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  Number 285 | Abril 2005
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Nicaragua

Hawks, Missiles, Pressure, Reasons and Resistance

Why is Washington exerting such pressure on the Nicaraguan Army to destroy the Sam-7 surface-to-air missiles in its arsenal since the 1980s? National security? Regional security? Or is there more than just a hint of revenge, plus a desire to subordinate an army of Sandinista origins? Whatever the reasons, both pressure and resistance are on the rise.

William Grigsby

In March, the US government stepped up its pressure on the Nicaraguan Army to destroy all of its shoulderheld surface-to-air missiles, which are the most useful defensive weapons in its arsenal. At the same time, several of the most important White House staffers have set out US strategy for Latin America: contain the advance of the both the Left and grassroots movements in certain countries, while neutralizing and even overthrowing their governments in others. In Nicaragua’s case, the pressure on the army appears to be part of the US objective to keep political power in the hands of Liberals and Conservatives and, more strategically, to stop the Sandinistas from getting back into government.

Following the departure of “moderate” US Secretary of State Colin Powell and the naming of Condoleezza Rice, that hardworking “hawk” executive, political positions on Latin America in the main US foreign policy institutions have become increasing united and Pentagon chief Donald Rumsfeld has been beating the war drum. A shift in US policy has been expected since December 2003. The reelection of the Bush administration paved the way for the execution of a strategy aimed at subjecting the whole region to its own particular priorities. In Central American, its main—and perhaps only—concern is Nicaragua.

The hawks

A group of Republicans who were actively involved in the war against Nicaragua during the 1980s—and therefore endured the military defeat inflicted on their counterrevolutionaries by the Popular Sandinista Army—currently occupy key US foreign policy and defense positions. The following are among the best known:

Otto Reich: former assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. An expert Washington lobbyist, he is still a key figure and is currently being mentioned to head up secret operations against Cuba. He was one of the first politicians the Reagan administration chose for the team running the war of aggression against Nicaragua from the Public Diplomacy Office, a CIA invention under State Department cover to carry out the covert tasks it was already secretly implementing. Reich transformed the office into a disinformation and psychological warfare agency. According to US government investigations, he was responsible for writing up newspaper op-ed pieces as if written by leaders of the Nicaraguan contras who were attempting to overthrow the Sandinista government. The aim was to sell the American public the image of the contras as “freedom fighters” and eliminate the arms embargo against them.

Roger Noriega: Reich’s successor as assistant secretary of state. At the end of the 1980s, he worked in the US International Development Agency (USAID), where he administered “non-lethal” aid to Central America. In 1985, after Congress prohibited US military aid to the Nicaraguan contras, both the Pentagon and USAID established “humanitarian aid” offices in Honduras, Costa Rica and parts of Nicaragua. At that time, rightwing evangelical and political groups working in close conjunction with the executive branch of the Agency delivered much of this aid to the contras, but Noriega later took direct charge of channeling it, sometimes laundering it through representatives of Colombia’s Medellin drug cartel in Miami.

Rogelio Pardo-Maurer: currently deputy assistant secretary of defense for Western Hemisphere affairs, in charge of special ops and low intensity conflicts in Latin America. According to the Nicaraguan news bulletin Trinchera de la Noticia, he headed up the secretariat representing the Nicaraguan Resistance (read contras) in Washington between 1986 and 1989 and later actively participated in the process that culminated in the ceasefire and the 1990 Nicaraguan elections. Of Costa Rican origin, Pardo-Maurer was the original conduit for the contacts between Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and the US government that later became the Central American Peace Process. His experience with the CIA and in support of the contras is reflected in his book The Contras, 1980-1989: A Special Kind of Politics (Praeger Publishers, New York, 1990).

Eliott Abrams: recently named head of Global Democracy Strategy, directly accountable to Condoleezza Rice herself. During the Reagan era, he was secretary of state for Inter-American affairs, and used the post to secretly direct funding to the contras through the illegal sale of weapons to Iran, a crime for which he was condemned by Congress and pardoned by George Bush Sr. He was also in charge of supervising a clandestine drug-trafficking network in California with the same objective.

