Armed to the teeth:Nicaragua’s remilitarization
Why has the government remilitarized the country
with lethal Russian armaments?
What are President Ortega and the Army chief hiding?
There are more questions than answers
but the consequences are clearer.
Recklessly and unnecessarily,
Ortega has opened doors thought closed
and triggered the beginnings of a
dangerous arms race in Central America.
In April of this year, the Russian media confirmed that Nicaragua is obtaining lethal materiel via bilateral agreements with Russia. The April 25 Spanish edition of Sputnik News published a note from the Russian news agency RIA Novosti titled “Listo para enviar a Nicaragua el primer lote de tanques rusos T-72B1” (The first batch of Russian T-72B1 tanks are ready to send to Nicaragua). The note cited a spokesperson for the Moscow-based Centre for Analysis of World Arms Trade (CAWAT) who revealed the existence of a contract with Nicaragua for the supply of 50 “upgraded” T-72B1 main battle tanks and of a 2013 order for four Project 14310 Mirage (Mirazh) patrol boats. It added that a contract was underway to supply Nicaragua with two Project 1241.8 Lightning (Molniya) missile boats, the most expensive item in the Russian-Nicaraguan technical-military cooperation, and mentioned the acquisition of Yak-130 training fighter jets.
There had been scattered information and hints as early as two years ago, but no one, including the Nicaraguan independent media, had paid much attention. Nicaragua’s government had been tight-lipped about it, and, as is typical, even provided little information about the non-lethal military-technical agreements with Russia that have existed for years. But with the publication of the Sputnik News article, which was picked up by the Nicaraguan media and spread quickly to other countries in the region as well as the United States, the veil of official secrecy was torn away.
What are the threats?
In circumstances where traditional threats have given way to emerging ones, especially organized crime and drug trafficking, and where disputes between Central American countries are resolved through international law’s channels and instruments, reducing the likelihood of war to a minimum, the news earlier this year poses important questions to which we can’t readily find convincing answers.
What we do know is that it is taking place alongside the geostrategic repositioning of Russia, which is trying to strengthen its former spheres of influence—reviving some that were temporarily abandoned and opening new beachheads—to further its expansionist and hegemonic pretensions.
The basic question, which leads to many others, is to understand the rationale, if there is one, for Nicaragua’s recent acquisition of the Russian armaments industry’s materiel: tanks, war planes, maritime missile boats and patrol boats, a high-impact decision both in our own country and the rest of the region and to some extent the Western hemisphere.
More questions than answers
If Nicaragua isn’t at war, and there’s no evidence of any eventual conventional war, why has Daniel Ortega’s government acquired both offensive and defensive military equipment? Among other aspects, any State bases such a decision on an analysis of the threats to the country’s national security, conflict assessment and responses that would need to be made. The guiding principle is simple: the nature of the threat determines the nature of the response.
Has the Nicaraguan Army done this analysis? What potential and real threats to Nicaragua’s national security has it identified? Does the acquired materiel correspond to the nature of Nicaragua’s response to these identified threats?
Another question is who’s paying for it. The lack of official information in Nicaragua and the fact that Russia’s economy is in no condition to give or donate anything other than scrap material, plus the evidence that Nicaragua lacks the resources to buy this military materiel does not permit an easy answer to the issue of who will finance these multimillion-dollar acquisitions. Is it a purchase, a donation or a combination of the two?
If it’s a purchase, President Ortega’s government should have to answer three obligatory questions: Where will Nicaragua get the resources for it? Has a loan been negotiated with some Russian financial institution? And if so, under what conditions? That would be the only way to obtain the resources, as Nicaragua wouldn’t get them from the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank or Central American Bank for Economic Integration, where it usually turns when looking for small loans. And if it’s a donation, it’s essential to ask why Russia did it.
Nicaragua’s militarization in the 1980s and demilitarization after 1990
Russia’s military assistance to Nicaragua is nothing new, nor was there, as many might have suspected, a break in that assistance when the revolutionary government lost the elections in 1990. Reviewing the evolution of that assistance over the past three decades is a useful exercise.
In the 1980s, Nicaragua was the most militarized country in Central and Latin America, but only in relative terms. The Popular Sandinista Army (EPS) had a total of 134,440 troops in 1986, adding together those in the standing army and those in compulsory military service, the militia and reserves. It also had two powerful Soviet-made fleets, one of helicopters and the other of used T-55 tanks. What it lacked was appropriate and sufficient naval vessels and fixed-wing fighter aircraft.
