U.S. playing favorites in Nicaraguan
Envoys continue a pattern in region
of trying to defeat a leftist, but policy comes with risks
by John Otis
Houston Chronicle, http://chron.com/,
August 20, 2006
In Nicaragua, one of the smallest and
poorest countries in the hemisphere, U.S. envoys seem to be violating
what is often considered a cardinal rule of diplomacy: Never publicly
meddle in a host country's presidential election, the quintessential
The diplomats are loudly promoting a conservative
presidential candidate that the Bush administration favors while
working to undermine the campaign of a leftist politician it loathes,
according to analysts and former American envoys.
Washington's practice of pushing its political
favorites, they say, also has been evident in other Latin American
Though U.S. diplomats may discreetly advocate
for their preferred politicians, they risk expulsion if they go
too far in larger countries such as Colombia, Mexico or Venezuela.
But when it comes to smaller countries such as Nicaragua that
crave good relations and financial aid from Washington, U.S. officials
often go out of their way to influence the vote, the analysts
"It's pretty clearly understood that
an ambassador should not say anything about elections," said
Myles Frechette, who spent 35 years as a U.S. diplomat, most recently
as ambassador to Colombia. "That's wise because the United
States is big and powerful, and it does use its size to force
its will on Latin American countries."
Many experts say Washington's actions
are a response to President Hugo Chavez of oil-rich Venezuela,
who is openly trying to counterbalance U.S. influence in the region.
The Bush administration, which applauded a 2002 coup that briefly
ousted the Venezuelan, views Chavez as anti-American and anti-democratic.
As a result, the administration "has
become much more interested and overt about trying to see that
anti-Chavez candidates get elected," said George Vickers,
an analyst with the Open Society Institute, a New York-based foundation.
U.S. officials in Nicaragua, a country
of 5.5 million people, have launched a volley of verbal grenades
ahead of the Nov. 5 presidential election to discourage voters
from electing Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, who has been publicly
endorsed by Chavez.
It's not the first time Washington has
tangled with Ortega.
Two decades ago, after the Sandinistas
seized power in the Central American country, the Reagan administration
trained and funded the Contra rebels. In a 1987 radio address,
President Reagan said the Contra army was following "in the
best tradition of our founding fathers" and warned that the
Sandinistas had given the Soviet Union a beachhead "only
2,000 miles from the Texas border."
Three years later, the Sandinistas lost
an election to a U.S.-funded opponent and Ortega stepped down
as president, ushering in 16 years of democratic government.
Now, with another presidential election
heating up, American officials are promoting a pro-American candidate
while U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli has publicly branded Ortega
as anti-democratic - "a tiger who hasn't changed his stripes,"
Trivelli told Nicaraguan reporters.
In addition, American heavyweights past
and present - from Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and former
Secretary of State Colin Powell to Reagan-era U.N. ambassador
Jeane Kirkpatrick - have paraded through Managua to denounce the
Sandinistas and Ortega, who leads the five-candidate race in opinion
Writing in a Managua newspaper last year,
Roger Noriega, then the State Department's top diplomat for Latin
America, warned that should Ortega win, "Nicaragua would
sink like a stone."
'Visceral dislike for Ortega'
Relaxing in a rocking chair on a sweltering
afternoon after a packed campaign rally in the northern city of
Matagalpa, Ortega, who is now 61 and no longer espouses Marxism,
said that his government had better relations with the U.S. Embassy
in the midst of the Contra war. Back then, Sandinista comandantes
sometimes showed up at the embassy's annual July Fourth celebration.
"Even in the worst of times during
the Reagan administration, the U.S. envoy was careful with his
words," said Ortega, who was dressed in bluejeans and a Sandinista
baseball cap. "But the current ambassador acts like he is
the governor of Nicaragua."
Trivelli turned down repeated requests
for interviews, but high-level U.S. officials denied that they
are trying to sandbag Ortega.
"We see ourselves pushing the democratic
process," Thomas Shannon, the U.S. assistant secretary of
state for Western Hemisphere affairs, said. "It's all about
creating political systems that are open, transparent and inclusive."