John Negroponte has just been appointed the all-powerful Director of National Intelligence, having previously served as US permanent representative to the United Nations and then ambassador to Iraq. As ambassador to Honduras from 1981 to 1985, he was Reagan’s strong man in Central America, responsible for the Reagan government’s policy of systematic human rights violation in Honduras. Among other tasks, he supervised the creation in Honduras of the air base where the United States trained the contras during the eighties. The base was also use as a clandestine detention and torture center.

John Bolton: heir to the sadly notorious Senator Jesse Helms, Bolton was named the new US permanent representative to the United Nations in March 2005, pending confirmation. Among other key posts, he was Reagan’s assistant attorney general at the Justice Department and helped design strategies to cover up the illegal activities being used to continue the war against Nicaragua after Congress decided to suspend aid to the contras. In 1998, he wrote an article in the ultra-conservative magazine The National Interest, in which he insisted that the International Court of Justice at The Hague had committed a serious mistake when it made the historic decision to rule in favor of Nicaragua’s case against the United States in 1987.

Charles Shapiro: a specialist in government destabilization actions, he was one of the officials paid by the CIA as part of the plan to destabilize Salvador Allende’s democratically elected Chilean government. In the eighties, he shifted to Nicaragua and El Salvador, where he was military attaché.

Lino Gutiérrez: former US ambassador to Nicaragua (1996-1999), he is currently the ambassador to Argentina. From 1981 to 1983, he was in charge of the Nicaragua desk in the State Department and assisted in the birth of the contras.

Anne W. Patterson is deputy US permanent representative to the United Nations and former ambassador in Colombia. She replaced Gutiérrez as Officer-in-Charge of Nicaraguan Affairs in the State Department in the mid-eighties.

Stephen G. Rademaker: Assistant secretary of state for arms control. In the late eighties he was special assistant to the assistant secretary of state for Inter-American affairs.

John Maisto: Also a former US ambassador in Nicaragua (1993-1996), he is currently the US ambassador to the OAS. He was US ambassador to Costa Rica at the beginning of the eighties and deputy ambassador to the OAS at the end of the same decade. In San José, he encouraged the Costa Rican government to allow contra groups such as Edén Pastora’s ARDE to establish bases in Costa Rica.

William Brownfield: current US ambassador to Venezuela. He was political adviser to the commander-in-chief of the US Southern Command from 1989 to 1990, having previously been ambassador to El Salvador and held several important State Department posts during the 1980s.

Dan Fisk: Deputy assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. He was one of the most beloved disciples of the late ultraconservative Senator Jesse Helms, who was the architect of the war against Nicaragua.

Barbara Pope: Assistant secretary for civil rights at the State Department. She served as deputy assistant secretary of defense under President Reagan.

Earl Anthony Wayne: Assistant secretary at the Bureau of Economic and Business Affairs. He was special assistant to Reagan-era Secretaries of State Alexander Haig and George Shultz from 1981 to 1983. He then served as First Secretary at the US embassy in Paris for three years.

Rose M. Likins left her post as US ambassador to El Salvador to become acting assistant secretary for political-military affairs at the State Department. During the eighties, she held a number of State Department posts, including working as the Honduras desk officer and at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

Peter W. Rodean: Assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs. During the Reagan administration, he was a key official in the State and Defense Departments and a national security affairs counselor.

Thomas W. O’Connell: Assistant secretary of defense for special operations and low-intensity conflict. From 1980 to 1983, he was the senior intelligence officer for a US Army Special Mission Unit. He then held a number of important posts, including several at Fort Bragg, home of the 82nd Airborne Division, which was often mentioned as the force most likely to invade Nicaraguan during the 1980s.

With such players on its team, is there any real possibility of the US government building a cordial political relationship with the Nicaraguan Army? As one high-level army officer told us at the end of March, “The problem is that they haven’t forgotten what happened and they want revenge.”

Halleslevens: A setback for the United States

Other factors have influenced the recent offensive against the Nicaraguan Army. Perhaps the most important is the failure of the intelligence operation initiated by the United States three years ago to install General César Delgadillo—second-in-command of the Army Chiefs of Staff until February 21—as head of the armed forces.