Violeta Chamorro’s electoral victory in 1990 opened the doors to a transition to democracy and, at the same time, an unprecedented demilitarization process and conversion to defense. The Russian combat helicopters (7 Mi-25s and 14 Mi-17s), which had been used in the war against the Nicaraguan Resistance, were sold to Peru and the radar system to Ecuador. In a process both drastic and expedite, troop numbers were reduced to 86,810 in 1990 and just two years later slashed again to 13,290. Defense spending was also drastically cut.
But the Russians never left
The Russian-Nicaraguan relationship, intense in the Cold War 1980s, entered a stage of relative cooling after the FSLN left office, but it’s important to stress that the Russians never left Nicaragua. A Technical-Military Mission stayed on with an almost imperceptible profile, away from military headquarters in operational centers that have always been on Air Force premises and those of the Mechanized Infantry Brigade.
General Omar Halleslevens, then head of the Army, acknowledged in late November 2007, “We have always had a relationship with the Russians. It’s historical and they have maintained a permanent delegation, a military mission.” Two years later Nicaragua’s Army inspector general explained that “since a large part of the ordnance and technology our army uses is Russian-made, that country has had a military mission in Nicaragua for 30 years. Its specialists help us in the maintenance and correct use of the aircraft, armored vehicles and weaponry.”
Russia’s military presence had been made official towards the end of Arnoldo Alemán’s administration. On October 24, 2001, the two countries signed a Technical-Military Cooperation Agreement in order to “maintain the military equipment in optimum conditions,” particularly ensuring the maintenance of helicopters, tanks, artillery, radio communication equipment and the acquisition of spare parts. That resulted in constant visits of Nicaraguan civilian and military officials to Russia and of Russian officials to Nicaragua. Sputnik News recently wrote: “Military experts constantly travel between the two countries.” So began a chain of meetings to explore the prospects of bilateral military cooperation.
They come and go to meetings…
In mid-2002, General Javier Carrión, by then head of the Army, travelled to Russia to meet with General Anatoli Kvashnin, its Armed Forces’ chief of staff, to analyze those prospects.
In his briefcase, Carrión also carried the hope of obtaining from representatives of the Rosoboroneksport (Russia’s state arms export monopoly) and the State Committee for Technical and Military Cooperation a franchise that would allow Nicaragua to broker the sale of Russian arms… in all of Latin America? He didn’t get it, obviously. It was too big and tasty a morsel for the Russians to give away to this miniscule Central American country… But there were numerous “consolations.”
Some years later, the foreign ministers of Nicaragua and Russia met in Moscow and, for the first time, a senior Russian official said publicly that technical-military cooperation needed to be fostered with Nicaragua, as our country—so he said—was one of the world leaders in this field. In turn, Nicaragua’s foreign minister expressed his govern¬ment’s interest in updating the military equipment previously supplied by the former Soviet Union. Nothing concrete from this meeting was publicly released.
Five years after that, General Omar Halleslevens, who had rotated in as Nicaragua’s Army chief, stated his belief “that this relationship with the Russians will or could increase.” Until then it was limited to aircraft maintenance, refitting helicopters with Russian-bought engines, and maintaining the T-55 tanks and BM 21 (Katyusha) multiple missile launchers.
Ortega announces Russia will provide aircraft
When Daniel Ortega returned as President in 2007 he offered to give the Army, Air Force and Navy new equipment. It was reasonable given that virtually all the military materiel sold or donated by the former Soviet Union, most of it in the mid-1980s, was by then obsolete and at the end of its useful life.
Although with serious technical difficulties, this equipment had been kept working through more than 30 years of service. The fatal accident of a Mi-17 helicopter in June 2013, killing almost all of Nicaragua’s Army Air Force general staff, was a clear warning of the helicopters’ obsolescence. Although the specific causes of the accident were never fully reported, technical failures and even metal fatigue were apparent.
On August 13, 2014, in his speech celebrating the 34th anniversary of the founding of the Navy, President Ortega said they were “working seriously with the Russian Federation to provide us with the aircraft sorely needed to combat drug trafficking and for humanitarian work, apart from those they have already delivered to us” (2 Mi-17V-5 helicopters in 2009).
He added that “we have to continue strengthening the Army, which is an essential force for safeguarding the country’s sovereignty; strengthening peace, security and stability; and also helping reinforce the Central American region’s peace and stability by waging joint battles against drug trafficking and organized crime.” In Ortega’s language, “provide” meant give, donate. The materiel took a long time coming.
