An Interview with Phyllis M. Powers, U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua
Phyllis M. Powers is the current United States Ambassador to Nicaragua. Powers entered the Foreign Service in 1978 and has served in a number of senior-level positions in US embassies around the world, including the post of Ambassador to Panama. While stationed in Colombia, Powers was the director of the Narcotics Affairs Section responsible for the counternarcotics program “Plan Colombia.” She also served as Director of the Office of Provincial Affairs at the American Embassy in Baghdad from 2007 to 2009. A native of Utica, New York, Powers graduated from Pennsylvania State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in biology and is a certified medical technologist.
The Politic: What led you to join the Foreign Service?
I joined the Foreign Service by accident. I mean that in the sense that I was working at a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia as a medical technologist, taking an auto mechanics class at night so I would know what the mechanics were saying when they were telling me that I needed things done on my car. I met a Foreign Service secretary taking the class for the same reason, and she told me all about her life in the Foreign Service. I was very interested but lamented that I did not think there was anything for me, and she said that yes there was. Within a couple of weeks I got a phone call from the State Department asking if I would like an interview for a job as a medical technologist. From there I just worked my way through the competitive process for various jobs to change from a medical technologist to a diplomat. So it was all by accident.
The Politic: That is a very fortuitous set of accidents.
It is indeed, but it goes to show that with the will and the energy to work hard and stretch yourself, you can become a success in the Foreign Service. Lacking a degree in international relations or economics or political science does not mean a person cannot succeed in the Foreign Service. We look for all types.
The Politic: Where did the interest in Latin America start?
That started with my first assignment after I was no longer a medical technologist. I was working in the administrative section of an embassy and they sent me to Colombia. That was in 1987, and I fell in love with Colombia. I fell in love with the Latin cultures, and this is now my fourth assignment in the Western Hemisphere.
The Politic: Have you found substantial differences between your different assignments throughout the hemisphere?
Oh, yes. Every country in the Western Hemisphere is a unique place. While there is an underlying thread in the Latin cultures in this hemisphere, there are also great distinctions between each country. Each country is proud of its particular cultural aspects: its dances, its culture, its food, and its idiomatic expressions. One must be very careful to use the right idiomatic expression in Spanish for each particular country because it could be very nice in one country, while in another country you could be projecting an insult of the utmost nature.
The Politic: In your opinion, what are some misconceptions that Nicaraguans might have of Americans and of life in the United States, if any?
Many Nicaraguans believe that the United States government and its citizens are only interested in that which concerns [the United States]. In this region, they are thinking of security — specifically, drug trafficking — and trade, which impacts American businesses and American employment. That certainly is not the only thing we’re interested in, but that is what they think we’re interested in. In Nicaragua, because of our history with the country, some think that we have imperialistic designs on Nicaragua. They do not necessarily believe just yet that we want to be partners. We don’t want to tell them what to do; we want to work with them to improve the situation here, to improve relations.
It is really a perception of what the United States government and its citizens think is most important in a relationship. Many still do not believe that we truly hold dear our democratic values and our desire to help others less fortunate. As I fly in and out of airports in the U.S. and Nicaragua, it is clear to me that American citizens are very interested in helping the less fortunate. The number of volunteers coming in on every flight to Managua is really amazing. And they are all coming down here to do something to help those less fortunate than them.
The Politic: In terms of the foreign policy of the United States, can you point to some examples that might help disprove those misconceptions?
Well, it is actually what we do here every day at the United States Embassy in Managua and in our travels across the country. We state very clearly that for us, the priorities are a free, democratic, prosperous, and secure country of Nicaragua. We have appreciation for the rule of law and for a country in which [the government] can be held accountable by its citizens. We want economic development here, so we spend a lot of time in our public outreach speaking to our priorities of a free, democratic society with strong economic development and strong democratic institutions.
