REVIEW: Article

Report on the Mission to Venezuela, Colombia and Nicaragua

The Council of American Ambassadors selected Venezuela, Colombia and Nicaragua for its 2006 fact-finding mission for three reasons: first, to show that, despite heavy focus on the Middle East, the United States (US) was very definitely concerned with the problems and opportunities of Central and South America; second, we wanted to see at first hand if the reports on Venezuela becoming a totalitarian country were accurate; third, knowing of the anti-American activities flowing from Venezuela’s President Chávez, we hoped to provide the antidote of some “feet on the ground” US Public Diplomacy. 

The scholarly work of our rapporteur, Marcos Gonzalez, with input from delegation members, follows this introduction but, on a personal note, our mission revealed a region requiring major US attention best characterized by our final meeting in Caracas with an elected anti-Chávez politician, who described the fourth unsuccessful assassination attempt on his life by relating how his bodyguard died in his arms from bullet wounds.


* * *

The Council of American Ambassadors sponsored a mission to Venezuela, Colombia and Nicaragua from September 17-27, 2006. The delegation of seven ambassadors, joined by an additional two in Colombia, visited Caracas, Bogotá, Managua and León.[1]

The objective was to examine the current political, economic and social climate of each nation and the state of its relations with the United States. In this year of significant electoral flux in the Western Hemisphere, election systems, candidates and political parties merited particular scrutiny in Nicaragua and Venezuela, as did the condition of Colombia’s newly re-elected President and his ongoing struggle with three terrorist groups.

The delegation benefited from briefings by US Ambassadors William Brownfield (Venezuela) and Paul Trivelli (Nicaragua) and Deputy Chief of Mission Milton K. Drucker (Colombia), as well as high-level meetings with host country government officials, political party representatives and candidates, aid and social justice workers, business representatives and political analysts.

Interlocutors in Venezuela included: Dr. Alfredo Keller, President of Alfredo Keller and Associates, a polling firm; H.E. Manuel Rosales, Governor of Zulia State and unity opposition presidential candidate; H.E. Julio Viloria, Vice Minister of Regulation and Control in the Ministry of Finance; H.E. Enrique Rodríguez, Executive Director of the School of Social Management Foundation in the Ministry of Planning and Development; Ali Moshiri, President of ChevronTexaco Latin America Upstream; H.E. Leopoldo López, Mayor of Chacao Municipality; Feliciano Reyna, President of Sinergia, a consortium of civil society organizations; H.E. Tibisay Lucena, President of the National Electoral Council; and General Alberto Müller, Military Advisor to the Presidency.

In Colombia, the delegation met with H.E. Carlos Holguín, Minister of the Interior and Justice; H.E. Jorge H. Botero, Minister of Commerce, Industry and Tourism (MCIT); H.E. Eduardo Muñoz, Vice Minister of Foreign Trade in the MCIT; H.E. Juan Manuel Santos, Minister of National Defense; Markus Schultze-Kraft, Coordinator for the Office in Colombia of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights; Julio Roberto Meyer, Colombia Representative of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees; and H.E. Camilo Reyes, Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In Nicaragua, the delegation had the privilege of holding a roundtable discussion with H.E. Enrique Bolaños, President of Nicaragua, and H.E. Norman Caldera, Minister of Foreign Affairs, in addition to visiting with H.E. Cristobál Sequeira, Minister of the Environment and Natural Resources; H.E. Sergio Blandon, Vice Minister of Education; Dr. Rigoberto Sampson, Rector of the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua in León; Victor Hugo Tinoco, William Teffel and Israel Lewites, representatives from the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS); Eduardo Montealegre and Adolfo Arguello, the National Liberal Alliance (ALN) candidate for the presidency and chief election strategist, respectively; and representatives from the USAID-funded Naciones Unidas Model School for primary and secondary students.

The delegation managed an intensive schedule of meetings and discussions in the relatively short period of time spent in each country, coming away from the mission with substantive observations, several lasting impressions and some important conclusions.

Upcoming elections in Venezuela (December 3) and Nicaragua (November 5) represent battlegrounds for democracy and are of utmost importance for the future of United States-Latin America relations. Venezuela’s degenerated political structure shows signs of renewal with the emergence of a unified opposition in the form of Manuel Rosales. His platform, featuring a promise to direct 20 percent of state oil profits straight to the poorest Venezuelans, resonates well beyond the primarily anti-Chávez middle and upper classes.