Russia defines the priority as economic cooperation
In September 2008, following a meeting between Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin and Daniel Ortega, Russia’s Ambassador Igor Kondrashev announced that the two had agreed on renewing the Nicaraguan Army’s armament, as 90% of its inventory was Russian-made, including not only the helicopters and tanks but also Antonov AN-26 planes. “This armament needs replacing and maintenance,” stated Kondrashev; “not increasing but maintaining, and we’re going to help Nicaragua in this. It isn’t a policy change to provide Nicaragua with super-weapons.”
He stressed that the priority with Nicaragua would be economic rather than military cooperation, principally in energy, agriculture, infrastructure and education. “Military cooperation,” he repeated, “will only be to maintain the potential Nicaragua already has. We don’t want to increase that military potential. We only want to ensure maintenance and replacements for existing materiel and it isn’t only Russia doing this, but several countries.” Eight years later, in 2016, reality would catch the Russian diplomat out in his lie.
In late 2009 General Halleslevens and Sergei Shoigu, Russian’s minister of civil defense and emergency, signed a US$6.5 million Collaboration Agreement for 2009-2010 that would enable the creation of mechanisms and develop procedures for an effective exchange of scientific and technical information about threats, vulnerability and risks, as well as the handling, prevention and mitigation of their consequences. It would also enable Nicaragua to relatively quickly acquire specialized Russian machinery and technical equipment to strengthen its rapid disaster-response capacity.
On August 16, 2011, the Russian Federation’s Emercom Agency and Nicaragua signed a $26 million assistance agreement to modernize the latter’s national disaster prevention and relief system. General Julio César Avilés, who had followed Halleslevens in as Army chief, said the agreement would strengthen Civil Defense and the National Disaster Prevention and Relief System, upgrade the Emergency Disaster Operational Center and early warning mechanisms, reinforce the communication and early warning system and provide the Army’s Humanitarian and Rescue Unit with the equipment needed.
On August 24, 2012, another “consolation” handout arrived: the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry gave the Army six field hospitals with special equipment as part of the collaboration agreement signed the previous year.
The donation of lethal materiel began in 2014
During his visit to Nicaragua in August-September 2012, the chief of the Russian Armed Forces, Alexander Postnikov, met with General Avilés. He announced that Nicaraguan military would train in Russian schools and revealed that Russia and Nicaragua agreed to heighten technical-military cooperation, although without giving further details.
In April 2013 another Russian delegation came to Nicaragua, that time headed by Army General Valery Gerasimov, chief of Russia’s Armed Forces general staff and first substitute for the defense minister. He declared that he had come “to discuss the cooperation between the armed forces of Russia and Nicaragua.” While here President Ortega awarded him the Army of Nicaragua Order, but did they reach concrete agreements? The only thing Gerasimov announced afterward was that they would help the Army’s efforts to fight drug trafficking.
It was the year after this visit that Russian military cooperation finally changed from non-lethal to lethal, placating the zeal of the Nicaraguan military, which had been anxiously awaiting new Russian military materiel for years. Until July 2014 Russia’s military aid to Nicaragua had all been of the non-lethal variety: a field hospital equipped with several operating rooms and other modern means for emergency medical care, more than 40 trucks to strengthen the fire brigade, 23 pieces of heavy machinery and an engineering module for repairing highways and other economic, social and institutional purposes.
At the end of that month, however, Russian military aid took a marked shift with the donation of lethal ordnance. Anti-aircraft artillery arrived in Nicaragua consisting of highly modernized 23-mm machine guns and 23-mm automatic Duplex ZU-23-2 cannons able to deliver 600 shots a minute in a range of 1.5 miles, as well as a simulation complex for helicopter pilots and paratroopers. According to Avilés, the total value of this donation was US$15 million. The military aid had gone from non-lethal to lethal without much explanation, but still aircraft, tanks and naval vessels didn’t appear to be on the priority list.
Russian website revelation goes unnoticed
The negotiations to acquire Russian military materiel were one of President Ortega and General Avilés’ best kept secrets for almost four years. All that was known was what Ortega had said at the celebration of the Navy’s 34th anniversary in 2014: they were “seriously working” with Russia, offering no further details. A note from the specialized Spanish-language website infodefensa.com not only picked up Ortega’s words, but, as again happened this April, it added information hitherto unknown in Nicaragua.
