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US 'Soft Power' in Latin America Continues to Plummet as Nicaraguans Elect Ortega

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The apparent electoral victory of Sandinista Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, despite threats and warnings from US officials, is another example -- perhaps the most extreme so far -- of plummeting US influence in Latin America. The election attracted over 18,000 observers and more than 1000 journalists, because of its historic and symbolic significance.


Ortega first came to power with the Sandinista revolution in 1979 against the US-backed Somoza dictatorship and was elected president in 1984. Although this is never mentioned in the press, there were over 400 observers there at the time from 40 countries, including the main organization of US Latin America scholars, the Latin American Studies Association, and they found the election to be free and fair. The Reagan Administration refused to recognize the election and continued to sponsor a terrorist war against the Sandinista government, destroying the economy of the country in the process. (Click here for a recent column describing this history).

In Sunday's election Washington pulled out all the stops to try to defeat Ortega's re-election. Four Republican U.S. Members of Congress threatened to cut off remittances sent home by Nicaraguans living in the United States, which is about the worst thing they could threaten short of an invasion, if the voters elected Ortega. The US Embassy in Managua also threatened economic sanctions on Friday. As a result of the 1980s war and a US commitment to reconstruction that was about as good as in Iraq (but without the money), Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the hemisphere and heavily dependent on US aid.

Nonetheless it appears that voters ignored these threats and elected Ortega anyway. With 40.45% of the votes counted, Ortega has 40 percent.  (He needed 35 percent with a 5 percent margin to avoid a second round). The Movement for Sandinista Renovation (MRS), a dissident Sandinista group which accused Ortega of anti-democratic practices, including his "pact" with the corrupt right-wing former president Arnoldo Aleman, seems to have gotten only about 7.5 percent, or about half of what it was polling just before the election. This may indicate that many on the left, once they realized that the MRS was not going to win, chose Ortega to avoid a right-wing victory. (It was widely believed that if Ortega did not win in the first round, he would lose in the second round because the right, which was split in the first round, would unite for the second round).

What makes the result most remarkable is the context of Washington's threats. In all of the other recent Latin American elections in which the Bush Administration had a strong preference, it remained silent before the vote: Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Cost Rica, and Mexico. In the October 29 election in Brazil, when for a brief period of time after the first round it appeared that centrist PSDB candidate Geraldo Alckmin had a chance to defeat Lula, the Bush Administration showed no sign of preference. (President Bush did intervene in Mexico after the vote was in, calling to congratulate right-wing candidate Felipe Calderon four days after the election, even though Calderon had not been elected yet). They had learned their lesson from the 2002 election in Bolivia, where the US ambassador denounced Evo Morales and thereby gave him a huge boost in the polls.

But Nicaragua is so poor and heavily indebted, and suffered so much violence from its 1984 vote for Ortega that U.S. officials apparently figured that threats could work. Of course, these are mostly empty threats: a cut off of remittances is extremely unlikely, as are other economic sanctions. This is not 1985, when President Reagan could state, as required by law for imposing a US economic embargo, that Nicaragua posed "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security" of the United States, and sadly, be taken seriously. And if there are loan cutoffs, Nicaragua could now borrow from Venezuela, as Argentina, Bolivia, and other countries have done recently. The press has also made much of threats that foreign businesses would pull out of Nicaragua if Ortega won, but this is equally doubtful: these businesses are making money there and will continue to do so under an Ortega presidency.

* * * * *

In related news, Venezuela and Guatemala ended a long standoff as to who would represent Latin America for a non-permanent seat on the UN Security Council. Last week they agreed on Panama as a consensus candidate for the region. Venezuela's failure to get a majority of votes from the General Assembly (it needed two-thirds to win) was widely hailed in the press as a victory for the Bush Administration  -- which openly backed Guatemala - and a defeat for President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, the Administration's "new Cold War" nemesis.

In reality it was neither. This "defeat" was analogous to what happens when organizers of a demonstration predict that a million people will show up and they only get 200,000. Almost everyone, including the Miami Herald, was predicting that Venezuela would get at least a majority of the votes. The last vote count, the 46th round of voting, was 101-79 in favor of Guatemala. Still, the fact that the vast majority of Latin
America openly endorsed and voted for Venezuela, even after Chavez called President Bush "the Devil" in his UN speech, has to be seen as quite a slap in the face for the Bush Administration.

The early endorsement of Venezuela by the Mercosur countries (Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay), when the Bush Administration was warning and pleading with everyone in the region not to do so, was an act of defiance comparable to Mexico's refusal in the 1960s to support the US embargo against Cuba. The end result looked a bit like another "coalition of the willing" - with most of the United States' support coming from countries that were dependent on its aid (Colombia, El Salvador) or without an independent foreign policy (e.g. the European Union governments); and those who did not have to worry about US aid - e.g. China, Russia, India - endorsing Venezuela. A number of smaller countries - e.g. the Caricom countries - also endorsed Venezuela, but they took risks and some may have paid a price for doing so.

As the San
Francisco Chronicle
reported:

"But analysts say Chavez's loss also indicates that many nations are unwilling or unable to resist Washington's pressure.

"It's a very hardball kind of game that gets played here," said James Paul, executive director of the New York think tank, Global Policy Forum. "Everyone assumes that the United States knows how each country votes and will punish and reward them accordingly. . ."

Although the General Assembly voting has been secret, diplomats are well aware of media reports in recent years quoting British and American officials as saying that U.S. spy agencies conduct widespread eavesdropping against diplomatic missions at the United Nations.

"Everyone is aware that the United States listens in to all their meetings, phone calls and cables," Paul said. "And they know the United States has a lot of weight with the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, all kinds of mechanisms. The United States will push a few buttons and some country in Africa starts to hurt all of a sudden. It's an instrument they play all the time, like an organ with lots of stops, buttons and keys."

As a result, Paul noted, Venezuela is at a distinct disadvantage in its year-long global campaign of checkbook diplomacy -- countries receiving Chavez's oil largesse can cast their secret ballots against him with no fear that he will find out, while the United States can use surveillance to reward loyalty and punish disloyalty with precision and certitude."

The media made much of Chavez's "largesse" in winning votes, ignoring the fact that Venezuela's entire GDP is only about 1.5 percent of the United States' GDP.

- Mark Weisbrot