By John Kotula
I imagine that most readers of NicaNotes are up to speed on the NICA Act. If you would like to read the details of why this is such terrible legislation, check out Chuck Kaufman’s last couple of NicaNotes blogs here and here. Rather than review that information, I want to write about my own experience of meeting with Senate and House of Representative staffers, face-to-face, to discuss the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act of 2017, known as the NICA Act.
I currently live in Managua, but I own a home in Peace Dale, Rhode Island and Rhode Island is where I vote. It is a solidly Democrat state. The guys who represent me in the US legislature are Senator Jack Reed, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, and Congressman Jim Langevin, solid establishment Democrats every one. Rhode Island only has one other congressional district and Congressman David Cicilline represents them. He is cut very much from the same cloth. Most of the time they vote as I would like to see them vote. However, I write and call them frequently, usually urging them to take a more visible role or step forward and show some leadership. Reed is something of a power house on the military and Langevin is strong on healthcare. Unfortunately, none of them seem to have any particular interest in Latin American policy.
Since I was planning to be in Rhode Island for a couple of weeks and the NICA Act was looming, I decided I would visit their offices and speak with staffers face-to-face to express my opposition to this totally wrong-headed law. I started the process of trying to get appointments on September 20th, first placing Skype phone calls from Nicaragua, then sending emails, and finally confirming appointments by phone when I arrived in the States.
Office of United States Senator Sheldon Whitehouse
Greetings from Managua, Nicaragua!
I recently completed my service as a Peace Corps volunteer in Nicaragua and am still living in Managua. (My permanent residence is at 16 Amos Street, Peace Dale, RI.) I will be back in Rhode Island in late September and early October. I would like the opportunity to speak in person with someone on the senator’s staff in Rhode Island about Nicaragua, especially the Nica Act.
I can be reached by email and I can call you on Skype. Looking forward to hearing from you and meeting.
I got into two of the three offices. Sen. Whitehouse and Rep. Langevin’s staffs were friendly and accommodating. Sen. Reed’s office kept telling me to send an email. I explained that I had done that and would again, but that I felt so strongly about the issue that I wanted the opportunity to speak about it in person. Eventually, I was given the name of staffer, Erin Arcand. I left a couple of messages on her voice mail, but never got a call back.
My meeting with Congressman Langevin’s staff was scheduled for October 10th. On October 3rd the US House of Representatives passed the NICA Act. It was passed by a procedure called “unanimous consent”, during which representatives are given a chance to object and if no one does it is approved. This procedure is usually used for non-controversial matters such as scheduling time for debates. Certainly, the NICA Act is controversial, but my Congressman, along with 434 others, rubber stamped this legislation and sent it on, without objection, without even a word of debate.
At Langevin’s office I sat down with Seth M. Klaiman, Distict Director and Julio Paz, the Staff Assistant who had set up the meeting. An intern also sat in, but I didn’t catch her name. The meeting was cordial and conversational. I gave my spiel about the NICA Act and my disappointment that my congressman had not raised any objection to the legislation. Mr. Klaiman said, “As you can imagine we don’t get too many people coming in to talk to us about Nicaragua. Truthfully, I hadn’t heard anything about this until you brought it to our attention. I read up on it and I’m surprised, too, that it moved ahead on unanimous consent. Sometimes this happens when it is clear the legislation is going nowhere in the Senate. It is just a way to clear the agenda. Look, the volume of business makes it impossible for any congressman to keep up with every piece of legislation. We depend on our constituents to let us know their concerns. So we are really glad you came in and brought this to our attention.” We chatted some more and I left them with printed material I had pulled together in preparation for the meeting. Mr. Klaiman assured me he would inform Jim Langevin of my visit.
My appointment at Senator Whitehouse’s office, where I met with George Carvalho, State Director and Karen Bradbury, a Projects Director, was almost identical to the previous one; friendly, respectful, and conversational. There was the acknowledgment that they were unfamiliar with the NICA Act and the expression of appreciation for bringing it to their attention. Mr. Carvalho also stated that it could be that the legislation “was going nowhere. It may never get out of committee.” I was assured again that my concerns would be shared with the senator. A somewhat different exchange happened when I asked if he had a sense of how the Senator would vote on the legislation if it came up. I addressed his answer in a followup email: “I have thought a lot about Mr. Carvalho’s statement that he didn’t think that personally the Senator would be inclined to support this legislation, but that Whitehouse puts a lot of faith in the intelligence community and the diplomatic community. Therefore, if he heard from them that things were really bad in Nicaragua and this act was necessary, he might support it. This presents a kind of catch 22. I’m suggesting that a new paradigm is needed, one that shifts policy toward friendliness and cooperation and away from power and control. If you rely on people who adhere to the old paradigm, you may get advice that keeps you locked into outdated approaches. As you said, this act could go nowhere. I certainly hope you are right.”