The website reported that Alexander Vlasov, general director of the Nevsky Shipyard in St Petersburg, had confirmed it was preparing two Project 1241.8 Lightning class naval missile boats for Nicaragua and that the Vympel Shipyard in Ryvinsk was considering the request for up to four of its Mirage class patrol boats. Inexplicably, this information didn’t set off local and regional alarm bells at the time; it went unnoticed.
Neither Daniel Ortega nor General Aviles expected it
The alarm bells didn’t go off until the Sputnik News article this April regarding the 50 T-72B1 battle tanks, 4 Mirage patrol boats, 2 Lightning missile boats and possible Yak training fighter jets. This time the independent media, political opponents of Ortega’s administration, Nicaraguan civil society organizations and experts in security and defense reacted immediately and incisively. Once the bombshell exploded in Nicaragua, its shock wave went out with varying intensity that same day to several countries in the hemisphere, from the United States to Colombia, including Central America. And since Ortega and Avilés clearly hadn’t expected their secret to be revealed without a prior heads-up, they hadn’t prepared an explanatory script.
The Army just had to accept that it was, indeed, acquiring Russian war materiel. Its spokesperson justified the acquisition by stating that “we have been taking steps to renovate equipment that has reached the end of its useful life within the framework of the Nicaraguan Army’s modernization and development plan.”
The RBTH (Russia Beyond the Headlines) web site describes the tanks as featuring “a relatively rare White Eagle modification equipped with an around-the-clock gunner’s sight and the Hawkeye commander’s panoramic around the clock sight equipped with a modern thermal imaging camera.” The CAWAT spokesperson quoted by RIA Novosti in Sputnik News said they were only a fraction of all that had been negotiated with Nicaragua. He mentioned two Mi-17V-5 helicopters delivered in 2009, a batch of GAZ-2330 Tigr armored vehicles in 2012 and 12 ZU-23-2 twin-barreled anti-aircraft auto-cannons in 2014, all in the framework of bilateral technical-military cooperation.
First reactions: Largely official silence
The news that Ortega’s regime was arming to the teeth engendered various responses. US Ambassador to Nicaragua Laura Dogu’s was somewhere between confusion and ignorance, which was particularly strange as it’s inconceivable her country’s intelligence services didn’t have information about the negotiations between Moscow and Managua. Dogu told the Nicaraguan press that “we’re trying to obtain information; we need a little more research to understand exactly the purpose and what they’re going to do.” She also questioned the Russian media information: “Sometimes it isn’t right,” she said, adding that “we’re going to request information from the government. It’s important to understand what’s happening.” It has not been learned whether the diplomat in fact asked Nicaragua’s Foreign Ministry for this information.
Some civil society sectors and retired senior military leaders in Nicaragua’s more immediate neighboring countries promptly spoke up. But the initial reaction by their militaries’ top brass, ministries of foreign relations and defense and the armies themselves was official silence. The Confederation of Central American Armed Forces (CFAC) and the Central American Integration System’s Security Commission also said nothing, despite what is prescribed in the 1995 Framework Treaty on Democratic Security in Central America regarding the Northern Triangle countries’ “reasonable balance of forces.”
Costa Rica’s “sadness”
Costa Rica’s President Luis Guillermo Solís said that “any resource that’s spent, especially on weapons, at a time when they aren’t necessary—because there isn’t a conflict theory in the Central American region that justifies an investment of this size and equipment of such sophistication—constitutes, more than a worry or a threat, a feeling of sadness.” His foreign minister called it “a cause for concern, not as a threat to Costa Rica, because Costa Rica’s defense weapons are in international law, but a cause for concern for the Central America region. We don’t need weapons of war in this region; we need to fight poverty with education, more health, more technology and better infrastructure. These are the region’s priorities.”
Costa Rica later added two notes to that script. The first was that the foreign minister called Russia’s ambassador in San José to “ask for explanations,” setting out his country’s unease about Nicaragua’s purchase of Russian armaments and expressing its concern. Obviously, the Russian diplomat did not elaborate. In any case, he should have asked Ortega’s government for the explanation.
The second note came from President Solís four months after having expressed his “sadness” about his neighbor’s rearmament. In a forum organized by the Wilson Center in Washington, DC, he said he had complained to US President Barak Obama and Vice President Joe Biden: “I mentioned to them our concern about the remilitarization in Nicaragua.” Washington’s response was immediate, real and forceful, something that hasn’t happened with respect to Nicaragua for thirty years. After meeting with Solís, Obama announced the donation to Costa Rica of two cargo planes, two patrol boats, two ships, two interceptor vessels, aerial surveillance equipment and a quay, among other materiel and resources valued at a total of US$30 million.