Rosales’ participation, despite his concerns about the neutrality of the Venezuelan electoral authority, is an improvement for Venezuelan politics after the self-defeating decision by the opposition to pull out of the December 2005 congressional elections, a move which effectively granted Chávez total control of the legislature and carte blanche to pursue his Bolivarian Revolution without the inconvenience of any vocal resistance from the Congress.

In Colombia, the United States has a vital regional ally. President Alvaro Uribe, re-elected to a second term on May 28, has gained strong domestic popularity on the back of his success in improving citizen security in a nation long under attack by powerful narcoterrorist groups. Uribe’s government has been just as dedicated to the US-sponsored war on drugs and is looking to consummate the bilateral relationship with the passage of a US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA).

Polls consistently indicate that a majority of Colombians support the trade agreement and with Uribe’s backing it will easily make it through the Colombian Congress, leaving the future of the CTPA in the hands of the US Congress. Safe passage of the CTPA and the extension of current trade preferences, which are scheduled to end on December 31, 2006, in the interim before the CTPA enters into force, are chief priorities for the Uribe administration and must be for the US government as well.

Meanwhile, in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega is looking to consolidate his power by winning the presidency outright in the first week of November. Already wielding almost complete control over the judicial branch and with the disgraced but still-powerful former President Arnoldo Alemán in his pocket, Ortega faces three viable contenders in the first round of voting. Analysts generally agree that any of the candidates would overcome Ortega in a second round, but Ortega is only a few percentage points away from clinching a first-round victory.

Heavily dependent on foreign aid and trade with the United States, Nicaragua has been subject to political jockeying by both Venezuela and the United States. Hugo Chávez has openly backed Ortega in the press and is widely believed to be financially supporting his campaign, while the US embassy has warned repeatedly of the potentially damaging impact that a Sandinista victory could have on future aid donations and trade.

The United States is by far the most important trading partner for all three countries, a fact that ensures continuing bilateral relations. Disengagement is not an option, with 50 percent of Venezuela’s and nearly two-thirds of Nicaragua’s exports going to the United States, while Colombia receives more US foreign aid than any other country in the Western Hemisphere.  Meanwhile, Venezuela and Colombia are deeply integrated thanks to a shared border and an open trade relationship. The amount of commerce between the two countries is exceeded only by each nation’s trade with the United States.  Many tensions exist between the two countries, but President Uribe has tread a careful diplomatic line when caught between the inflammatory rhetoric of his Venezuelan counterpart and the equally strong, though more restrained, resentment towards Chávez of the US government.


The severe polarization of Venezuelan society was evident to delegation members from the outset. As the plane touched down, an announcement welcoming passengers to the “Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” was immediately greeted by a chorus of boos, inter-spersed with pockets of loud cheering. The delegation found Chávez government officials and the political opposition firmly entrenched in their respective camps, leaving little room for dialogue, negotiation or compromise.

Furthermore, the schism is also distinguishable along lines of socio-economic class.  Venezuela’s middle and upper-class generally oppose the current administration while poor and working class Venezuelans are generally supportive of Chávez. This political and social divide is of utmost concern for the future of a country endowed with extraordinary oil reserves and the potential to make a major dent in poverty and unemployment rates by investing oil windfalls wisely.


The December 3 election will decide the fate of the Venezuelan presidency and government policy for the next six years. Despite the emergence of a third candidate, comedian Benjamín Rausseo, the previously disjointed opposition parties have demonstrated a surprising level of collaboration in selecting Manuel Rosales to serve as a unity candidate.  His selection even came without resorting to the “opposition primary” originally slated for August 13. The Council delegation met with Rosales, Governor of oil-rich Zulia State, as well as many members of his team.

Rosales highlighted the discrepancy between Chávez’s democratic election and his undemocratic behavior since taking office. While the government extols its own efforts to enfranchise Venezuelan citizens through massive identity card registration drives, Rosales noted that opposition members had been denied the IDs, without which they could not vote or find work in the formal economy. He also condemned the increasing drug transshipments being allowed to flow through Venezuela and the increasing presence of Colombia’s FARC rebel group as well as Middle Eastern terrorist groups.[2]

Discussion also focused on Venezuela’s need to disengage from Iran and North Korea,[3] condemn terrorism, re-engage with regional neighbors by rejoining the Andean Community (CAN) and G-3 trade bloc (with Mexico and Colombia), and work towards rapprochement with the United States. Rosales’ platform insists that far too much of Venezuela’s current oil cushion is being spent abroad[4] rather than on programs to benefit the domestic poor, stating that 72 percent of the population is at or below the poverty line, a figure corroborated by the US embassy.

