Some Sandinistas Never Change
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega is cozying back up with Russia as his country's economy falls apart. Washington couldn't care less.
So what do you do if you are the president of the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and you're facing the worst drought since 1976? Why, you buy Russian fighter jets at $30 million a pop, and work out a secretive deal to trade private land and the patrimony of your citizens to a Chinese canal-building company, of course.
So what do you do if you are the president of the second-poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and you’re facing the worst drought since 1976? Why, you buy Russian fighter jets at $30 million a pop, and work out a secretive deal to trade private land and the patrimony of your citizens to a Chinese canal-building company, of course.
Such is the state of affairs in Nicaragua after seven years of Sandinista rule. Congratulatory pieces like this recent one published by Al Jazeera cannot whitewash the fact that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo rule the country autocratically and benefit greatly from it. Any peace they have made with U.S. business interests and with policymakers in Washington is purely tactical. Eschewing his old communist policy in order to attract foreign investment helps Ortega and his friends, not the average Nicaraguan who still suffers levels of deprivation and poverty comparable to those faced by Haiti’s worst-off. “Sandinista” might not be synonymous with “Marxist” anymore, but it hasn’t lost its Leninist edge.
When I worked for the Bush administration, I met the newly-elected Ortega in Granada, Nicaragua, at an event he surely had mixed feelings about. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) had helped the government of Nicaragua design and implement a land reform program that put property titles into the hands of Nicaraguan citizens. Nicaraguans loved it, of course. For the first time everyone knew what he or she owned and could use that property as they saw fit for their family’s needs.
Ortega could not help but go along, given the popularity of the program that he had inherited. But of course: it was nothing he had ever supported during his first time in power. Having just barely won the presidency in 2007 with a mere third of the vote after years of more liberal (if somewhat corrupt) rule, he had to go along. Tellingly, the people’s tribune arrived at the event having driven his Mercedes-Benz G63 for a grand total of about 500 feet into the city center, in full view of the crowd. The luxury vehicle was transported to his various destinations on a flat-bed truck. It was strong-man showmanship at its best and worst.
Ortega had arrived at the event two hours late, making it impossible to conduct the planned meeting with our AID mission and embassy staff. We did not want to keep the people waiting any longer out in the searing heat. Yet Ortega still took time to kiss babies and glad-hand with the citizenry. Out of courtesy, other U.S. officials and I tagged along and all we got out of it was another wasted hour. Ortega’s apparent lack of interest in meeting with us was truly disappointing. The Nicaraguan ambassador had arranged the meeting to see if we could establish a working relationship to discuss additional programs like the land title one we were inaugurating. Clearly Ortega couldn’t be bothered to engage in these discussions, no matter how much value they would have been to the Nicaraguan people.
Seven years have passed since that meeting. Ortega is now serving his second term. His country is still desperately poor and ruled as an illiberal democracy, meaning that the constitution, laws, property rights, and free speech are curtailed whenever it suits the rulers. Where wealth has increased, it accrues to the elites and well-positioned. “Them that’s got shall get, them that’s not shall lose,” and all that.
So what else keeps Ortega busy these days?
First, he has signed a deal with a Caribbean-based Hong Kong company to dig a canal to rival the Panama Canal. It is unclear to what degree the Chinese government is party to the deal, but state-owned enterprises are involved. That means the government is involved, so of course we should expect Ortega and his cronies to benefit. Read the piece linked above for more details about the questions being raised over the dubious cost calculations ($40 billion? $50 billion? More?), impact on the environment, impact on private land ownership, and the forceful tactics of the authorities against citizens trying to get information about the project, or simply trying to protect their homes from intrusion by officials escorting Chinese researchers and contractors into their villages.
Second, Ortega is once again trying to build up his military for no good reason. After coming to power violently in the 1980s, the Sandinistas immediately embraced the Soviet Union and Cuba and began a military build up out of all proportion to its neighbors. They did so for two reasons: to export revolution and to be a Soviet and Cuban outpost in the Cold War. The tenacious democratic opposition of Violeta Chamorro and the fall of the Soviet Union ended their project.
Back in power, Ortega has rekindled these efforts, although this time he doesn’t even have the excuse of being on one side in a Cold War, and his neighbors are noticing with alarm. To be sure, the Sandinista government and the Russians are playing coy about all this. But Sandinista officials have all but admitted the truth of the rumors that they seek fighter jets from the Russians, and the Russian ambassador in Managua acknowledges that they are interested in building a military resupply base in the country.
The quest for advanced weapons was a prelude to the visit of Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov on his swing through Latin America last month that included a stop in Managua. The public relations spin on the visit was that it was about commerce and issues of mutual concern, like the U.S. “blockade of Cuba,” and to “express solidarity with Venezuela” which the Obama administration has (rightly) described as a national security threat. But it is worth noting that Lavrov got one thing very right in his remarks: Washington’s position is very inconsistent regarding Cuba and Venezuela. The U.S. attempt to normalize relations with Cuba as it bears down on Venezuela makes no sense. Both are enemies of the United States and actively work against us in many ways. It exposes the lie behind the Obama administration’s rationale for trying to cozy up to the Castro brothers.
Also on Lavrov’s agenda were discussions of draft agreements on cooperation regarding customs, civil aviation, space, healthcare, finance, and veterinary and phytosanitary security — all well and good, though one might wonder why Ortega’s government believes the Russians are the best choice for help in these projects given all the other alternatives, starting with the United States, Canada, and other western nations and investors. But we needn’t wonder.
If Ortega’s efforts to strengthen ties with Russia and China were simply about commerce and improving his economy, it would make sense. Poor countries regularly try to do such things. But his choice of partners is suspect given the nature of his regime and theirs: neither the Russians nor the Chinese nor the Sandinistas regard human rights and transparency very highly, and Ortega very much likes to work with “investors” who don’t ask questions, even if those questions emanate from his own citizens.
Lavrov’s trip is evidence of the neediness of the Putin regime for allies and commercial friends — wherever they can get them after the headaches they’ve caused for themselves with their Ukraine adventure. But Ortega needs him, too. How else to get such weapons, likely at a subsidized price and on credit?
Ortega is helped in what he is doing in that the strongest power in the region and the one that is the guardian of liberty, the United States, is inattentive to its own hemisphere. Having declared early in his tenure that the Monroe Doctrine is a dead letter, Secretary of State John Kerry has all but invited foreign powers to engage with Latin America as they see fit. And that they do: for their own interests and often with unsavory characters that are rapidly producing failed states while they enrich themselves.
Photo Credit: Elmer Martinez / Stringer
More from Foreign Policy
Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?
The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.
Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World
It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.
It’s a New Great Game. Again.
Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.
Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing
The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.