According to one source, “Delgadillo was their man, and they couldn’t impose him.” President Enrique Bolaños had received instructions from the United States to make him head of the Nicaraguan military, but he couldn’t do it because the Military Council acted in strict accordance with the law, which states that the commander-in-chief must be chosen from among the longest-serving, highest-ranking officers. And Delgadillo was not among the top three.

Worse still for the United States was the fact that the army unanimously selected General Omar Halleslevens as their favorite on the list of three candidates presented to President Bolaños. The United States considers Halleslevens a Sandinista and therefore an anti-Yankee. While there may be some truth in that, the fact is that for the last five years, during General Javier Carrión’s administration, the new army chief actively participated in the new relationship forged with the US Armed Services, which was described as “more than cordial; friendly” just a few weeks ago.

“Yes, we do come from Sandinismo”

Eleven days before handing over his position as army chief on February 21, General Carrión talked openly about the army’s Sandinista roots. “We don’t have any problem with our origins, “he said. “We have recognized that we come from Sandinismo, from a fight against a dictator. We’re non-partisan, apolitical, at the service of the people and have a national vision. We have clearly demonstrated our professionalism through the blood of our soldiers and fighting against former Sandinistas, in Estelí, for example.” Not that the latter is anything to be proud of.

Then just before leaving his post, Carrión stated that the political sector in the United States is the one vetoing relations with the Nicaraguan Army. “We believe that reassuring those political authorities, who govern the military programs, will be the most important factor. Theoretically, that veto could be maintained, and that’s precisely now where you can see the great maturing of relations between our army and our government; and in the case of the United States, with their military authorities.”

And to back up what he was saying, Carrión recalled his own visit to General Richard Myers, head of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, in August 2004, following the destruction of the first 333 SAM-7s. He described the meeting in the Pentagon as a “personal meeting” on security threats and bilateral cooperation. It was the first time since the Sandinista triumph in 1979 that the two countries’ top military leaders had sat down at the same table.

A publicity stunt: The FARC in Nicaragua?

As if the most recent pressure exerted on the Nicaraguan Army were not enough, in the middle of Easter week Honduran Security Minister Oscar Álvarez denounced that cells of the leftwing Colombian Revolutionary Armed Forces (FARC)—classified as a terrorist organization by the United States—were operating in Nicaragua. According to Álvarez, their aim was to buy weapons and take them back to Colombia. He also explained that he had obtained this information from the interrogation of a group of Colombians captured in Tegucigalpa at the beginning of March.

Nicaraguan Police chief Edwin Cordero denied the accusations, stating that while Colombians had been found in Nicaragua, they were linked to the FARC’s bitter enemies, the savage paramilitary groups known as the Colombian Self-Defense Units. “There is no evidence that there are FARC guerrilla fighters in the region and we don’t know what Minister Álvarez of Honduras is basing his declarations on,” said Cordero. The Army went even further. As official Army spokesperson Colonel Adolfo Zepeda explained, it is normal for such information to be transmitted confidentially among the region’s police and armed forces so they can act accordingly. So this appears to have been some kind of publicity stunt, almost certainly orchestrated from Washington.

“The SAM-7s are a danger to the world”

The pressure is centered on Nicaragua’s stockpile of SAM-7 missiles. Following the destruction of 1,000 such missiles in 2004, the Nicaraguan Army now has 1,051 SAM-7s and has stated unequivocally that 400 will not be destroyed. The United States is intent on the destruction of all the missiles, alleging that they aren’t safe in the hands of the Nicaraguan Army, could fall into terrorist hands and therefore represent a “national security threat” for the United States. But numerous surface-to-air missiles capable of wreaking the same havoc are in the hands of the Peruvian, Ecuadorian and Colombian armies—to name but a few—and Washington is not exerting any pressure for their destruction.

That suggests that the underlying problem is an inability to trust the Nicaraguan Army’s ability, or perhaps willingness, to safeguard the missiles. On March 21, a member of the Pentagon delegation accompanying Donald Rumsfeld on his tour of Argentina, Brazil and Guatemala declared to the AFP news agency in Buenos Aires that there “is laxity and no control” of the missiles in Nicaragua.

