A brief history of our chameleon Army
On September 2, the 39th anniversary of the Army’s founding,
General Julio César Avilés reiterated his loyalty and gratitude
to “Comandante Daniel Ortega” and “Compañera Rosario.”
What remains of the military institution created in the 1980s
as the Sandinista Popular Army?
What’s its identity today? What transformations has it undergone?
Will it decide to change again when the Ortega-Murillo duo leaves power?
Its chameleon-like character has prepared it well to do so.
The Nicaraguan Army, the youngest military body in the hemisphere, celebrates its founding every yearon September 2 even though it isn’t the date the Popular Sandinista Army (EPS) was constituted; that happened on August 22, 1979, a month after the Somoza dictatorship was militarily brought down.
This date change was no accident. It was an expression of its identity, the source of its pride, underscoring it as the direct successor of a historic symbol: the Army Defender of National Sovereignty founded by General Augusto C. Sandino on September 2, 1927. That date marked the start of a guerrilla war against the second large-scale US military intervention in Nicaragua, which ended six years later with the withdrawal of the US Marine occupation.
Throughout the relatively short existence of Nicaragua’s current Army, not yet quite four decades, it has made surprising turnabouts in that identity. This is a brief history of our military institution.
One institution, three different identities
After 38 years nothing remains of the army whose original source of identity and pride was Sandino and his deeds. Sandino’s name is hardly mentioned in the hollow rhetoric at official acts these days. In less than half a century, the military has blurred the image of the General of Free Men and the opulence in which those who once claimed to be his children now live has obscured his ethical legacy—that of a man who didn’t even own an inch of land to be buried in.
From its origins until today, what is now called the Nicaraguan Army shows three seamless but clearly defined and differentiated stages, each with its own characteristics. The only constant is the formality of the institution itself, which has otherwise undergone successive metamorphoses to become, each time, a different entity from the one preceding and one the following.
These changes aren’t the result of its own institutional development and evolution but of the transformations that have taken place in the political and economic environment surrounding it, which it had had to mimic like a chameleon, blending into its environment in order to survive.
Stage one: An expected Armageddon and an unexpected enemy
Having triumphed over the Somoza dynasty’s National Guard and witnessed the dismantling of the dictatorship, the guerrilla army began its transformation into a powerful regular army, a kind of Central American mini-juggernaut no one would be able to deter. This wasn’t an immediate necessity of the new revolutionary State. It was the product of a collective vision among the Sandinista leadership, which with messianic logic saw a direct US invasion of Nicaragua as just a question of time.
They lived in expectation of their preconceived Armageddon from which Nicaragua would emerge victorious in the final battle between good and evil, between Revolution and Empire. The order of the day was to prepare to confront and defeat the world’s most powerful military force. But building a new army and waging a new war so soon after the massively destructive insurrection was a difficult and complex task and it had its ups and downs.
Between 1979 and 1984 the EPS thus began to arm and train itself for what turned out to be the erroneous concept of an inevitable Yankee invasion. It must be said, however, that there were numerous precedents for such a concept. Nicaragua had already experienced direct US military invasion three times in that same century (1910, 1912-25 and 1926-33) and seven times in the previous one (1853, 54, 57, 95, 96, 98 and 99). It must also be said that President Reagan gave the Sandinista military leaders ample reason to believe such an invasion could not be discarded, the unprovoked invasion of Grenada in October 1983 and of Panama in 1989 chief among them.
Perhaps the error is better described as the failure of the Sandinista leadership to consider the “Contra” or Nicaraguan Resistance its main enemy. They saw it merely as “a tool of imperialism.” Nonetheless, as the Contra gained strength, it became increasingly clear to them that their powerful army would have to simultaneously engage another war: the counterrevolutionary one. And the EPS chiefs, including Humberto Ortega, realized their army was unprepared for such irregular struggle despite its guerrilla origins. They had never even suspected that they would soon be fighting in the mountains against a peasant army that had taken up arms against them and was financed, organized and armed by the Reagan administration. All the Soviet armaments (war tanks, cannons, anti-aircraft artillery, reactive artillery) and the officers trained for conventional warfare with the ideas and principles of the Armageddon smoldering in the FSLN leaders’ heads were useless for confronting this unexpected and growing enemy already on Nicaraguan soil.
