Both Hugo Chavez and George Bush made it clear who they wanted to be Nicaragua's next president. But Chavez never threatened to punish Nicaraguans if they didn't vote his way. Unlike Washington, Caracas offered all carrot and no stick. Their different approaches speak volumes to why the U.S. is so distrusted in Latin America.
Both Hugo Chavez and George Bush made it clear who they wanted to win last week's presidential election in Nicaragua: the first backed Daniel Ortega, the ex-guerrilla and Sandinista leader; the second, conservative banker Eduardo Montealegre. But the difference in the way each supported their candidate says much as to why the United States is so distrusted in Latin America.
Venezuela helped Ortega by selling cheap oil with long-term, low-interest credit to Nicaraguan municipalities, a popular move since the country is gripped by a severe energy crisis. Caracas also donated tons of fertilizer and provided free eye surgery to hundreds of cataract patients.
Chavez's critics pointed out this aid was nothing compared with what Washington gives Nicaragua, more than a billion dollars since Ortega was voted out of office in 1990. But roughly half of this aid goes just to keeping Nicaragua's bankrupted economy afloat, either in the form of debt relief or covering currency shortfalls, which in effect works as a subsidy to U.S. creditors and exporters, thus limiting its PR value. And of course this money pales in comparison to many billions of dollars of damage that Washington caused in Nicaragua with its devastating Contra War. In fact, the U.S. conditioned its financial assistance on Nicaragua abandoning its attempt to collect the estimated $17 billion that the World Court, in 1986, ordered Washington to pay to Managua as reparations for waging its illegal war against the country.
But the real difference is that Chavez never threatened to punish Nicaraguans if they didn't vote as he hoped they would. Caracas offers all carrot and no stick.
The Bush administration, in contrast, warned that an Ortega victory could bring aid cuts and trade sanctions, while Congressional Republicans said that they would pass legislation prohibiting Nicaraguans living in the U.S. from sending money home. Nicaragua is the hemisphere's second poorest country, and very heavily dependent on foreign aid and remittances; and such retaliation, if enacted, would be ruinous.
That Washington reserves this kind of intimidation only for small and powerless nations like Nicaragua as opposed to a country like Mexico, where it was careful not to intervene in last summer's election, only serves to reinforce the opinion of many Latin Americans that the U.S. is a bully.
Nicaraguans, having suffered multiple U.S. interventions throughout the twentieth century, are used to such threats. George H.W. Bush let it be known that if Ortega were to win the 1990 election, the Contra War would resume. In every vote since then, Washington has leaned on Nicaragua to keep the Sandinistas out of office.
So why didn't such heavy-handedness work this time? The White House and its allies blame Chavez for interfering in the country's electoral process. Yet compared to the U.S.'s domination of the country's economy, Venezuela's influence in Nicaragua is negligible. The simple fact is that Ortega is the single most popular politician in Nicaragua and the Sandinistas the largest political organization. And the reason for this popularity is Washington's absolute failure, after winning the Contra War to deliver on its thunderous promises to bring Nicaraguans humane development.
Jeane Kirkpatrick is one of those foreign-policy hawks who blame Chavez for Ortega's comeback. In the 1980s, as Ronald Reagan's ambassador to the UN Kirkpatrick defended the Contra War as part of a broader foreign policy that would both "protect U.S. interest and make the actual lives of actual people in Latin America somewhat better." Nicaraguans are still waiting for the second half of that pledge to be fulfilled.
Greg Grandin is a professor at NYU. He's the author of the recently published Empire's Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism.