Sorry, Uncle Powell, The Sams Are Ours
US Secretary of State Colin Powell visited Nicaragua in early November with a political agenda focused mainly on the Nicaraguan Army.
In the end, the army said “No” to the United States,
which was the only good part of Powell’s visit.
The following is a chronicle of
reiterated imperial power.
According to Carlos Gardel’s song, “20 years are nothing.” But despite the considerable efforts the Nicaraguan Army has made to win at least the empathy, if not sympathy of the powerful US empire, 13 years have evidently not been enough. The United States cannot forget the Sandinista roots of Nicaragua’s now modest armed forces, let alone the defeats they inflicted on their big brother’s allies. First, in 1979, the valiant Sandinista guerrillas routed Somoza’s National Guard, originally set up by the United States. Eight years later, the Popular Sandinista Army’s ferocious fighters strategically defeated the US-financed, trained and led contras—or mercenaries as one of their best-known leaders recently confessed with candor.
Colin Powell, the Afro-American army general whose four stars were won more in administrative offices than on the battlefield, is now touring the world to defend the “preventive wars” being waged by the US army in the name of his bosses from the multinational petroleum companies and the all-powerful “defense” industry’s arms dealers. He justifies the massacres inflicted by bombs or hunger, be they in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bolivia or Central America.
Powell came to Managua with his imperial airs on November 3 to order the smallest and worst-equipped army in Central America to get rid of its surface-to-air missiles, the only weapons it has to deter any possible military adventure launched by its hot-headed Central American counterparts or even countries further afield. Powell expected a submissive nod of the head, but the Nicaraguan Army told him “no.”
Colin Powell: Old links with NicaraguaPowell’s links with Nicaragua are nothing new. In the eighties, he played a key role in the war against the Sandinista revolution when he was working as an adjunct in the Reagan government and later as its national security adviser. His work consisted of ensuring Congressional backing for the Republican fundamentalists’ favorite creation, their Nicaraguan “freedom fighters,” or contras. From the corridors of the Pentagon and the White House, Powell lobbied the increasingly reluctant legislators to approve funding that was then used to train and arm these protégés, and to finance advisers selected from among Argentine military terrorists or the bowels of the CIA itself.
Powell was also responsible for “persuading” the Honduran military and politicians to provide the conditions for the contras to set up camp, allowing them not only to train and store their supplies and arms on Honduran soil, but also to retreat safely after committing all kinds of atrocities against Nicaraguan peasants on our northern border. He also got what he wanted from the more “civilized” Costa Rican politicians.
Another entry in Powell’s extensive curriculum is the invasion of Panama in 1989, by which time he had gotten George Bush Sr. to appoint him head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, once his old friend had inherited the presidency from Reagan. It was Powell who decided to stop working with Manuel Noriega then prepared the conditions and obtained authorization to send the Marines in to force him from power. Powell’s collaborators say that Panama is one of the operations of which he is most proud. He never bothered to count the thousands of dead—classified simply as collateral damage—left lying in the rubble of the El Chorrillo shantytown in Panama City after his soldiers saturated it with bombs.
Powell delighted at being the focus of a servile protocolOn board the plane that took him from Central America back to the Texas university town of College Station, Colin Powell could barely conceal his satisfaction at the results of his Central American tour to Panama, Nicaragua and Honduras. He lauded the strong pro-US attitudes he had encountered and proudly declared that the emergence of democracies in Nicaragua and Panama justified Washington’s policies in the eighties, remarking that “I’d like to see those numbers in other parts of the world.”*
He also expressed emotion at hearing the US national anthem played in Managua: “It was played for an American who did everything he could to support the contras and who returned as secretary of state on his first trip to Nicaragua. The people were extremely friendly. Standing there in line next to President Bolaños and listening to the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ took me back to 1987, when every three months I fought all night with Congress to guarantee financing for the contras to keep those guys alive. That was enormously controversial. It was a difficult time, but we found a way out and here we are, 14, 15 years later, while the Sandinistas are still a significant part of the legislative assembly opposition.”
Nicaragua’s El Nuevo Diario described the reception that so pleased Powell—red carpet, barricades, US anthem—as unaccustomed and inappropriate protocol that can only be explained by servility. “They treated him like a President or other head of state,” complained the newspaper. “Another act of submission was having him walk down the steps of the plane that brought him from Panama alongside President Enrique Bolaños. The correct thing would have been for Bolaños to walk down first, followed by Powell. But the Nicaraguan President looked happy….” Former Nicaraguan foreign minister Víctor Hugo Tinoco viewed such behavior as “the subordination of a government that views the United States as owner of the world. It’s not that the nation is devoid of dignity, but rather that the governments in office no longer value it. They have the mentality of a hacienda owner who sees everything from an economic viewpoint, according to value, as if the country were a commodity.”
How the gringo government views usBut the humiliation of the country and its people had only begun. Foreign journalists traveling with Powell were given a page-and-a-half background sheet on the state of Nicaraguan public opinion that was riddled with offensive concepts: “Nicaraguans are too poor, badly fed and illiterate to worry about the outside world... Nicaraguans in general have little interest in foreign affairs... The world revolves around Managua... They follow US affairs only if directly related to Nicaragua and have virtually no interest in the Middle East, China, the European Union, Africa or global issues such as the environment, disarmament or terrorism… Most Nicaraguans are too overwhelmed by the struggle to find their next plate of rice and beans and therefore have little to time to think about the United States or world affairs in general… The contribution of Nicaraguan military troops to Iraq was only reluctantly approved and Nicaraguans wanted to know what Nicaragua would receive in exchange….”
