Nicaragua's 'Political Transvestite'

(International Relations and Security Network, 23/05/2007)


Just weeks past his 100th day as president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega has done very little for the average Nicaraguan.


Beyond Central America, he seeks approval from both the US and Venezuela, a divisive posture that threatens his credibility on both sides of the Washington-Caracas divide. Domestically, he has consolidated power but his activities lack substance. Worse yet, he risks discrediting his administration before it has even gotten off the ground by focusing on personal power first and the people second.


On 19 May, Ortega lashed out at the political opposition, represented by the three men who ran against him in the last presidential election. He called them imperial puppets, accusing them of receiving support from "you know who" in an effort to "unite the Nicaraguan oligarchy against the people." But many Nicaraguans are asking whether Ortega was talking about the people or about himself.


The thinly veiled rhetorical slap at Washington contrasts sharply with remarks made by Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Samuel Santos after a 19 April meeting with US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Santos claimed Nicaragua’s relations with the United States “improve every day.”


Rice and Santos want to deepen the relationship between Washington and Managua. Ortega, as a senator, did too when he led the vote to approve opening Nicaragua to free trade with the US. But as president, he has ordered his foreign policy team to maintain dialogue with Washington while he courts the anti-American element on the world stage.


It is a curious strategy of seeking personal recognition as a socialist around the world while cross-dressing as a free-market supporter and friend of the US when appropriate.


A month after Santos dressed the Nicaraguan president as US-friendly in Washington, Ortega received North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Hyong-jun, in Managua on 19 May.


Ortega has met with diplomats from Russia, Laos and Iran. Iran's ISNA news service announced on 11 May that Ortega would "soon come to Iran." Laos and Russia have both sent invitations.


Such geopolitical activity underscores Ortega's desire to reaffirm his socialist roots, but it does little to strengthen his relationship with Washington, a source of financial support important for the future of Nicaragua's economic stability and attractiveness in international markets.


Ortega does not appear concerned about how Washington views his relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. As a founding member of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), Chavez has promised Nicaragua a bright future in what he claims will be an organization to rival the International Monetary Fund (IMF), World Bank and Washington-led free trade agreements all in one.


Attending an ALBA summit in Barquisimeto, Venezuela on 28 and 29 April, Ortega was on hand to take part in the organizational meetings with Morales, Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro's representative. Promises of more oil followed. In early May, Ortega announced Chavez would send Nicaragua 100 million barrels of oil a year, up from 10 million barrels Chavez offered in January, though Nicaragua does not have the refining capacity to handle all that heavy crude.


While balancing his relationships with a bevy of anti-US countries and his pro-US posture, Ortega has focused on improving his domestic position. Ortega announced a zero-hunger program on 4 May, pledging an investment of US$30 million. Days later he announced the formation of an anti-illiteracy program that will cut illiteracy to just five percent of the population, down from 30 percent by 2009. No one appears confident of funding.


Ortega has also pledged to raise Nicaragua's minimum wage by 15 percent. Currently the wage of US$77 a month is not enough to live on, he claims. He is right, of course, and labor leaders are happy, even if the raise is 10 percent less than what they wanted. Again, pragmatic observers wonder where the extra money will come from. Ortega says he will tax the banks, a move that may scare off foreign direct investment. At the same time, Ortega has taken a tough stance against the IMF, whose members, after 10 days of negotiations, left Managua on 11 May with no agreement for a new loan.


Ortega has also distanced his government from Taiwan, traditionally a large donor in the region. But he has not yet stepped far enough away from Taiwan to encourage China to sweep in with its own donations.


True, many of his meetings and agreements with world leaders center on infrastructure, energy and social matters. Doubt shrouds these agreements, however, when it is clear that China, Russia, Iran and Venezuela all have ulterior motives, namely to reduce Washington's influence in the region.


Ortega knows Nicaragua is not a major geopolitical player in Latin America, so he is willing to risk Washington's ire in the face of what promises to be a boon of international support from a bevy of "non-aligned" international donors. Already, his feigned desires as a US supporter has earned him the title of a "political transvestite" inside Washington.


Ortega's run for greater recognition around the world has revealed a tendency to flip-flop between socialism and what his core supporters consider imperialism. It could work to undermine the very thing Nicaraguans expected from him when they put him back in power: to make Nicaragua a better place to live.


In 100 days Ortega has managed to stroke his own ego while dressing - and cross-dressing - for the appropriate crowd despite his heart-felt political beliefs. Improving the lives of his countrymen, however, will prove to be infinitely more difficult.