Here we go again. It’s presidential election time in Nicaragua, which means that U.S. officials once again parade about making threats to Nicaraguan voters. As the country enters the final month before its November 5th elections, Congressman Dan Burton, Chair of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House´s Committee on International Relations, threatened in a press conference that if Nicaraguans elect former president Daniel Ortega, the U.S. could be forced to cut $175 million in aid through the Millenium Challenge Account and prohibit Nicaragua´s participation in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Burton also claimed that Ortega´s promise for the state to take over remittance services would result in families earning “much, much less money”--a grave threat for the many families that depend on remittances.
Burton´s press conference follows a clear pattern of several U.S. officials who have used veiled threats to steer Nicaraguans away from voting for Ortega, fifth-time presidential candidate. This meddling reached an extreme in Ambassador Paul Trivelli´s suggestion to fund primaries among the parties that oppose Ortega in April. In early September, Trivelli claimed that funds from the Millenium Challenge Account could be put in danger if Ortega were to be elected. U.S. officials are upping the ante in response to various polls that have placed Ortega in first place, ahead of runner-up Eduardo Montealegre, banker and U.S.-favored candidate. The opposition to Ortega, which in recent years united behind an electoral alliance in order to win the elections, is uncharacteristically divided.
The fear tactics that Burton used were an obvious attempt to sway voters away from voting for Ortega. Stating that “a return to the past…would put Nicaragua´s excellent relationship with the United States at risk”, Burton reminded Nicaraguans of the war-torn decade of the 1980s, in which the US funded a counterrevolutionary force to challenge the National Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) government, a revolutionary group that attempted a mixed-economy government. Ortega was president of the country for the FSLN from 1984 to 1990.
Burton declared matter-of-factly, “During the 1980s, under the government of Daniel Ortega, the inflation reached 33,000%…It was a very difficult time because thousands of Nicaraguans lost their lives…it´s important that the people know what can happen if the government returns to the kind of government there was in the 1980s.” By referencing this past, Burton is not only creating fear of Ortega, but also blatantly attempting to create fear of U.S. intervention in the case of an Ortega victory. Nicaraguans lost their lives and suffered run-away inflation not only due to Daniel Ortega’s policy decisions, but also because the United States funded an opposition force that created a civil war and imposed an economic blockade that crippled the Nicaraguan economy, contributing to the inflation. For a country whose war wounds are still not completely healed, the threat behind the reminder of the aggression that killed tens of thousands of Nicaraguans will surely be resounding.
Burton similarly threatened Nicaraguans with the loss of remittances, thus taking advantage of Nicaraguans’ economic desperation to bribe them into voting against Ortega. Referring to a campaign promise by Ortega to “make sure that Nicaraguans get 100% of their remittances” (usually private companies such as Western Union take out a healthy commission, hovering around 20%), Burton stated that a state-run remittance program would result in “families receiving much, much less money and a significantly reduced quality of life”. Remittances are the primary source of income for many families and for the country itself, equalling 16.9% of the country’s GDP in 2005 and 99% of the total value of the country’s exports.
Unfortunately, the most obvious casualty of these actions is Nicaragua’s sovereignty. The day after Burton’s comments, the Organization of American States issued a statement which declared, “The Electoral Observation Mission of the OAS in Nicaragua regrets that authorities and representatives from other nations intervene in an active way in the Nicaraguan electoral debate…the function of the international community is to cooperate with the Nicaraguan institutions and organizations so that the will of the people can be expressed in free, clean, and transparent elections.”
The United States has historically intervened in Nicaragua´s politics to ensure that Nicaraguan presidents do not go too far in challenging the United States´ economic dominance in the country. The U.S. cannot claim to support democracy around the world while it simultaneously undermines the democratic processes in sovereign nations such as Nicaragua. Nicaraguans, and only Nicaraguans, should decide who their next president should be.
Brynne Keith-Jennings, at Nicaragua@witnessforpeace.org, works with Witness for Peace in Nicaragua.