In a tone meant to suggest there was no earthly reason for such sentiment, the sheet went on to say that “a broad segment of Nicaraguans is hostile to the United States… There is not a single aspect in which they see the United States in a favorable light…”
Nor were those who admire the United States treated any better: “They like to wear Ralph Lauren shirts, drive four-wheel-drive Ford pick-ups and watch US movies, and when they go out to eat they brag about going to TGI Fridays... The leaders see the United States as a selfish neighbor, someone who lives relatively close but drives a bigger vehicle, has a better house, sends his children to better schools and is so busy making money that he doesn’t have time to stop and talk, let alone worry about the problems affecting a less fortunate neighbor... In short, Nicaragua is advancing very slowly as the second poorest country in the continent after Haiti, battered by natural and artificial storms, with little hope that things will change in the future….”
Belated rejection and diplomatic apologiesThe “fact sheet” inevitably found its way into the hands of the Nicaraguan media, which of course published it in full. Two days after the visit, the US State Department attempted to avoid a diplomatic crisis by disowning it. “It is a set of enormous simplifications,” said one embassy official. “I’m shocked to see something like that in writing, and it’s even worse that it’s been disseminated. It’s a disgrace....”
On November 5, the night after Powell’s departure, two urgent press releases were dispatched to all of Nicaragua’s media. In the first, the Bolaños government expressed its total rejection of a document in which it found “opinions unacceptable to our country’s dignity” that “completely distort Nicaraguan reality and employ totally inappropriate language.” The Foreign Ministry called for “exemplary punishment” for the person responsible for producing and distributing the document.
The second release was signed by US Ambassador to Nicaragua Barbara Moore: “In my own name, that of the Embassy and that of the United States government, I would like to offer my apologies to the Nicaraguan people and government for the insulting way in which they were described by a member of this Embassy in an unauthorized, unfounded and error-strewn document distributed among the representatives of the US media accompanying Secretary of State Colin Powell. That document in no way reflects our image of Nicaragua or its people. We have tremendous respect and admiration for Nicaraguans and for the efforts they have made to achieve a dynamic democracy and a strong economy for the benefit of their whole society.”
Caldera: Another old US friendThe following day it was revealed that the person responsible for the document was Jan Hartman, public affairs officer at the US Embassy. Despite the ambassador’s vehement apology and the fact that Hartman’s post is currently listed as vacant on the Embassy’s web page, it is hard to believe that the document’s contents had made it into a press packet without authorization. Meanwhile, the “protest” issued by the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry lacks a certain amount of sincerity as well, given that Foreign Minister Norman Caldera had read a copy of the document on the first day of the visit and was seemingly unbothered by its portrayal. The following day he was content to wait nearly an hour in an uncomfortable chair more suited to a bodyguard for the end of Powell’s meeting with Nicaragua’s Army chief and its defense minister so he could personally and officially thank the secretary of state with a submissively effusive hug for the honor of his visit.
Caldera and the United States go way back; in fact, he is a former US soldier. His résumé proudly proclaims that after studying English in Boston and Indiana, he graduated in 1968 in Business Administration from Wentworth Military Academy and Lexington Junior College, Missouri, where he also completed the US Army Reserve Officer Training Course (R.O.T.C.). In 1970, he obtained an MBA from the University of Texas in Austin, specializing in Development Economics and International Marketing. He returned to Nicaragua contracted by Kimberly Clark, Central America. It is inevitable then, that Caldera would instinctively feel subordinate to his General.
Salvador Stadthagen: Jobs that speak volumesThe story of former Deputy Foreign Minister Salvador Stadthagen, named to the post six months after Bolaños took office in 2002 is similar. In fact, Stadthagen knew he would be appointed when he left Bolaños’ campaign team to finish his masters in public administration at Harvard University. By then he had already won Bolaños’ confidence through his service to the United States, which may have been why he was just sent to Washington in October 2003 as Nicaraguan ambassador.
In his résumé, Stadthagen writes that he was program associate at Creative Associates International Inc., 1988-1990, where he provided advice in its Washington DC offices and did fieldwork for a USAID-financed educational project in Central America. Before that he started a vocational training camp for Miskitos (YÁTAMA) in Northern Honduras and from 1985 to 1987 was liaison officer for the Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN)—which later changed its name to Nicaraguan Resistance—with the US State Department for the administration and disbursement of the humanitarian aid package.” What do all of these particular jobs suggest?
Enrique Bolaños: “A CIA mole” The Nicaraguan President isn’t to be outdone. “I’m a civilian and what’s more I’m a civilist,” proclaims Enrique Bolaños today. “I can almost say with pride that I’ve never even strapped on a pistol.” But history tarnishes that image somewhat. In fact, in a recent book on anti-Americanism and US foreign policy, Peter Scowen states that both Bolaños and Arturo Cruz—a conservative politician recruited by the United States when he was president of Nicaragua’s Central Bank and then a member of the revolution’s initial ruling junta in 1980—were in the CIA employ in Nicaragua during the eighties.
