So? Big deal. We don’t really care because this year we’re worried about–wait, who is that guy? The one with three names and a turban? Hosanna bin blah-blah? Also we’ve been worried about that little Cuban boy they found on an inner tube and about terrorism at patriotic public events. That’s quite a lot and it’s been keeping us busy, so we’ve had to let other, more forgettable things slide, like Mars, Leonardo DiCaprio, and the presidential election.
Actually, in Washington we’ve been distracted this season by the Israel/Syria dispute over the Golan Heights. To solve this problem, Madeleine Albright trundled off to a remote negotiating location with her Middle Eastern counterparts in late December. But just when we thought it was safe to go outside, we received news of another geopolitical crisis–a day’s drive from Brownsville! That’s right. Nicaragua, which is just about to have a little war with Honduras.
In Washington there is one saying that is more or less true: “Nothing is ever finished, nothing is ever over.” And so Madeleine and the State Department are not finished with Nicaragua. They are still afraid of the comunistas, even if Ortega and associates have been out of power for almost ten years. The State Department needs to make sure that they never get in the way again. And ever since last summer, they’ve been quietly inching back into the way.
It all started in May, 1999–well no–it actually started with Hurricane Mitch in the fall of 1998. Mitch hit Honduras and Nicaragua with devastation of Biblical proportions, killing thousands and displacing hundreds of thousands by putting a lot of rivers back where Nature had originally placed them. Still, as you know if you are a politician, even a hurricane has a silver lining. With Mitch, it came in the form of foreign aid. In May, the “Donor Community” convened in Stockholm with the Central American governments to decide on a package for the affected countries. The I.M.F., the World Bank, The Inter-American Development Bank, and Kofi Annan joined in. And all things considered, the package was quite good. It even included two billion dollars in loans and presents for Nicaragua.
Now, if you are a sticky-fingered politician and you have just negotiated a two-billion dollar aid package for your immiserated little country, you want to be sure that you and your cronies are around to get a piece of the pie (Sp. trans.: tajada del pastelito). Unfortunately, though, the meeting of the Donor Community did not go particularly well for Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Aleman, and he must have felt a little insecure. Two months earlier, the Nicaraguan comptroller general had launched an investigation into the baffling increase in Aleman’s personal estate during the period that he served as mayor of Managua and president. In seven years, his wealth had increased 900 percent, and he didn’t even have a “.com” affixed to his name. And then in May, while he was in Stockholm with the other Central American politicos and the banks, an embarrassing headline in a Managua newspaper exposed the sale of donated food in Managua’s main market. “Mitch Brought Hunger for Many and a Fortune for Others,” the Nuevo Diario announced. Donated cans of fish and milk stamped “For Emergency Projects of the World Food Program–Not for Sale” were found for sale in large quantities.
Oh, it was bad. There were pictures and everything. Someone with access to food and money sent as relief for the hurricane victims was selling the stuff instead. Who could it be? Questions were asked. Mistakes were made. But in spite of it all, Aleman came away from Stockholm with the $2 billion package.
The banks defended their decision. Aleman was an honorable man. The King of Spain had awarded him the Isabela la Catolica Decoration, and the Government of Argentina had made him a member of the Grand Order of the Belgranian Cross. Plus, he was an Honorary Citizen of Taipei and New Orleans.
Nevertheless, the banks were clever. They don’t like anybody stealing too much of their money, including Arnoldo. They would dole out the aid over a period of three to five years, and for Arnoldo, this could be a problem. Nicaragua holds presidential elections in 2001, and the allegations of corruption have not done him any good at all. His party might lose, and if that happens, someone else pockets the presidential cut of the two billion. Caca, he thought. But he is clever, too. For his team to win the elections next year, what he needed was a good solid alliance with a reliable vote getter. Hmmm.
He called Daniel. At first the negotiations were tricky. After all, Arnoldo had called Daniel a totalitarian Marxist and other really mean things throughout his presidential campaign in 1995. He had hurt Daniel’s feelings and made him mad. However, with $2 billion on the table, Daniel was prepared to let bygones be bygones.
Much of the Sandinista party was outraged, but Daniel rammed the alliance with Arnoldo through the Party Assembly. The pact was to produce a constitutional reform, mutually beneficial to Arnoldo and Daniel. Arnoldo wanted the reform to allow Nicaraguans who had previously renounced their citizenship to run for president. In other words, rich expatriate pol’ticos living in Miami, wearing Versace shirts, and keeping in close touch with Arnoldo. Daniel wanted to eliminate the requirement for a majority vote in order to win the presidency, and change it to a plurality. This would be good for him, since he reliably polls about 30 to 35 percent. Happily, the two of them began maneuvering and plotting.
Meanwhile, what about Washington? These things may slip by us while the little Cuban boy is bouncing around The Miami Herald like a football score, but eagle-eye Madeleine caught onto it right away. Daniel Ortega within spitting distance of being president again. Doo-doo, thought Madeleine. What next? She pictured the increasingly powerful Colombian guerrilla movement, and she imagined a horrifying possibility: a revolutionary government in Colombia and Daniel elected in Nicaragua. Then she sat down with her henchmen and they all thought very, very hard.
