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US Nicaraguan relations may be on downward spiral

US Nicaraguan relations may be on the brink of a downward spiral

by Karla Jacobs

Except for a couple of US multinational companies which ended their operations in the Nicaraguan Free Trade Zones earlier this year after a modest increase in the minimum wage, US and other international capital has not fled the country since Sandinista (FSLN) leader Daniel Ortega's return to power in January 2007, as the most conservative factions in the US and Nicaragua predicted.

United States Agency for International Development (USAID) programs, the Millennium Challenge Corporation fund and US government programs with the Nicaraguan Army and National Police continue as normal. So does trade between the US and Nicaragua. The most outspoken right-wing critics had deemed all that impossible after Daniel Ortega's electoral victory. They characterized him as a Marxist fanatic.

Just last week, on July 31st, the US Embassy in Managua announced the US government's decision to approve for another year aid programs it sponsors in Nicaragua along with ongoing support for Nicaragua's applications for loans from international financial institutions. The decision followed the Nicaraguan government's success in satisfying US concerns relating to compensation claims by US citizens over property and land confiscated during the 1980s.

US aid to countries like Nicaragua which have undergone revolutionary land reform processes is often conditioned on such compensation. In order to ensure the continuing good relations with the US, Daniel Ortega's government has paid out US$183 million to US citizens in compensation during the last 18 months. (1) Many of the US citizens who have received or who continue to claim compensation from the Nicaraguan government are wealthy Nicaraguans who fled to Miami where they were awarded US citizenship during the 1980s.

But beyond that US seal of approval for another year of bilateral cooperation and beyond the apparent normality of bilateral commercial relations, there are signs suggesting that US-Nicaraguan relations could be on the brink of spiraling tension.

The "anti-democratic Ortega" argument

On July 29th, outgoing US Ambassador Paul Trivelli reiterated his "concerns" about what he calls "the closing of democratic spaces" during President Daniel Ortega's administration.(2) Specifically, Trivelli cited as proof of his claim the removal of former deputy Alejandro Bolaños's right to his seat in the National Assembly, the postponement of the local elections in the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), and the recent cancellation of the legal status of two small parties. It is a claim repeated constantly by the national and international corporate media and by national and international opponents to the Ortega administration.

On closer examination, however, Trivelli's arguments are easily disproved. Deputy Alejandro Bolaños lost his seat after it was revealed that he held double nationality (Nicaraguan and Canadian) which, according to Nicaraguan law, means he is prohibited from holding public office. The elections in the RAAN were postponed, at the request of the local authorities, due to the devastation caused by Hurricane Felix in September last year which displaced over 70% of the population and destroyed the electoral records in some municipalities. The cancellation of the Sandinista Renovation Movement's (MRS) and the Conservative Party's legal status was decided after both parties failed to meet routine legal prerequisites required of political parties under Nicaraguan Electoral Law. The decision was vouched for by the Latin American Council of Electoral Experts (CEELA).

Nevertheless, the fact that the US Ambassador is so willing to repeat and disseminate these snippets of misinformation is worth noting inside and outside Nicaragua. It is particularly important given the direct correlation between Trivelli's arguments and the arguments repeatedly put forward by the Nicaraguan opposition, in local media and in the international corporate media too. Opposition leaders regularly describe the democratically elected president as a dictator. Some have gone so far as to threaten to bring Ortega's government down by force.(3)

The imminent arrival of Callahan

Trivelli is scheduled to leave Nicaragua within the next few days, handing over the post to someone who was a key collaborator in the US organized Contra war, Robert J. Callahan. Callahan was a key member of John Negroponte's team in the Honduran Embassy during the 1980s “dirty war” there and also more recently in Iraq. It is strange and worrying that the US government has decided to send such an experienced wartime diplomat as Callahan to Nicaragua for the final six months of George W. Bush's regime. US journalist Stephen Kinzer, in an article published shortly after the announcement that Callahan was a likely candidate to US Ambassador in Managua, asked "why would the United States want to stick a finger in Nicaragua's eye by naming an ambassador who helped inflict on the country the bloodiest conflict in its history?"(4)