When discussing the US strategy behind the November 4, 1984 elections in the midst of the contra war, Scowen relates the following about the two men’s role: “The relaxed legislation made it easier for the United States to present a candidate of its own as a leader of one of the opposition parties, a candidate who had instructions to withdraw from the elections at the last moment, alleging that the vote was unfair and rigged in favor of the Sandinistas. That was what the United States did by putting Arturo Cruz, a well-connected man who spoke fluent English, at the head of a marginal party called the Nicaraguan Democratic Coordinator. According to an important CIA official quoted in The New York Times, ‘The administration never proposed letting Cruz go all the way, because then the Sandinistas could rightly declare that the elections were legitimate.’ Cruz confessed to the Times in 1988 that he received $6,000 a month from the CIA while campaigning for the 1984 elections.
“Another CIA mole in the elections was Enrique Bolaños, one of the leaders of the businesspeople in [the business umbrella organization] COSEP, who would be elected as President of Nicaragua in 2001. He [Bolaños] and other members of COSEP... met with CIA officials in 1984 to help contrive the plans aimed at undermining the credibility of the elections.” It goes without saying what kinds of things the CIA did to achieve its aim. And Enrique Bolaños was at its service.
Nicaragua’s foreign policy, then, is currently in the hands of a former CIA mole, a former US Army Reserves officer and a former US intelligence agent. This provides us with a better understanding of the context in which plans are being made to subdue the Nicaraguan Army by unilaterally disarming it.
United behind a common goalIt all started in December 2002, when the FBI, the State Department and the Transportation Security Administration created an interagency committee that made an inventory of countries with weapons potentially dangerous to air traffic, including surface-to-air and other portable missiles. All eyes were turned on those countries assumed to be hostile to the US government: Libya, Cuba, Iran and North Korea. Until, that is, someone in the US State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs such as John Maisto or Roger Noriega decided that this was the perfect opportunity to box in the Nicaraguan Army.
Bolaños, Caldera and Stadthagen were delighted with the idea. Subduing the Nicaraguan Army was finally within their reach, and in the easiest way imaginable. “The crying child and the nanny who pinches it,” goes the Nicaraguan saying, referring to two different camps united behind a common goal. Such was his enthusiasm that Bolaños started presenting himself as the “champion of Central American disarmament and demilitarization,” as the United States was simultaneously proclaiming him.
Dissolving the “piricuacos” as an electoral calculationThis is the chance the Nicaraguan President has been waiting for to settle scores with an army he has previously openly disdained. As early as 1990 his ideological certainties had led him to loudly proclaim that one of the priorities for the “democratic forces” was to immediately dissolve the “piricuacos,” the disparaging word the contras used to describe their Sandinista Army opponents, freely adopted by Bolaños.
As Arnoldo Alemán’s running mate in 1995, however, both he and Alemán toned down their strident discourse for electoral reasons. Given his recent links with the CIA, Bolaños was probably following orders. The need for the Liberals to take the elections away from the FSLN led Bolaños to swallow his insults. He opted for the cautious proposal of scaling down the military’s role. General Joaquín Cuadra Lacayo, the head of the army at the time, was in turn forced to make a couple of “frank and direct” approaches to the Liberals to neutralize those who liked to see themselves as the Army’s enemy.
Then in 1998, nearly two years into his term as the Vice President of then close friend Arnoldo Alemán, Bolaños had no choice but to recognize the army’s professionalism and usefulness when as director of the Emergency Committee he supervised its involvement in rescuing the thousands of victims left in the wake of Hurricane Mitch.
Bolaños: “I’m proud to be the army’s commander-in-chief”By August 2003, President Bolaños had apparently become downright enraptured with the army, when despite the overwhelming public opposition demonstrated in opinion polls he insisted on sending a small contingent of Nicaraguan soldiers to Iraq, to help round out the embarrassingly skimpy US coalition in the war against that Arab nation.
In the act to send off the troops, Bolaños proclaimed, “I want to take advantage of this opportunity to recognize and congratulate today’s Nicaraguan Army, which through professionalism has become an institution at the service of the homeland and enjoys well-deserved prestige. In the new era we are all building with dedication and faith in the future of our children and our children’s children, I confess I am proud to be commander-in-chief of the Nicaraguan Army. In addition to fulfilling the mandate of our political Constitution and the laws regulating their conduct, our soldiers are now doing civil defense, rescue and humanitarian aid work, as well as fighting drug trafficking, organized crime and piracy.” Addressing himself specifically to the departing task force members, he said, “No price can be placed on your willingness to serve, as you have voluntarily offered to go to Iraq to carry out humanitarian work. We Nicaraguans are proud of you and of all our army’s soldiers. Your willingness embodies our people’s vocation for solidarity and gratitude.”
Contrary to such appearances, however, Bolaños had actually been working towards his proposed unilateral disarmament of the Nicaraguan Army since January. Our government was the first to promise to do so, presenting its offer without consulting the army, and, worse still, asking for nothing in return from the other Central American armed forces. So much for the champion of Central American disarmament.
