September 15, 2007
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega's rhetoric is straining relations with Washington.
In recent weeks, President Daniel Ortega has accused Washington of terrorism, blasted President Bush as a tyrant, dismissed the Sept. 11 attacks as ''insignificant,'' mocked U.S. aid to Nicaragua and warned his police and military not to trust the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
Even after Washington sent $1 million and eight U.S. military helicopters as emergency aid after Hurricane Felix slammed Nicaragua earlier this month, Ortega issued only a cursory ''thank you'' to the United States and instead praised the ''extraordinary'' relief sent by his revolutionary brother in Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez.
Ortega's actions and rhetoric, a throwback to his days as leader of the Marxist Sandinistas in the 1980s, have strained but not significantly upset U.S.-Nicaraguan relations, according to U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli.
`THE LARGER SENSE'
''Obviously, we hear that rhetoric, and that rhetoric isn't helpful,'' Trivelli told The Miami Herald. ``But one has to look at the relation between the U.S. and Nicaragua in the larger sense.''
But that larger sense also has some people worried. In addition to establishing cozy ties with Iran and Venezuela, Ortega's seven-month-old government has taken a series of actions against several U.S. business interests, sparking new concerns of a return to the confiscatory policies of the 1980s.
Last month, the government embargoed a port storage facility owned by Esso Standard Oil, a subsidiary of U.S. oil giant Exxon Mobil, arguing that the company owed back taxes. But subsequent comments from several high-ranking administration officials suggested that the real motive was to force Esso to ''reconsider'' its previous refusal to accept oil shipments from Venezuela's leftist president.
While Chávez has offered the discounted oil to the Ortega government, Esso controls most of the oil facilities in Nicaragua, from seaport offloading facilities to storage tanks and a small gasoline refinery in Managua.
The shock of the takeover, coupled with several recent land invasions by landless peasants at high-end coastal development projects, has sent reverberations through the Nicaraguan investment sector.
Investment consultant Raul Calvet said that some government actions have created some ''disorienting moments'' and confusion about where the administration is going. But, Calvet added, the government has ``always been very open and positive about trying to clarify and resolve any problems.''
Ortega's first term in office in the 1980s was defined by experimental Marxist policies, property seizures, capital flight, media censorship and a crippling war against the U.S.-backed contra forces. Yet last year he was reelected on promises of peace, reconciliation and full respect for private enterprise and property.
Some U.S. investors have nothing but praise for the new Ortega administration. He ''has an open attitude toward direct foreign investment and to U.S. investors, and that has given a lot of people a lot of confidence,'' said New York investor Don Bosco, who is heading a massive project to build an Atlantic-Pacific freight railway known as the ``dry canal.''
U.S. concerns represent the leading source of investment in Nicaragua, and the United States is Nicaragua's principal trade partner, a position that was ratified last year with the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). Nicaragua's exports to the United States increased 17 percent during the first year of CAFTA.
The Ortega government has insisted it will strengthen relations with the United States, and its efforts in past months to resolve pending property claims from the 1980s led to the Bush Administration's quiet renewal in July of the waiver to allow Nicaragua to continue receiving U.S. aid.
The Bush Administration also has played down concerns over Ortega's relations with Iran and Venezuela.
''Regarding Nicaragua's relations with other countries, we believe this is the sovereign decision of Nicaragua,'' U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Shannon said in July.
Ambassador Trivelli notes that the relationship between the U.S. and Nicaragua has become multilayered, complex and institutional over the last few decades, and it's not something that will fall apart just because of one Ortega outburst or government action.
In an event that seemed to illustrate the complexity of the relationship, Trivelli recently donated $510,000 to help the government modernize the same port where Esso's holdings were embargoed and where, two decades ago, the Reagan administration mined the harbor in support of the contra guerrillas.
''I think our commitment and our pledge is to the Nicaraguan people,'' the ambassador said.
``We understand the importance of trying to reinforce their democracy, growing trade, improving security and investing in health and education. And really that is what the relationship is about at this point in time.''