Bogota low-keys the issue
No alarms were raised from the government in Bogota when Colombia learned that Nicaragua had acquired Russian tanks, war planes, patrol boats and missile boats, and only one of the media thought it was a “possible external threat.” There had also been no official public reaction in Bogotá when, somewhat earlier, the Nicaraguan Army’s Inspector General had confidently stated that Nicaragua would acquire Russian Mig-29 fighter jets. On that occasion only a Colombian senator raised the alarm, calling on his country’s defense and foreign ministers to “sit down and level-headedly assess Nicaragua’s ambitions.”
Despite the “active” border dispute with Nicaragua, Bogotá’s official position is understandable. It’s much more important to the Colombian government right now to focus on ending the internal armed conflict that has been bleeding out the country for more than half a century. On the other hand, the Russian military materiel acquired by Nicaragua doesn’t represent a strategic threat to Colombia’s national security, given its overwhelming military superiority in air, land and sea compared to Nicaragua.
A very weighty acquisition for a historically impoverished country
Under IMF tutelage, Nicaragua’s macro-economy has worked and GDP growth has been relatively high, higher in fact than that of Central America’s Northern Triangle countries. However, the micro-economy has fallen behind alarmingly. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean still lists Nicaragua as having the second highest rate of multidimensional poverty of any country in Latin America. A massive informal economy, high unemployment and the high cost of living are scourging most Nicaraguans.
Both Ortega and Avilés have kept quiet about the total value of these irrational acquisitions, without explaining what conflict theory they are responding to, which country or countries are threatening Nicaragua’s national security, or what military doctrine is behind this acquisition.
The estimated cost of the 50 T-72B1 battle tanks is $80 million ($1.6 million each). Specialized websites say Lightning naval missile boats have a market price of $45 million ($90 million for the two) and Mirage patrol boats about $5 million ($20 million for four). Assuming the Army wants to acquire a fleet of at least four Yak-130 jets, the total cost for them would be $64 million ($16 million each). Those ten items total another $160 million, without including spare parts, maintenance (an estimated $1.5 million per unit) and personnel training, plus the payroll for the Russian Technical-Military Mission, although neither the cost of this mission not the financing to pay for it has been revealed.
Ortega conceals that the acquisition of war materiel is to satisfy his ego in an unnecessary demonstration of bellicose muscle and Avilés hides the superfluous extravagances. The purchase could end up costing a little over $350 million in total. The purchase could end up costing a little over $350 million. Who will finance Ortega’s egotism and the extravagances of Avilés and the Army’s top brass?
It wouldn’t be strange if they are being financed by a “generous” donation from Russia, seeking to strengthen its old sphere of influence (Cuba in the Caribbean) and revive a temporarily shelved one (Nicaragua in Central America).
What threats are there to Nicaragua’s national security?
Nicaragua has never had a national security policy or a genuine national security law. Not until December 2010, in the heat of an escalation of the border dispute with Costa Rica, was the Democratic Security Law hurriedly passed, along with the National Defense Law and Legal Borders Framework Law, originally called National Security Law.
The first of those was an abysmal intelligence law disguised as “democratic security.” And although it was regulated, it was never applied. It was repealed five years later, replaced in 2015 by Law 919, the controversial Sovereign Security Law, which is nothing other than an equally abysmal intelligence law now disguised as “sovereign.” Its definition of “sovereign security” is far removed from all basic principles of security doctrine, political science and international norms. Although dressed up in the folkloric-political language used by Ortega’s government, it’s no less dangerous for all that.
It lists three risks and twelve threats to Nicaragua’s “sovereign security.” Of these, strictly speaking, only one is a real national security threat: any State’s aspirations to expand into the country’s territorial areas, material resources and natural resources (Article 8, Number 2). Stretching its interpretation a little, it could be related to the defense of national sovereignty and independence, and territorial integrity, but it’s excessively limited and unnecessarily obvious, as it evidently refers specifically to Colombia and Costa Rica, countries with which Nicaragua has unresolved border disputes filed with the International Court of Justice.
For indisputable reasons, a military outcome of these disputes is beyond all reasonable possibility. Colombia’s military power far exceeds Nicaragua’s and Costa Rica has no military force that could put us in a strategic at-risk situation. Colombian military aggression would automatically victimize Nicaragua and a Nicaraguan military attack on Costa Rica would inevitably victimize our southern neighbor. But even in the remote eventuality of a war with Colombia, there’s virtually nothing that the fifty tanks, four patrol boats, two missile boats and fleet of four Yak-130 jets Nicaragua is acquiring from the Russian military industry, plus the anti-aircraft artillery donated in 2014, could do to detain Colombian momentum in what would be an aerial and naval military confrontation.