Foreign Minister Caldera proposes and promisesNicaragua first got wind of the promise and offer from an international wire service cable dispatched from San Salvador on January 23: “Nicaragua today proposed the gradual and generalized disarmament of the Central American countries in the context of the Third Inter-American Conference against Terrorism, sponsored by the Organization of American States. “In a press conference, Foreign Minister Caldera stated: ‘In Nicaragua’s case, this arms limitation will contemplate the gradual and progressive destruction or dismantling of the SAM-7 surface-to-air rockets, within the framework of negotiations on the regional balance of forces.’
“Caldera did not mention how many weapons of this kind Nicaragua possesses and said his government has ‘the political will’ to ‘contribute to peace, disarmament and generalized security’ in the region. He stated that Nicaragua will also present the proposal to the Central American Integration System (SICA) and that its aim is ‘to start a regional effort in the spirit of Central American democratic solidarity for a disarmament that allows the countries to be free of any threat of terrorism and related activities.’”
Defense Minister José Adán Guerra and the current head of the Nicaraguan Army, General Javier Carrión, were perhaps the most surprised to read this information in Managua. The United States was pleased. Caldera had acted on precise and direct instructions that came more from Washington than from his own President. Just a week earlier, on January 15, The Washington Post had reported that officials of the new Interagency Committee had recommended to the US Security Council that it consider various actions, one of which was “to send US officials to persuade foreign armed forces of the need to destroy some of their stored portable missiles and increase security measures to avoid the theft of the remaining ones.”
Dan Fisk applauds Caldera: “We’re very interested in this issue”The person responsible for supervising Caldera’s work was Dan Fisk of the State Department’s Bureau for Western Hemisphere Affairs. He was present in San Salvador and was quick to back Caldera once he had made his offer. “I am convinced that Nicaragua’s civil authorities are committed to a national security balance that reflects the world in which we are living in this 21st century,” said Fisk. He went on to state that he hoped “this initiative will be a priority in the region, particularly with respect to the destruction of the SAM-7 surface-to-air missiles. They are not defensive weapons, but rather weapons that terrorists would like to get their hands on, which would put all of us at risk.
“The United States is very interested in this issue and we are willing to work with the Nicaraguans, the Hondurans and any other Central American government that would like to talk about a defense structure that reflects current reality rather than past threats. We have to keep these weapons out of the hands of those who threaten us, such as drug traffickers, mafia criminals and arms smugglers who want to support groups in Colombia or Africa. So in this sense we want the initiative to prosper as soon as possible.”
The SAM-7 that downed HasenfusWhether or not SAM-7s are defensive weapons can be demonstrated by experience, as the Americans well know. Perhaps the most notable example of what a SAM-7 missile can do was shown to them in Nueva Guinea, Nicaragua, on October 5, 1986, when two young Sandinista soldiers played their part in revealing the worst corruption scandal of the Reagan era, which nearly brought down the Republican mafia that had taken control of the US presidency in the eighties.
On that day, 16-year-old Fernando Canales Alemán and 17-year-old Byron Montiel brought down a DC-3 plane with a SAM-7. The only survivor was Eugene Hasenfus, a mercenary contracted by the US Central Intelligence Agency to supply arms and ammunition to the contras located in Nicaragua’s central and southern regions. The rocket split the plane in two and the soldiers were able to recover 600 pairs of jungle boots, 100,000 rifle bullets, a hundred AK-M assault rifles, medicines and plastic explosives. By their action, these boys revealed the previously “concealed” intervention in the contra war that the United States had been engaged in over five years.
A procession of high-ranking officials Dan Fisk’s stay in San Salvador to support the proposal to disarm the Nicaraguan Army was just the first in a long list of visits to Central America by first- and second-level US officials linked to the “problem,” including Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld; head of the US Army Joint Chiefs of Staff, Richard B. Myers; Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Political and Military Affairs, Lincoln Bloomfield; and OAS Assistant General Secretary Luigi Einaudi.
to inspect the Nicaraguan missiles
Finally, came Colin Powell, who did not travel alone. With him came Fisk’s boss, Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Roger Noriega; National Security Council member Tom Shanon; Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of Public Affairs Richard Boucher; former US ambassador in Managua John Maisto, who is currently US Ambassador to the OAS, and Vice Admiral James Metzger, who serves as liaison between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the US State Department.
In the middle of all these comings and goings, the State Department sent four specialists to Managua in the last week of April to inspect the site where the Nicaraguan Army was storing its SAM-7 missiles and AK-47 assault rifles. The commission consisted of Mark W. Adams, an expert in small arms and the destruction of light weapons; US Marine Infantry Major Frank David Díaz of the Arms Reduction Agency; an artillery technician and an officer responsible for government affairs in the Southern Command. The US Embassy in Managua leaked to the local press that “in addition to verifying the existence and number of missiles and AK rifles, the mission’s aim is to offer training to Nicaraguan officers in the handling, control and security of the armaments, as well as closed-circuit technical support.”
How many SAM-7s does Nicaragua have? Even General Myers came to see the missiles, and upon his return to Washington in mid-August declared that they “ are well protected in an installation we have helped to secure in terms of technical security measures to guarantee that they don’t fall into the wrong hands.” He also said that Nicaragua had several versions of this weapon, including subsequent versions of the rockets perfected after the eighties.
According to Pentagon figures, Nicaragua has in its military inventory over 2,000 surface-to-air missiles that can be shot from the shoulder of a single person using a bazooka-like apparatus. The missile is heat seeking, following the heat trail of its intended target.
