By Jackson Diehl
Monday, October 20, 2008
This is a column about a country that has scarcely been mentioned in
the presidential campaign, that has disappeared from the American
press and that has essentially been forgotten by Washington -- which
is the oddest part of the story. After all, two decades ago Nicaragua
and its president, Daniel Ortega, inspired fierce passions here:
Democrats and Republicans spent most of a decade bitterly debating
whether to fund an armed opposition movement against his Sandinista
regime, and senior Reagan administration officials broke the law in
order to do so.
Ortega hasn't changed much. Back as Nicaraguan president since 2006,
he is denouncing the U.S. "empire," succoring Colombian terrorists
and cultivating alliances with Iran and Russia, which recently
pledged to supply his army with fresh weapons. Two opposition
political parties have been outlawed; gangs from the Sandinista Party
are assaulting opposition gatherings. This month, Ortega launched a
crackdown against nongovernmental organizations devoted to media
freedom, women's rights and poverty reduction. Police raided the
offices of a press foundation headed by Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a
journalist whose mother defeated Ortega when Nicaragua adopted
democracy in 1990.
Having overcome his lack of public support through corrupt
manipulation of the legislature and courts, Ortega is now dismantling
what remains of that democracy. According to a statement in support
of Chamorro that circulated last week, Ortega's "long-term project to
arbitrarily centralize power" has "increasingly taken on the
character of a family dictatorship." It added: "We call on the
international community to denounce these acts that so clearly
demonstrate Ortega's dictatorial designs for Nicaragua."
Here's the interesting thing about that statement: It was drawn up
and signed by a group of prominent left-wing Latin American writers
and intellectuals, such as the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and
the Chilean poet Ariel Dorfman. Meanwhile, the Bush administration's
State Department had nothing to say.
This is part of a strange pattern. Over the past several months,
Ortega has been repudiated by seven of the eight other Sandinista
leaders of the '80s and by most of their erstwhile fellow-travelers.
Noam Chomsky, Bianca Jagger and Tom Hayden have all denounced
Ortega's anti-democratic moves. European governments, including
Germany and Britain, have moved to suspend hundreds of millions of
dollars in aid.
The State Department has been silent. A bland statement in September
urged that upcoming local elections be fair; it said nothing about
the attacks on the opposition. The Millennium Challenge Corp.
continues a five-year, $175 million aid program, even though the
preservation of democratic institutions is one of its core
requirements. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has repeatedly
needled Vladimir Putin about the fact that the only country to follow
Russia's lead and recognize two Russian-occupied Georgian provinces
is Ortega's Nicaragua -- but she's said nothing about what is
happening in Nicaragua itself.
It's not hard to understand why the left is so angry at its former
hero. Although Ortega still proclaims himself a socialist and has
joined the regional alliance of Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, he regained
power through an alliance with a corrupt former right-wing president
and the Catholic Church -- and promptly supported a new law banning
abortion. That was the last straw for supporters of women's rights,
who have never forgotten Ortega's stepdaughter's allegation that he
sexually abused her. Then last summer Ortega picked a fight with the
revered leftist poet Ernesto Cardenal, prompting more than 60
intellectuals to release a letter "to protest the lack of
transparency, the authoritarian style, the unscrupulous behavior and
the lack of ethics that Daniel Ortega has shown since his return to power."
Why has the Bush administration appeared less perturbed? Well, the
lefties point out, Ortega's hatred for the empire hasn't stopped him
from exporting duty-free textiles to the United States under the
Central America Free Trade Agreement; or from signing a three-year
agreement with the International Monetary Fund; or from welcoming
$330 million in foreign investment into his country last year, much
of it from the United States. Though he is using millions in aid from
Chávez to build an ominous network of "Citizens Power Councils"
around Nicaragua, Ortega hasn't broken with the "Washington
consensus" on trade and investment.
In fact, say U.S. officials, the trade and aid programs are helping
to develop one of the hemisphere's poorest countries. Cutting them
off, they argue, would only play into Ortega's hands. Nicaragua
doesn't pose any particular threat to the United States. And the
lambasting the caudillo is getting from his former comrades is
probably more effective than anything the United States could say.
Fair enough, except that suggests the Bush administration doesn't
really mind if Ortega reestablishes a dictatorship that prompted a
previous Republican administration to mine harbors, fund a rebel army
and persist even in contempt of Congress. What was it, exactly, that
was so dangerous then -- and why doesn't it matter now?