- By Siphamandla Zondi
Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega has won his fourth presidential term overall and his third successive term since his return in 2006. The prominent leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front known by its Spanish acronym, FLNS, won to the chagrin of Washington, which immediately said it was "deeply concerned" about this electoral outcome. It cited the fact that Nicaragua had not invited international observers, which the US did not also do for its presidential elections a week later. The real gripe is that Ortega pursues a socialist option for development in this very impoverished country, he speaks out against US policy in Latin America.
It therefore seems that for Washington the concern is not whether the outcome reflects the will of the people of Nicaragua but the US model of democracy for Nicaragua and it dislikes its critic. It is hard to see how this position is not part of the discredited Monroe doctrine by which the US conducted during the Cold War regime change interventions in Latin America, actions that turned the region into what Greg Grandin calls an "empire's workshop," the site where experiments in new imperialism were tested and perfected before being implemented elsewhere.
Grandin1 reminds us that even before this doctrine, Washington had "sent gunboats into Latin American ports over six thousand times, invaded Cuba, Mexico (again and again), Guatemala, and Honduras, fought protracted guerilla wars in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and Haiti, annexed Puerto Rico, and taken a piece of Colombia to create both the Panamanian nation and the Panama Canal." This imperial overreach intensified in the post-9/11 environment, using a lot more soft power (imperial designs by non-military means) than the hard power of military interventions, helping to fuel the mistrust of the political elite that Donald Trump has sought to manipulate to get the votes among US citizens threatened by the confidence of Latin Americans and others. Even liberals in the US began to recognize the necessity of imperialism as long as it was on the basis of soft power and they understood this as reluctant or light. The discussions about the reluctant superpower championed by the likes of Samuel Huntington come into the picture. It is clear that the Democrats in the US see things this way: a softer imperial power in contrast to Republicans' contemplation of the possibility of an assertive empire /superpower using both soft and hard power options.
Though the pre-election polls had put Ortega at between 55 and 60% all along, the victory is still seen as a surprise in the Western capitals because Nicaragua is defying predictions of a complete fall of the so-called left in the region. The surge of Donald Trump in a US election where Hillary Clinton, we have been told by polls and pundits, would win comfortably is more a surprise than Ortega and the FLNS. The victory of the Brexit lobby in the UK referendum too was a surprise because it was not anticipated by pundits. Ortega's win was anticipated for a long time.
This raises serious questions: what does the US and its Western bloc mean by their commitment to democracy in the world and claims that it is now a world of equals, allies, and partners? The conduct says we must be skeptical when the US, UK or France say their concerns are about democracy, human rights and ethics, for it is clear in many cases that this is meant only in relative terms; it means only a particular type of democracy that they prefer as part of their advance of the hegemony of Western civilization in the world. It is not democracy as the expression of the will of qualified citizens to choose a government of their liking. It is not democracy when it produces a leader like Ortega in Nicaragua. The human rights of Nicaraguans do not extend to their ability to choose the leaders they want or choosing the development path they like.
It also raises questions on the assumption that we have passed the logic of colonial, imperialist and Cold War eras. The idea that the 1990s marked the dawn of a new World Order, as George Bush once announced, is a myth, for the newness of this order is questionable. When you have a carry over of the imperialist and Neo-imperialist designs of the Cold War era that saw the US and the West impose governments on peoples of developing countries, impose neoliberal ideology on their economies and use development aid to advance the hegemony of Western culture as the norm in areas where alternatives and diverse options were desired, then the announcement of the end of ideology and a new world order are premature.
What has driven the Philippine president into the arms of China is not madness but the pain of being under an imperialist spell that is the US attempts to encircle China and Russia using countries of south, east and central Asia as well as Eastern Europe. What has made Ortega a success is that he has defied the imposition of models of development imagined in the West for experimentation with in developing countries, thus turning poor countries into Guinea-pigs for testing Western imaginaries and theories. There may be other factors too, but this is an important one.
The choice between various systems of government and development should be judged on results rather than a rigid commitment to the hegemony of one option. This is why the success of particular brands of capitalism in North America and Europe as well as other capitalisms in such areas as south-east Asia (Singapore, South Korea) and so forth is best judged on how many people got out of poverty and joined the ranks of people who live well. The combination of socialism and capitalism in China is to be judged on the same basis.
These options must be measured against what they do to improve the quality of life in each country. This, of course, goes beyond socio-economics because bread and water issues are not sufficient to give human beings satisfaction and to convince them to vote a party back into power, but it is a significant factor for the poor. They must feel proud, honored, recognized, valued, listened to as well. If a party or set of leaders offer them this, who is Washington to denounce their choice. This goes for all electoral outcomes everywhere including the recent election of Trump in the US or a future election of Le Pen in France or Boris Johnson in the UK.
The re-election of Ortega in Nicaragua is partly to do with the difference his government was also able to make in this regard and partly to do with weaknesses in alternative parties in winning the minds of Nicaraguans. If Ortega's government also denied them a chance to win these minds and restricted the space for them to sell their alternative visions, that is a matter that must be attended to as should be the case in dozens of other democracies the world over. Competitive party politics has this inherent in them that incumbents have an in-built advantage and can use their control over the state to keep an advantage, but they should not violate laws and generally accepted ethics in that country in doing so. Competitors also always had a gripe with the victory of an incumbent and sometimes this has to do with the idea that alternative parties are called opposition parties instead of parties for alternative and better visions.
The regional structures that Nicaragua belongs to and the UN have the legitimacy to advise Ortega if he acts in a manner that breaches the ethics of leadership and governance. It is not the duty of an individual state with narrow political and economic national interests in particular pre-determined models of politics and economic management for Nicaragua and its region.
Siphamandla Zondi is a professor in the Department of Political Sciences at the University of Pretoria.