The former Soviet Union donated the C2M and C3M missiles, as SAM-7s are commonly known in military terminology, to Nicaragua in the mid-1980s, and although army spokespeople say they have done everything possible to keep them in good condition, General Carrión’s predecessor, retired General Cuadra, suspects that they are no longer as effective. “The missile has a limited life,” he explained, “and needs certain storage conditions that if not met lead to its deterioration. It also has instruments that you have to calibrate every so often. The danger is that it’s portable; you can hide it or take it anywhere. You don’t need to take a long course to operate one of those rockets; an illiterate person could handle one. And that is both their value and their risk in today’s world, with the market and demand that exists for this kind of weapon for the terrorist or irregular struggle.”
How many missiles does Nicaragua really have? Are they in good condition? The US National Defense University claims that Nicaragua had 394 anti-air missiles at the end of 1998, of which almost 100 are no longer functional. Now the State Department is saying there are 2,000. “We have our inventory, but we can’t say how many because that is militarily classified,” said General Carrión. The US government has known exactly how many surface-to-air missiles Nicaragua has since the mid-nineties.
The real reason is political, not militaryGeneral Carrión called it “speculation” to say that there are SAM-7s outside this military institution. “Since well before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the US Armed Forces have had our army’s SAM-7 inventory, and we even allowed them to look at them. There are over half a million portable anti-air missiles in the world that are indeed a problem in terms of the US crusade against Iraq and terrorist group reprisals against the United States.”
Referring to those belonging to the Nicaraguan Army, he added they “have been thoroughly reviewed, guarded and inspected. We have provided data to the United States so that they can feel confident about our vigilance. Special teams have come to improve the security, offering us support. Commissions have come from the Navy, the Air Force and the Special Forces. We are working with Logistics, but the discussion of how many there are or what’s going to happen to them has not yet gotten underway; it is conditioned to the rest. There is an obvious reality, which is that the United States is extremely sensitive about the security of its citizens and its possessions in the world, and we are cooperating with them along those lines. But Nicaragua has to act within its own legal and constitutional procedures.”
It is clear, then, that in all these years, the Americans never before felt apprehensive about the Nicaraguans having the missiles. Not even after September 11. Colin Powell himself said during this visit that “Nicaragua has them under lock and key, it’s true, and I know how well it is protecting them.” That confession reveals that the real reason they want to disarm Nicaragua’s army and not Honduras’, with its vast fleet of warplanes, nor the armies of Peru, Ecuador, Brazil or Chile, just to mention some of the Latin American armies with much more firepower in various types of missiles and other offensive weapons, is political.
Powell: “The missiles must be totally eliminated” What did Colin Powell say in Managua? Donning a diplomatic, almost intimate tone, aware that his words would have to disguise a gross intromission into the internal affairs of a country whose sovereignty was defended in other times with weapons in hand, he said it straight out: “With respect to the missiles, we have a very firm opinion: they must be eliminated. And the President is aware of that, as is the minister of defense and the armed forces chief. I hope to be able to persuade them, from the military as well as the diplomatic point of view, that these arms are not necessary for any kind of regional balance and certainly not for Nicaragua’s security, and that they represent a potential danger, as the President has mentioned. I firmly believe they must be totally eliminated.
“The world has changed and the region’s threats have changed. Drug trafficking is one of the threats now. Terrorism is one of the main threats, but the probability that a war will break out among the Central American countries, the threats that previously concerned people so much, that type of fear has disappeared. When such an enormous change occurs in the region’s political and economic situation, the military situation should also be adjusted. When the threat changes, one adjusts to that change and the security force changes to be in line with the real threat.
“The Nicaraguan and other Central American people should be more worried about drug trafficking and terrorism, and not fear an invasion by one of their neighbors, which is highly improbable. I believe that what the President has done with respect to the security initiative he presented to the region’s other Presidents reflects the new reality.”
Carrión: “We can’t do it in the US image and likeness” The Nicaraguan Army said “No” to Powell, and it was anything but a spur of the moment answer. In fact, General Carrión has already used the same arguments to explain the army’s position to the country in numerous press interviews offered between April and September of this year.
On July 3, Carrión declared that the aim of having Nicaragua get rid of the surface-to-air missiles is part of a larger plan: “The United States is directing a remodeling of Central America’s armed forces in line with its own interests. What is happening? Within the framework of modernization and some US concepts about how armies must be after the September 11 terrorist attacks and in the wake of the war at a world level, the United States is proposing to remodel Central America’s armed forces perhaps more quickly than is ideal, because there are certainly internal criteria about how it should be done. It must follow some methodological and procedural steps from the legal point of view.
“We aren’t opposed to a discussion about modernizing the armed forces, but we can’t do it in the image and likeness of others who don’t share our problems. The first thing that has to be done is to look at the Nicaraguan state’s perspective and difficulties and based on that present our reality and our way of directing the national defense issue to the other states to provide a response to a phenomenon that affects them as well.
“The United States is heading up a process to remodel the armed forces in response to its own interests; perhaps they coincide with ours, but not all interests can be the same. They have demonstrated an interest and although the changes they would like to see are apparently urgent, they must be reconciled in our countries. It’s not a question of opposing a certain change, but of changing at the same speed. But first the country must be traveling on a safer path. A discussion group must be formed that above all reaches conclusions about Nicaragua’s reality and perspective, at a table of consensus including all sectors. And that can’t be imposed.