Nicaraguan soil was once again stained with the blood of brothers. More than 50,000 Nicaraguans died from the two sides, which was a very high cost for a war that could perhaps have been avoided if the revolution hadn’t allied with Russia, the Warsaw Pact countries and Cuba, like the caboose on the Cold War’s train.
A political, not military, identity
The original identity of the EPS wasn’t military; it was political, molded by the legacy of Benjamín Zeledón, Sandino and the FSLN founder, Carlos Fonseca. These were its paradigms, its main sources of pride and they were more revolutionary and political than they were military.
In this same context, a government model was imposed that fused and confused State, party and Army. It thus isn’t surprising that the EPS members, particularly its chiefs and officers, considered themselves (and indeed were) FSLN militants first and foremost, and only then military. None had prior professional military training; they had been entrusted to carry out a revolutionary task in the Army. They displayed their FSLN membership cards with more pride than their military ranks. Their esprit de corps was fed by being in the party rather than in the military.
These were the years of “National Directorate, at your command!” when Humberto Ortega was the clearest expression of the state-party-army confusion. He was one of the FSLN’s nine National Directorate members, commander-in-chief of the EPS and minister of defense, although this state institution never really existed except in budgetary formality and protocol events.
However much Washington labeled the Sandinista revolution and its leaders Marxist, Communist and Socialist, those labels were the product of their relations with the Warsaw Pact countries, their close identification with Havana, and of course the ignorant anti-Communism prevalent in the United States. While the military officers may have aspired to such labels, their political rhetoric never went beyond the facile Marxism of leaflets and pamphlets.
They knew of the existence of Marx’s three volumes of Capital and of the Complete Works of Lenin, but they never read much less studied them, even though Nicaragua in the 1980s was inundated by tons of books from Moscow’s Progress Publishers. Perhaps the closest thing to these classics they may have read in the party’s study circles was The Basic Concepts of Historical Materialism by the Chilean political scientist Marta Harnecker.
While the sources of the EPS’ military identity were neither Marx nor Lenin, this identification had political expressions beyond the Soviet military assistance to the revolution. The revolutionary leaders wrongly considered themselves front-line actors in the Cold War. Speaking on behalf of the FSLN’s National Directorate and filled with a kind of inverted Manifest Destiny, Humberto Ortega once declared: “The Directorate feels that it’s playing a very important role in the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States.” He expressed his confidence that the EPS would win the war against the “mercenaries” –the Contra—just as the Soviet Union would win its confrontation with imperialism.
Stage two: Adapting to survive
The FSLN defeat in the February 1990 elections was a devastating blow for a military institution that, for a decade, had developed unevenly in the heat of a civil war. From a strictly military standpoint, the EPS had made a lot of organizational progress and grew ideologically around the paradigms salvaged from the history of Nicaraguan grassroots struggles, but its juridical structure was overwhelmingly deficient.
The triumph of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in the February 1990 elections plunged the EPS into a triple crisis: of identity, mission and legitimacy. With the revolutionary project and its ideological progenitor defeated, the questions that hammered away in military leaders’ heads were: What and who are we now? Who’s the enemy we now must fight and defeat? Will society accept us after the excesses committed in such a cruel civil war? While these questions weren’t raised explicitly, it was clear that the cutting of the umbilical cord that connected it to its fundamental political-ideological mentor made it crucial for it to answer them in order to ensure its survival as an institution.
Separating the Army from the party, ending all organic-functional links between the FSLN and the EPS and its officers, was one of the fundamental principles of the Transition Agreements embodied in the “Protocol for the Transference Procedure of the Executive Branch of the Republic of Nicaragua,” signed between representatives of the incoming and outgoing governments on March 23, 1990. General Humberto Ortega, still a member of the FSLN National Directorate, Comandante of the Revolution, Commander in Chief of the Army and Minister of Defense, headed the representation of the outgoing government. By endorsing this agreement, General Ortega signed the death certificate of the Popular Sandinista Army’s original identity, at least formally. He proposed the name change from Sandinista Popular Army to Army of Nicaragua in 1994 precisely to distance it from its grassroots Sandinista character but, by so doing, left it bereft of identity.