Three days earlier, Peter Brennan, chargé d’affaires of the US Embassy in Nicaragua, informed the head of the Nicaraguan Army’s Chiefs of Staff, General Julio César Avilés, that US military aid to Nicaragua (US$2.3 million) had been suspended pending destruction of the missiles. The money is earmarked for scholarships, seminars, conferences and military support. Brennan also stated, however, that cooperation for equipment, humanitarian aid and the de-mining program would be maintained. US military aid to Nicaragua was suspended in 1979 following the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship and was not resumed until 2003, during the government of incumbent President Enrique Bolaños. It is estimated that Nicaragua has received at least a million dollars a year in aid since then.

Rumseld’s assistant described the suspension as a “strong message” to the Bolaños government, while Brennan assured that they were “in a discussion period to see how we can progress” with the cooperation programs. He insisted that “we would like to see the missiles destroyed and are waiting for that to happen…. There is a country-to-country commitment and we are waiting for that to be resolved. This is very important for us. Those missiles represent a threat to the whole world.”

A CIA sting operation?

The suspension of US aid to the Nicaraguan Army was the culmination of the latest political offensive, which started on January 11, when the Nicaraguan police confiscated an ancient C2M missile—better known as a SAM-7—in the possession of two Nicaraguans in the “El Pingüino” refrigeration workshop in Managua, owned by Oscar Rivera Lacayo. In his declaration, Rivera stated that a man called Pineda had sold him the weapon for $45,000 in Matagalpa. He also mentioned suspected former contras, including one with the pseudonym “Cascabel” (Rattlesnake), who supposedly participated in the sale of the weapon. Pineda was picked up but the others mentioned were not.

After being found guilty of terrorism, Pineda alleged—with such detail that surely not all of the story was invented—that the plot was supposedly prepared by the CIA in one of the US Embassy’s Managua residences on the morning of December 23, 2004. “One of the gringos we met with,” he said, “was called Clarence Silva, a Nicaraguan working undercover for the CIA, another was called Phillips Morris and another was named Tony.” These agents supposedly offered them $1,000 for every missile they purchased and then brought to public attention “to discredit the army.”

Pineda had a lot more to say for himself: “I didn’t lend myself to any CIA operation, they just asked us if we wanted to cooperate with world peace, etc., etc. Then they arranged the setup with Raúl Huembes, an undercover National Police agent. And there was another guy called Chamberlain, an ex–contra who also works with the American Embassy. Two former Resistance (contra) members, Arandú and Cascabel, obtained the missile. Phillips Morris even asked Arandú: ‘Where did you get this missile? Is it the Army’s?’ ‘No, it’s one of the ones you gave us during the war. This missile has never belonged to the Army.’ According to the US Embassy itself, there were 100 missiles that they never collected because they were only gathering up the 250 Red Eyes. In one of the conversations that Cascabel and Arandú had with Clarence and Morris, the gringos even asked them: ‘What do you want that photo of the missile for?’ ‘To show it to the lady—who was the Ambassador—and the gentleman—referring to President Enrique Bolaños.’ Those interviews are taped in the US Embassy’s La Casona residence.”

When General Carrión was asked about Pineda’s accusation and the Nicaraguan President’s possible participation in this operation, he replied, “I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.” But he neither confirmed nor denied the rest of the plot. “When the case broke,” he commented, “we said that there were rumors of an undercover operation. We can’t confirm it, but the relevant authorities should investigate the matter. We investigated and worked on a report in coordination with the National Police that we handed over to the appropriate authorities. We don’t want to comment on that. We have said that any rumor of this kind, weapons being bought without the participation of the authorities, is very dangerous. We’re going to wait and see what the authorities say.” In the event, nothing more was ever heard about the investigations Carrión mentioned.

Where are the “other” missiles?

The coming months will surely reveal whether or not there really was a sting operation. What is extraordinarily striking about the testimony offered by Pineda, quite a successful lawyer before his arrest, is his direct allusion to the Red Eye rockets supplied to the contras in the eighties by the same US officials who are now trying to recover them. While not exactly a secret, such information is at least confidential. How did he know about it? Pineda mentioned 250 Red Eyes, which is almost exactly the number quoted by Army intelligence (262). He also said that the US officials had managed to “recover” at least 100, and according to Nicaraguan intelligence, approximately 108 have been recovered. Where exactly did Pineda get such accurate information?