“We have had a series of internal discussions and think that the Nicaraguan state has to put forward a proposal, but the problem is this: the SAM-7 is a defensive system against offensive airplanes and the presidential mandate determines that our proposal must be within a reasonable balance. Given that, to get moving on the SAM-7s, everything has to get moving as a whole, and for that to happen there has to be a Central American discussion about reasonable balance.
“Some objectives could be achieved in the short term, but we don’t know which ones yet, because it doesn’t depend unilaterally on what the Nicaraguan armed forces may want in terms of modernizing more rapidly or what a President’s agenda is. It depends rather on a discussion, on acceptance by all parties involved. It’s not just about us giving up the SAM-7s full stop.”
The magic concept: “Reasonable balance of forces” In another interview, on August 31, a journalist from the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa asked General Carrión:
—What does Nicaragua need to destroy those missiles?
—The removal of the threat that planes affecting the security of the country’s strategic objectives could be here in half an hour.
—In other words, you’re never going to destroy them.
—We could enter into a reduction process.
This is a well thought-out position, involving a political and a military calculation. For the army, the magic concept is “reasonable balance of forces.” Although Bolaños sees himself as coiner of this concept, it first appeared in the Central American peace agreements known as Esquipulas I and II, and became reality in the Central American Democratic Security Framework Treaty, negotiated starting in 1992 and signed by the Presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama on December 15, 1995. (The concept appears in the seventh considering and in articles 1, 27, 32, 33 and 52).
Article 1 of the treaty provides the following definition of “reasonable balance of forces”: “The establishment of a reasonable balance of forces that considers the internal situation of each state and the needs for cooperation among all Central American countries to guarantee their security.” Article 27 then specifies the regional security model’s complementary objectives: “to continue the efforts to establish a reasonable balance of military and public security forces in accord with the internal and external situation of each state that is a party, the conditions of Central America and the decisions made by the civilian authorities of the democratically elected governments in each signatory country.”
The core of the discrepancyThe most important point appears in articles 32 and 33. The first of these says: “The Parties commit themselves to continue the efforts for the limitation and control of armaments, by means of a reasonable balance of forces in accord with the internal and external situation of each state.” And the second states: “The reasonable balance and corresponding adjustment of the military forces and budgets will consider what is established in the Constitution of each of the Parties and their defense needs, based on factors such as relevant geographic and border conditions, and the presence of foreign military forces or advisers, among others.”
The core of the discrepancy between the Nicaraguan Army and the Bolaños government—or at least among the troika that directs Nicaragua’s foreign policy—is over what comes first: arms control and limitation (in this case, the destruction of the missiles) or the reasonable balance of forces. The Americans and their local subalterns argue that the weapons must be eliminated to achieve the balance. The military institution says the opposite: first the balance must be agreed to, then the weapons destroyed. It may seem like a semantic difference, but it is not.
A drastically reduced armyThe situation of two neighbors helps in understanding the Nicaraguan Army’s position. Guatemala has not yet reduced any of its armed forces or even finished applying the peace accords signed with the guerrilla forces eight years ago. The Honduran armed forces are in the midst of a profound moral and leadership crisis right now, to the point that three of their last commanders in chief are being processed for corruption as a result of the fraudulent bankruptcy of the army’s possessions and the sacking of the Military Social Security Institute. It is a crisis whose outcome cannot yet be anticipated. Meanwhile, Honduras’ military might is intact: warplanes, helicopters, light and heavy artillery, US military bases on its territory and many other structures of war left over from when it was the US-financed and equipped platform for the contra war against Nicaragua.
In Nicaragua, in contrast, the military structures have drastically reduced their personnel and budget. There has been an 86% reduction of troops alone since the end of the war. In 1990, Nicaragua’s army had 86,810 troops; it was down to 20,954 in 1992 and to 15,250 the following year; in 1994-95 it dropped again to 14,553; between 1996 and 2000 it held steady at 14,083 and since 2001 has remained at 12,083, just under 10% of whom are civilians employed in various administrative support tasks. For example, in 1998, the army had 1,916 officers, 289 sub-officers, 780 noncommissioned officers, 9,724 soldiers and 1,374 civilians.
An additional and no less important fact is how many kilometers of border each country’s military has to cover. Nicaragua has 1,134 kilometers of maritime borders and 1,252 kilometers of land borders. Honduras, in contrast, has 800 and 1,483 respectively; Costa Rica 1,228 and 610; El Salvador 306 and 554; and Guatemala 400 and 1,258. Nicaragua’s borders are the most extensive by any measure, which also explains the enormous and costly challenge that the war of the eighties posed for Nicaragua’s army.
The army’s main capital: Its officers and soldiersA study published in 2000 by researcher Javier Meléndez of Nicaragua’s Center for Strategic Studies states that the country’s defense spending relative to the gross domestic product was reduced by 88% between 1990 and 1999. Between 1990 and 1992 alone the reduction was 75%, before a less rapid downward trend of 41.1% from 1993 to 1999. While the number of troops remained stable between 1996 and 2000, spending was cut 14% from over US$31 million in 1996 to just under US$28.4 million in 2000.
