Questioning the New Ambassador to Nicaragua: A Coordinator of the Contra War?

By Rick La Torra Witness for Peace Nicaragua March 12, 2008 25 years ago, Witness for Peace started its work in Nicaragua to expose the truth about the U.S. funding the Contras and the horrible ramifications of that support in Nicaragua. We documented the atrocities of the war and organized against U.S. intervention in Nicaragua. Partly because of our work, the actions of many of the architects of that U.S. policy were mostly discredited and their competence and respect for law questioned. Now some of those discredited actors in the Contra war, who also helped steer recent failed Iraq war strategy, are again in position to greatly influence Nicaragua’s sovereignty. John Negroponte, former director of national intelligence and current deputy secretary of state, recently helped secure the appointment of Robert Callahan as the newly named U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua. The two were part of a team in Honduras during the 80’s when the U.S. was funnelling training and financial support for the Contras through the embassy. John Negroponte served as the Ambassador and Robert Callahan, press attaché, was his spokesperson and speechwriter. This was the same setup they had until as recently as 2005 in Iraq where they had the role of promoting another U.S, initiated war. Not surprisingly, the press release from the White House fails to mention either position by pointing to such non-controversial appointments such as: “Earlier in his career, he served as a Public Affairs Officer in Rome.” Due to their time in Honduras they were later shown by the World Court to be coordinating war efforts in Nicaragua from their diplomatic posts in the neighbouring country. As part of the World Court ruling, the U.S. was supposed to pay $17 billion for its role in the Contra war. That money was never paid.

Appointing someone with Robert Callahan’s dubious past relationship with Nicaragua has raised many concerns among observers. "I find it quite strange," said Edmundo Jarquin, an economist who was a left-leaning candidate in the 2006 presidential election. "It's very provocative." Author and the New York Times correspondent in Nicaragua during the 80’s, Stephen Kinzer, was less conciliatory. “Rather than finding an ambassador to Nicaragua who could begin this assignment with experience as a conciliator, the Bush administration has chosen one who some Nicaraguans will see as stained in blood.” The appointment comes at a time of when Nicaraguan and U.S. diplomatic relations have been shaky at best. Bush administration officials openly opposed the election of the current president, Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista president during the Contra war. Since winning office, Ortega has been associated with anti-Bush forces such as Iran and Venezuela, launched diatribes against the imperialism of the United States, and even recently, substantiated a proposal by Chavez to create a regional army to oppose any aggression by the USA. On the other hand, Ortega supports and is implementing the Dominican Republic - Central America Free Trade Agreement (DRCAFTA), has signed a new agreement with the International Monetary Fund, actively seeks out foreign investment and the business community’s support, and recently held a press conference with the current U.S. ambassador praising the benefits of the U.S.-led Millennium Challenge Account. While the official response of the Nicaraguan government has been welcoming (President Ortega approved the nomination immediately), many wonder about the message this appointment sends to the Nicaraguan government. The naming of Callahan occurs at a time when many Latin America governments are moving towards more socially-focused orientations and slipping away from Washington’s influence. Appointing someone with such “hard-line” credentials like Callahan might be an attempt by the Bush administration to draw a line in the sand; a way of saying to the Ortega administration in a common Bush way, “either you’re with us or you’re against us.”

A recent article in the daily newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, titled “A ‘Hawk’ the New Director of the U.S. Embassy?” expressed a variety of opinions from political leaders about how Robert Callahan will act in Nicaragua. In the article, deputies from all political persuasions in the National Assembly expressed concern about potential U.S. impingement of Nicaraguan selfdetermination. A right-wing member deputy, José Pallais, stated “that the new representative of the United States government should maintain himself at the margin of the internal affairs of Nicaragua, especially the politics of an election year.” At the same time, the president and deputy of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), Enrique Saenz, insisted on “respect for the auto-determination and sovereignty of Nicaragua.” There seems to be much speculation about the intentions of the State Department with Robert Callahan’s appointment. Some say the appointment might stem from the Bush Administration’s need to place someone “of confidence” in the role after the current administration no longer calls the shots at the State Department. The new ambassador is expected to serve into the next U.S. president’s term and will survive the expected change in foreign policy and shake-up of state department staff. The current presidential candidates maintain that they will construct a considerably different foreign policy than the often inflammatory one of the Bush Administration. A new U.S. president in 2009 brings hope for a change in US policy towards Latin America, a policy which has been often described by Ortega and leaders he’s aligned with as “imperialistic”. However, with the appointment of a man who was instrumental in orchestrating the Contra war (potentially the United States’ most disgraceful and paternalistic action in Latin America), this hope for change is somewhat depleted and worry increases about what stance Callahan will take towards Nicaragua. We must hope that he was just ‘doing his job’ when he was defending and promoting violent U.S. policies in his posts in Iraq and Honduras.

In summary, the appointment of Robert Callahan is worrisome. The recent conflict with the Bush-aligned Colombia government and Venezuela over the violation of Ecuador’s borders demonstrates that the traditional clash between U.S.-led capitalist and socialist forces in Latin America is still intense. If Callahan ends up becoming another “neocon” ideologue from the Bush administration, then it’s possible to see him instigating more clashes in Latin America. If that happens, then realistic desires for a peaceful future free of U.S. intervention and a progressing and developing Nicaragua are in trouble. After 25 years of documenting U.S. manipulation of Nicaragua’s internal affairs, we hope that’s not the case. We long for a day when our government is beyond that.