October 13, 2006

Nicaraguan Links Economics to Democracy

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José Luis Velazquez Pereira, permanent representative of Nicaragua to the Organization of American States, drew faculty and students interested in the upcoming Nicaraguan election to Goldwin Smith last night.

The election is one in a series of national elections in Latin America that are changing the face of leadership on the continent; Velazquez stressed that the outcome of the election is critical to the political and economic future of the country.

There are five candidates competing for the presidency. Daniel Ortega, former president of Nicaragua and member of the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion National (FSLN) is currently leading in the polls with abut 30 percent of the vote.

Velazquez openly opposed the candidacy of Daniel Ortega. Velazquez said that Ortega is guilty of undermining Nicaraguan democracy, “and now he is presenting himself as the savior of his own mess. Nicaraguans fear the return of Daniel Ortega to power.”

The ambassador stressed the importance of the election given the delicate economic situation and explained the difficulty of establishing a democracy with extremely high levels of inequality and poverty.

He explained that since the signing of the Central American Free Trade Agreement six months ago, Nicaraguan exports have grown by 20 percent. The economy is growing at a rate of 5 percent per year.

“We have a window of opportunity to recast the Nicaraguan economy,” Velazquez said.

Rudy Espinoza-Portobanco ’07, a member of Bridges to Community: Nicaragua, who helped organize the visit, reacted to some of the economic data that the ambassador shared.

“I can be optimistic because he has the data to show that Nicaragua is developing and moving towards where it wants to be,” he said. “Nicaragua has been quiet for a while now, and now these elections are coming up, and they could really turn the country around.”

“This is a huge turning point in Nicaragua,” added Stephanie Cajina ’07, another member of Bridges to Community. “Nicaragua is always associated with the ’70s and the ’80s and the revolution. It was a refreshing way to bring contemporary issues to the Cornell campus that aren’t really addressed in classrooms.”

“To actually get the opinion of someone who deals with the day to day policy was very different than hearing it from an academic,” said Lauren Wein ’09. “He was very conservative, which is not what you typically hear at a liberal school like Cornell.”

Velazquez also addressed Ortega’s close ties to Hugo Chavez, who has offered support to Ortega such as campaign helicopters, fertilizer for peasants and farmers who support the FSLN and oil.

“Besides the traditional interference of the United States, we now have the interference of Hugo Chavez,” he said.

If Ortega is elected, this relationship will interfere with U.S. economic relations with Nicaragua. Which, Velazquez pointed out, could jeopardize the much needed access to the U.S. market for agricultural exports as well as economic assistance.

David Wippman, vice provost for international relations said, “I was impressed by how candidly he spoke about the election. It’s not that common for a government official to speak so candidly.”

The ambassador’s visit is part of an initiative to raise awareness of current political issues.
“We recently had President Musharraf, and we are trying to bring some other world leaders here to Cornell,” said Wippman. “We’re trying to train the leaders of the future here at Cornell, so we’d like them to be able to interact with current political leaders. We think it is important that [students] understand some of the context of the political issues they’re confronting.”

The lecture gave Cornellians the opportunity to learn about Nicaraguan politics from a man who has been in and out of the government for over 30 years. Velazquez has held positions in the revolutionary government, as well as the regimes of Violeta Chamorro and the current president Enrique Bolaños.

Espinoza-Portobanco said, “From what I saw, students really had no idea about political parties there or government in Nicaragua. So, I think it has been great for students to listen to what he had to say because they learned
a lot.”

Jessica Prue ’09 said,“I was interested in hearing about [Nicaraguan politics] first hand, rather than in the newspapers.”

“I know a lot of people don’t know a lot about Latin American politics,” she said. “I think it’s really great how many people are interested.”