Meléndez adds that “a quick analysis of the budgetary composition of the defense spending indicates that the structure of our armed forces is based on human resources with almost no allocations in capital goods or purchase of military equipment. Although it could not be established from the information obtained whether there were capital investments in transport and communications, the assignments for those categories were insignificant in any case, with the exception of 1997. Although the bulk of military spending corresponds to operating costs, military sources indicate that even that permits only basic investment in infrastructure and lethal technology in the armed forces, without ignoring the relative decrepitude of the equipment that came from the socialist bloc countries…. The analysis of spending in the category of personal services also revealed that there was a drop in military wages and salaries, and reductions in the payment of basic services.”
It is evident that the Nicaraguan Army’s main capital is its officers and soldiers. It is even more obvious that its weapons, in addition to being obsolete, have no offensive capacity as such. The two main strengths are the missiles and the armored weaponry. “Even considering Honduras’ huge Air Force, we have the capacity to surround Tegucigalpa in under 10 hours,” a military source assured us.
Justifiable fears of an unpredictable Honduran armyIt is another thing entirely whether Nicaragua’s armored equipment and Honduras’ warplanes are effectively able to operate. According to retired General Cuadra, “In general, budgetary limitations have meant that all of Central America’s armed forces have suffered levels of deterioration that are hard to quantify. Honduras theoretically still has its air force, but I’d like to see how many of the planes they could put in the air if the combat alarm sounded today. And the same with the Nicaraguan Army’s armored weaponry, which has the strongest offensive power of any army in Central America; I’d like to see how many of the tanks we could get to start and then move from Managua as far as Choluteca on the border.
“I saw this when I was commander in chief and we developed close relations with the Central American armies and evaluated the deterioration. A good percentage of Honduras’ air technology was out of combative disposition, meaning there were planes that couldn’t get off the ground. We also witnessed reports of truly catastrophic completion levels with Honduran army troops; that is, reports by the battalion chief on the border who said he had I don’t know how many men and in reality we knew he didn’t have that number.”
In any event, the Honduran military is unpredictable. When Bolaños appeared with his proposal to destroy the SAM-7s and other voices started arguing that Honduras should get rid of its combat planes, General Isaías Barahona, head of that country’s Chiefs of Staff, limited himself to warning that “Honduras has its own defense policy; it hasn’t changed in the past 15 or 20 years, and it’s not going to change now.” According to Cuadra, “The Honduran armed forces have always had a pretty intransigent position. In the current context, I can’t totally discard the possibility of a war with Honduras due to the level of political conflict, internal contradictions or interests in a society and a military institution that are still maturing. I wouldn’t discard the possibility of a limited military incursion into part of our national territory to force us to negotiate, make concessions and reach forced agreements.”
“If a country ends up only with its fingernails…”These and many other reasons have led all political sectors and a huge part of national public opinion to reject the US imposition. Even Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo surprised all sides by declaring at the end of his Sunday mass prior to Powell’s visit: “I’m no weapons expert, but people who understand these things have told me that SAM-7s are defense weapons. Let us hope that these things are done in a reasonable way, because here we have mature laypeople who are experts in weapons and we can only pray that they make considered decisions. If a country is left only with its fingernails, it’s finished.” The President did not echo his words, despite frequently claiming to be a militant Catholic and publicly demonstrating it in contradiction to the Constitution, which establishes that he must preside over a lay state.
Politicians unanimously back the armyPoliticians ranging from former contras through pro-Alemán Liberals to Sandinistas sided with the Nicaraguan Army on this issue. Constitutionalist Liberal Party legislator Oscar Moncada, one of the only four politicians who met with Powell, declared: “Nicaragua cannot be unarmed. We have the obligation, no matter what political party we belong to, to support the Nicaraguan Army in everything they say with respect to the weapons. We agree with an arms reduction as long as it is reciprocated in the whole of Central America.”
Another legislator, René Núñez, number three in the FSLN hierarchy, found the US position offensive. “It is abusive to have laid out what the government and people of Nicaragua must do. We feel it’s an interference in the internal affairs of a country by someone who has no right to do so.”
A third legislator, Maximino Rodríguez, formerly a National Resistance (contra) chief and today a belligerent pro-Alemán Liberal, considered the US pressure “intolerable” and said that in any event the United States should pay for the missiles to be destroyed. Augusto Valle, from the pro-government legislative bench had a similar opinion. For him, “The SAM-7s are defensive weapons that represent no danger. If it becomes necessary to destroy them, I assume that the army and the government will have to lobby to trade them for new military equipment such as helicopters or speedboats to fight drug trafficking.”
The population says No: The SAM-7s are oursLa Prensa was among the few that supported Powell and Bolaños. In its November 4 editorial, it claimed that “the US government’s concerns about the SAM-7s are unquestionably just. Some Nicaraguans, and not only the government, consider the SAM-7s a kind of measure of patriotism, and think that defensive weapons are indispensable in case of a war with the neighboring countries with which Nicaragua has territorial conflicts: Honduras and Colombia. For that reason, they think that the country should only renounce the missiles if Honduras does the same with its combat planes. Nonetheless, it is absurd to even think that Nicaragua could use SAM-7s to stop much less defeat a military aggression from Honduras, let alone Colombia. In a conventional war these artifacts are useless, but in the hands of terrorists they are fatal.”