General Carrión himself has publicly stated that one of the real concerns of the US is the whereabouts of the Red Eye rockets. US officials originally bought them all during the eighties after Congress had expressly prohibited them from continuing to arm the Nicaraguan contras. As one military representative told us off the record, “They want us to get them out of a bind, to take responsibility for finding them and handing them over and to do it all in secret. And they haven’t even given us precise information about which contra chiefs were responsible for handling them or in which area of the country they were operating.”

Other missiles are also at large, which the contras captured from Nicaraguan soldiers in combat. The same sources said that the army lost between 20 and 30 SAM-7s in fighting between 1985 and 1989, including the one confiscated by the National Police from Pineda and his partner. Only ten of the others have been recovered. So where are the rest? According to our source, “It’s a legitimate concern, both for them and for us, but it will be difficult to resolve the problem without full collaboration from the Resistance. And the only ones who can guarantee that are the Americans themselves.”

Bolaños adds fuel to the flames

A few days after the missile was confiscated in Managua, The Washington Times, which is closely linked to US intelligence organizations, published a series of articles insinuating, without any evidence, that members of the Nicaraguan military might be interested in selling missiles to irregular Colombian groups out of “ideological affinity.” The newspaper quoted anonymous White House officials who suspect that the Nicaraguan Army is involved in supplying missiles to unidentified civilians. According to The Washington Times, those attempting to sell the missiles were demanding several hundred thousand dollars each. It went on to say that certain members of the US government suspected that the army was betraying Bolaños.

When questioned about the matter the following day, US State Department spokesperson Richard Boucher said that his government had asked its Nicaraguan counterpart to do an official investigation to determine whether any surface-to-air missiles dating back to the fighting between contras and Sandinistas in the 1980s could have been “lost” or fallen “into the wrong hands.” He said that reports and accusations suggested to his government that there could be stockpiles of missiles in the possession of the army or elsewhere. He also issued a communiqué saying that the fact that a SAM-7 had been found in a Managua workshop showed that such missiles could be bought on the open market, highlighting the need for greater international cooperation to eliminate them.

President Bolaños then added his own fuel to the fire. Following the sudden “appearance” of the missile, he told The Miami Herald at the end of January that “anything is possible,” referring to the handling of the SAM-7s. “If I have control of the missiles and they offer me a lot of dollars, they could fall into the temptation of selling it or giving it away in a show of companionship,” he said, in a confusion of pronouns but referring to members of the army. His declarations concerned the Army Chiefs of Staff, leading General Carrión to remind him that “just as many millions can tempt any officer, any public official.” He also said he wasn’t worried whether Bolaños didn’t trust him, adding that “the most important thing is the backing of the institutions, the laws of the republic and the opinion we find when we’ve been to the military commands. Our moral force lies in the unanimous backing that we enjoy.”

But Bolaños kept on. In another interview, this time to a Salvadoran daily in early February, he insisted that “terrorists buy such weapons at ‘premium’ exaggerated prices so attractive that someone could decide to sell one.”

Destroy the missiles
and suspect their guardians

The United States unleashed an intense media campaign—supposedly instigated from Washington by dirty-war expert Otto Reich together with the Nicaraguan Ambassador—littered with the opinion of “experts,” “journalists” and politicians from all over the continent to influence public opinion beyond mere backing for destruction of the missiles. It also aimed to encourage mistrust of the Nicaraguan Army itself due to its Sandinista roots.

At the end of February, the Bush government sent a high-level mission to Nicaragua, headed by Rose M. Likins, acting assistant secretary for political-military affairs at the State Department and a supposed Central American “expert.” At the end of her visit, she left behind a communiqué whose ambiguity lent itself to speculation. “We are very pleased with the reiteration of the commitment of the government, the Nicaraguan Army and representatives of the political class to continue with the destruction and security of the systems…” it read. “Nicaragua should consider the safety of commercial aviation and the implications of such unprotected projectiles for its security and for the country’s economic opportunities… Nicaragua is the only Central American nation that still has this kind of portable projectile within its borders. Those that are not officially supervised and controlled could easily fall into the hands of criminal or terrorist networks. Our concern is that without adequate controls, this kind of weapon represents a major threat to the whole region and to world aviation. The President reiterated to me his firm commitment to President Bush and former Secretary of State Colin Powell in 2003 that Nicaragua would destroy its missiles.”