Venezuela’s election is being supervised by the National Electoral Council (CNE), one of the five branches of government created by the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution.  CNE President Tibisay Lucena assured the delegation that all necessary precautions had been taken so that the election would run smoothly. In a detailed presentation on election mechanics, she noted that she had personally met with 68 political parties and groupings to establish the election rules, that the voting system had been tested extensively with witnesses from all parties and 55 percent of the election machines would be audited on Election Day.

Yet, members of the opposition repeatedly criticized the politicization of the CNE and said that it was dominated by Chávez loyalists. They questioned the 45 percent of voting machines that would not be audited and the fingerprinting of voters that would take place at the entrance to all election centers. Furthermore, they stressed that regardless of the CNE’s guarantees that votes could not be matched to fingerprints, many Venezuelans, particularly Chávez opponents, distrusted the system and might stay away from the polls to avoid persecution. The CNE also has failed to address campaign asymmetries, such as the limitations on opposition television and radio time.  Rosales revealed that he is allowed only two minutes a day on air, in stark contrast to the steady flow of pro-Chávez publicity on state television.


Opposing Hugo Chávez takes courage. Rosales and other public opposition figures who met with the delegation mentioned numerous occasions when they had been the victims of attack by pro-Chávez civilian militias. Leopoldo Lopez, opposition mayor of Chacao, watched his bodyguard take four bullets to the back and die in his arms, a crime that remains unsolved.

Even Ambassador Brownfield noted that he and his staff never enter pro-Chávez territory for long periods of time for fear of another attack like the one on April 7, 2006. On that occasion, the Ambassador was asked to leave a baseball stadium where he was giving out donated bats to a local youth team, and his convoy was pelted with fruits and vegetables and chased down the highway by Chávez supporters on motorbikes. Our delegation was not allowed to walk around the Caracas city center due to the security risk, and one member captured the group’s sense of unease when he noted that Caracas felt like the Soviet Union in 1959.

Much has been made of Venezuela’s recent spike in crime. Estimates vary, but Venezuela is consistently listed among the top five countries in the world in terms of reported murders per capita. Though the murder rate has long been a national problem, estimates indicate that it has almost tripled since Chávez came to power in 1999.[5] State Department warnings caution that kidnapping and other violent crimes have been on the rise as well, and the current Minister of the Interior and Justice, who is responsible for combating national crime, is the seventh in Chávez’s administration.

Economy and Social Development

Venezuela’s economy has been growing steadily at about nine percent since recovering from the severe economic contraction of 2002-2003, brought on by the state oil company (PDVSA) strike and political instability surrounding Hugo Chávez’s brief two-day ouster in April 2002. Poverty rates remain high, although Venezuelan officials who met the delegation maintained that the 17 government-sponsored “misiones” (social missions) have been enormously beneficial to the people.

Some of the most important misiones include bringing 20,000 Cuban doctors and medical workers to provide free basic health care to the poor (“Barrio Adentro”), the provision of subsidized food to over ten million people through government-owned food stores (“Mercal”) and the elimination of illiteracy from Venezuela, as defined by UNESCO (“Robinson I”).  Such in-kind transfers aim to enhance the target population’s quality of life; consequently, gains from the misiones may not necessarily be reflected in current income levels.

The question remains whether the Venezuelan government is doing everything it can to help its people with the oil money overflowing its coffers. Enrique Rodríguez of the Ministry of Planning and Development stated that the government “lacks the capacity” to absorb all its current revenues and therefore must look to spend abroad. Vice Minister of Finance Julio Viloria noted that foreign reserves have increased from $80 billion to $260 billion in just a few years.

