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Ahmadinejad’s Little, Older Brother

Is there a competition now among some countries’ presidents to “out-Ahmadinejad” Ahmadinejad?

October 5, 2007

Is there a competition now among some countries' presidents to "out-Ahmadinejad" Ahmadinejad?

At the UN’s 2007 General Council meetings, the U.S. delegation attending the general debate of the United Nations General Assembly once again heard the United States denounced. It was described as “the biggest dictatorship that has ever existed” and the “latest in a long line of empires.”

Europeans also got a tongue-lashing as the descendants of those who “enslaved Africans and our forefathers” and emigrated to “become owners of what did not belong to them.”

This same speaker targeted the global economic order and called for nothing short of a global revolution to wrest power from the hands of the neo-colonialists.

Lest you think these lines are from Iran’s President Ahmadinejad — think again. They were uttered by an erstwhile revolutionary firebrand — and cold war enemy of the United States: Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega.

As you may recall, Ortega first ruled Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 after the Sandinistas overthrew long-time dictator Anastasio Somoza. Over the next 16 years, Ortega tried to stage a comeback, finally succeeding by winning Nicaragua’s November 2006 elections with 38% of the vote.

Now, in recent months, there has been quite a bit of news reporting and analysis that the former hot-head had considerably cooled down his rhetoric. However, his recent UN speech certainly does not seem to vouch for that.

He even blasted the UN itself for continuing the enslavement and impoverishment of the world’s poor on behalf of global capitalism, “a beast with tentacles everywhere.”

Mr. Ortega probably felt his revolutionary identity was being challenged. After all, he was Nicaragua’s president when today’s revolutionary headliners — whether Iran’s Ahmadinejad, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales or Ecuador’s Rafael Correa — were still complete nobodies, more or less.

And yet, Nicaragua’s cooler mindedness became publicly apparent almost as soon as their president had spoken in New York City. While some Nicaraguans were proud, most expressed concern, or even alarm.

How is the president of a country that depends on foreign assistance from developed countries to feel completely free to say what he wants about donor countries in such a public assembly?

On the very subject of international aid, Ortega had been scornful in his speech. “What is called assistance is really paying back the debt that is owed to our people,” he emphasized.

And while assistance comes in one door, wealth flows out the other, as multinational corporations “ransack” developing countries through institutionalized oppression. Under such a ruthless system, Ortega sees no way out for developing countries, or even the poor within the developed world.

The morning after Ortega’s UN speech, Nicaragua’s two major national newspapers, El Nuevo Diario and La Prensa, carried lead stories about the speech.

La Prensa, the more conservative of the two, argued that Ortega ignored the plight of the 180,000 victims of Hurricane Felix by not focusing his speech on the needs of the indigenous communities on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast that were devastated by the category five hurricane in early September 2007.

Monseñor Sandigo, an important religious authority in the country, expressed the concern of many by stating, “We’re not Venezuela…we are a poor country that does not have the luxury of alienating ourselves from the countries that can help us.”

Within two days of Ortega’s discourse, members of opposition parties, business leaders and religious officials had all denounced Ortega for “attacking the very countries that provide assistance to Nicaragua without taking into account the fact that 40% of the national budget comes from international aid.”

With the UN having just put out a call on Nicaragua’s behalf for nearly $40 million in emergency support for the victims of Hurricane Felix, many felt that Ortega’s timing was particularly unfortunate.

In blogs associated with both of Nicaragua’s papers, the debate around “the speech” has been heated. While there are certainly many — in fact, the overwhelming majority — who are ashamed of Ortega’s words and politics in general, a few posts stand apart from the rest.

These bloggers — some who support Ortega’s analysis of the international system and some who do not — are united in defending the right of the Nicaraguan president to opine on world politics and not just stand before the international community with his hand out.

They point to the role of the international community in increasing poverty in Nicaragua. And they wonder if trying to change that system might be more productive than silently accepting aid every year, along with its conditions.

The speech also created a buzz among ex-pat business owners and real estate speculators in Nicaragua’s tourism capital, Granada.

Though tourists continue to arrive at a steady clip, many worry that Ortega’s revolutionary rhetoric will remind people of Nicaragua’s war-torn past — and scare away all but the most intrepid of tourists and investors.

One European restaurateur was overheard saying, “It’s time to take Ortega out.” Luckily, most Nicaraguans seem to be more tempered in their response and are calling for change using only constitutionally approved means.

Defenders of free speech must believe that the President of Nicaragua has the right to speak his mind. However, pragmatists might adopt a more cautious stance. How will donor countries, and in particular, the United States, react to last week’s speech?

While it is unlikely to jeopardize any aid that has been committed for the victims of Hurricane Felix, might it have a more subtle effect on international investment — or the fragile but growing tourism industry in Nicaragua? Only time will tell.