It turns out that there is an old treaty, signed by Honduras and Colombia, in 1986. (Note the date. Does Iran/Contra ring a bell?) The treaty divides up the Caribbean waters along the shores of Colombia, Honduras, and Nicaragua, giving virtually everything to Colombia and Honduras. Nicaragua gets almost nada. The treaty, however, was never ratified by Honduras, but so what? For Madeleine and her sort, this is only a detail. On November 30, 1999, thirteen years after the treaty was signed, one month before the Panama Canal reverted to the Panamanians, six weeks before a $1.3 billion “emergency aid” package for Colombia was approved in the U.S., and just after Arnoldo and Daniel had formed their little club, Honduras ratified the treaty changing the parallels that determined what belongs to whom. Thirty thousand square kilometers of the Caribbean now went to Honduras and 130,000 square kilometers to Colombia. Nicaragua got the beach and a snorkel. Through the treaty, the U.S. got extensive access to Caribbean waters–because Colombia and Honduras have maritime agreements with the United States, and Nicaragua does not. This is important because this year the U.S. may have to float a lot of guns and bombs into either Colombia, Nicaragua, or both.
Arnoldo was furious. He huffed and he puffed because he was so upset–and because he is extremely fat. He moved troops to the border and threatened Honduras. He sent negotiators to talk to the Hondurans, but he chose them unwisely. Reportedly, one of them did not know what a parallel was, and thought it was a sandwich. Negotiations shut down. Nicaragua slapped a 35 percent duty on imports from Honduras. This made them mad. Strangely, neither the U.S. nor any of the other Central American governments said a word, although the regional common market they all so heartily endorsed had just fallen completely apart.
But Roberto Flores, Foreign Minister of Honduras, cordially suggested mediation of the conflict by the Organization of American States. Nicaragua had no choice but to agree. Unfortunately, the fix was in at the O.A.S. The O.A.S. Secretary General Cesar Gaviria is a Colombian, and he appointed a gringo to mediate. Nicaragua agreed to participate, but suggested that the controversy might be better solved at the World Court in the Hague, where the arbitrating parties might be more neutral.
Everyone met on December 29 at the Hotel Inter-Continental in Miami to sort this out reasonably. At least, it seemed to begin reasonably, but it quickly turned weird. The Inter-Continental was also hosting the football team and fans from the University of Illinois, which was playing in the MicronPC.com Bowl Game, even though no one had ever heard of it. The Fighting Illini were everywhere. Oskee-ow-ow. They descended raucously on the Oak Room Bar, where a large-screen TV broadcast loud sporting events, while over in the corner our statesmen friends were trying to sort out the nasty geopolitics of the hemisphere’s midsection.
To make matters worse, the Marching Illini came too. That’s the band. The diplomats, who can’t seem to negotiate anything, did successfully persuade hotel management to cancel the midnight tuba concert scheduled for the lobby. The band director was agreeable. The Marching Illini had been playing all day at beachfront bowl game festivities and–unlike big Arnoldo–were “too pooped to puff.”
So, on December 30, the Fighting Illini won their bowl game by many, many touchdowns, and the Inter-Continental rocked with yanqui drunkenness and joy. For the Illini, the only bad moment came when their mascot, Chief Illiniwek, wearing an Indian dance outfit, a headdress of turkey feathers, and face paint, slipped on the mid-field logo and fell on his tail. Back at the Oak Room Bar our negotiators had gotten nowhere, and finally they agreed to meet again at the Hague, in some more peaceful place, hopefully free of soccer hooligans. For now, though, Honduras is keeping the treaty, Nicaragua is keeping the 35 percent tax, and everybody is hopping mad.
Meantime in Washington, Madeleine announced that in order for Israel to return the Golan Heights to Syria, everyone will need to buy more weapons from the United States. This agreement is sure to bring peace and joy–not only to the Golan Heights, but also to surrounding, less heavily armed neighborhoods. Having settled that complicated conflict, Madeleine turned her attention back to Central America. On January 14, having survived the turn of the century without any of her embassies exploding, she flew to Colombia to meet with its President, have dinner, and inspect the anti-narcotics plan developed by its army. The plan includes using U.S. dollars to train 3,000 military persons and 500 policemen before the end of the year. Clearly, this scheme has been in the works for awhile. Next day, Madeleine headed off to Panama to meet with its President, have dinner, and inspect the canal locks. Madeleine was also planning to be very nice and friendly in order to repair the diplomatic damage done by skipping the party the Panamanian President held when the Canal changed hands in December. Subsequently, she flew to Mexico, where she met with the Foreign Minister, had dinner, and talked about something. Because it’s none of our business, nobody would tell us what it was, but we can guess that it was about Zapatistas, guns, and money.
If you think about these things at all, which is difficult and demoralizing, you would have to conclude that your miserable little country, wherever it is, would probably be a lot better off if it could (a) pitch Arnoldo and Daniel into a smoking volcano crater, and (b) avoid attracting Madeleine’s attention, and (c) refuse to accept U.S. emergency aid in the form of guns, bombs, helicopters, and trained army persons. Because every time the U.S. government starts talking about peace, stability, or development for some unfortunate but strategic geographic spot, and some Third World presidential entrepreneur starts blabbing about prosperity and sovereignty, it’s time to heave a deep sigh, get out your camouflage outfit again, put on your headdress and your face paint, and light out for the hills.
Gabriela Bocagrande lives in Washington, D.C., a three-day drive from Miami.