Regardless of what his detractors—and he has many—say, think or do, Humberto Ortega was the most lucid and pragmatic Sandinista leader at the time and soon found the answers to the first two questions: What are we, what is our identity? and Who is the enemy? Time would answer the third question about society’s acceptance.
Political calculation or conviction?
Violeta Barrios de Chamorro won the presidency as a candidate of the National Opposition Union (UNO), a coalition of 14 political parties. From the outset, the extremist rightwing sector of that coalition, together with recalcitrant Republicans in the US Congress led by Senator Jesse Helms, loudly and insistently demanded that the EPS be replaced by the Nicaraguan Resistance forces.
They made it fairly easy for Humberto Ortega to find answers to the Army’s questions, as they gave him clues to come up with an outline of the Army’s new identity and who the enemy might be. General Ortega exercised his ascendency and political rather than military leadership over officialdom to formally separate the Army from the FSLN and its most radical members, and to slash its troop size and budget. In so doing, he took his cue from the 1990 election results: the construction of democracy.
It’s impossible to specify whether General Ortega almost immediately hoisted the flag of defending the nation and its weak democracy as the institution’s new identity as an opportunistic political calculation or through conviction without falling into the temptation of extemporaneous speculation. Although having said that, I personally lean towards the former.
As commander in chief, Gen. Ortega led the defense and protection of the fragile nascent democratic regime being built. Despite the enormous differences between himself and President Chamorro, they had a mutual need for each other. Gen. Ortega needed Mrs. Chamorro’s government to ensure his continuation at the helm of the Army and guarantee its existence in a highly polarized and totally adverse setting. She, in turn, needed him to achieve minimal stability for the country and her own weak administration. While arguing that she could not properly dismiss him before his legal retirement in 1995, she experienced in September 1993 what I called in my book, Political Transition and Military Reform in Nicaragua 1990-1995, an outburst of her “crisis of desire.” Nonetheless, she managed to stave off the insistent demands coming from both the US and Nicaraguan right wing until 1995, when he voluntarily retired.
February 1995: An historic moment
In the 1990s the Army lowered its revolutionary banners, relegated its references to its revolutionary identity and extinguished its original sources of military pride. Nothing was found to replace them in the new archetypes, although they were not necessarily forgotten by the superior officers.
In my judgment, the reason the Army was symbolically orphaned was that it was a period of accommodation for survival and there was nothing heroic to rescue. Perhaps the military institution’s role in those difficult beginnings of the transition from war to peace, from authoritarianism to democracy and from a centralized economy to a market economy could very cautiously be redeemed, but only with a historical perspective, not at that time. The real ascendancy Gen. Ortega maintained over the officers, or in his own words, his “political and moral authority to keep the Army united in a very difficult and complicated situation” is perhaps also redeemable.
General Ortega left his post in February 1995 through a complex and difficult process of political negotiation in compliance with provisions in the Code of Military Organization, Jurisdiction and Social Security, in force since September 2, 1994. It was an historic moment. He was successively replaced by Generals Joaquín Cuadra (1995-2000), Javier Carrión (2000-2005), Omar Halleslevens (2005-2010) and Julio César Avilés (2010-present).
Bereft of military identity
Fragments of what could have been a new military identity, a new ethos for the armed institution, can be found in the public speeches of Generals Cuadra and Carrión. In them, they always referred to democracy, governability, democratic institutional structure, the pre-eminence of civil power, subordination to civil power, civil control, military professionalism and the instrumental character of the Army but they didn’t integrate them into a corpus that would instill a new military identity in the institution or become permanent values, let alone a source of military pride.