So 50 tanks to confront what?
Why then is Nicaragua rearming itself? Neither Daniel Ortega nor General Avilés have ventured to answer this question and the official silence has encouraged both far-fetched explanations and a regional red alert.
The Russian military historian Alexander Sujánov offered an answer that goes beyond the limits of logic: “The tanks are too expensive a ‘toy’ to fight against rebels and illegal armed groups. Therefore, Nicaragua sees a potential external threat in its neighbors. This could be related, on the one hand, to old territorial and border conflicts, and on the other, to Daniel Ortega’s fears of the neighboring countries giving way under US pressure and, consequently, the likelihood of military intervention coming from another country under some invented pretext.”
It’s noteworthy that those who Sujánov calls “rebels” and “illegal armed groups” are the same ones Ortega, the Army and the Police call “criminals” and “criminal gangs.” Be that as it may, however irrational his hypothesis may be, it fits the paranoia patterns shown by Ortega in his move to concentrate more and more power.
In early 2015, RBTH speculated that “the intensification of military cooperation between Russia and its old Central American ally could be related to ‘the construction of the century’: Nicaragua’s alternative to the Panama Canal.” This website takes it as read that Chinese entrepreneurs have already invested US$50 billion in the construction of the canal, “a strategic objective that needs protection and which Nicaragua’s armed forces are not in any condition to provide at this moment.” That’s why, stated RBTH, “the entry of Russian military ships into Nicaraguan ports reveals possible military coverage of the canal,” which Russia would use to increase the mobility of its fleet since “the presence in the Caribbean of the Russian fleet, equipped with precision weapons, would act as a deterrent to the United States.”
Of all the explanations heard, the most nonsensical was that of Representative Edwin Castro, head of the FSLN bench in Nicaragua’s own National Assembly. Displaying his ignorance, the parliamentarian declared: “The army has already spoken and has said what its needs are. Nobody can deny that this country is the one that’s fighting drug-trafficking the most and we have to see organized crime in the same light and remain the safest country in Central America.”
A dangerous arms race in Central America
The most judicious reaction, and the one that has so far set off the greatest red alert, came from Honduras’ La Prensa newspaper. In its May 1 issue, the editorial writer wondered in amazement why Nicaragua is remilitarizing in an “environment of regional peace” then defined the fields: “Sandinista caprices are their own business and that of the other party’s credit or cooperation.” But it warns that the consequences will exceed what is strictly bilateral “because there will be no shortage of those who will try to create and nurture the war climate so as to avoid other, more serious and urgent problems common to all countries of the isthmus to a greater or lesser degree.” This warning is serious and, like it or not, portentous.
The “serious and urgent” problems facing the region aren’t imaginary; they’re real. In addition to economic and social underdevelopment, the Northern Triangle countries are hemorrhaging population through the flight of tens of thousands of emigrants without documentation, including unaccompanied minors, towards the United States. They are trapped by corruption and impunity and involved in the criminal violence of drug trafficking and organized crime. All three countries have decided to confront the violence in the least suitable way: by militarizing public security.
While none of these three governments have commented on Nicaragua’s rearmament, El Salvador’s defense minister said in mid-June that he will ask for $41 million more for the 2017 budget than in 2016. Two months later, the head of Honduras’ Defense Ministry announced a “significant investment” in the Air Force. More recently, President Juan Orlando Hernández revealed the existence of a military cooperation contract with Israel which will enhance the Honduran Armed Forces’ “air, sea and land” capabilities.
Hernández’s announcement agreed for the first time with the official reaction of a senior military chief about Nicaragua’s rearmament. General Francisco Isaías Álvarez Urbina, head of the Honduran Armed Forces’ Joint Chiefs of Staff, acknowledged that “we’re worried about what Nicaragua is getting and that’s why we must have it too.” To this has to be added the multimillion dollar donation of military materiel Costa Rica obtained from the US.
So, recklessly and unnecessarily, Daniel Ortega’s regime has opened doors thought to be closed and triggered the beginnings of a dangerous arms race in Central America…
Defending national security or corporate interests?
The International Court of Justice ruling on November 12, 2012, which restituted to Nicaragua some 56,000 square miles in the Caribbean, found the Nicaraguan government empty-handed, without the military materiel to monitor, defend and exercise sovereignty in this extended, immense territorial sea.