Questions about decaying infrastructure, and in particular the January 2006 collapse of the bridge that served as the principal transit route from Caracas to its international airport, were rejoined with assurances that the issue was being resolved. Vice Minister Viloria stated that building a new bridge was a priority and that construction would be completed by May 2007. He also told the delegation that the private sector was booming under the Chávez administration and was fueling the majority of recent GDP growth.  Alfredo Keller’s observation that property rights had been weakened and state intervention had increased seemed more accurate in the face of Venezuela’s recent World Bank/IFC 2007 “Doing Business” ranking at 164th out of 175 countries in terms of conditions for private enterprise.

In a country where opposing sides often cite widely-varying statistics, it is difficult to decipher the real benefit of the government’s misiones. Opposition politicians repeatedly described them as “vote buying” schemes and noted that the programs seem to have intensified around the time of the referendum on Chávez’s presidency in August 2004.

Yet the success of the misiones in garnering support among Venezuela’s poorest should not be minimized. Clearly, as indicated by UNESCO’s declaration that Venezuela has defeated illiteracy, some of the programs appear to be improving the lot of millions of disenfranchised Venezuelans. Opposition candidate Rosales has been pragmatically offering alternative development programs rather than just attacking Chávez’s programs. His hope, as portrayed in his campaign slogan, “Atrevete” (Dare [to vote]), is that Venezuela’s people will freely express their true preferences at the voting booth.

However, hope for a free-thinking electorate has been dimmed by the fact that the Chávez government has been inculcating youth with a highly-politicized rewriting of the state education curriculum. On June 28, 2006, Minister of Education Aristobulo Isturiz said, “I’m politicizing education, so?” and went on to assert that “It is the State that should shape citizens in accordance with its political theory, in accordance with its vision for the Republic.” These alarming comments by a cabinet-level official provide evidence of an overt agenda aimed at undermining any opposition to the Chávez government.

International Relations

The Council delegation’s visit to Caracas coincided with an official state visit from Iran’s President Ahmadinejad, this following Chávez’s visit to Tehran in late July. The developing bond between the two oil giants has potentially significant global implications. As Alfredo Keller noted, together the two countries produce nearly nine percent of the world’s oil, enough to wield influence on world supply and prices.

Chávez has vigorously defended Iran’s right to pursue atomic energy research and uranium enrichment, repeatedly expressing the solidarity between the countries and not ruling out a future exchange of nuclear technology. In addition to Iran, Chávez also has voiced support for outcast states such as Libya and North Korea and recently bought arms from Russia. He is trying to create an alliance of countries opposed to perceived US hegemony and imperialism, an alliance possibly centered around Chávez’s most frequent travel destination, Cuba, and financed by his own and Middle Eastern oil money.

Venezuela’s international strategy also has been aimed at currying favor to obtain one of Latin America’s two rotating seats in the United Nations Security Council.  Chávez’s “Petrocaribe” initiative sending subsidized oil to the Caribbean, his courting of Muslim countries and his extensive travels and generosity abroad won him many promises of support.

United States-Venezuela Relations

The US embassy in Caracas noted that it had “excellent” contacts with politicians of all stripes but not with government officials. President Chávez, much like Fidel Castro, has prohibited state employees from communicating with the US embassy. They do so at the peril of losing their jobs and being blacklisted by the government, and the US embassy has managed to develop contacts with only two senior officials. The ambassador himself has been denied access to Venezuelan officials at all levels of government, having met the President only twice in two years, one of those times when presenting his credentials and the other a brief 30-second encounter at a social event.

Engagement with Venezuela is of critical importance to the United States despite Chávez’s well-documented flow of slurs.* By not only failing to condemn the 2002 military coup which briefly ousted Chávez, but rather greeting it with enthusiasm, the US government opened itself to accusations that it had been behind the whole thing. Such a folly must not be repeated, as it will only provide fuel for Chávez’s claims that the US government’s championing of democracy is hypocritical and self-serving.

Though the race is getting closer, current opinion polls still indicate that the Venezuelan President is poised to claim a second term on December 3. For all his antagonistic posturing, Hugo Chávez can still claim to be a democratically elected President and may well continue in office for the next six years. The United States must continue its Venezuelan engagement, reinforcing democratic institutions and civil society organizations while avoiding the snare of confronting Chávez directly.


Colombia is an enormous country. With the jutting Andes Mountains to the west and the vast Amazon jungle to the southeast, the government faces a Herculean task as it tries to develop national infrastructure and ensure public security. Combine this with the fact that three powerful terrorist groups financed by narcotrafficking and kidnapping have terrorized the countryside for many years and one might expect a failed state.

