As the United States continues to supply Ukraine openly and generously with weapons and other materials in the midst of its war with Russia, it appears Moscow is rekindling a military relationship with Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan government recently announced a new military collaboration with Russia. Beginning in July, more Russian troops, aircraft and ships will start arriving in the Central American nation. Officially, the Nicaraguan government is labeling the program a “military exchange, instruction, and training initiative to support humanitarian aid operations.” Between the lines, however, is the unstated intention to transform Nicaragua into a hub for Russian forces in the Caribbean region. Coincidentally, the announcement comes as relations between Managua and Washington continue to deteriorate. Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, certainly to friend of the United States, will use the program to annoy the US and relieve Nicaragua’s economic troubles, which he blames the United States for.
NATO expansion and the war in Ukraine are providing Russia with all the motivation needed to project military power in the backyard of the United States. This strategy is similar to the one pursued by the Soviet Union in the 1980s during Ortega’s first tenure as Nicaragua’s leader. During that period of time, the US mined Nicaraguan harbors to harass and dissuade Eastern Bloc shipping and undertook other covert activities to frustrate Soviet efforts to establish a toehold in Central America. The effort was ultimately successful, though it nearly caused the downfall of the Reagan administration through the Iran-Contra affair.
This time around, geopolitical dynamics are somewhat different, yet the US would be wrong to ignore an increased Russian presence in Nicaragua. Especially given the free rein the Nicaraguan government appears ready to allow Russian forces to operate with. Decree 10-2022 approved by the Ortega-controlled legislature authorizes Russian military forces to “patrol” Nicaragua’s Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Even though Russia has lost tremendous amounts of international support and respect, the prospect of MiGs and Russian warships operating in such close proximity to US waters and territory is too tempting to pass up. For Ortega, the new phase of military cooperation between Russia and Nicaragua gives him a propaganda victory which could entice otherwise reluctant international companies and nation-states to invest in Nicaragua.
With Daniel Ortega firmly embedded as Nicaragua’s leader, it was only a matter of time before Nicaragua gravitated nearer to China’s orbit. That it finally happened comes as no surprise, but the manner in which Nicaragua acted has raised many eyebrows around Central America and the world. In short, Nicaragua ended its long-running diplomatic and business relationships with Taiwan. Managua wasted little time in formally established diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China next. Shortly thereafter, the first batch of Chinese-donated COVID-19 vaccines arrived in Nicaragua. Over 1 million doses have been promised by Beijing, seemingly a handsome payment for Ortega having chosen China over Taiwan.
“The People’s Republic of China is the only legitimate government representing all of China and Taiwan is an undoubted part of the Chinese territory,” Nicaragua’s Foreign Minister Denis Moncada said in a televised announcement from capital city Managua last week. Nicaragua is not the first nation in Central America to sever ties with Taiwan in recent years. El Salvador and the Dominican Republic announced they would no longer recognize Taiwan. In the aftermath of Nicaragua’s decision, Honduras is now taking a hard look at the prospect of jumping ship as well.
Nicaragua’s decision is a double victory for Beijing. Taiwan’s diplomatic influence has been reduced and the Chinese beachhead in the Western Hemisphere expands. Outside of Cuba and Venezuela, which are both allies of Beijing, China is moving to gain favor and influence in other Central American countries. The Biden administration has been very slow in countering Chinese moves in America’s backyard. It should regard Nicaragua’s actions as a wake-up call at the very least. The fact that China is actively moving to minimize Taiwan’s circle of friendly nation-states takes the appearance of being a possible precursor to military action in the near future. In the bigger picture however, the Chinese inroads being made in Central America are the seeds of a challenge to US dominance in the Western Hemisphere at down the line.
Unfortunately, Washington doesn’t exactly see it this way. As a result, China’s inroads will expand unchallenged south of the border for some time.
One year ago the largest Nicaraguan protests in a generation began. Hundreds of thousands of students, workers, priests, and farmers came out demanding economic and social reform, as well as the resignations of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, and his wife Vice President Rosario Murillo. There was fervent hope across Central America that the protests would be the start of Nicaragua’s shift towards democracy. Sadly, this was not to be. In similar fashion to what Nicolas Maduro has done in Venezuela, Ortega responded by tightening his grip on power.
The wave of protests in April, 2018 caught Ortega and his regime entirely off guard. For a short period of time it appeared possible that the regime might fall, but Ortega slammed it shut with an unrelenting, and brutal crackdown. Since last April 500 protesters are known to have been killed, and over 1,200 have been imprisoned, or have disappeared. Over 50,000 Nicaraguans have left the country in the past year. A good number of them are attempting to seek asylum in the United States, exacerbating the growing crisis on the US southern border.