Nicaraguan Defense Minister José Adán Guerra, meanwhile, claimed that the reiterated commitment was the same as the one assumed in 2003. He had a different impression of the results of Likin’s visit: “We covered the issue of the SAM-7 missiles from two points of view: security and conservation of the missiles. And they were very clear, as they have been in our depots three times confirming that the missiles are perfectly well safeguarded with all the necessary security parameters. Concretely, we are going to implement certain steps to further improve the security of our depots.

“But on the other hand, we explained to them about the destruction plan, discussed with the United States and drawn up by Nicaragua’s civil and military authorities, which we presented to the United States. When Colin Powell was here, he took a copy that I presented to him on November 23, 2003. We explained this destruction plan to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. The intention, the clear and firm desire of the Nicaraguan government, is to continue with the destruction of the surplus, maintaining a strategic reserve of 20%, without harming the Nicaraguan state’s defensive capacity.”

Sandinistas and Liberals vote for the arms law

As it is clear that, technically speaking, the missiles’ security is guaranteed, all of the maneuvering over their future boils down to politics. This would explain why both the PLC and FSLN benches voted to approve the new Arms Law on November 23, 2004, as part of their political pact. Article 142 of this law transfers from the executive to the legislative branch decision-making power over the sale and destruction of state-owned firearms, including the military arsenal. And such decisions require a qualified majority of 56 votes. This gives the 38 FSLN representatives an effective veto, as there are only 53 legislators on all other benches combined, at least in this legislature.

Just before the law was finally passed, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Dan Fisk paid Nicaragua a visit. One of his objectives was to stop the approval of this article and he lobbied long and hard with the main PLC legislators, but to no avail. Over a year before, Fisk had warned the pro-Alemán parliamentary representatives that “if you continue insisting on the issue of Arnoldo Alemán, the United States will forget about Nicaragua. Just as Daniel Ortega is unacceptable to the United States, so is a political future with Alemán. Arnoldo Alemán is a political has-been. It’s time to push ahead. One day the Sandinistas will realize that Daniel is also a has-been. They can’t continue under a corrupt figure and they will sink if they continue with him.” But these threats were extremely offensive to the PLC representatives, who demonstrated their displeasure by voting with the Sandinistas.

With this law, pushed through with the votes of their Liberal opponents and with barely dissimulated backing by the army, the FSLN neutralized Decree 27, approved with the votes of all non-Sandinista legislators in April 2004, which gave the President the power to destroy all anti-air missiles unilaterally. In mid-November, just before the Arms Law was approved, Bolaños ordered the destruction of 333 missiles, to bring the total number destroyed to 1,000. And when the Sandinistas tried to block the move using a last-minute judicial maneuver, PLC bench chief Enrique Quiñónez was quick to defend the presidential decision. But just a week later, as the result of the Ortega-Alemán pact, Quiñónez and all other PLC representatives voted in favor of the Arms Law and defended the army’s decision to keep 20% of the missiles.

Missiles for Alemán’s freedom?

The intensity of US pressure seems to have influenced the Liberals’ change of mind. In February, the president of the National Assembly Defense Commission, PLC representative Fernando Avellán, announced that his party would support the decision to destroy all of the weapons. He even offered PLC support to “raise awareness” and “sensitize” the other parliamentary benches—including the Sandi-nistas—to ensure that total destruction. But the following month, as negotiations with the FSLN progressed, René Herrera, Wilfredo Navarro and Noel Ramírez—Alemán’s closest collaborators—popped up offering their party’s total backing for the army’s position of keeping 20% of the original SAM-7 inventory. Avellán even offered to help the army “so it’s not exposed to any kind of pressure or international sanction for not destroying the missiles.” Quite a turnaround from a former counter-revolutionary who habitually defends US interests in the Nicaraguan parliament and who declared at the end of February that there would be “pretty strong sanctions” if all of the missiles weren’t destroyed.