General Carrión radically changed that discourse in the second half of his command, replacing those references with typically military, even barracks, language. He stressed the listing of the Army’s achievements: completed missions, figures, flight hours, nautical miles navigated, number of personnel and materials transported, criminals captured, marijuana plants and cocaine seized, and even heads of cattle retrieved from cattle rustlers. The Army’s annual report, which closely resembled that of the National Police, remains as proof of this.
Mitch moved them closer to the “empire”
The Chamorro government’s incipient democratic construction didn’t immediately affect relations between the Nicaraguan Army and the US Armed Forces. They continued to be tense when not virtually non-existent. Not until late October 1998, during President Arnoldo Alemán’s administration, did a window of opportunity open for the start of a new era in what has been called “the beneficial side effects of a crisis.” A natural and social disaster, Hurricane Mitch, led to the thawing of military relations between Nicaragua and the United States.
Mexico and the US were the first countries to deploy military forces to help Nicaragua search for and rescue Mitch’s victims, evacuate affected civilians and care for them with food, drinking water and field hospitals: a complete humanitarian assistance package. Working closely together, the Nicaraguan and US Armed Forces recognized each other as soldiers. They found they did the same things and had more in common than separated them, so relationships started to develop, putting an end to the years of confrontation. Although doubts and misgivings obviously still remained, they weren’t significant enough to prevent these relations from strengthening, at least until 2007.
It would perhaps have been possible for the two military forces to start treating each other as partners, but in some sectors of the Nicaraguan military leadership and in the case of Daniel Ortega and his inner circle, they were certainties rather than doubts. After all, ten years of a bloody war promoted and financed by Washington can’t be easily forgotten. That resentment, generated from the war years and suckled by the effects of defeat in the 1990 general elections, is still there today. Although somewhat altered and no longer with the intensity of former times, the anti-imperialist sentiment embedded in the Nicaraguan Army officers’ collective unconscious in the 1980s still persists as rhetorical nationalism, even though those who think this way know that the possibility of US military intervention is more distant than the universe’s most remote galaxy.
Russia again enters the scene
With Daniel Ortega’s return to power in January 2007, the restoration of relations between Nicaragua and Russia was a kind of “back to the future” for me, a flashback to what I had seen and experienced in the first days of the revolution in 1979.
Without so much as a blush, Daniel Ortega told a big lie at the event celebrating Army Day on September 2, 2016, as usual adapting history to suit himself. He said that in a conversation with President Carter soon after the revolutionary victory he had asked for US military aid for Nicaragua’s new army and Carter told him this wasn’t possible. The truth is that Washington made some effort in that direction but the Sandinista leadership’s decision to throw themselves into the arms of Eastern Europe, Cuba and the radicalized countries of the Islamic world was more in line with their preconceived “strategic calculation.”
If confrontation between the revolution and imperialism was inevitable, dependence on US military assistance would have been suicidal, a sort of tropicalized hara-kiri. Giving up on that prestigious collision with US imperialism would have left the revolution disarmed, vulnerable and, in fact, defeated. That’s why the Sandinista leadership discarded Washington and made the USSR in particular, the Warsaw Pact countries in general and Cuba into its strategic rearguard in the 1980s.
Stage three: Another accommodation and more rhetoric
The accommodation to survive this new stage in the Army’s development reflected yet more changes in the political and economic setting, which the Army immediately mimicked. This shows how lacking it is in its own specific identity, enabling it to adapt from one stage to the next, although this one was very similar despite being of a different political stripe. To the extent that the new FSLN government obeys any dominant norms and values, they are different and even further removed from those of the EPS’ early days.
On analyzing the Nicaraguan Army’s conduct since 2007, it’s clear that while it has managed to maintain a military identity as such, no visible efforts have been made to find sources that would infuse it with life and spirit. What instead became evident, particularly after General Avilés took charge of the Army in 2010, is that he personally identified with Daniel Ortega’s project to retain power by hook or by crook, and has meshed the corporate economic, financial and commercial interests of the military leadership (generals and colonels) with those of the Ortega-Murillo consortium.