We also do it through our programs, be it English-language scholarships for young people of reduced financial resources, or our programs working with small, rural agricultural producers who are single, head-of-household women trying to make a living and support their family. For young people in the poorest classes of the country, we have programs that give them the opportunity to be off the streets, not getting tagged by organized crime into a life of crime. It is those kinds of programs and that kind of outreach that show how we want to be a positive partner in the development of Nicaragua.
Even our military, our security training here, is designed to build the capacity of the Nicaraguans, not do it for them, and not impose our ways on them. So whenever we do any kind of training, be it English language or training for young entrepreneurs, it’s all a matter of helping them build their capacity to do for themselves. And that resonates.
The Politic: In terms of training and of development, how closely does the United States work with international organizations such as the United Nations and varied NGOs?
I would say that 99 percent of what we do here is done in partnership with NGOs and other civil society organizations. For instance, our program for rural women producers is with a Nicaraguan NGO that has been around since before Hurricane Mitch and has received various grants from us. This year, our grant was for $60,000, and the NGO, through other donations from the public-private sector, gave another $64,000. This public-private partnership allowed us to expand the capabilities of these women producers in the rural regions in the north.
Same thing for the way we do business with the youth — we have a democratic leadership program for young people in politics and in civil society organizations. We are not doing that alone. There are a couple of NGOs involved, an international one and a local one. And universities [are also involved], all coming together to ensure that the next generation of young people who are interested in politics and civil society organizations are better equipped.
It is not just wanting to do it; you have to know how to negotiate, how to manage — and that is what we are trying to do, to prepare them for their future.
The Politic: How essential would you say that the roles of various civil society groups and youth outreach organizations and programs are towards the development and the strengthening of democracy in Latin America and Nicaragua?
I think it is fundamental. Without young people who are enthused and who have a will to be of service to their country and to be responsible citizens, the strengthening of democracy not only in the Western Hemisphere but in the rest of the world just isn’t going to happen. You just can’t leave it to those who have been in power forever. When you look at the demographics of the world, about 65 percent to 70 percent of people are under the age of 35. That is a huge demographic, and if you don’t take them into account and don’t help them prepare to take the reins in ways that build their capacity, a disservice is being done.
Here in Nicaragua, our main focus is doing whatever we can to provide a platform for young people to exchange ideas, to interact with others, and to start learning more about what it means to be a responsible citizen. Without that knowledge, [young people will] have enthusiasm, but it may not get directed to where it needs to go most.
The Politic: Would you say that there is an appropriate level of outreach and inclusion of Nicaraguan youth in the political process? Are there steps that could be taken to improve youth participation?
I had a conversation recently with some young Nicaraguans. It was quite interesting listening to these young people talk about how there are many leaders of political parties and civil society organizations that are not quite ready to hand over the reins to this generation. [The young people] are all looking at ways of working through their systems because they have learned how to do so during their time in our leadership classes. They are using their negotiating skills to parry back and forth and say that they are the majority and will not be silent.
So yes, [Nicaraguan] leaders are not looking enough to the youth, but the youth are becoming more and more aware of the fact that they are a majority — a very strong majority. And they are becoming a responsible part of the solution. They are making their mark and I have high hopes that at least here in Nicaragua, there will be an active, responsible group of people who affect positive change. This is not just in politics, but in economic development, reform in the education system, and overall to the benefit of the citizens of Nicaragua.
The Politic: Do you think that in recent decades there has been a consolidation of democracy in Nicaragua? Do the citizens themselves feel confident enough in democracy, or are there areas that could be improved?
That is a good question. And I am going to take it up a level so as to concern the strength of democracy around the world and where we could be improving. There is no country that has a democracy strong enough to say that it doesn’t need strengthening. Every country that is a democracy needs to be strengthened in its own way, and it needs the participation of all citizens.
I think here in Nicaragua, it is fair to say that based on what has happened in the previous election, there has been an erosion of democratic institutions, and I believe that young people and others in civil society organizations believe they need to do something to strengthen those institutions.
