Washington, DC – Congressman Howard L. Berman, Ranking Democrat on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, delivered the following opening statement at today’s committee hearing entitled “Democracy Held Hostage in Nicaragua: Part I”:

On November 6, 2011 elections were held in Nicaragua. As the dust settles around the results, there are at least two things that are clear. First: this was a real setback for democracy in that country. And second: Daniel Ortega will most likely be president for another 5 year term.

The problems with the election were numerous, and will get a full airing here today. But before we get to those, I want to thank the Organization of American States (OAS), the European Union (EU), and the Carter Center for being present on the ground on Election Day, despite significant efforts by Ortega to keep them out.

All three organizations thought long and hard about participating at all under these difficult conditions, worried that they might become enablers of a fraud. Although the scope of their reports was somewhat limited by the fact that they did not have complete access, they are nevertheless critical for our understanding of the situation, and we are thankful for their voice in this debate.

In a briefing held before this hearing, the head of the OAS Observation mission, Dante Caputo, report on the election’s significant irregularities, the indefensible results, and the efforts to impede observer access.

It is worth recalling that this Committee recently voted to defund the OAS, with some of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle claiming it was an “enemy of democracy.” The organization’s participation in the Nicaraguan elections, and its subsequent hard-hitting report, is a stark indication of the kind of benefits OAS brings to the regional table.

Why has the Nicaraguan government chosen to bitterly smear the OAS and its report, and not the two other organizations that said essentially the same thing? I think the answer is that Ortega believes the OAS has few friends, and many foes – led by Hugo Chavez. It is critical that we line up behind the people and organizations doing the tough work on behalf of democracy in this hemisphere – including the OAS.

Even before these elections were held, the Nicaraguan political opposition was forced to decide if they should participate at all. Many people, and I include myself among them, saw Ortega’s candidacy as unconstitutional because of a series of questionable maneuvers from institutions he controls.

The vexing policy issue that I believe stands before us right now – and that I hope to explore with our witnesses is: What should the United States do now?

In the short term, I believe we should resist the temptation to collect our marbles in a huff and go home. We have a long history with and commitment to the Nicaraguan people, and the values we hold dear suggest we remain engaged – just as Nicaraguans themselves are remaining engaged. And we continue to have important interests in Nicaragua and in Central America – not the least of which is the worsening drugs problem.

By and large, the U.S. government, in my opinion, has deftly navigated very turbulent waters in the Nicaragua-U.S. bilateral relationship.

We have called Ortega out when we needed to, and held our fire when that was the better move. Recently, our Embassy fought very hard behind the scenes for the rights of election observers to do their job. While the Embassy itself was not invited to participate as an observer, I am told they did so anyway.

Regionally, however, we are getting less traction. During last week’s meeting at the OAS, the U.S. was very tough on Ortega – who is clearly running afoul of the Inter-American Democratic Charter – but we did not get much support from other countries.

One of our witnesses today, Ambassador Callahan, served on the front lines in Managua in both the Bush and Obama administrations, and can give us some perspective on these issues. I would ask the panel directly what measures they would recommend for dealing with the Ortega government over the long term. Should we consider visa restrictions? Removing the waivers on assistance to Nicaragua, which amounts to about $24 million annually? What effect would that have on counternarcotics programs that are in our self interest, on the poorest of the poor in Nicaragua, and on the civil society actors that we want to help? And does it make sense to cut off our aid when it is dwarfed by the $500 million provided by Hugo Chavez – which, among other things, keeps the local business community quiescent.

What about loans to Nicaragua in the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)? Last year, these loans – which cover everything from direct help to government ministries to health aid – came to about $384 million. This year there are about $194 million worth of projects in the pipeline. This is, as they say, real money. Assuming we even can, should the U.S. try to interfere with these? What are the costs and benefits?

It’s easy to see that Ortega is no democrat. Right now, he doesn’t appear to see much downside in behaving undemocratically. If questionable results in the Congressional races are confirmed, they would grant Ortega a super-majority to change the Nicaraguan Constitution at will – including to allow his indefinite re-election. The waters that the U.S. has navigated for years in Nicaragua are about to get more turbulent. All the more important for the U.S. to define its strategic objectives, and start on a path to achieve them. I look forward to the discussion with the panel on these issues.