Among the sanctions mentioned by Avellán at the time were suspension of all military cooperation with the Nicaraguan Army and perhaps even the cancellation of aid through special programs such as the US Millennium Account. He also said that he had been told that the United States would classify the Managua airport as class “C” or class “3,” the lowest possible security category, which is currently applied to Haiti’s Porte au Prince airport. This would mean the immediate withdrawal from the country of all US airlines. Is Avellán some kind of soothsayer, or is he more of a sounding board?

Apparently, the PLC hoped to buy the freedom of its caudillo, Arnoldo Alemán, in return for supporting the continued existence of the missiles. But as the weeks went by and nothing came of the deal, it finally opted to have Avellán present a draft bill to destroy 651 missiles over six months, which would represent the total destruction of 80% of the original arsenal, thus complying with the plan originally agreed on by the Nicaraguan and US governments. Two days later, President Bolaños presented a similar draft bill and the FSLN announced that its 38 votes would only be available if there was express agreement from the Army. “Any destruction of weapons has to be based on a reasonable balance of forces in the Central American region,” warned the head of the FSLN bench, Edwin Castro.

Strategic objective: Military base in Cosigüina

While tensions and initiatives were moving to the rhythm of the political agreements, joint military exercises took place involving troops from both the US Southern Command and the Nicaraguan Army. The US objective is supposedly “projects of social benefit,” including the construction of hospitals, schools and roads. Both sides said that the maneuvers—codenamed “New Horizons 2005”—had been a “resounding success.”

But as early as November 2003, the Managua-based Center for International Studies (CEI), one of whose specialties is analyzing the country’s disarmament, had warned that “the most worrying thing, which not many people know about, is the Pentagon’s intentions to build a new military base on Nicaraguan territory; specifically on the Cosigüina peninsula [in western Nicaragua]. Although military authorities deny any knowledge of the plans, it has been leaked to the media that this was part of the reason for Powell’s visit to Nicaragua. In this sense, the destruction of the surface-to-air missiles can be seen an element of pressure, but the final objective is the military base.”

Do all of the Sam-7’s actually work?

Interviewed by journalist Tim Rogers, private security and disarmament consultant Roberto Cajina—a former adviser to General Humberto Ortega—declared that the US demand is a “slap in the face” for the army. According to Cajina, the fact that Washington asked Nicaragua to reduce its missiles without making any specific disarmament requests of any other Central American countries—particularly Honduras—demonstrated that hard-line politicians from the Cold War era who are now back in the Bush government still don’t trust Nicaragua. “This should be interpreted as a vote of no-confidence in the professionalism of the Nicaraguan Army,” said Cajina.

He did, however, recognize that destroying the weapons was a political show of good will and would very probably not affect Nicaragua’s real defensive capabilities: “The Army would be destroying weapons whose technology dates back 40 years in some cases. They may not even work any more.”

“A grandiose ideological and
political symbol for the FSLN”

In an editorial published in November 2004, La Prensa—often a mouthpiece for US interests in Nicaragua—highlighted “the professional way” the Army Chiefs of Staff were acting “at a time when the pact has seriously cracked the foundations of institutional democracy, when the FSLN is recovering almost all of its power thanks to the PLC’s political and moral capitulation... The SAM-7s are evidently a grandiose, ideological and political symbol for the FSLN. They also represent the core of the military offensive and defensive capacity ‘shield’ in the new head-on struggle that the Sandinistas think they could wage against ‘Yankee imperialism’ if they win the 2006 national elections. That’s why they’ve been fighting tooth and nail to avoid their destruction.

“In reality, the Sandinistas would appear to be preparing themselves for another armed conflict. They even talk about war with Honduras and Colombia and some say they could go back to the mountains ‘to combat imperialism.’ On the other hand, despite the fact that some military experts say the SAM-7 missiles are obsolete, the truth is that they are still powerful devices of war and not only can decide a battle, but can even make the difference between victory and defeat in an armed conflict.” These lines effectively sum up just why the United States wants to disarm the Nicaraguan Army.