At every official Army, Navy and Air Force event since 2007, Daniel Ortega reminds them of their “Sandinista origins,” not as one of the values of their initial identity but to ensure their political, or rather personal, loyalty to his dynastic political project. It was in this stage that a kind of rhetorical return to the EPS’ early days began, albeit in completely different circumstances: this was neither the revolution back in government in a “second stage,” as Rosario Murillo claimed, nor was the Army of 2007 the same as that of 1979.
In late 2007, when the new administration was approaching the completion of its first year, President Ortega declared that “these armed forces are the children of Sandino, who fought the Yankee troops.” His written message to the Army General Command in September 2014, which bears the telltale excess of capital letters of his main speechwriter, says: “Each and every Nicaraguan is proud of our Army, which was born and celebrates its birth alongside the Revolution, and like it, is Popular, Sandinista, Anti-imperialist, and Nicaraguan from the roots up, by the Grace of God. Our Army came into being in Libertarian Struggles and maintains its Vocation of Free Homeland, Homeland and Freedom…. The Army of Nicaragua is a child of the Revolution because it was born from the Revolution.... In these New Times, the History and Daily Work of the noble and courageous Army of Nicaragua that has reached the age of 35 Years is made Glorious with the Spirit of Diriangén, Andrés Castro, Zeledón, Sandino, Carlos (Fonseca).”
Immediately afterwards it tries to establish a link with the “Christian, Socialist and Solidary Nicaragua…” in which the Ortega couple believe they live, but which is mere rhetoric, a fiction that attempts to give identity to their regime, and by extension to the Army itself, despite having nothing Christian, socialist and solidary about them.
While those were indeed the Army’s historical roots, after 35 years the words are utterly asynchronous. The revolution was defeated in 1990 and the Army lost or had to formally divest itself of its original identity to survive, although small doses of that pride have remained in “suspended animation” in high officialdom’s collective unconsciousness. But even today’s high officialdom isn’t the same as that of 1979, or even of 1990.
Distrust in the new
The Internal Military Regulations of 2009 set the maximum retirement age for the equivalent of colonel at 60 while the 2014 amendments to the Military Code (Law 855, amending Law 181) raised it to 65 after 40 years of service for all officers except generals, who have no specified retirement age, as the President of the Republic and supreme chief of the Army may authorize the extension of their service for what the Military Code calls “institutional interest.” The Army commander in chief is empowered to do the same regarding officers below the rank of general. Even officers fully retired and in the reserves may be reinstated via contract with the same justification, conserving their rank at the time of their retirement.
It should be stressed that the then-inspector general of the Army, Major General Ramón Calderón Vindell, disagreed with these amendments and, in due course, said: “It is in neither the interests nor the health of the institution for someone to continue in a post, in a rank, if he has already passed the time [of service] established not in Law 181 but in the Regulations [in which the time of service is progressively lower by diminishing rank]…. We may be needed by the institution but we’re not indispensable.”
It’s evident that Ortega and Avilés don’t trust the officers trained in the Military Academy’s Higher Center for Military Studies, not founded until 1993, which has graduated 21 classes between the first one in 1996 and 2016. The Internal Military Regulations refer to a regulation on benefits for active military service, but its content is unknown as are the number of cadets graduated with the rank of lieutenant, the ranks attained by those in the first graduation (1996) or the positions they currently hold.
What is clear is that by raising the retirement age and extending the duration of active military service, and leaving both open to discretion for generals (brigadier general and major general), Ortega and Avilés showed a lack of confidence in officers graduated from the Higher Center of Military Studies.
Few of the Army’s founders remain and the ultimate goal of the amendments wasn’t to take advantage of the accumulated experience of these officers and in many cases guerrillas from before 1979 who, by the way, are third level and thus can be politically subordinated to Daniel Ortega, unlike his brother Humberto and Generals Cuadra, Carrión and Halleslevens, whom he treated as equals. General Julio César Avilés, the current Commander in Chief, doesn’t have the political authority they had.