Everything indicates that the Ortega government, Foreign Ministry and Army didn’t expect a favorable resolution and no one had made provisions to assume responsibility for it. In fact, the 2013 defense budget of just over US$85 million didn’t include acquiring military materiel to defend these territorial waters. At that time the Army was “busy” building the new military hospital, which also operates as both a private hospital and clinic for those who have social security.
Figures for the defense budgets in 2013 and 2014, the two years following the International Court ruling are revealing: in 2013, somewhat less than $26 million in capital spending was allocated to the new hospital; and in 2014, somewhat over $16 million went to the same place, with not a cent allocated for the acquisition of military materiel to defend and protect the country’s newly-gained maritime area, which the Navy’s old boats can’t guarantee, much less the aircraft the Air Force never had.
The top priority for the military, now converted into “entrepreneurs in uniform,” is its leaders’ corporate and personal businesses. Sovereignty, national independence and territorial integrity… well, they can wait because business is business.
Slapdash laws and non-existent policies
If the cardinal objective of national defense is to ensure the nation’s security, i.e. defending our territory’s sovereignty, independence and integrity, it must be governed by a policy regulated by a law and have the necessary resources to be truly effective. The existing security and defense laws are slapdash while a quick scan of the Bolaños government’s 2005 Libro de la Defensa Nacional (Book on the National Defense), a joint effort of civilian and military specialists from the Defense Ministry and Army of Nicaragua, shows that these laws were hurriedly and clumsily copied from its contents.
The December 2010 Law of National Defense of the Republic of Nicaragua (Law 478), prescribes the formulation of a “National Defense policy” that “will result from a broad national consensus,” which in turn should be the product of a broad-based national consultation. Almost six years after it was passed, the reality is disgraceful: no consultation or consensus or policy.
The laws exist but not the policies, and resources are instead allocated to the Army’s thriving corporate businesses, such as the new military hospital. Neither the Army nor the Republic’s comptroller general has revealed how high the profits will really go from this business, administered by the Military Social Security Institute. The investment already returns just over $9 million a year, a figure projected to grow to $18 million once they double the number of social security affiliates cared for there, and those figures don’t include the profits generated by those who can afford to pay for its private services
In what was Russia paid to make this donation?
At the opening of the Army exhibition on August 14 of this year, General Avilés finally unveiled a small part of the financing secret: Russia donated the T-72B1 tanks. “All you can see here,” he said, referring to the military materiel deployed there, including one of the battle tanks, “has been within Russian Cooperation’s totally unconditional management process.”
But those battle tanks, which make Nicaragua “the Central American country with the most powerful armor-plated force,” are a useless donation because they are never going to be used, unless Ortega and Avilés are preparing to confront an imaginary invasion by neighboring countries giving way to “imperial” pressures, as Sujánov speculates; or are thinking of using them for a massacre, such as occurred in Tiananmen Square when the Chinese government faced a massive popular protest with the power of tanks. Does Ortega fear eventual social upheaval threatening his regime’s stability?
Russia’s donation amounted to getting rid of its already ancient T-72B1s, because it now has the Armata T-14 tank, ranked fifth among the world’s ten main battle tanks. It donated Nicaragua a batch of 50 of the almost 3,000 it had in 2010, according to “Military Balance 2016” formulated by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London.
General Avilés said the tanks had been donated “unconditionally” to Ortega’s regime, but these “expensive toys” were actually payment for allowing Moscow to once again set foot in Central America as a “nuclear deterrent” in response to the US and NATO supporting Ukraine in its confrontation with Vladimir Putin’s Russia through the secession of Crimea and Sevastopol.
They were also payment to guarantee Russian warships unobstructed access to Nicaraguan ports, and to enable it to establish a station to collect electronic intelligence information disguised as a satellite station “in order to explore and use the Central American country’s outer space area for non-military use and so obtain a database on scientific, industrial, climatic and atmospheric issues.”
Ortega and Avilés clearly had to expend very little effort to get those battle tanks. It remains to be seen whether the Russian “generosity” extends to “donating” the two Lightning missile boats and four Mirage patrol boats Nicaragua ordered from Russia whose delivery process is in the pipeline and whose market cost totals $116 million. And will the Yak-130 training and fighting jets also be donated?
What’s hiding behind this business?
