, replacing them with a farce that goes way beyond fraudulent. The factor that has begun to generate this friction is no longer an external conflict in which we are trapped. It isn’t based on Ortega’s now ebbing relationship with Venezuela, or his relationship with Cuba, which is today pitching its own game. It’s not even due to the purchase of tanks from Russia. Those external factors are barely even causing a ripple. This factor is totally endogenous, born inside Nicaragua: the decision of the group in power to impede an electoral process with at least a minimum of guarantees. It’s a break with the model that was the essence of Esquipulas and put an end to war.
A totally new situation has been created in the country ever since Ortega announced on June 4 that there would be no electoral observers; then a few days later ordered that the main opposition political party, the only one actually opposing his government in practice, be prevented from participating in the elections; followed that by unseating the elected legislative representatives from that opposition alliance and topped it off by finally announcing that his wife will succeed him in office. That in turn has begun to impact relations with the United States, just at the end of the Obama administration. I believe that if the relaunching of neocon¬servatism in the United States around the Republican Party, headed by Donald Trump’s candidacy, ends up taking power, it could reproduce a charged environment very similar to that of the eighties, albeit with many differences.
This internal factor has been destabilizing relations with the United States very quickly. We’ve seen the reactions in the US government in the past two months. A strong declaration by the Department of State in response to the expulsion from Nicaragua of two US customs inspectors; a travel warning to US tourists and other visitors, explaining that there are “sensitive” issues in Nicaragua; a State Department report with very concrete critical statements about corruption in Nicaragua’s Supreme Court and lower courts, the partisanship in the National Police and the unfair competition between potential investors in Nicaragua and those who invest enjoying favors from the group in power; and a bill just submitted by 10 Democratic and Republican congress people requesting that credits not be issued to Nicaragua by the international financial institutions unless there are free, transparent and competitive elections in the country. The latest reaction suggesting a serious chilling of relations between the two counties is the State Department communique of August 1 which “categorically urges” the Ortega government to hold free elections. All this static in US-Nicaragua relations, previously unseen in all the years Ortega has been back in office, indicates that the “tranquility” of the past decade has been altered. And this time it’s a consequence of the disruption provoked by Ortega.
So why did Ortega do it?
Why did Ortega decide to dismantle the elections? One might be tempted to ask how he could be so stupid… but stupid he’s not. I’m convinced Ortega only had two alternatives: either lose some of his power by continuing as he has all these years, holding fraudulent elections within a framework that up to now has given him some legitimacy, or lower the boom. The Borge & Asociados poll conducted before the blow against the observers only gave him 44% backing. Ortega knew there was no way he wouldn’t lose power if he maintained the electoral model of the last two elections, even with their limitations and fraud. His stars—all the factors that benefited him in previous years—were getting out of line. The drop in Venezuelan cooperation, the failure of his megaprojects, the fall in the prices of export products, the increasing discontent… I’m convinced he would have lost in truly free elections, but even with a certain level of fraud there was no way he could keep the absolute majority of 65 legislative representatives granted him by the Supreme Electoral Council in 2011.
Furthermore, in this context of unaligned stars, the possibility of establishing a dynastic succession would slip through his fingers for good if he lost any of the power he has accumulated. And that’s the chink he closed on August 2. His project includes establishing a dynastic dictatorship, and he had to decide who in his family would succeed him, his wife or one of his children. Given his natural illnesses, now that he’s 71 years old, the dynastic succession plan would end in tatters if he couldn’t ensure five more years of absolute power. In other words, I’m convinced Ortega suspended free elections not only because he didn’t want to lose any of his power, but also because he risked losing the chance to consolidate his family’s dynastic succession in another five years of government.
That opportunity was at risk for two reasons: the first is the problems he was having within the FSLN and the opposition that was consolidating. I don’t have a shred of doubt that broad sectors within the governing party oppose dynastic succession. The only ones who don’t are all the young kids new to the party who didn’t live through the Somoza family dynasty, who don’t know the history or have any experience of what it was all about. But there are still generations of Sandinistas who oppose it, and I’m not referring to those of us now in the MRS or who left the FSLN and remained independent, but to those who have remained loyal but draw the line at dynastic succession.