“National sovereignty” is empty rhetoric
At the Army’s 35th anniversary celebration, General Avilés evoked the sources of the original identity and military pride of an army that no longer is what it was, existing in a different time and a different setting. He said, “We are the heirs of the struggle for our land, heirs of San Jacinto and General José Dolores Estrada, General Benjamín Zeledón and his fighters from El Coyotepe and La Barranca, heirs of the immortal deeds of the General of Free Men, Augusto C. Sandino, and his Army Defender of National Sovereignty. We are the heirs of the struggle of our people for national liberation.”
While Avilés’ words contained the requisite rhetoric, they didn’t manage to elicit nostalgia. They were a reiteration of a speech that lacked soul, feeling and meaning. The legacy of Zeledón and Sandino and especially, and most importantly, its ethical component, were fraudulently misappropriated. The only notable aspect is that he called the Army the heir of “our people’s struggle for national liberation” not of the FSLN.
Defending the sovereignty of national independence and territorial integrity is just rhetoric. For example, in November 2012, the International Court of Justice ruled in favor of Nicaragua in its maritime border dispute with Colombia, granting it some 34,749 square miles of territorial sea in the Caribbean. But the Army’s budget request the following year didn’t include resources to acquire air and naval hardware or equipment to protect and defend this expanded maritime territory.
It did, however, request resources for the construction of a new Military Hospital, a business that gives it millions in income for the health services it provides for social security affiliates: some US$9 million a year for attending to 75,000 affiliates. According to official statements, it expects to double the number of policyholders in the coming years. Added to this is the income generated from “private services” the hospital provides to those who can afford its high rates.
To date, the Army still hasn’t requested financial resources to invest in defending the national sovereignty and integrity of the recuperated territory. This isn’t the priority of the “uniformed entrepreneurs.” Their priority is the corporate businesses through the Institute of Military Social Security (IPSM) and the private businesses of the military leadership.
What the National Assembly approved, and continues to approve every six months at the Army’s request via the President, is the entry of troops and hardware from the United States, Russia and other countries to do what the Army is constitutionally mandated to do: defend this expanded territorial sea.
Why do we need armaments from Russia?
It was only learned three years after the International Court of Justice’s 2012 ruling that the Army was acquiring 50 T-72B1 war tanks, 2 boats with rocket-launchers and 4 patrol boats, and was negotiating to acquire an unspecified number of Yak-130 training and combat planes, all of them Russian-manufactured war equipment.
Taken in their entirety, these acquisitions are irrational and although General Avilés declared shortly before the Army Day celebration on September 2 last year that Russia had donated the war tanks, this is an absurd acquisition because no conventional military inter-state conflict is in sight, so the tanks will just be shown off in military parades. Each Yak-130 costs close to US$16 million, twice as much as a Brazilian Super Tucano, which is the ideal aircraft for aerial interception. While the four patrol boats make sense given the precarious condition of the Navy’s surface craft, the missile boats ordered from a Russian shipyard at a unit price of US$45 million do not.
Cold War dreams
Beyond the rationality and cost of these acquisitions, Russia’s cooperation package has geopolitical implications that go infinitely beyond the strategic weight Nicaragua has or may have today in the international arena.
As in the 1980s, Ortega has again granted Russia a Central American beachhead in the US “backyard.” The concessions include the construction and operation of a ground station for its Global Navigation Satellite System (GLONASS) to track satellite navigation and a regional training center for the fight against drug trafficking, organized crime and money laundering. They also include an expedited procedure for Russian naval vessels entering Nicaraguan ports.
This training center and ground station, both built by Russian workers plus a few Nicaraguans in hermetic silence, have aroused suspicions that they are trying to establish an electronic intelligence and spying system that goes far beyond its alleged civil purposes. In his conspiratorial mindset and recurring Cold War dreams, Daniel Ortega once again sees himself as the main actor in a struggle of giants. His “alliance” with Russia seems to have no other meaning than to disturb and pester the United States, Nicaragua’s main trading partner. He’s accompanied in this venture by the Nicaraguan Army, which admittedly needs to renovate its antiquated air and naval hardware, is following Ortega’s political libretto, discarding more favorable markets such as those of Brazil, Spain or Holland to throw itself into the arms of Russia, just as it formerly did with the USSR. As Karl Marx says in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Luis Bonaparte, “History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce.”