Yet the current administration has tackled terrorism effectively, greatly reducing the murder and kidnapping rates, and demobilizing about 30,000 fighters since President Uribe was first elected in 2002. The related war on drugs continues, with Uribe’s solid backing of US-sponsored coca crop spraying and manual eradication programs, although the results of these coca eradication efforts have been less encouraging.

Narcoterrorism and Plan Colombia

An alarming 90 percent of the cocaine that reaches the US market comes from or through Colombia. Recognizing cocaine as a dangerous and destabilizing force in Colombia, the United States spends over $600 million a year through Plan Colombia to combat drugs and narcoterrorism and to support alternative development.

US drug policy has focused on elimination of illegal drugs at their source but also involves interdiction of transshipments. Though thousands of hectares of coca are destroyed and nearly 200 tons of cocaine are seized by law enforcement annually, cocaine traffickers have devised clever methods to hide, protect and transport their product. As a result, coca cultivation has not declined in five years of Plan Colombia implementation, nor has the amount of cocaine entering the United States. In fact, the street price of cocaine is on the decline in many major US cities.

Colombian government officials note the need to increase the flexibility of US funding so as to enhance its efficiency.  In this dynamic war, Colombia wants to be trusted to redirect funding promptly as realities change and objectives shift, without having to consult the US government about every detail. A more encouraging impact of Plan Colombia has been its contribution to President Uribe’s efforts to dismantle the narco-terrorist groups that control large tracts of the Colombian jungle.

Three recognized terrorist groups currently operate in Colombia: the left wing National Liberation Army (ELN) and Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), and the right wing United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC). All three have been designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTOs) by the US Department of State and by its European Union equivalent.

The FARC and the ELN have their roots in 1960s Communist ideology, but have since become violent criminal groups more bent on preserving their own illicit activities than on disrupting the state for the sake of revolution. The FARC primarily supports itself by its narcotrafficking activities while the smaller ELN engages in kidnapping and ransom.  The rival AUC paramilitaries were formally consolidated in 1997 to combat the FARC and ELN in areas where civilians were not guaranteed state protection, although they too have become heavily involved in narcotrafficking for financial gain.

Perhaps Uribe’s greatest first term achievement was demobilizing 30,000 AUC members. He achieved this end by offering to try former paramilitary leaders in special tribunals that would convict them of crimes committed but offer reduced sentences. While not an amnesty, this “Law of Justice and Peace” convinced many AUC leaders to turn themselves in, and most low-level AUC fighters have entered state reintegration programs.  Talks with the ELN are ongoing, and discussion of a prisoner exchange between the FARC and the government has raised hopes that peace talks may resume in the future.

The Uribe administration has attracted considerable criticism from various human rights watchdogs and civil society organizations for alleged links to the AUC paramilitaries and perceived leniency in bringing its leaders to justice. Recent press reports of corrupted military officers cooperating with narcotraffickers and carrying out brutal murders have been particularly damaging to the government’s image.  Uribe has been quick to crack down hard on these corrupt officers, and it should be noted that all reports, even those critical of Uribe, indicate that the incidence of human rights abuses, including murders and kidnappings, has declined significantly. Citizens can finally travel the roads between many major cities without fear of attack, and economic growth induced by the increased security has been very strong, at five percent in 2004 and 2005.

United States-Colombia Relations

Colombia has been described by senior State Department official R. Nicholas Burns as the most valuable ally in the Andean region.  On the strength of Uribe’s popular mandate and neutralizing influence on neighboring Venezuela, it is hard to imagine a better-placed partner in all of Latin America. While disagreements between Colombia and Venezuela have arisen on a number of occasions, Uribe remains one of the few US allies with regular access to the Venezuelan president.

Interestingly, Colombia backed Guatemala for the UN Security Council seat due to an earlier agreement between the two countries, and Venezuela has not taken offense.  Colombia also has taken a proactive role in the war on narcoterrorism, offering technical assistance to other Latin American countries that have seen a rise in the drug trade.  Colombia’s strong alliance with the United States can and should be fortified, specifically by continuing Plan Colombia funding and ensuring passage of the US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA).