Some analysts say the administration fears
that a Sandinista-run Nicaragua would add to Chavez's political
clout. Already, the Venezuelan leader has signed deals to provide
cut-rate oil and agricultural products to Nicaraguan cities run
by Sandinista mayors.
Others point out that Noriega and several
other current or former U.S. officials who helped forge Nicaragua
policy also worked in the Reagan administration and were fervent
supporters of the Contras.
"There's a kind of visceral dislike
for Ortega and for what he stands for," said Anthony Quainton,
a U.S. ambassador to Managua in the early 1980s.
In other elections around the region,
Washington has made it clear where its sympathies lie.
Across the region
In Venezuela, the U.S. government is funding
pro-democracy groups in the run-up to December's presidential
election, in which Chavez is running. Some of the groups, including
Sumate, which was instrumental in organizing a 2004 recall election
against Chavez, openly oppose the Venezuelan leftist.
In Mexico, President Bush and U.S. Ambassador
Tony Garza quickly congratulated the ruling party's conservative
candidate, Felipe Calderon, as if his apparent razor-thin victory
over leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador in last month's presidential
election was a done deal. But Lopez Obrador refused to concede
defeat. He encouraged thousands of protesters to camp in Mexico
City's downtown and is demanding a complete recount.
In Peru, U.S. officials shared private
polling information this spring about voter attitudes with conservative
presidential candidate Lourdes Flores, according to Vickers, the
Open Society Institute analyst who is a longtime observer of Latin
American politics. Alan Garcia, a center-leftist, eventually won.
In Colombia, the U.S. ambassador appeared
to endorse a constitutional amendment allowing President Alvaro
Uribe, Washington's closest ally in the region, to seek re-election.
The proposal passed; Uribe won in a landslide last May.
"You're damned right we wanted Uribe
to win," said Frechette, the former ambassador, pointing
out that the Uribe government has received nearly $3 billion in
aid from Washington to fight drugs and guerrillas.
Noriega, the former State Department official,
said diplomatic standards are different for different countries.
"It's a political calculation,"
he said. "Probably the best way to help in the case of Nicaragua
is to speak out while the best way to advance your interests in
other countries is to be as quiet as you can."
Plans don't always work
A key goal of U.S. policy in Latin America
has been to strengthen democratic institutions, but many political
analysts say Washington's efforts often reinforce the dependence
of Nicaragua and other small nations on the United States.
"Their first instinct is to look
to outsiders to solve their problems," said Jennifer McCoy,
a veteran electoral observer in the region for the Atlanta-based
But partly because the Bush administration
is unpopular in many Latin American countries, its diplomatic
arm-twisting doesn't always work.
Sometimes the "wrong" candidate
ends up winning, "and then you have to deal with him, and
it's very difficult to build any kind of a relationship,"
said Stephen Johnson, a Latin America expert at the Heritage Foundation.
To many observers, the classic case of
diplomatic blowback stands as the rise of Bolivia's leftist leader,
Could it backfire?
Shortly before the country's 2002 presidential
election, U.S. Ambassador Manuel Rocha delivered a scathing address
denouncing "those who want Bolivia to once again become a
major exporter of cocaine.
The speech was portrayed in the Bolivian
media as a slam against Morales, then a union organizer of growers
of coca, the main ingredient of cocaine. Some of Morales' rivals
denounced Rocha, and Morales, who had been languishing in the
polls, nearly won the vote. He was elected president when he ran
again last December.
"The support that the U.S. Embassy
gave Evo was, as Mastercard says, priceless," said Bruce
Bagley, a professor of international studies at the University
Some experts say Washington's fixation
with Ortega could also backfire.
During a visit to Managua in June, Shannon,
the State Department's top official for Latin America, snubbed
Ortega and met with Eduardo Montealegre, an investment banker
also running for the presidency.
Meanwhile, U.S. Ambassador Trivelli encouraged
the badly divided Constitutional Liberal Party to hold a primary,
a move seen here as an effort to unify the rightist party behind
"This is excessive," said Michael
Shifter of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington.
"Even if Montealegre does win,"
Shifter said, "he'll always be seen as the candidate the
gringos put in."