Whose Democracy is the US Supporting in Nicaragua?

In Nicaragua, the US government continues to flex its muscles to achieve an electoral defeat of Daniel Ortega in the November presidential elections. Ortega, president during the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s, is running for president for the fourth time since his first defeat in 1990. As in other parts of the world, the U.S. continues to tout its support of democracy as the justification for intervening in the internal affairs of a sovereign state, an act that is in itself inherently undemocratic.

In a recent interview in the Nicaraguan news magazine Confidencial, U.S Ambassador Paul Trivelli stated, “What we are trying to do is to support the democratic process, and tell people that in this country, in the electoral process there are antidemocratic forces and there are democratic forces.” Through his actions, however, Ambassador Trivelli has shown a strange understanding of the meaning of “support the democratic process”.

Take the present month of April as an example. On April 5, 2006, Trivelli sent a letter to several political parties offering to fund primaries that would result in one presidential candidate in order to increase their chances of defeating Ortega. When this offer was rejected by the parties, all of whom had already declared their separate candidates, Trivelli chose another tactic. In a highly publicized meeting, Trivelli met with the leaders of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC), many who have been stripped of their U.S. visas, and close associates of the party leader, former U.S.-supported ex-President Arnoldo Aleman, who has been convicted of embezzling over $100 million from state coffers. Trivelli urged the party to participate in an effort to defeat Ortega, which would include ditching their candidate José Rizo, chosen in internal party elections earlier this year. When the party refused to remove their candidate, Trivelli went back to his rhetoric denouncing the PLC, stating, “A party that is controlled by Mr. Aleman is still not in the category of democratic parties” He then met with Presidential candidate Eduardo Montealegre, former PLC member who split from the party. In a statement that barely fell short of endorsing Montealegre, Trivelli stated that he is the democratic choice for the presidency.

Trivelli’s recent actions prove that democracy is a fluid concept, one that applies when convenient for the US State Department. He negotiates with the PLC if it could mean the possibility of achieving an alliance to beat Daniel Ortega. When not successful, he reiterates that the PLC is undemocratic, another pressure tactic.

All of these actions then lead to the obvious question, “Why so much fear of Ortega?” In his rhetoric, Trivelli suggests that Ortega’s term as president from 1984 to 1990 indicates that he does not know how to govern democratically, as quoted in the in the Nicaraguan daily La Prensa, “Ortega already governed, and he did so badly.” Recent statements by both Condoleezza Rice and John Negroponte suggest that the fear is based on regional developments; that is, that Hugo Chavez from Venezuela is supporting Ortega, a longtime friend of Fidel Castro, in order to strengthen the relationships among leaders in the region.

Trivelli himself has stated that he would support anyone “elected democratically, who governs democratically, with a sensible economic policy and who is ready to cooperate with the United States on security issues.” Although Ortega’s rhetoric frequently challenges the role of the US in Nicaragua, in recent years, he has proven to be more a political opportunist than an ideologue or potential threat to the United States. He has not said that his government would renege on current IMF loans or otherwise alter the US-supported neoliberal reforms that the US define as “sensible economic policies”. Regardless, it should be the Nicaraguan people, not U.S. policymakers, who decide whether or not he deserves a second term in office.

Beyond Trivelli’s wavering definition of democracy, however, is the issue of Nicaraguan sovereignty and United States’ interference in Nicaragua’s internal politics. Why is a U.S. official attempting to form an electoral alliance in another country? Trivelli demonstrates his arrogancy and hypocrisy by acting in every way to impede the development of democracy in order to promote “the unity of democratic forces”.

Since 1990, when U.S.-favored candidate Violeta Chamorro defeated Ortega in the elections, the US has been utilizing a much more subtle strategy towards Nicaragua and its neighbors than the military force of the 1980s. Having already shown these countries who is “boss”, the US only needs to send messengers like Trivelli to remind countries like Nicaragua of what happens if they should depart too far from U.S.-favored policy. The peace that remains in Nicaragua after 1990 is a painful, bitter peace: a peace in which officials such as Trivelli feel free to intervene in internal politics as if they were another actor in the Nicaraguan system. Perhaps a larger movement would be necessary to change this relationship of domination and dependence. But as a diplomat, the very least Trivelli could do is to demonstrate an iota of respect for the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that “it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State,” and a respect for the people of Nicaragua, who have the right to political processes.

BRYNNE KEITH-JENNINGS works as an educator work Witness for Peace in Nicaragua and can be reached at: nicaragua@witnessforpeace.org



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