No Se Puede

Daniel Ortega campaigns to become the United States’ least-favorite Latin American leader.

Daniel Ortega

The news from this weekend’s Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago was simple: “Hugo Chávez Behaves Self.” Yet few news outlets published the accompanying story: “Daniel Ortega Does Not.”

The Venezuelan leader was unusually gracious toward President Obama, cozying up for a photo op and even giving him some beach reading: The Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. The gift was pointed, no doubt, but the gesture was a stark contrast with Chávez’s usual rants about U.S. imperialism and Bolivarian revolution.

That, he left to Ortega. The Nicaraguan president took 50 minutes—he was allotted 10—to denounce U.S. aggression in the region, focusing in particular on U.S. support of 1950s Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza and its “illegal” sponsorship of the Contras in the 1980s. He also criticized the embargo on Cuba and asked why the island was not represented at the summit. Obama, he declared, is “the head of an empire imprisoned by rules he can’t change.” (The Summit of the Americas has still not posted a transcript of Ortega’s speech on its Web site—they say the Nicaraguan delegation has not provided one—and the Nicaraguan embassy did not return a phone call.) Obama, asked what he thought of the speech, reflected: “It was 50 minutes long.”

For Ortega followers, the speech was nothing new. It could have been delivered in 1988—and probably was. What’s different is the climate. Unlike George W. Bush, whom Chávez called “the devil” in 2006, Obama enjoys huge popularity in the Americas—even in Nicaragua. On Cuba, he has promised a “new beginning.” He also pledged to be inclusive in future policy discussions. “[T]he fact that a good idea comes from a small country like a Costa Rica should not somehow diminish the fact that it’s a good idea,” he said in Trinidad.

Latin American leaders seemed to respond. Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, a regular critic of U.S. economic policies, praised Obama’s “hopeful” tone. Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva described himself as “extremely surprised” by the comity after last year’s tense meeting. Even Chávez signaled a thaw by appointing an ambassador to Washington. They all seemed to grasp that cooperation is in—and that Obama is more popular than many of them in their own countries.

Ortega once seemed to understand the value of cooperation, too. During Nicaragua’s 2006 election, he ran as a moderate, ditching the classic Sandinista red-and-black color scheme for pastel pinks and yellows. He converted to Catholicism and made nice with longtime critic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. A new man, he made no mention of the socialist programs like land reform that defined his administration in the 1980s. That whole revolution thing? He was over it. Time to move on.

Since his election, however, Ortega has consolidated power. A new rule let candidates win the presidency with 35 percent of votes—the threshold had previously been 45 percent—allowing him to win without a runoff. He then pushed to overturn a law that restricts presidents to one term. The last straw came in the fall of 2008, when Ortega refused to allow independent observers like the Carter Center to witness municipal elections. Even Chávez admits when he loses.

Meanwhile, Ortega has shunned foreign aid from the U.S. and European countries in favor of an estimated $500 million a year in handouts from Chávez. (He has also turned to Russia for help.)As a result, Nicaragua has become increasingly dependent on the price of Venezuelan oil, which has not exactly been stable recently.

That dependence may have been at the root of Ortega’s speech. It gave Ortega his biggest pulpit in years—a chance to recapture his former glory—while making Chávez look chill and magnanimous by comparison. It was an international good cop/bad cop routine. A coordinated strategy? “There’s no doubt it was coordinated,” says Richard Feinberg of the University of California-San Diego, who attended the summit. In fact, Chávez, Ortega, and other leaders held their own meeting in Caracas last week to get their message straight.

Ortega likely saw the summit as an opportunity to return to the international stage. What he may not realize is the scenery has changed. In that respect, he and Obama are opposites. Whereas Ortega fixates on past battles, Obama is about assimilating experiences, drawing lessons, and moving on. Chávez is savvy enough to straddle the two mindsets: He gives Obama a book that looks backward, yet pledges to be part of a forward-looking solution. Ortega lacks that flexibility. And if he keeps talking as if it’s 1988, he just might make it so.