Nicaragua: Balancing Arsenals and Aid

(International Relations and Security Network, 16/02/2007)


Newly elected Nicaraguan President, Daniel Ortega finds himself the new caretaker of a powerful arsenal of Russian SA-7 missiles from the 1980s – an arsenal the US has wanted destroyed for years. Only days after Ortega's 10 January inauguration, the political opposition, echoing the long-time position of the US, began pressuring his administration to destroy the remaining ground-to-air missiles, but Ortega has resisted.


It is a geopolitical issue that underlines the balanced position Ortega must maintain between remaining loyal to his leftist political roots and aware of the international aid his country needs from Washington.


As the president of one of the region's poorest countries he must placate international donors in order to keep the Nicaraguan economy afloat. As the leader of his country's Sandinista party, he has an established record as an enemy of the US, an internationally known status that gives him instant credit with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, among others.


What Ortega eventually decides to do with the missiles could indicate the international partners he is likely to embrace. Destroying the missiles would appease Washington, but it would make Ortega appear weak to his anti-American friends.




Man Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADS) have been called the terrorists' delight. Their alleged use by the Iraqi insurgency against US helicopters has been a cause for concern. Stinger missiles the CIA sold to the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation there in the 1980s leveled the playing field between rebels on the ground and the deadly Russian helicopters. During roughly the same time, the Russians provided some 2,000 SA-7 MANPADS to the Sandinista government, led by Ortega, for use in combating the US-backed insurgency determined to stop the spread of communism in Nicaragua and Central America.


One thousand of these missiles have been destroyed but just as many remain. Stockpile controls and security are a concern. The potential weakness of Nicaragua's weapons stockpile control system was revealed in 2001 when an arms broker in Guatemala persuaded the Nicaraguan army to sell him 3,000 AK-47 rifles and 2.5 million rounds of ammunition. These weapons were eventually delivered to Colombia's paramilitary forces.


The Nicaraguan army guards the Russian missiles still in its arsenal. US leaders are worried that some of these missiles could be illegally transferred to terrorists or others operating in the region who may use them to shoot down international commercial flights.


In 2003, US President George W Bush met with then-Nicaraguan president Enrique Bolanos and urged him to destroy the missiles. The Nicaraguan Congress, led at the time by Ortega and his allies, trumpeted the Nicaraguan military's demand for a reciprocal payment of US$80 million for missile destruction. Bolanos pushed ahead, pledging to destroy all of the missiles without compensation, but Ortega won out.


The Nicaraguan Congress passed the Weapons Control Law, which stipulated that the president must have prior approval of the legislature before ordering the military to destroy weapons. Bolanos vetoed the law, but the Congress voted to override his veto. Since then, the missiles have remained untouched.


Controversy over planes


Bolanos' failed efforts to destroy the missiles prompted Washington to temporarily suspend military aid to Nicaragua in July 2005. While that aid was restored after the Nicaraguan military assured Washington that the missiles were under an adequately secure control regime, the US still seeks to destroy the missiles.


A bill that proposes to destroy over half of the remaining missiles has languished in the Nicaraguan Congress since Ortega's inauguration.


Ortega has called the bill "absurd and inconceivable." He claims the missiles are needed for Nicaragua's air defense, as it does not have an air force and neighboring Honduras has recently received an order of airplanes from the US.


The planes are limited to survey, observation and anti-drug missions, according to the US Southern Command. "The eight Storm Rally airplanes are used for search and rescue missions and to detect and discourage drug trafficking," Lt Coronel Anibal Mulero, a spokesman for US South Com, told ISN Security Watch.


Mulero explained that the aircraft were not attack planes, information corroborated by data provided by Prestige Aircraft Company LLC, a manufacturer of Storm Rally aircraft built for civilian use.


The pressure may be less on Ortega and more on ensuring that the missiles are controlled, according to Matt Schroeder, manager of the arms sales monitoring project with The Federation of American Scientists and co-author of the book "The Small Arms Trade."


"The United States' concern about these missiles has little to do with Ortega," Schroeder told ISN Security Watch. "Attempts to help Nicaragua dispose of them date back at least to 2003, when [the US] provided the Bolanos government with funding for missile destruction and stockpile security upgrades."


The real concern is preventing terrorists from accessing the missiles. If destroyed, US leaders can rest assured the Nicaraguan missiles will never fall into terrorists’ hands.


Renewed pressure


Renewed pressure to destroy the missiles may not be on Ortega to take action, but Ortega's position makes it difficult for observers to separate his geopolitical leanings from a long-held US request to destroy the MANPADS.


Standing up to the US has never been easier. Ortega knows he can count on Chavez for more support than the US.


The Venezuelan daily El Universal reported on 22 January that soldiers with the Venezuelan military would help build a 480 kilometer road connecting the east and west coasts of Nicaragua. The project has an estimated cost of US$350 million, financed as a donation by the Venezuelan government.


Nicaragua has agreed to enter Chavez's anti-American trade block called ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas. The Central American country will become a certified member of Chavez's anti-American team. Doctors from Cuba are already in Nicaragua, assisting the state with medical services for the poorest Nicaraguans.


Iran will soon open an embassy in Managua. Ahmadinejad has promised investment in roads, dams, the fishing industry and ports, according to the Associated Press. Investments in Nicaragua's struggling energy sector may soon follow. Already, Chavez has pledged to construct a number of new energy plants.


Russia, too, has recently sent emissaries to Nicaragua.


In a region where anti-Americanism can win leaders support from powerful countries worldwide, snubbing Washington pays off. Ortega, however, has not publicly out lashed against Bush or Washington in general. He has chosen to remain firmly against the SA-7 destruction, which amounts to a non-issue for his constituents. More importantly, it is an outward sign of strength in the face of a very limited amount of pressure from Washington.


For now, this is a balance Ortega appears able to walk. But as he grows closer to Iran, Russia and Venezuela, pressure from Washington may extend beyond the destruction of Cold War-era missiles. It is an important issue, but when Washington begins to talk about shutting down Nicaragua’s access to US markets, Ortega may be forced to capitulate. Otherwise, regional observers may watch as history repeats itself and Ortega once again becomes an adversary.