It was to be expected that the US ambassador to Nicaragua, Phyllis Powers, would offer a message of support to the outgoing Secretary of State, but it’s also to be expected that those disappointed by US policies towards Latin America in the Obama/Clinton period will be rather more critical.
Just looking at policies towards Nicaragua alone, we have seen little visible engagement with the Ortega government, and most of the substantive contact appears to have been negative. The ambassador calls Hilary Clinton a ‘friend of Nicaragua’ but has to reach back more than 14 years to provide any evidence. If we look at more recent interventions by the State Department, it is much harder to justify the claim.
For example, Nicaragua was penalised for its supposed lack of transparency about foreign aid, especially that from Venezuela. Yet respected independent economist Nestor Avendaño pointed out that not only has the aid been declared, but the Ortega government has been far more open in its budget-making than its predecessors, a fact recognised on more than one occasion by the IMF.
It’s true that the more important waiver relating to property transactions was eventually granted, after much hand-wringing, but we must ask why that waiver should still be necessary at all. The US organisation Witness for Peace has documented the effects of Nicaragua attempting to resolve these land disputes, which in many cases result from agrarian reform and involve people who were originally Nicaraguan. Surely the fairer distribution of land should be a process welcomed by a Democratic administration?
Looking more widely at Latin America, the Obama/Clinton period must be judged a failure. Rather than the new approach that President Obama promised on his first visit to the continent, it has been more of the same. Two issues stand out as being ones where Hilary Clinton could have taken a far more progressive stance, yet chose not to. First, Cuba continues to get treated as a terror state when even its critics would have to accept that regimes such as that in Bahrain (where peaceful demonstrations get violently crushed) or Uzbekistan (where government opponents have been boiled in oil) are far more deserving of that title. Yet both those states have received public support from the State Department while Cuba suffers the US’s interminable trade embargo.
But surely the State Department trumped even that policy failure when it refused to strongly condemn the military coup in Honduras in 2009? This was Clinton’s moment to show that US policy, so long associated with support for military dictators in the region, had at last changed. Yet her equivocation and reluctance to join the continent-wide condemnation of the coup was inevitably seen in Latin America as endorsement. She went on to accept the results of the subsequent elections, widely boycotted by those Hondurans who rejected the coup. Yet no election in Nicaragua, even at local level, passes without the close critical scrutiny of the US government.
Finally Ms Powers says that Hilary Clinton ‘has been a constant advocate for freedom of the press and freedom of expression’. While the State Department has been quick to criticise Venezuela and Ecuador (for example) for alleged violations of press freedoms, its approach to the same issue in Honduras can only be described as weak. Honduras has for the last two years held the dubious privilege of being the world’s most dangerous country for journalists, but continues to get US aid.
Shouldn’t a neutral observer of US policy in Latin America conclude that, by objective standards, it hardly differs from that pursued under the presidency of George W. Bush, and that Hilary Clinton must take much of the blame?
Original post and comments: Nicaragua Dispatch