Although the crisis in Venezuela is consuming the lion’s share of international attention for the moment, many nations are aware of what’s going on in Nicaragua. Washington is becoming more interested in large part because of the connection Ortega’s government has with Cuba, and because of the consequences Ortega’s suppression is having for the situation on the US southern border. The Trump administration has levied economic sanctions against Managua, as part of a larger package also aimed at Cuba and Venezuela. Nicaraguan business leaders are being targeted and the hope is that the pressure will erode the support that Nicaragua’s business community has given to Ortega’s government.
Like Venezuela, the situation in Nicaragua is stalemated at the moment. If the current round of sanctions fails to have the desired effect, the US will likely add more. Unfortunately, if Venezuela is any measuring stick, it will be a long time before they have a negative effect on Daniel Ortega’s regime. If ever.
Venezuela is not the only Latin American country dealing with concurrent economic and political crises. Nicaragua has been in the midst of its gravest national crisis since the country’s civil war. Unfortunately, Nicaragua’s issues have been greatly overshadowed by the drama taking place in Venezuela. Now, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is taking steps he hopes will help his cause. On Thursday Ortega announced his government is working to resume negotiations with opposition leaders sometime next week. He made the announcement at a ceremony commemorating the death of guerrilla leader Augusto Sandino 85 years ago.
Ortega’s motivation for moving to ease the crisis has more to do with economic realities than it does healing the national rift. The government is facing a $315 million deficit at the moment. The funding, and loans from multilateral organizations which Nicaragua needs to contend with the deficit, and deficit-related issues is no longer available. Protests that broke out last April, and May following Ortega’s aborted pension reform turned deadly when the government launched a major crackdown. Over 300 Nicaraguans lost their lives and hundreds more were arrested on vague ‘terrorism’ charges. Shortly thereafter the multilateral money, which has been like mother’s milk for Nicaragua, dried up.
If negotiations begin, the opposition is almost guaranteed to want Ortega’s resignation, and new elections to be held as its main demands. The Nicaraguan leader is accused by his opponents of establishing, along with his wife and Vice President Rosario Murillo, a corrupt dictatorship since 2007. The opposition negotiators will include representatives of university students, businessmen, and politicians, a cross-section of Nicaraguan society.
At this point there are no official preconditions for the two sides to engage in dialogue. However, a handful of reliable sources have indicated the opposition will likely demand the release of political prisoners before talks get underway. There has been no official word on this by the Civic Alliance for Justice and Democracy (the official name of the Nicaraguan opposition) and it is not very likely Ortega would agree to such a move before talks have even started. On the other hand, Ortega needs these negotiations to produce results, and help jump start funding for the economy. Nicaragua’s president could be more flexible than he’s been in the past if it means achieving his goals.
Protests and demonstrations in Nicaragua over the government’s intention to reform the nation’s pension plan became increasingly violent over the weekend. According to sources, the number of dead stands at twenty-six. The student-led protests in Managua last Wednesday expanded beyond the capital city to other parts of the nation. The protests themselves have evolved into a popular uprising and challenge to the authority of the government. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega announced on Sunday he will not go forward with the pension reform, obviously hoping to stabilize the situation. His action could have the opposite effect, however, with many protesters appearing determined to redouble their efforts, vowing to continue the demonstrations until Ortega leaves office.
The unrest in Nicaragua is drawing an increasing amount of international attention. The US State Department is removing a number of its embassy staff and families from Nicaragua in light of the violent protests. Pope Francis has also chimed in, calling for an end to the violence. The death of a Nicaraguan journalist while he was broadcasting on Facebook live has helped make more people aware of what’s taking place.
The longer the protests continue, more pressure will be applied to Ortega. The Nicaraguan leader is an avowed leftist cut from the same cloth as Fidel Castro and to a lesser degree Hugo Chavez. He was the head of government in the 1980s, transforming Nicaragua into a socialist state closely allied to Cuba and the Soviet Union. Ortega lost a re-election bid shortly after the end of the Cold War, only to be elected president again in 2007. Since then, he has moved the country back to the left, and in the process undertook a number of moves that strengthened his hold on power. Ortega’s influence is evident in every branch and department of the government. His influence helped the National Assembly do away with presidential term limits in 2014, and bring about constitutional reforms allowing Ortega to personally appoint military and police commanders.
Latin America deserves more scrutiny with Ortega being challenged, a new president taking power in Cuba, and the ongoing crisis in Venezuela. Nicaragua and Venezuela especially have many similarities at the moment. If Ortega continues to use force to quell the demonstrators and remains in power, Washington will begin paying more attention to events south of the border.