We are quite clear, and President Obama was quite clear when he was in San Jose, that there is not real economic development and real security unless one has strong democratic institutions and real respect for the rule of law. And that is the message that we deliver here regularly. But I would be delivering this message wherever I was because it is the case around the world. Strong democratic institutions — emphasis on democratic — and rule of law will promote real, equitable, economic development, which all of the countries around the world need, including the United States.
The Politic: Would you say that there has recently been a renewed interest in Latin America on the part of the United States, or has it always been a region of high priority?
I was assigned to Colombia at the time of September 11, 2011. I would have to say that there was already strong interest in Latin America and Colombia; it was ramping up in 2001 and that has not diminished over the last ten or twelve years.
There was a program for quite some time that covered the entire Andean Region. We had the Merida Initiative and the Caribbean Security Initiative, and we had free trade agreements. So there has always been interest and there has been attention. I think what we are seeing now is a better articulation, or perhaps a more public articulation, of our interests. And I definitely think President Obama and Vice President Biden have been clear in what they have said on their trips and what they have done: we want to be an active partner and we want to work with our partners here in the region to ensure that the entire region is secure and is developing economically to the benefit of all.
There has always been interest; perhaps it has not always been as well articulated as we would like. But I can tell you that the professionals within the Foreign Service and the other departments that send professionals to this region, we have all promoted the interest of the United States in our partners in this region. High-level attention with visits is wonderful, but there has been and there will continue to be consistent attention and interest expressed by our government through the people that they send to staff our embassies throughout this region.
The Politic: You mentioned economic development. Taking into account the global fight against poverty and the UN Millenium Development Goals, would you say there has been tangible progress in Nicaragua over the past decade?
I would say there has been progress, but not nearly enough. When thirty to forty percent of the population lives in poverty, we are very concerned. It should be, and it is, a concern of the global community. We all have to be working on that, and we are. I recently inaugurated a couple of programs here that the U.S. Department of Agriculture is doing; one is “Food for Progress.” Another program is called “Food for Education” and each of these programs in its own way is directed towards those who are living in poverty, trying to help small producers and trying to help small public schools that have the poorest, [malnourished] children.
Those programs are trying to help. The UN is working on it. Other international donors are working on it. And the governments in these countries are working on these issues to the extent that their budgets allow them to do so. There is still effort being placed on it — nobody has forgotten about it — but we have not reached success yet. There is progress, but until every child goes to bed at night with a full stomach and is able to go to school properly nourished and with realistic aspirations to do something more than work in the informal economy, we have not finished the work of eliminating poverty.
The Politic: Going forward, what are some steps that the United States can take to help promote development programs?
A wonderful step would be to have more funding for assistance programs, but at this stage in our own economic environment, I do not see that happening in the near future. So for us, it is how we effectively utilize funding for assistance programs and leverage those funds with the private sector to encourage development. There is a lot of will on the part of private sector entities, through their corporate social responsibility programs, to pay back their financial success and to help those that do not have it. Everyone has a role to play and everyone needs to be contributing. I think we will get there, but it is not going to be this year.
The Politic: How would you say America has done in presenting itself on the international stage in terms of reaching out to partners such other nations, civil society groups, and the private sector? Is there anything that you feel we might be able to do better as a global leader?
As a global leader, we can always do more in our public outreach, in explaining the reasoning behind certain policies. We can always be more open to dialogue. We are human. We are a big country with lots of our own issues as well as our own policies. I think we have an able group of professionals in all branches of government working to help formulate and present our foreign policies, as well as our domestic policies. Let’s be clear: domestic policy has a very large role in what our foreign policy is. You cannot separate one from the other in many instances, nor would you want to.
I think that the most important thing we need more of in this day of social media is being visible and accessible. Interacting one-on-one with people, hearing what they have to say; that sort of interaction will help to shape the actual policy and the implementation of the policy on the ground.
Embassy of the United States to Nicaragua: http://nicaragua.usembassy.gov/index.html