The second reason is external to his party: the National Coalition for Democracy, made up of the PLI, the MRS and other forces, was progressively positioning itself as an alliance capable of garnering a vote in rejection of Ortega. It was a real threat to his possibility of getting the number of legislative representatives he enjoys today, and could even have threatened his own continuation in government.
Ortega knows all this and also knows he doesn’t have the luxury of losing power. I see no other way to understand why he has acted this way. His calculation must have been along these lines: I’ll suspend the elections and do a mock-up, a farce, and with the gringos so involved in their own elections they’ll let it pass; the opposition forces are going to fall apart and everyone will end up adjusting without causing a huge fuss; there won’t be any protest; they’ll accept Rosario…”
Ortega has dealt citizens’ liberties a blow much like he did in 2005, nearly 11 years ago, when he eliminated the FSLN’s internal primary elections to avoid Herty Lewites challenging him for the party’s candidacy in the following year’s general elections. I experienced that inside the FSLN and can now feel that same attitude, that same Ortega style when the moment comes to make particularly costly decisions. In 2005, it was a three-point decision all at once. He did away with internal primary elections, expelled Lewites and his supporters from the FSLN and proclaimed himself the party’s presidential candidate, all in one blow with no discussion and no recourse. He then proceeded with the campaign and election preparations as if everything was normal. It felt very similar to now when he decided on no electoral observation, no genuine opposition party running, Rosario named as his successor, and his reelection guaranteed through his subordinates and “zancudo” parties. It’s a political decision based on a strategic gamble.
Not all the news is bad
I believe, and can feel, that we in the Coalition had succeeded in constructing an opposition pole, an organized force that already had the potential to electorally challenge Ortega. And it will have even greater potential if there’s another election in the short run.
One of Ortega’s failures that led him to decide to suspend normal elections is that he couldn’t cut a deal with us. He tried to make a pact with our Coalition—just as Somoza did with the Conservative opposition of the time and Alemán did with Ortega to assure stability and divvy up quotas of power with him. Ortega tried, but couldn’t do it, leaving that opposition pole consolidated and, I repeat, with the capacity to defeat him in new free elections that could take place in the near future. We have a political asset today: we’re Nicaragua’s main opposition force, the only one that has acted as an opposition in practice, that didn’t cut a deal and has honest, upstanding leadership. That’s both a problem for Ortega and a way out for Nicaragua. Contrary to what the official media say on a daily basis, I believe the opposition is strong and has the potential to run successfully in free elections at any time in the coming months.
What the US elections could bring
If Hillary Clinton wins in November, there’s no question but that the suspension of free elections in Nicaragua will complicate relations with the United States. The Obama administration found a way to give little relevance to the decomposing of the democratic path in Nicaragua, so Nicaragua wasn’t on the US radar. But I believe the issue of democracy will become relevant with a Clinton administration, given the characteristics of the segment of the Democratic Party that has most pushed her candidacy.
What will happen if Trump wins? I’ve just reviewed the Republican Party’s current platform, the document it contracted to be prepared as a basis for application if it wins. I had heard that Trump and his administration would be isolationists, and it may be true in an economic reading, in what it says will be done regarding free trade agreements, for example. But with respect to foreign policy, to the US projection in the world, the Republican Party’s approach is almost identical to the Santa Fe Document. The Republicans don’t even refer to Bill Clinton’s time. Their critique is focused on Obama and his first secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. According to the Republican platform, they amputated the manifest destiny mission of world leadership during Obama’s eight years; in particular they amputated the armed forces, limiting their capacity to fight both the specific enemies of the United States and global threats. The platform proposes relaunching US leadership in the international political arena. The Republicans’ criticism of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has been characterized as isolationist, but they aren’t even close to proposing it be dismantled. They are questioning why the US investment per citizen amounts to four times Europe’s per-capita investment. They’re definitely proposing that NATO be strengthened to deal with global threats, but they want the Europeans to pay an equivalent share.
