Imagine the following: you and your family decide to remodel your kitchen. Your neighbor, also the principal at your children’s elementary school, hears of the plan and immediately states his opposition. He argues that the remodeling project is not the sort of investment your family needs and hints that carrying it out would jeopardize his friendship. Deciding to move ahead with the remodeling anyway, you and your family begin removing the kitchen cabinets one day, but are interrupted by a knock at the door. Your neighbor enters and grimly announces to the entire family that if the remodeling is carried out as planned, he will see to it that your children do not pass another grade in his elementary school.
Your neighbor’s behavior, however far-fetched it may seem, is no more ridiculous or offensive than the treatment U.S. political figures have been giving their neighboring Nicaraguans in the last several days. Nicaragua is currently gearing up for its national elections on Sunday, November 5. For the last year, Nicaragua’s complicated electoral panorama has been further convoluted by a string of U.S. representatives endeavoring to ward off an electoral victory by Sandinista (FSLN) leader and former president Daniel Ortega. U.S. officials have publicly censured Ortega, attempted to unify his opposition, and threatened that an Ortega win would endanger U.S. financial support. The continuous intervention, however, has failed to unite Nicaragua’s divided right or significantly detract from Ortega’s base. Now U.S. meddlers are flustered and desperate in the face of recent polls revealing that Ortega is within a few percentage points of clinching the presidential office.
In a last-ditch effort to undermine Ortega, U.S. Congressman Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the House’s International Relations Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigation, sent a letter on Friday, October 27, to Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security. Rohrabacher enjoined Chertoff “to prepare in accordance with U.S. law, contingency plans to block any further money remittances from being sent to Nicaragua in the event that the FSLN enters government.” The nearly half million Nicaraguans currently living in the U.S. send around $500 million each year to their family members in Nicaragua, according to Nicaraguan economist Nestor Avendaño.
Nicaraguans have reason to believe Rohrabacher may not be bluffing. In the buildup to Nicaragua’s 1990 elections, the United States promised Nicaraguan voters that it would continue fueling the decade-old contra war and maintain its economic embargo on Nicaragua, both of which were wreaking havoc on Nicaragua’s economy, if Daniel Ortega were reelected as President. Beleaguered by a crippling war, food rationing, and empty supermarket shelves, Nicaraguans opted for U.S.-backed Violeta Chamorro over Ortega. Satisfied, the U.S. then released its stranglehold on the Nicaraguan economy.
Seeing that the FSLN now has a chance to return to power, Rohrabacher seems eager to once again target Nicaraguans’ stomachs with callous pressure. Thousands of Nicaraguan families depend on remittances to augment the meager wages paid for picking coffee, sewing jeans in assembly factories, or selling water at intersections. In an economy sacked with underemployment, stagnant salaries, and rising costs, remittances keep Nicaragua afloat by generating an income equivalent to 70% of the country’s total annual exports, according to the most recent estimates. Avendaño projects that a U.S. embargo on remittances would prove as disastrous for Nicaraguans as the U.S.-imposed trade embargo of the 1980’s. Once again, the hardest hit would be the impoverished majority.
Nicaraguan voters are not unaware of this reality. Nor is Rohrabacher, no doubt. Nicaraguans’ direct dependence on remittances is what makes his open threat particularly potent. In the face of a potential Ortega victory, Rohrabacher is striving to make longstanding U.S. interference more personal by pushing Nicaraguans to see a vote for Ortega as a vote against their own pocketbooks.
Rohrabacher’s letter is but one voice in a recent cacophony of U.S. meddling. Headlines of the last week have been laden with unsolicited U.S. opinions on Daniel Ortega and the sort of President Nicaraguans should want. The day after Rohrabacher sent his letter, Florida governor Jeb Bush authored a letter published in a La Prensa paid advertisement. Bush’s letter declares that Nicaraguans must choose between a “tragic step towards the past,” which he identifies as the “totalitarianism” of the Sandinistas, and “a vision towards the future.” Jeb Bush’s own vision for Nicaragua’s future is revealed at the bottom of the ad, where the Alianza Liberal Nicaraguense party, which is running the U.S.-preferred presidential candidate Eduardo Montealegre, is named as the ad’s sponsor.
Just a few pages away from Bush’s ad appears an article in which Adolfo Franco, USAID’s Assistant Administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, warns that a FSLN victory next week could limit USAID support for Nicaragua, citing worries that Daniel Ortega might significantly alter Nicaragua’s current economic model. USAID’s admonition piggybacks on U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez’s more explicit pressure in an interview publicized one week earlier. Gutierrez threatened that an Ortega win could preclude a $230 million combined investment from three foreign companies that would generate 123,000 jobs, a $220 million aid package promised through the Millenium Challenge Account, and implementation of CAFTA in Nicaragua.
On October 29, the day after printing Jeb Bush’s letter, La Prensa published an editorial by Otto Reich, former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, in which he accuses the FSLN of maintaining ties with terrorist groups, a claim that Reich does not attempt to substantiate. Though Reich does not currently hold a position in the U.S. government, he writes as if he does, stating, “If the Sandinistas control the government of Nicaragua, there will be strong pressure in Washington to review all aspects of the bilateral relationship, including remittances.” Reich equates a Sandinista victory with “a return to a past of poverty and international isolation.” Such a dismal outcome indeed seems likely if the U.S., as the party responsible for the isolation of the past, would implement Reich’s thinly cloaked threat of aid and remittance cutoffs.
Ironically, Reich precedes all the above statements with the disclaimer, “No one can tell [Nicaraguans] who to vote for.” Jeb Bush, Adolfo Franco, and other outspoken U.S. figures have similarly acknowledged Nicaraguans’ sovereign right to pick their own leaders. Unfortunately, such statements come across as meaningless niceties when subsequently contradicted with threats and admonishments against choosing a president not to Washington’s liking. As Nicaraguans make their way to the polls on Sunday, they must not only consider “What will this candidate do for my country if elected?,” but also “What will the U.S. do to my country if this candidate is elected?” As a product of relentless outside interference, this sad reality is profoundly undemocratic.
With numerous internal challenges posed by this election, Nicaraguans do not need to be further encumbered by fears of U.S. reprisal. If U.S. representatives truly wish to see free, unfettered elections in Nicaragua on November 5, they would do well to keep their mouths shut.
Ben Beachy is an educator with Witness for Peace in Nicaragua. Witness for Peace is a politically independent, grassroots organization that educates U.S. citizens on the impacts of U.S. policies and corporate practices in Latin America and the Caribbean.