“The advance of undesired old-style populism”

There are other similarly powerful reasons. In March, CIA director Porter Goss gave Congress a number of warnings. “There are potential sources of instability in Latin America,” he said. “Destabilization in the area could come to represent ‘a threat’ to US security. That obliges us to pay attention to it and try to provide the best possible information we can about what is happening, so that the right policies and programs are adopted to deal with those issues.” These “potential sources of instability” have been created by the electoral cycle due to culminate in 2006 in several Latin American countries, including Nicaragua.

There was a similar warning from Secretary of State Rice. In an interview published in The Washington Post, she expressed her concern over the advance of leftist parties in the region, describing it as an “advance of old-style populism, the undesirable kind.” She went on to warn that this neo-populism could result in dangerous demagogy about class differences.

US journalist Jim Lobe, Washington correspondent for the IPS agency, wrote in mid-March that one of the objectives of Donald Rumsfeld’s recent tour of Latin America was “to sound the alarm over the growing danger represented in his view by certain Latin American governments. At the top of the list is Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, followed by former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, who has presented his candidacy for that country’s 2006 elections. Washington fears that Ortega could return to power and control the missiles.”

In his visit to Managua in November 2004, Dan Fisk also talked about this “danger” with the Liberals. One PLC leader—former foreign minister Francisco Aguirre Sacasa—revealed that Fisk “was deeply concerned about a Sandinista victory. He said categorically that it would not be acceptable for the United States.” However, Aguirre added with surprising patriotism, “that is his opinion. I’m Nicaraguan. I don’t know what they’re going to do, but this is a problem that we Nicaraguans have to resolve. Nicaragua belongs to Nicaraguans and not to the United States.”

El Diario Exterior, the on-line publication of a Spanish foundation closely linked to the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation, one of whose prominent directors has been none other than Dan Fisk, recently warned that “the next 18 months will be crucial for Latin America due to a string of presidential, municipal and legislative elections that will keep the region in a constant state of electoral turmoil, which is significant, especially at a time when the center-Left has grown strong in various countries. Washington will keep a close eye on these electoral processes as the region is ‘a potential source of instability,’ which could endanger US security. The coming year will be a key test for left-wing populism as Venezuela, Brazil, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Mexico will all elect new Presidents.”

January 11: On the verge of a crisis
with the army in the streets

Yet another reason behind the US anti-missile stance is the army’s excessive professional zeal regarding national political situations. Privately, US diplomats have told President Bolaños that they are concerned that “the military commands don’t always obey orders.” They are referring to what happened in January, when there were strong rumors that Bolaños, in a Nicaraguan version of Fujimori’s Peruvian coup, would decree a state of emergency and dissolve parliament to stop the constitutional reforms agreed by Alemán and Ortega, which took certain powers away from the President.

General Carrrión himself confirmed the President’s intentions on January 11. “The President did call me and told me that he was hypothetically examining the idea of a state of emergency,” he said. “So we started to look at the whole legal side and told the President that from our point of view there was no legal form or basis for calling a state of emergency in relation to the political problem. And I think that helped the situation develop in the political sphere. Many people were saying that the troops should be sent out. But experience in Latin America has shown that this is not the solution to political problems. On the contrary, sending the troops into the streets has only developed greater conflict. We were on the verge of a crisis.”

It would be very difficult for Bolaños to dare execute such a plan without having first consulted the United States. The way that the army put the brakes on that idea goes a long way to explaining the subsequent escalation of US pressure on that institution.

The underlying aim: Humiliation

According to an officer from the Nicaraguan Army’s chiefs of staff, who for obvious reasons prefers to remain anonymous, “What they want to do with the missiles is castrate us. We proposed keeping 20% of the SAM-7s for national defense reasons and the US military knows we’re right. But the politicians in Washington get very angry about things like what happened in January. Plus they don’t want the Sandinistas to win in 2006. I’m sure they will eventually ask us to intervene to stop that happening. They think that if they force us to do away with all of the missiles they’ll humiliate us and it will then be easy for them to subordinate us to anything they say, in both the military and political spheres. For me, that’s what’s behind all of this.”


William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.

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