My impression is that if Trump wins, a Republican-dominated Congress will play a more decisive role in shaping foreign policy and concretely policy toward Nicaragua. Given his trajectory, Trump himself will concentrate more on domestic affairs, particularly employment, the economy, “making America great again”… The “wall” he constantly talks about has to do with his economic vision, since he sees immigration as loss of jobs. That’s what’s central for Trump.
The Republican Party platform comes down very hard with respect to its foreign policy lines. For that reason, I see a strong probability of increased Republican pressure if Nicaragua’s electoral process is confirmed as a farce, the elections aren’t recognized, or abstention is massive precisely because it’s a farce.
It seems to me that the outlook with either Clinton or Trump will be tensions and conflicts with Nicaragua. And that will mean another star out of line for Ortega: he’ll start his third consecutive reelection with a difficult relationship with whichever administration wins in the United States. I think there’s a strong probability of the return of bipartisan policies toward Nicaragua, specifically agreements between Democrats and Republicans to promote certain actions here given the elimination of free elections because both parties could pressure for something very simple: the holding of free elections. Everything points in that direction,with the recent bill by ten congress people a first expression of this likelihood.
Still in the context of predictable bipartisan agreements, what Ortega decides to do will determine whether his relations with Russia become yet another irritating factor for whatever administration wins. Nicaragua’s purchase of Russian tanks is the least important, but if Ortega allows Russia to use one of its ports to allow the Russian naval fleet to rest and resupply, as Ortega has already offered, it could create problems because US foreign policy toward Latin America is still based on the Monroe Doctrine for both Democrats and Republicans, although they handle it differently.
There’s one aspect that hasn’t been analyzed so far that I think is important. While suspending free elections in Nicaragua is basically a blow to peaceful coexistence in the country and to its future perspectives, it’s also a blow to the Obama administration in the following sense. After so many years of a harsh US blockade against Cuba, Obama has staked his reputation on revising that policy, being tolerant, cooperating and opening bilateral spaces, trusting that political spaces will also open up little by little inside Cuba. But how can he convince US politicians who don’t share that trust or vision that it can happen in Cuba if smooth and relaxed relations of cooperation between the Obama and Ortega governments haven’t stopped a backpedaling of political and citizen freedoms in Nicaragua? What happened here could be seen as demonstrating the Republicans’ repeated argument about the fallacy of Obama’s policy toward Cuba, that relaxing relations shows weakness and won’t achieve any democratic opening. It seems to me that this angle must be taken into consideration because it’s going to provoke irritation in those sectors of the Democratic Party that have supported Obama’s opening-up to Cuba.
The only solution is new elections
I don’t believe Ortega is going to be able to sell Nicaragua’s November elections as legitimate, so his stars are going to get even further out of line. He’ll have greater tensions with the US administration. And the potential internal pressure that’s already starting to grow will get even stronger now that his wife has been named his running mate and his candidate for succession in power. There’s already a strong nucleus of an opposition force providing a political alternative capable of challenging him.
The important thing for the Nicaraguan people right now is to identify that the central problem is the suspension of free elections, and that they have to be held as soon as possible. Obviously it won’t happen in November, but it has to happen, and not after another five-year term of the dynastic couple. All of us who want a more democratic and just society in Nicaragua must concentrate our efforts on achieving it. All other roads will only lead to a deepening of the crisis in the country. If we can’t reveal the farce in November and force the government to hold new elections by delegitimizing and annulling the ones in November, the future looks bleak.
There’s simply no other solution. All other problems are secondary compared to the rupture that Ortega’s decision to close the electoral path has implied because the destruction of the democratization process we’ve been building represents a return to violence, backwardness and instability. Twenty-six years after Esquipulas, elections are again the solution, the key to the way out, the only key there is.
Víctor Hugo Tinoco is currently vice president of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) and was one of the National Assembly representatives elected on the PLI Alliance ticket in 2011 until they were removed on July 28.