Trade Promotion Agreement

Government officials were unanimous in their belief that the best way to buttress Colombia’s regional standing and Uribe’s domestic support is to promote passage of the CTPA.  Failure to pass the CTPA would be a slap in the face of a democratically elected ally who shares US goals and has the mandate of his nation. It would also disproportionately affect Colombia’s rural sector, as it is the main beneficiary of preferential trade with the United States. Despite its important political and economic benefits,[6] the CTPA’s passage through the US Congress is not certain, particularly as the vote has been postponed until after the November 7 elections. A political shift in the new Congress may make passage of the CTPA a challenging proposition, and it will take a united effort to convince hesitant legislators to support the trade pact.                        

Another worry for Colombia is that the current preferential trade regime, known as the Andean Trade Preference and Drug Eradication Act (ATPDEA), is set to expire on December 31, 2006. Even if the CTPA is promptly passed by the US Congress when it reconvenes after the election, Colombia lacks the capacity to implement the agreement before July 2007. The six-month interim could wreak havoc on Colombian exporters, and the Uribe government is lobbying hard for an extension of ATPDEA benefits until the CTPA kicks in. As a second-best alternative, Colombia is requesting reimbursement for all tariffs levied after the ATPDEA expires and before the CTPA is implemented.


Since 1999, Nicaragua has been under the shadow of “El Pacto” (The Pact), a power-sharing agreement between then President Arnoldo Alemán and his main political opponent, Daniel Ortega. El Pacto struck a critical blow to Nicaragua’s young democratic institutions and guaranteed both men the spoils of looted state coffers and complete control over Nicaragua’s political system. The Supreme Court and Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) were packed with partisans loyal to Alemán and Ortega and the Constitution was modified to consolidate their power.

Nearly five years after Alemán, Nicaragua is still reeling from the impact of his corruption,[7] and the judiciary remains completely politicized and loyal to Ortega. Despite its hobbled government, Nicaragua remains a surprisingly safe place, and the economy has stabilized in the last ten years, growing at a steady five percent under President Bolaños.  However, Nicaragua remains one of the poorest countries in Latin America and is heavily reliant on foreign aid; an overhaul of the government structure will be necessary before any serious policy reform is to occur.

Election and Parties

Nicaragua’s presidential and congressional elections take place on November 5. For the first time in Nicaraguan history, four parties are running presidential candidates with a real chance of reaching a second round of voting. The Nicaraguan left includes Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), a new splinter party primarily composed of disenchanted and ejected former FSLN members. The party was united behind popular, former Managua mayor Herty Lewites until his sudden death in July 2006. Edmundo Jarquín, his running mate, is now the MRS presidential candidate. The Nicaraguan right is represented by the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC), with former Vice President José Rizo as its candidate, and the National Liberal Alliance (ALN), a new party formed around the candidacy of former PLC businessman Eduardo Montealegre.

The more traditional PLC and FSLN command strong loyalty in remote areas, but the reform parties have picked up a lot of support from disillusioned urban voters. Recent polls show Ortega in the lead, with Montealegre and Rizo in a tight battle for second and Jarquín a more distant fourth.

While the remaining candidates can be reasonably expected to adhere to democratic principles, Ortega, who ran the country into ruin during his 1985-1990 presidency, gives no such impression. He is strongly opposed by 60-70 percent of the electorate, and relies heavily on his core Sandinista base and the disproportionately large number of unpredictable young voters.[8]

Any contenders would likely defeat him in a second round, but there is widespread concern that Ortega could use his political dominance to fraudulently secure victory in the first round of voting.[9]  Just a few percentage points could tip the first round in his favor, and with the CSE under Ortega’s control, Organization of American States (OAS) election observers will have to be particularly vigilant to ensure that the Nicaraguan people are not cheated out of a fair election.

The Council delegation overlapped with a visit to Nicaragua from Congressman Dan Burton, Chairman of the House Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. The Congressman reiterated what the US embassy has been saying for many months now, that voters should carefully weigh their decision and take into account the potential impact that an Ortega presidency could have on the future of United States-Nicaragua relations. Though claiming not to be telling Nicaraguans who to vote for, Burton warned about a “return to the past, to the 1980s,” when thousands were assassinated and the country endured 33,000 percent inflation under the Ortega government.  He was front-page news the next morning.