Such views aside, La Prensa recognized that a large part of the army’s armaments are worthless, and did not back the unilateral destruction of the missiles. “Logically, in a negotiation between countries with both common interests and differences, no one gives away anything in exchange for nothing. In exchange for the SAM-7s, Nicaragua could obtain modern and effective equipment for combating drug trafficking, such as Coast Guard speedboats and helicopters that would replace the Nicaraguan army’s now useless Russian apparatuses.”
Channel 2 Television, which strongly defends US policy and the Bolaños government, conducted a telephone survey on the last day of Colin Powell’s visit to Managua. Viewers were asked whether they agreed with the destruction of the missiles. The program anchors could not hide their shock, and repeated again and again that out of a little over 100 calls made in 50 minutes, 95% said “No.”
Joaquín Cuadra: “A card Nicaragua should play” In the national and regional context in which the Nicaraguan Army is operating today, it is perfectly understandable that it doesn’t want to give up its missiles unilaterally. General Cuadra favors exploiting Washington’s current interest to improve the national military capacity. “It is important,” he says, “for the United States to recognize that Nicaragua needs to substantially improve its capacity at sea, in the naval theatre of operations, to be able to help defend our territory and play our part in the fight against international drug trafficking. The right thing would be to do it with better equipment, which they should give us. The same thing with the air force, with helicopters for moving around the country internally. The United States has to come to grips with this. Otherwise, they can’t be asking for migratory controls from us here to stop hundreds of Ecuadorians and Peruvians from crossing our borders on the way to the United States. This is a card Nicaragua should play.”
The next step and very close deadlines
Defense Minister José Adán Guerra seems to be a burr under the government’s saddle. When Powell and his six advisers met with him and General Carrión in the protocol lounge at Sandino Airport, Guerra made a brief presentation of the regional efforts to achieve the “reasonable balance of force” and insisted that this must be the framework for discussing the destruction of the missiles.
Nonetheless, the weight of the conversation was general to general, between Carrión and Powell. At the end of the encounter and following Powell’s departure, Guerra announced that a presidential decree will soon be issued that will give shape to an inter-institutional mission that by the end of a year must present the other Central American governments with the inventory of its armed forces and arms along with a reduction proposal. The commission will be coordinated by the defense minister and, despite the willingness of the Foreign Ministry, President Bolaños only reluctantly included the army.
The times will be relatively short. The XXVII meeting of the Central American Security Commission, held on October 22 in El Salvador, approved a 14-month implementation calendar for developing the Arms Limitation Program. In December 2003, not only Nicargua but also the other Central American governments must submit the weapons inventories of their armed and public security forces and a national commission must have been created in each country for implementing the program.
In the first half of next year they will draft a code of ethics governing arms transfers, and by December 2004, according to Salvador Stadthagen, “Central America will be a completely different region with respect to security, with new relations in the military and public security field.”
General Carrión: “We’re never goingAfter General Carrión’s long meeting with Colin Powell, which he described as “quite frank and long, lasting 45 minutes, during which we presented our concerns,” Carrión revealed the army’s bottom-line position on the issue.
to be left without a single missile”
It is this: “We already know that the official US position is the total destruction of the missiles. Nonetheless, we presented our considerations as military officers and within the framework of the commitments of the regional balance of forces that exists in Central America. We obviously are not in a position to destroy the missiles. We have to move forward within the time framework for developing the reasonable balance. We aren’t talking about destroying missiles just for the sake of destroying them. We’re talking about a negotiation process in which the missiles are obviously going to be seen as part of an arms system, and all this has to be seen in the framework of the balance. Given how many missiles we have, we could examine some other progress in that direction. But there is no way that Nicaragua is going to end up without missiles.
“We spoke very profoundly with the secretary of state, the highest political level to which we officers have gotten, and we also talked to the top military commanders. Obviously, the United States has put forward its position: it doesn’t want missiles in Nicaragua. We have said that we are in fact going to have missiles in Nicaragua. But how many? That is what we have to work on down the road. We want to be treated just as any other country in Latin America that has this kind of armament, because it can’t be Nicaragua’s particularity with missiles that worries them if other countries in Latin America have them too.
“We’re talking about a process of a couple of years in which the reasonable balance would be moving forward and we would be able to work in that framework, which could perhaps reduce the number of missiles, but we are never going to eliminate them. We’re never going to be left without a single missile in Nicaragua!
William Grigsby is a Nicaraguan journalist.
Central America and its Armed Forces
(March 2003 data)
Country Population Annual Defense Military Average Military Annual Spending
Budget (in US$) Personnel Personnel/Inhabitants (in US$)
Honduras 6,580,000 132.6 million 13,200 1 / 498 4,878
Nicaragua 5,600,000 31.7 million 12,083 1 / 466 2,646
Costa Rica 4,023,466 109.3 million 10,870 1 / 370 10,054
Guatemala 11,242,000 64.4 million 31,423 1 / 358 3,987
El Salvador 5,517,000 106 million 28,400 1 / 194 3,732
Total 32,962,466 444 million 95,893 1 / 344 5,059
Panama 2,674,000 * 11,800 1 / 227
* *Panama’s figures do not include a budget and expenditures because they are totally subordinated to the United States.