Back in January this year, when Callahan's nomination was announced, Nicaraguan analysts agreed that the principal mission of the incoming US diplomat would be to unite the opposition in an attempt to defeat the FSLN at the ballot box during the municipal elections which will take place in November. Retired army general and leading MRS politician, Hugo Torres, said that without doubt Callahan's mission would be to "bring new life to the project of liberal unity", while analyst and social scientist Oscar Rene Vargas said, "an electoral victory for the opposition would represent an enormous relief [for the US] given that it would put a brake on the power of Daniel Ortega and [Ortega's wife] Rosario Murillo." (5)

One of the reasons behind the decision to replace Trivelli may have been to break with his failed attempt to unite the opposition around Eduardo Montealegre, former presidential candidate, on an "anti-pact", "anti-corruption" and "pro-democratic" platform. Montealegre's leadership has been ineffective and he is under criminal prosecution – along with 39 other former public officials and bankers – for his alleged role in Nicaragua's infamous CENIs financial scandal.

The potential for that prosecution to discredit Montealegre's leadership further is enormous, especially since prominent non-Sandinista figures like Nestor Avendaño and Francisco Mayorga have challenged Montealegre to prove his innocence after Montealegre tried to smear them. For the moment Montealegre enjoys parliamentary immunity against prosecution.

Since Trivelli arrived in Nicaragua three years ago, he has stood firm refusing to talk to disgraced former President Arnoldo Aleman, still leader of the strongest Liberal Party grouping, the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC). Recent events suggest that despite Aleman's conviction for multi-million dollar fraud against the State in 2003, he still represents the best hope for unifying Nicaragua's fractious opposition Liberal parties, a necessary part of any electoral strategy to defeat Ortega.

Already there are signs that the right-wing parties are uniting around Aleman, possibly spurred on by the multiple accusations involved in the CENIS scandal prosecutions, which affect members of all factions of the Nicaraguan Right. It may not be unreasonable to suggest this is taking place on the initiative of, or at least with the approval of, the US Embassy as part of preparations for Callahan's support of a unified opposition around the corrupt former president on the basis that there is no other way of defeating “totalitarian” Ortega.

That said, however, it is important to mention the lack of policy alternatives being offered by the opposition parties which makes it likely, according to recent polls, (6) that the FSLN will at least maintain its hold on the majority of local governments in November's upcoming municipal elections or even actually gain ground by increasing the number of municipalities the party and its allies control. Faced with that reality, the most viable option for an eventual electoral victory - or any other kind of victory - for the opposition, probably lies in creating a sense of increasing instability and general chaos.

An increase in provocations of political tension

With that thought in mind, it may be naive to assume Callahan's remit to undermine Ortega's government will be limited to purely political means. Back in June this year, the pro-FSLN radio station La Nueva Radio Ya warned that groups of young people trained by the CIA and the Spanish far-right People's Party are operating in Nicaragua. According to the radio station, these groups received training in "fomenting chaos" during training sessions in Miami and Spain and will put their plans into action in coordination with right wing media outlets like Channel 2 and La Prensa and a number of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs). "These are the same [type of] group that have sown violence in Bolivia and Venezuela," Nicaragua's strategic allies in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA), reported La Nueva Radio Ya.(7)

In keeping with this worrying claim, political violence in the country has increased, something atypical for Nicaraguan politics during the last decade. On April 4th, thirteen people suffered gun shot wounds and dozens more suffered minor injuries as a result of violence which broke out between two groups in Bilwi, also known as Puerto Cabezas, in the Northern Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN), after a group of opposition supporters attacked supporters of YATAMA, an indigenous political party allied with the FSLN. The rival supporters were clashing over the Regional Council's proposal to postpone municipal elections given the ongoing state of emergency in the region after the devastation caused by Hurricane Felix in September 2007. On the same day, First Secretary of the RAAN Regional Council Centuriano Knight, who supported the proposal, was attacked with metal bars by men he described as supporters of Osorno Coleman, mayoral candidate of the PLC, Nicaragua's main right wing party. The vandals also set fire to Knight's house.