When asked about the impact of his highly-publicized visit, government officials said that Burton’s comments were seen as sincere warnings rather than interventionist threats and that most Nicaraguans appreciated the need to maintain good relations with the United States. Yet many audience members were clearly incredulous the next day when our delegation noted its independent, objective status while dialoging with students at a university in the FSLN-dominated city of León. Many students clearly felt that Burton’s comments interfered in national affairs and found it hard to believe that our delegation was on a fact-finding mission.

OAS Secretary General Insulza denounced foreign interference in Nicaragua a few days later, declining to name names but noting that it came from more than one source, presumably in reference to the United States and Venezuela. While the United States has warned of dire consequences in the event of a Sandinista victory, Hugo Chávez has thrown his public support behind Ortega, even promising to send subsidized oil to Nicaragua if he wins. Promises of oil are particularly compelling for Nicaraguans, because brownouts are common throughout the country and energy resources are stretched. Public perception holds that Chávez is actively financing the Ortega campaign, as evidenced by the huge, colorful billboards of Ortega throughout the capital. No other party even approaches the level of campaign materials produced by the Sandinistas.


The challenges faced by Nicaragua’s next president will be daunting. The government relies significantly on foreign aid to meet the basic needs of its citizens and is crippled by constitutional idiosyncrasies, among others a stipulation that six percent of the budget go to tertiary education. In a country where the average citizen has less than five years of schooling, providing free education to university students doesn’t make much sense. President Bolaños’ administration has been trying to shift funding to primary and secondary education, but massive university student protests have restricted his ability to do so.

Alternatives to the state education system are being set up throughout the country, including USAID-funded model schools. The delegation had the opportunity to visit a model school and was impressed with its facilities as well as its mission to provide underprivileged children with a quality education. Most importantly, the model school system is self-sustaining, because it engages the local private sector in school co-sponsorship. USAID funded the school’s construction, a local coffee company funds its maintenance, and the Ministry of Education pays teachers’ salaries. This public-private partnership is an example of sustainable development that could potentially reap great rewards for Nicaragua.

United States-Nicaragua Relations

Nicaragua is an integral member of the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), and President Bolaños pushed hard for its passage. DR-CAFTA was particularly beneficial for Nicaragua, as 64 percent of its exports went to the United States in 2005. Nicaragua also has been a leader in regional integration, encouraging its Central American neighbors to join DR-CAFTA. In early October 2006, Nicaragua hosted a successful week-long meeting of regional defense ministers. The US embassy noted that Nicaragua is one of the few countries that sent troops to Iraq.

Nicaragua’s dependence on US aid is a reality. However, it is a responsibility which the United States takes seriously and must continue to assume. Regardless of the outcome on November 5, withdrawing funding from Nicaragua would increase the risk of the country descending into civil disorder. Furthermore, Nicaragua would have to look elsewhere for financial support. Venezuela’s Chávez has suggested that he would be willing to take on the role of state benefactor and fill the power vacuum left in the wake of US aid withdrawal.  Remaining engaged in initiatives such as the model schools and supporting other develop-ment projects, such as road construction, would maintain the bond between the United States and the people of Nicaragua by demonstrating US goodwill in a material and tangible form.


Overall, the Council delegation felt that the upcoming elections in Venezuela and Nicaragua will be defining moments for the future of United States-Latin America relations. While Chávez’s rhetoric has won him few friends outside the Middle East, many people in the United States do not understand that he is far more than a blustering demagogue. His governing philosophy is rooted in the desire to seek a new world order, and his concentration of power and unobstructed access to oil money is unnerving.

Nicaragua is a perfect target for Chávez because its combination of extreme poverty and centralized government leave it prone to easy manipulation from abroad. With Ortega’s allegiance, Chávez could incorporate Nicaragua into the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), his alternative to US imperialism which currently counts Bolivia and Cuba as members.

In sharp contrast, Colombia shines as a model US ally in an unstable region, despite having to wage an ongoing war on drugs and narcoterrorism. Using a pen-and-sword approach involving peaceful negotiations when possible and military confrontation when necessary, Colombia is carefully blazing a trail towards lasting peace and security. Uribe’s success in reducing violence should be supported with further US collaboration.