General Avilés didn’t refer to the other military materiel acquired when he announced—with none of the enthusiasm of someone receiving a valuable gift—that Nicaragua wouldn’t be paying the estimated $80 million for the tanks. The same thing happened two weeks later, at the Army’s celebration of its 37th anniversary, when Daniel Ortega didn’t even refer to Putin’s gift.
Why the silence? What are Ortega and Avilés hiding? Two years earlier, Avilés had said they needed at least eight new patrol boats to protect the territorial sea returned to Nicaragua by the International Court and defend the new maritime boundary with Colombia, something impossible with Nicaragua’s scant and antiquated Navy and Air Force resources. According to the IISS “Military Balance 2014,” Nicaragua’s Navy had eight patrol and coastal combat boats and the Air Force had 9 light transport aircraft, as well as 7 Mi-17 Hip H multi-functional helicopters (gunships but of doubtful service) and 2 Mi-171E medium transport helicopters, but as mentioned earlier, practically all these Russian-made naval and air materiel had been in operation for over 30 years.
Replacing them was, and is, necessary, but is this need being met? The Mirage patrol boats appear to suit the Nicaraguan State’s need to combat drug trafficking and smuggling, safeguard the exclusive economic areas and territorial waters and support activities to control maritime areas (boat inspection, enforcement of maritime law and customs operations, among others). Their acquisition, however, wasn’t put to public tender and there were no signs that the Army had explored other markets that offer similar and possibly cheaper merchandise.
The Lightning corvettes, at $90 million the pair, are an unnecessary and pompous extravagance, as are the Yak-130 training/combat jets, at $64 million for a fleet of four. In fact the latter is a more than superfluous expense as combat jets aren’t suitable for aerial interdiction in a fight against drug trafficking, unlike the Brazilian Embraer EMB 314 Super Tucano, which costs half the price of a Yak-130.
Where will Nicaragua get the resources for these acquisitions? Did it negotiate a loan from some Russian financial institution? And if so, under what conditions? Ortega and Avilés are showing no signs of willingness to come clean with Nicaraguans about the interests hidden behind this multimillion dollar deal by the country with the second highest poverty rate in Latin America, an endemic poverty that the Ortega-Murillo consortium’s handout approach, underpinned by the Army’s corporate interests and the military leadership’s personal interests, have not managed to make much of a dent in.
Ortega’s sovereign lie
On September 2, at the celebration of Army Day, Daniel Ortega, with his now customary and haphazard rhetoric, attempted what amounted to a terrible historical “reading” adapted to his interests and distorted worldview.
I rescued a mighty lie from it. Ortega recalled a day in September 1979 when he met with then-President Jimmy Carter in Washington, before participating in the United Nations General Assembly in New York. Ortega said that at the meeting he explained to Carter that Nicaragua had no army and needed US military support to arm the new Sandinista Popular Army. According to Ortega, Carter told him it was difficult for him to approve this kind of support.
That is the big lie. Almost immediately after the victory over the Somoza dictatorship, in July 1979, Colonel Eric Kjonerod, the military liaison officer for the US Embassy in Managua, extended a formal invitation to the Sandinista Popular Army’s leadership to visit US military facilities, meet with that country’s military leaders and explore the possibilities of military support for Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan delegation was headed by Joaquín Cuadra, Army Chief of Staff at the time, and with that negotiations began to acquire military materiel from the United States.
Washington was willing to offer military assistance but wanted to know who would settle—and how—the military debt Anastasio Somoza Debayle had left. The Sandinista leaders at that time weren’t prepared, and rightly so, to pay for military materiel that had been acquired to repress the Nicaraguan people. So the negotiations went into deadlock. For the FSLN leaders it was the perfect opportunity to disassociate themselves from the United States and jump into the arms of the Soviet bear, which was probably already on their political agenda.
The Sandinista leadership of that time was completely convinced that, as in some sort of Central American “manifest destiny,” they were predestined to confront and defeat US imperialism in a kind of tropical Armageddon, a final battle between good and evil from which the revolutionary Sandinistas would emerge triumphant. It was this messianic feeling that characterized them, and still does characterize some of them, even though reality has tried to show them over and over its finite nature and serious limitations.
History repeats itself
In the 1980s bipolar Cold War world and in the Latin America of the National Security Doctrine, despite the FSLN being committed to an independent foreign policy and having joined the Nonaligned Movement, it handed Nicaragua over, body and soul, to the USSR and Warsaw Pact countries in order to obtain military assistance. It has done the same today to Putin’s Russia in pursuit of the same objective. History is repeating itself, this time as a tragic farce.
Roberto Cajina is a civilian consultant on security, defense and democratic governability.