Shades of Grey

December 17th, 2010

Nicaragua has endured a troubled history.  Behind only Haiti, Nicaragua is the poorest nation in the Americas.  Half of its population lives in poverty, a fifth in extreme.  The county is led by President Daniel Ortega, a leader among the Sandinista, a leftist political that advocated property redistribution while it ruled throughout the 1980s.  In many ways, Daniel Ortega is a contradiction.  While he is politically aligned with the Sandinista, he also has distanced himself from its Marxist past.  Ortega has denounced “U.S. terroristic aggression in Central America,” but ardently supported the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States.  In 2007 he asked the U.S. for $1 billion to fight drug trafficking; in 2009 he gave a speech to Summit of the Americas, berating America’s foreign policy, while U.S. President Obama sat patiently listening.

But Nicaragua’s past has been equally complicated.  Ortega’s anger toward America, and his simultaneous dependence on its economy, can at least be understood, while perhaps not quite justified.  The U.S. has provided funding and backing for revolutionary groups twice in Nicaragua’s history—first in 1909 when the U.S. backed rebels attempting to overthrow President Zelaya and again in the 1980s when the U.S. backed the revolutionary Contras, who sought to overthrow the leftist Sandinista government.  Between these two episodes, the U.S. Marines occupied Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933, partly out of the political motivation for control of the proposed Nicaragua Canal.

I give this history because I believe it would be unfair to judge Ortega’s—and ultimately Nicaragua’s—attitude toward foreign terrorism without these historic points of reference.  There is no “good” or “evil” in this story.

Some actions have recently come to light, from the U.S. State Department cables leaked by the now infamous—and equally complicated—organization WikiLeaks.  According to the cables, in the 1980s Ortega “invited international terrorists from Italy, Lebanon, Libya, the Palestinian territories, and Spain to come to Nicaragua and use it as a base for operations.”  In 2008 he attempted to form closer ties to Iran, calling it Nicaragua’s “revolutionary soul mate” because in both countries revolutionaries toppled the regime in power in 1979.  More recently he allegedly received a suitcase full of cash while on an official trip to Venezuela.

But there has been one more leaked cable of note and this one is much darker.  In this document a State official accuses Ortega of taking “bribes from drug traffickers in exchange for freeing suspects.”  According to the cable, Sandinista officials use bribes to pay judges to allow apprehended traffickers go free.  And this corruption isn’t occurring informally among low-level officials and their judicial counterparts; it is systematically run by the director of the state security service and overseen by Supreme Court judges.

This is neither understandable nor excusable.  The Nicaraguan government has, quite literally, sold both its country’s stability and the lives of many of its people.

Throughout our lessons in history, we see moral ups and downs on all sides.  It is impossible to say that the U.S. superpower is unequivocally justified or that “rouge” states are universally wrong.  When it comes to foreign policy, there often is no black and white.  But in other areas of politics, morality sometimes is clear.  Selling criminals their freedom is wrong.  It is not justifiable.  And unlike some other types of corruption, it has clear and decisive consequences for the innocent citizens who powerlessly watch on.

Written by Ann Hollingshead

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