My take away from these efforts are two. First, outside of the relatively small community of Nicaraguan activists, hardly anyone is paying attention to the NICA Act, so there is you and me and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Ted Cruz. (I hate having anything in common with Ileana and Ted.)
It is a heavy lift, but I think every phone call, letter, visit, Facebook post and protest is key if there is to be any momentum for change.
My second take away is that change is probably not going to come from establishment politicians. My boys from Rhode Island are all pretty good, but they are part of the established order. They are going to listen to the State Department and the intelligence community before they listen to me or even before they think for themselves. The change will only come from the bottom up, by people demanding new approaches.
As I was told more than once, maybe the Nica Act is going nowhere. I certainly hope this is right.
- Vanderbilt University’s Latinobarometro, which does polling throughout the hemisphere found that Daniele Ortega is the most popular president among his constituents of the 18 countries in the hemisphere with the approval of 67% of Nicaraguans. He was followed by the presidents of Ecuador, Bolivia, and the Dominican Republic. The survey was done between June 22-Aug. 28, 2017. When respondents were asked if they trust their government, Nicaragua again led the survey with 48% trust. The 30% who say they trust the Supreme Electoral Council seems like it would be a negative, but is better than in many Latin American countries where trust in the electoral authority runs around 20%. Nicaragua (48%) also runs second after Ecuador (55%) with people believing progress has been made against corruption in the past two years. (Informe Pastran, Oct. 30)
- The Nicaragua Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) announced that the Organization of American States (OAS) Electoral Accompaniment Mission and representatives of the 9 political parties participating in the Nov. 5 Municipal Elections, inspected the Electoral Packages that will be delivered by the National Police and Army to each voting site. Police Deputy Director Francisco Diaz announced that 13,000 officers will participate in the Electoral Safety Plan and that an additional 28,000 special electoral police have received professional training to ensure a safe, peaceful and orderly electoral process. (Nicaragua News, Oct. 25)
- The new Country Representative of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Baudouin Duquesne reaffirmed the commitment of the IDB to the strengthening of its support for the fight against poverty in Nicaragua. “We have signed a US$65 million loan for the energy sector and are pleased to be partners with Nicaragua in the efforts to reduce poverty and improve the quality of life for all the Nicaraguan people,” he said. (Nicaragua News, Oct. 27)
- International coffee prices fell in October to US$126.20 per hundredweight, a drop of 18.9% over the same month in 2016. “With those prices, we producers are very worried because we are operating at a loss,” said Aura Lila Sevilla, president of the National Alliance of Nicaraguan Coffee Growers (ANCN). Nicaraguan coffee growers have some hope for this year based on the projection of a good crop, but they are confronting a downward pressure on prices due to the projection of a good harvest in Brazil. (El Nuevo Diario, Oct. 30)
- Nicaraguan authorities have lowered their “red alert” to yellow after a week of heavy rains killed seven people and forced the evacuation of 2,000 people. Twenty-six schools in the North Caribbean Autonomous Region were among the 431 schools nationwide closed last week and boat travel continues to be restricted along the entire Caribbean Coast. (El Nuevo Diario, Oct. 27)
- The US embassy in Managua announced that it is extending registration for its Visa Lottery until Nov. 22 due to technical errors that prevented it from processing visa applications submitted by the Oct. 18 deadline. The Visa Lottery applies to people born in countries with low immigration rates to the US. Nicaragua qualifies because fewer than 50,000 people have emigrated to the US in the past five years. The embassy warned Nicaraguans to watch out for scams. The embassy said it does not inform people by email that they won, does not charge a fee for an application, and advised people to avoid third-parties who ask for information or offer services related to the lottery. (El Nuevo Diario, Oct. 26)
- The Nicaragua Central Bank announced that exports totaled US$1.8 billion during the first seven months of the year, representing an increase of an incredible 16.2% over the same period in 2016. Sectors such as coffee, beef, gold, sugar and dairy products were the main drivers of this growth. The Central Bank also recently reported that Gross International Reserves reached US$2.5 billion in September, equivalent to 2.9 times the monetary base of the country. The report also noted that this level of reserve contributes to greater economic and financial stability in the country. (Nicaragua News, Oct. 23)