During the transport strike in May this year, independent journalists reported that anti social youths (i.e. not transportistas) had taken part in the burning of two truck tractor units.(8) Photos of this event, which took place on the Pan American Highway in a town about 50 kilometers north of Managua, were turned into emblematic images used by the corporate press to create the impression that the strike was rapidly spiraling out of control. Considering the government's flexibility, its willingness to negotiate with representatives of the transport sector and the strike's relatively short duration - twelve days - the numerous outbursts of violence which took place were certainly unusual. The notoriously long six month public health sector strike of 2006 provoked no serious violent incidents despite the untold suffering inflicted on the population and the Bolaños' government's totally inflexible response. The contrast between the two disputes is striking.

On July 31st this year, Antenor Peña, a TV journalist for the pro-FSLN television Channel 4, was shot in the leg during an incident which took place at Managua's central Ruben Dario roundabout. According to independent media, the incident took place between members of the Movimiento Puente (Bridge Movement) and a group of the Sandinista Youth movement. Movimiento Puente is a new anti-government group paradoxically claiming to have no political affiliation. They demanded the Sandinista Youth members leave the roundabout where the Sandinistas had been publicising the government's National Literacy Campaign. During the brief ensuing scuffle, shots were fired from a white truck driving around the roundabout, one of which penetrated Peña's right leg. (9)

During the incident the Channel 4 vehicle belonging to Peña and his colleagues was damaged by Movimiento Puente members who smashed the windscreen with stones. This is the third time in two months Channel 4 journalists have been threatened or physically attacked. In mid-June, a Channel 4 vehicle was damaged and journalists threatened during an MRS protest rally. At another opposition protest in mid-July, Channel 4 journalist Nelson Hurtado was kicked by MRS representative, singer-composer Carlos Mejia Godoy.

All these incidents have been reported in the local corporate media and sometimes in the international corporate media as if the violence was incited by the FSLN and its allies. Comparing the type of violent incidents in Nicaragua over the last few months and the way they have been reported in the local and international corporate media, it is impossible not to note parallels with similar events in Venezuela and Bolivia.

The US government's record in the region and Ambassador Callahan's record in particular, suggest similar destabilization tactics to those being used by the US government and its local allies in Bolivia and Venezuela will be used in Nicaragua in the run up to the municipal elections in November. Subsequently, they are likely to continue, as part of wider US government destabilization efforts during the last few months of George W. Bush's regime in countries where policy and ideological changes that negatively affect US interests are being implemented.

The SAM-7 missiles

Meanwhile, on July 31st, Daniel Ortega announced his decision to reject, for the moment, a US government offer in response to Ortega's own suggestion that his government destroy 651 SAM-7 anti-aircraft missiles in exchange for US medicines and equipment. Paul Trivelli announced the US proposal informally, prior to standing down as US ambassador. But Ortega said, at present, the conditions necessary to destroy the missiles "do not exist", given increasing levels of tension between Nicaragua and Colombia and the possibility that "at some point it may occur" to Colombia to carry out an air attack on Nicaragua over the maritime border dispute between the two nations. "The missiles are the only thing we have to defend ourselves against an air attack," said Ortega. He went on to say he will "study the US proposal carefully" and "respond when the moment is right." (10)

Washington has put immense pressure on Nicaragua to destroy the Nicaraguan Army's SAM-7 missiles because they of the fear they could "fall into the hands of terrorists." Former President Bolaños unilaterally ordered the destruction of 1,000 missiles before the National Assembly changed the law, making it impossible for the President to destroy weapons without authorization from the legislature. Over a year ago Ortega offered to destroy 651 of the remaining 1,051 Sam-7 missiles as part of his suggestion for a mutually satisfactory exchange. The US government, which expressed its approval of the proposal, finally responded on July 28th with a list of medicine and equipment, at a time when Nicaragua's relations with the closest US ally in Latin America, Colombia, appear to be escalating towards dangerous levels of tension.