2013: How the Army dismantled its institutional development strategy
The institutional development strategy for the newly named Nicaraguan Army was conceived in a setting that, although not sought, was a timely coincidence of times and events favoring the exercise of democratic civil control through an overlap of the terms in office of the President and the Army commander in chief.
One piece of the strategy, agreed upon just before General Humberto Ortega retired from the Army in February 1995, was that a President wouldn’t choose a military chief with whom he/she has political affinity, so as to prevent the institution’s political contamination. In the military command’s succession process, another key element was that the head of the Operations and Planning Directorate was the natural replacement for the outgoing head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And a final piece was that the outgoing commander in chief would have no influence in the new General Command and under no circumstances would intervene in its performance.
The term of a commander in chief was to begin during the term of the President who appointed him and end with the next, who would then appoint his successor. General Joaquín Cuadra was appointed by President Chamorro and took over as head of the Army on February 21, 1995. Her administration ended on December 10, 1997, and President Alemán took office, appointing General Carrión to replace General Cuadra on December 21, 2004, and so on successively until February 21, 2015, when Daniel Ortega broke with the script by extending General Avilés for a further term. Although it didn’t cause an institutional crisis in the Army, it was the start of the dismantling and political contamination of the armed institution.
Even before then, in December 2013, General Avilés and President Ortega began to scuttle the development strategy. They did it by forcing Major General Óscar Balladares, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and first in line for succession, into retirement. They replaced him with General Óscar Mojica, a Jack-of-all-trades who had absolutely no training to serve as head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In reality, however, his function in that post was more to act as a broker for the Army’s corporate interests (financial, economic and commercial) managed by IPSM—of which Mojica was executive director—and for both the private interests of the military leadership and the Ortega-Murillo consortium.
How a crisis was stopped
General Mojica’s appointment and subsequent performance heading the Joint Chiefs of Staff caused dissent in sectors of the Army’s high command, creating conditions for an internal crisis that could have risked the stability and creditability of the armed institution.
The situation apparently became virtually unsustainable, so Daniel Ortega and General Avilés decided to remove Mojica to avert the budding crisis. On March 27, 2017, it was announced Brigadier General Bayardo Rodríguez, head of the Operations and Plans Directorate, and Rear Admiral Marvin Corrales, head of the Navy, had respectively replaced both Mojica and General Adolfo Zepeda, the dissenting inspector general, in their posts.
A small light at the end of the tunnel?
Rodríguez’s appointment marked the return of soldiers to a post that corresponded to them naturally and Zepeda’s departure seemed to indicate the end of the “reign” of Military Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence, which had held sway in the Army’s leadership since General Halleslevens had taken over the General Command in February 2005.
Rodríguez and Corrales are professional officers with recognized prestige and respect among their fellow officers. Despite my usual pragmatism, I wanted to believe that both appointments could mean a return to the institutional development strategy’s principles that, if respected, would now put Major General Rodríguez in the military command’s line of succession.
Rodríguez has all the attributes needed to be the next commander in chief. But Daniel Ortega’s notorious disrespect and contempt for democratic institutional structure and governance, Rosario Murillo’s ridiculous interferences in government and General Avilés’ submission to both of them keeps the doors of uncertainty wide open concerning the Army’s future. Moreover, should Major General Rodríguez hypothetically become the next commander in chief, it remains to be seen how much autonomy of movement he would have in the indeterminate continuation of the authoritarian and dynastic government built by the Ortega-Murillo consortium.
How it survived the 1990s paradox
The Sandinista Popular Army was set adrift when it lost its original military identity, the prime sources of its military pride and its revolutionary, grassroots and anti-imperialist ethos, as a result of the electoral defeat of the FSLN, its political-ideological progenitor.
