President Barack Obama has summoned the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to Washington this Friday to discuss the worsening humanitarian crisis of unaccompanied Central American children trekking to the U.S. border.
Notably absent from the Central American lineup — probably to the relief of everyone — is Nicaraguan president and former Reagan nemesis Daniel Ortega, whose first government battled U.S.-backed contra rebels in the 1980s. But Ortega wasn’t left off the White House guest list because of old grudges. Instead, Ortega’s absence from the powwow is an indication that Nicaragua is doing something right these days.
Unlike the gang-ravaged countries of Central America’s “northern triangle”, which is hemorrhaging children at an appalling rate, Nicaragua is not a central player in the U.S. immigration crisis. In a strange way, Nicaragua’s absence from that story has become a story unto itself. And it’s a non-story that Nicaraguan officials want people to know about.
“Why is there no mention of Nicaraguan children on the U.S. border?” demands Alvaro Baltodano, a retired Nicaraguan general and advisor to Sandinista President Daniel Ortega. “It’s because Nicaragua rejected the mano dura (heavy-handed state repression of gangs) and implemented a model of community policing.”
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (Photo: Tim Rogers)
Nicaragua is the only country on the top half of Central America without a serious gang problem. The transnational maras —the Salvatrucha and 18th Street Gang— who terrorize the northern triangle with tendrils that reach deep inside the U.S., have failed to establish a beachhead in Nicaragua. The Sandinista government attributes its firewall to a model of community policing that focuses on reintegration rather than repression. The Sandinistas also have a well established intelligence-gathering apparatus that allows police to quickly identify and neutralize gangbangers who enter the country to recruit Nicaraguans. The result is that Nicaragua has a murder rate that’s only a fraction of that in neighboring Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and even Belize.
“Nicaragua and Costa Rica have the lowest murder rates in Central America and Latin America. And Nicaragua did it with the smallest security budget in Central America,” Gen. Baltodano said during a recent trip to Washington, D.C.
There are exceptions to Nicaragua’s safety record. This week’s massacre of Sandinista loyalists by unknown gunmen in the northern mountains of Matagalpa offered a frightening glimpse of the growing political unrest that lies beneath the surface of Sandinista propaganda about peace, unity, and reconciliation. But unlike other countries on the isthmus, where deadly assaults are commonplace, Sunday’s armed attack in Nicaragua was newsworthy precisely because it was a shockingly rare event.
Nicaragua is a far safer country than it’s reputation suggests. The country’s homicide rate has dropped 30 percent since Ortega returned to power in 2007, according to Sandinista government statistics. Nicaragua recorded only 594 homicides last year — a fraction of those reported in the neighboring countries to the north. Not all Nicaraguans take comfort in those numbers, however; femicides are on the rise, and Ortega’s political opponents regularly complain of political persecution and arbitrary arrests. But overall the country is remarkably less violent than its troubled neighbors.
To put Nicaragua’s homicide rate in perspective, consider this: based on the average daily murder rates in Central America, El Salvador eclipses Nicaragua’s annual murder toll before the end of March; Guatemala surpasses Nicaragua’s yearly total by the second week of February; and it takes Honduras only one month to notch as many kills as Nicaragua records in a year.
Still, many people seem surprised to learn that Nicaragua is no longer at the center of Central America’s problems.
“One of things that puzzles me is that when I lived in Central America there was a great deal of cultural similarity between El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. How come there’s not a huge number of these youngsters coming from Nicaragua?” asked Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing last week in Washington, D.C.
Ambassador Thomas Shannon, who knows Central America better than most U.S. politicos, told Kaine that Nicaragua’s lack of involvement in the immigration crisis has to do with “historic migration patterns” and “drug trafficking patterns.” But even Shannon admitted, “We only have limited insight into this.”
Shannon’s insight may be limited, but it’s accurate. Most Nicaraguans who have emigrated to the United States have done so legally, starting in the 1970s. Those who emigrate without authorization usually head south to Costa Rica or Panama. Some 450,000 Nicaraguans live in Costa Rica alone.
The Costa Rican Embassy in Managua reportedly stamped more than 23,000 entry visas between Dec. 11-Jan. 10 for Nicaraguans returning to live and work in Costa Rica after spending Christmas with their families. (Photo: Government of Costa Rica)
Nicaragua’s economic growth over the past few years is commendable, even if insufficient and unequally distributed. Even the World Bank, which used to lose sleep over Nicaragua, now calls the country “a bright spot in an otherwise mixed scenario for Central America’s economies.”
“Before, we were in last place in every economic category,” says José Adan Aguerri, head of Nicaragua’s largest business chamber. “Now we are on the map again; we’re competing again…now we talk about how a 4.5-percent growth rate is not sufficient. That’s a good problem.”
Not all Nicaragua’s problems are good ones, however. The country, still the second-poorest in the hemisphere behind Haiti, is governed by an increasingly autocratic president who now appears destined to die in office as a confused old man. Nicaragua has perhaps the least reputable electoral systems in the hemisphere, a court system stacked with Sandinista cronies, and a National Police force that’s been increasingly co-opted by the ruling party.
The Sandinista Front has been accused of stealing elections, cracking down on the opposition, limiting free press, enriching themselves shamelessly, and governing the country like a family farm. Consequently, the U.S. has cut aid and assistance to Nicaragua from $50 million in 2006 to around $7.6 million in 2014.
Russian President Vladimir Putin’s surprise visit to Managua earlier this month underscores the fact that politically, Managua is once again closer to Moscow than Washington; no high-ranking U.S. official has visited Nicaragua since Ortega returned to power eight years ago.
The situation, at least at first blush, seems to raise an uncomfortable questions for Uncle Sam: Why is the Central American country with the least amount of U.S. engagement doing better than the countries where the U.S. trying to “help?” Is it a coincidence that the three Central American countries that get the lion’s share of the $85 million Central American drug-war package are the same ones that are now exporting kids to U.S. faster than bananas?
While the U.S. has never had the Midas touch in Latin America, the answer is not — as some might argue — disengagement with the region. Because there’s another side to the story. Although not obvious, Nicaragua’s relationship with the U.S. is in fact closer than ever. Trade between the two countries and private U.S. investment in Nicaragua’s economy have reached all-time highs. American tourists freely putter about the country in flip-flops, drinking rum and laughing with locals. And Nicaraguan families receive nearly $1 billion a year in remittances sent back from family members working abroad, mostly in the U.S.
Nicaragua’s success, therefore, is not because of U.S. detachment, but because the citizens of those two countries have figured out new ways to tighten those ties even when their governments don’t see eye-to-eye. On a grassroots level, relations between the two countries are now based more on partnership than patronage, progress not politics.
So that’s the real lesson here. The U.S. can’t solve Central America’s problems by throwing money at it, ramping up repressive military and police operations in the region, and political glad-handing. That’s banana republic politics, and it’s never worked out well before.
Instead of trying to fix Central America by doing more of what’s not working in the northern triangle, perhaps Uncle Sam should take a lesson from what it’s not doing in Nicaragua.
Fusion’s Ted Hesson contributed reporting from Washington, D.C.