In case further proof was needed that the Organization of American States (OAS) has become embarrassingly incompetent, witness its pathetic response to Nicaragua’s invasion of Costa Rica. On November 13, the organization passed a resolution calling for Managua to withdraw its military forces from Calero Island (located in the San Juan River). Nicaragua refused to comply, and its president, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, angrily threatened to withdraw his country from the OAS. As of December 7, when the institution hosted a meeting of foreign officials to discuss the matter, Nicaraguan troops were still occupying the river island, which has always been considered part of Costa Rican territory. Yet rather than sanction Nicaragua for its behavior, the OAS merely reiterated its earlier demands. It imposed no diplomatic penalty or punishment. This amounted to a whitewash of Ortega’s aggression.
The Obama administration recently performed its own whitewash when it agreed to give Nicaragua another $65 million in development funds through the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which was created by George W. Bush to reward poor countries that demonstrate progress on political and economic reform. Ortega, needless to say, is not a reformer: During his latest stint in the Nicaraguan presidency, the Sandinista boss has stolen municipal elections, trampled the constitution, harassed political opponents, pursued a strategic alliance with Iran, and used Venezuelan oil money to consolidate his power. Yet the Nicaraguan regime has now been promised more MCC funds, even though Ortega refuses to end his illegal military occupation of a neighboring country that does not have an army of its own.
Sending Nicaragua more MCC aid makes a mockery of everything the program is supposed to represent. The Sandinistas committed blatant electoral fraud during the 2008 municipal elections, prompting both the U.S. and Europe to suspend economic assistance. Then, in October 2009, Sandinista-appointed members of the Nicaraguan Supreme Court held an unannounced meeting without the non-Sandinista members and abolished a constitutional limit on presidential terms, thereby allowing Ortega to seek reelection in 2011. It was a raw power grab that underscored the thuggish, authoritarian nature of the current government. It also confirmed that the Sandinistas have not really changed since the 1980s, when they ran a Soviet-financed dictatorship with Ortega at the helm.
Back in those days, Nicaragua was by far the most explosive and divisive Latin American issue facing U.S. policymakers. The Reagan administration funded anti-Sandinista rebels (the Contras) in hopes of saving Nicaraguan democracy. That policy generated enormous controversy and nearly led to Reagan’s impeachment (after the Iran-Contra scandal erupted). When the Sandinistas finally did allow a free election, in 1990, Ortega was defeated. His return to the presidency in 2007 was facilitated by a corrupt political pact with Arnoldo Alemán, the disgraced former Nicaraguan president who spent several years in prison for embezzlement, money laundering, and other crimes. (Alemán was released in 2009, thanks to his sinister arrangement with Ortega.)
Today, with Nicaragua’s democratic progress under serious threat from a Chávez-like radical, U.S. officials seem relatively untroubled. Perhaps they are simply distracted, or perhaps they just don’t think Nicaragua (the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, behind only Haiti) matters much in strategic terms. In fairness to the Obama administration, its predecessor was not overly concerned with Nicaraguan democracy, either. In October 2008, when President Bush was still in the White House, Washington Post columnist Jackson Diehl noted that the Nicaragua had “essentially been forgotten by Washington.”
Such neglect has emboldened Ortega, who evidently believes that he can invade foreign territory without suffering any real consequences. The OAS, for its part, seems intent on proving him correct. Nicaragua’s military occupation of Costa Rica represents an ongoing challenge to U.S. leadership in Central America. Thus far, the response from Team Obama has been depressingly weak. One can only hope that White House and State Department officials will soon recognize the gravity of the crisis.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.