U.S. playing favorites in Nicaraguan election

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 internal affair.

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 countries.

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 say.

"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.


Another round

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 polls.

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 Carter Center.

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, Evo Morales.


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 of Miami.

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 Montealegre.

"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."

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