Tense relations with Colombia

Relations between Nicaragua and Colombia have worsened since the illegal Colombian Army cross-border attack on a FARC (Revolutionary Armed Force of Colombia) camp in Ecuador on March 1st. President Ortega broke off diplomatic relations with Bogota on March 6th in solidarity with Ecuador. The Nicaraguan government also feared Colombia might carry out a similar attack against Nicaragua using as a pretext the existing dispute over the maritime border which divides the two nations. Relations were almost immediately resumed on March 7th after Colombian President Alvaro Uribe made a verbal promise, which it has subsequently failed to honour, to remove Colombian war ships stationed on the 82nd meridian which Colombia considers to be its border with Nicaragua.

President Ortega's decision to grant humanitarian asylum to the three survivors of Colombia's cross-border attack into Ecuador has also caused fury in Colombia. The Colombian government has twice denounced Nicaragua to the Permanent Council of the Organizations of American States (OAS) for "harboring and protecting terrorists," but has not filed a formal complaint. Colombian government officials regularly refer to Ortega as a "friend of terrorists". For their part, Nicaragua's representative at the Organization of American States has referred to Uribe's government as a "narco-state" which "practices state terrorism." (11)

The situation between Nicaragua and Colombia was complicated recently by a July 23rd article in Nicaragua's conservative newspaper La Prensa. The article claimed six members of the FARC leadership met secretly with Ortega in Managua on July 18th, prior to the celebration of the 29th anniversary of the Sandinista People's Revolution the following day. Under the bold headline "Ortega received FARC leaders" the report alleged six FARC leaders flew to Nicaragua from Venezuela in a plane of the Venezuelan State oil company, PDVSA. The story is based entirely on alleged claims by an unidentified "political source". (12) The report was then reproduced by international corporate news media as if the allegations were factual.

On July 16th this year, Ortega replied positively to a request from the FARC to meet with him to discuss possible strategies for peace in Colombia. But he denied the latest claims in La Prensa's report, saying "if I had met [with the FARC], ... we would have done so publicly, because there is no reason to go around hiding from anyone in order to talk about peace." (13) Ortega has accused La Prensa's directors of treason over the report, an accusation currently being investigated by the Attorney General.

More smears against Ortega's government

On August 5, Nicaragua's relations with Colombia were complicated further after Venezuelan corporate TV channel Globovision "revealed" the names of two FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) delegates the channel claim took part in the supposed secret meeting with Ortega. Without mentioning any source, anonymous or otherwise, Globovision announced that two of the FARC delegates who had met with Ortega were Ovidio Salinas (aka Juan Antonio Rojas) and Alberto Bermudez (aka el cojo). The media company went on to claim that Bermudez is the FARC representative in Cuba where "he has a fluid relationship with the Nicaraguan Embassy." Finally, and most significantly, it was claimed that the Colombian authorities in Cuba are in the process of investigating whether or not the "mission" discussed during the "secret meeting" is to facilitate the sale of Nicaraguan Army SAM-7 missiles to the FARC. (12)

It goes without saying that Ortega's decision not to destroy the anti-aircraft missiles for the moment, will be used by the US and its allies to paint Ortega as a warmonger. This most recent report by Globovision, like the La Prensa article before it, conveniently provides ammunition for the US and Colombian authorities and their propaganda media to report falsely that the Nicaraguan government is arming the FARC. The US may only be a few simple moves away from classifying Nicaragua as a terrorist State that supports terrorism. That is a matter of concern, especially since Colombia's President Alvaro Uribe, the most important US ally in the region, still maintains warships on its disputed maritime border with Nicaragua.




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