In light of our investigations, the Council delegation wishes to offer several recommendations to both private citizens and the US government:

Private Citizens

  • Advocate timely passage of the CTPA and the extension of ATPDEA. Colombian officials were careful to be diplomatic but left no doubt that a vote against the CTPA would be a serious setback for US-Colombia relations. Not only would the CTPA allow millions of Colombians continued access to the US market, but it also would provide American exporters far improved access to the growing Colombian market. Additionally, it would serve to underpin US solidarity with the Uribe government and counter Hugo Chávez’s influence in the region.

US Government


  • Promote free and fair elections in Nicaragua and Venezuela. The United States needs to continue to support vigorously the mandates of OAS and other international election observer missions sent to Nicaragua and Venezuela. To be effective, outside election observers must be seen as credible by the local and international community. In countries with bitterly divided populations that may not trust national election authorities, it is imperative that the international community be present to seek to guarantee transparent elections and assuage voters’ security concerns.


  • Remain engaged and fortify democratic institutions and civil society organizations. Regardless of the election outcomes, the United States must maintain its support for the strengthening of democratic institutions in Venezuela, Colombia and Nicaragua and throughout the hemisphere. Specifically, it should encourage local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), offer civic participation training to citizen leaders, and continue funding for economic development initiatives. Providing US assistance to Venezuela may be especially challenging in light of Chávez’s recent crackdown on NGOs that receive foreign financing, and alternate forms of support must be explored. Cooperation with its hemispheric neighbors should be a top US priority, and stronger relations with Latin American countries need to be fostered to advance democratic principles.


* Editor’s Note: Following President Chávez’s remarks before the United Nations General Assembly on September 20, 2006, Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) wrote in a Letter to the Editor of The New York Daily News, “I want to express my extreme displeasure with statements by the President of Venezuela attacking President Bush in such a personal and disparaging way during his remarks at the United Nations General Assembly and then again in my Harlem community [on September 21] at the Mount Olivet Church meeting announcing an expanded fuel-oil-for-the-poor program. George Bush is the President of the United States and represents the entire country. Any demeaning public attack against him is—and should be viewed by Republicans and Democrats, and all Americans—as an attack on all of us.”

[1] The ambassadors who participated in the fact-finding mission are: Keith L. Brown (Denmark, Lesotho), Henry E. Catto, Jr. (El Salvador, Chief of Protocol, United Nations European Office, United Kingdom and USIA), Charles E. Cobb, Jr. (Iceland), Sue McCourt Cobb (Jamaica), Bruce S. Gelb (Belgium, USIA), John Price (Mauritius), Robert D. Stuart, Jr. (Norway), Timothy L. Towell (Paraguay), and Leon J. Weil (Nepal).

[2] Hezbollah, in particular, was named by a number of our interlocutors and by US embassy staff as an organization that appears to be developing strong ties in Venezuela.

[3] Hugo Chávez’s support of North Korea’s renegade weapons program apparently contradicts the 1999 Venezuelan Constitution, which clearly states in the preamble that the Venezuelan people “…promote peaceful cooperation between nations and impulse and consolidate…nuclear disarmament….”

[4] A Rosales ally, and former national congressman, later made the observation that in 1993, then President Carlos Andrés Pérez was impeached for sending a small sum of money to Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro’s government, but that Hugo Chávez has free reign to send huge amounts of money to influence governments and elections all over the world and is doing just that.

[5] “Crimes and Misdemeanours.” The Economist. April 20, 2006.

[6] Among others, cut flowers and apparel are some of Colombia’s principal exports to the United States. In fact, Colombia provides 50 percent of US cut flowers.

[7] Arnoldo Alemán was ninth in a 2004 Transparency International world ranking of the most corrupt heads of state in the last 25 years. Though sentenced to prison for 20 years, a testament to both the public outrage at his corruption and to President Bolaños’ tenacity in bringing him to justice, Alemán struck a deal with Ortega and now roams Managua like a free man and still exerts strong influence in the PLC party.

[8] The voting age in Nicaragua is 16, and the over 15 percent of voters between the ages of 16 and 20 have no recollection of the previous Sandinista regime.

[9] Nicaraguan law, as rewritten by Alemán and Ortega, allows for an outright first round victory if a candidate wins 40 percent or more of the vote or if a candidate wins between 35 and 40 percent of the vote and holds at least a five percent lead over the nearest rival.

Issue Date


President, Council of American Ambassadors;
United States Ambassador to Belgium, 1991-1993;
Director, United States Information Agency, 1989-1991