It couldn’t find, nor did it make much effort to build, a new identity and new sources of military pride in the complex environment of the 1990s’ democratic construction. It had to adapt, not necessarily through conviction and a real commitment to democracy but to survive as an institution.
It managed to avoid the multiple threats that lay in wait for it in a totally adverse setting both within Nicaragua and outside. And it survived, but at the cost of an identity. It concealed its original sources of military pride, which didn’t fit with the new regime being built, where it was a foreign body embedded in the fragile democratic fabric that was beginning to develop. At least that’s what the Chamorro government leaders, the UNO extremists and the Washington reactionaries thought.
It was paradoxical: An army engendered and developed in the fervor of deep anti-imperialist sentiment, sheltering and defending a government protected by “the Yankee, enemy of humanity.” That total contradiction was imposed by the urgency to survive.
Daniel Ortega’s return to power didn’t mean a return to its first identity. Sergio Ramírez, member of the Government Junta of 1979-1984 and Vice President from then until 1990, describes it with crystal clarity: “Today those ideals have been deformed and falsified by a family power that uses the rhetoric of the revolution but contradicts the dreams that inspired thousands of Nicaraguans.” And that’s where the Army is today. Its only kind of identity today is material hedonism, the pleasure it gets from its interests, built with the multi-millions from Venezuelan cooperation. It’s an army of entrepreneurs in uniform; a chameleon army that has undergone an acute metamorphosis, now becoming a local economic empire.
What will future relations be with the United States?
Over the Obama administration’s eight years, relations between Nicaragua and the US were “cordial,” as they say in diplomatic language. So far it’s impossible to anticipate what they’ll be like with the Trump administration, especially with the outcome of the Nica Act still pending. Nor can we predict how Trump’s foreign policy towards Nicaragua will affect military relations between the two countries.
The cooperation between their military institutions, channeled through the Southern Command, may continue to be “cordial,” as it has been to date. For both the government and the Army this relationship of cooperation is essentially utilitarian, opportunistic, so President Ortega will continue asking for more US military assistance, “without conditions, like Russia provides.” It remains to be seen whether he will continue attacking the “empire” with his typical anti-imperialist rhetoric given that Trump is a combination of tough and erratic, and infinitely less amenable than President Obama. At least as far as insulting rhetoric goes, Ortega has met his match with President Trump.
Both Ortega and the Army know how to be pragmatic and, as a senior Southern Command chief told me some years ago, both candidly and cynically: the United States is emphasizing the “war against drug trafficking” regardless of whether the country in question is democratic or not. As pragmatists, Ortega and Avilés will continue welcoming that US military assistance... and asking for more. But, given the conspiratorial obsession of Daniel Ortega, who enjoys surrounding himself with Cold War ghosts, Nicaragua won’t depend exclusively on US military assistance.
How will the chameleon move?
It won’t be possible for the Army to change its current military identity as long as the dynastic Ortega-Murillo regime remains in power. It will remain subject to the international interests of Daniel Ortega, who has strengthened military cooperation ties with Russia, Venezuela and Cuba. This government would have to disappear so that, in a new political and economic setting, hopefully with a genuinely democratic government, the military ethos can change again.
Unquestionably, in such a political turnabout the Army would have to adapt itself yet again in order to survive. It lowered the banners of its revolutionary identity in the past to survive in a polarized and hostile setting, but only to then throw itself into Daniel Ortega’s arms. Will it survive a second time?
The chameleon is a cautious animal. It moves slowly, almost falteringly. In a possibly adverse new situation, one hostile to entrepreneurs in uniform, it’s not certain that the Army could move as fast as it did in the early 1990s. The big difference is in the current leadership: it lacks the lucidity and pragmatism of the military chiefs of those years.
But on the other hand, we can’t rule out the possibility that preservation of its accumulated privileges would visit it with the ability to move rapidly. After all, it’s the kind of reptile that, despite its olive green uniform, is capable of assuming any other color in the political-economic spectrum in which it has to move. So, it could surprise, or disappoint, us once again.
Roberto Cajina is a civilian consultant on security and defense.