On Sunday, Nicaraguans will go to the polls to vote for president. If the surveys are to be believed, they will choose the incumbent, Daniel Ortega. Despite a constitutional prohibition against serving consecutive terms, he is the candidate of the Sandinista Party and the beneficiary of a ludicrous decision by his country’s highest court that ruled the prohibition was a violation of Ortega’s human rights and, at least on this count, the Constitution was unconstitutional.
Ortega is flush with money from another anti-American political boss, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and he faces a fragmented and poorly funded opposition. He has also manipulated the voter rolls, enjoyed a near-monopoly on media advertising, spent lavishly on small gifts to potential voters, and put off until late August inviting international observers, ensuring that their presence is more cosmetic than productive.
But why care? Nicaragua is, after Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Its gross domestic product of $6.5 billion is less than ExxonMobil’s quarterly profits. Militarily weak and with a history of chaotic politics, the country is of scant economic or geopolitical importance to the United States, or to anyone else. It threatens no one.
Yes, the country serves as a trans-shipment point for cocaine, and its armed forces lead the region in drug interdictions. But the United States is awash in illegal narcotics. If a few more kilos of cocaine were to arrive on our shores because Nicaragua decided to ignore drug smuggling, it would have little effect on the price and availability of cocaine.
Yes, the Ortega government maintains amicable relations with Iran and eagerly joins Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia in their anti-American jeremiads. It expressed solidarity with Moammar Gaddafi until his death, and it continues to excoriate NATO for its role in his demise, but this seems just an exercise in rhetorical self-gratification. And although the Sandinistas have given succor and refuge to members of FARC, a gang of Colombian terrorists, there is nothing to suggest that they have taken an active role in the group’s barbaric behavior.
Ortega may sympathize with the idea and ideals of any putative revolutionary movement, and he enjoys praising them publicly, but he is sufficiently pragmatic to avoid direct involvement. Now wealthy and likely to remain in office for years, he will do nothing to jeopardize his comfort, power and future.
So why should the United States care about Nicaragua and its elections?
First, we have values, and among these are free and fair elections, the rule of law and a governmental architecture of checks and balances. We call this liberal democracy. Ortega would regard it as a bourgeois contrivance, something to be endured but not embraced. If we fail to promote these values, then we lose some of our ability to attract through example, what Harvard professor Joseph Nye described as “soft power.”
We don’t have to be perfect in our efforts to apply these values at home, nor should we expect perfection from others, but we must be consistent in calling for efforts to establish them everywhere. We have denounced authoritarian and nepotistic governments throughout the Middle East, and this has earned us gratitude and respect. Why shouldn’t we do the same in Nicaragua? To be sure, circumstances differ there, where a fragile democracy exists but is in danger of coming apart. But Ortega would emulate the type of leader that we saw in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia, where a strongman held sway with family and friends for decades.
Second, there are Nicaraguans who share our commitment to democracy and human rights. A few are among the opposition politicians and in the media, but most belong to civil society organizations. Despite intimidation and harassment, despite personal risks inconceivable to an American, they persist in their advocacy. They have proven resilient and self-reliant. In addition to some modest financial support for training and education, which the United States and others have provided over the past decade or so, they need our encouragement and moral support.
Finally, the Nicaraguan people, especially the poorest, deserve our attention. They have endured hardship and abuse, have had to overcome outrage and neglect, but have not lost hope. We may think that when people struggle to feed their families, clothe their children, and find adequate shelter, democracy and human rights are of little moment. But anyone who speaks to impoverished Nicaraguans knows they have a keen appreciation of politics.
After the Sandinista government stole over 30 mayoral elections in 2008 and the United States terminated a generous aid program as a result, I visited many peasants who had benefited from our help. Although they regretted losing the money, they recognized that a government must conduct fair elections and respect the people’s preference as expressed through the vote. Most blamed the Ortega government, not us, for the loss of the program.
It is true that an authoritarian and anti-American government in Nicaragua poses no real threat to our security and prosperity, but if we are to remain faithful to our values, if we are to make real our ideals, we must support democracy there. Nicaragua matters because Nicaraguans, like people everywhere, matter. They deserve to live in freedom and with dignity.
The writer served as ambassador to Nicaragua from 2008 to 2011. He recently retired after 32 years in the Foreign Service.