Nicaragua is experiencing a crisis that began in April with a mass demonstration that started as a protest against social security reform and it quickly extended to rebellion against government corruption and tyrannical tendencies. The president of Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, is defending his fraudulent, corrupt and dictatorial regime with an iron fist. More than 350 people were already killed and thousands were wounded as a result of government repression.
On July 16th, the United Nations, the U.S. and several countries in Latin America issued statements condemning the violence and calling for it to stop immediately. Meanwhile, Ortega’s reaction was to approve a law that declares damage of public and private property as an act of terrorism and punishes it accordingly. The idea is to criminalize the protests and even “upgrade” them to the status of “terrorism”.
Ortega’s repression is part of a pattern that is part of the painful legacy of the regional authoritarian tendencies sparked by the emergence of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela in 1999, which was followed by the rise of a chain of regimes that used Chavez as a model, including Nicaragua.
These dictatorships have adopted different styles. The Venezuelan and Bolivian regimes are openly revolutionary and hostile to business, capitalism and the United States. Other dictatorships hide behind a pragmatist attitude while consolidating a despotic political regime. One such regime is the Nicaraguan one.
Indeed, Ortega managed to deceive his people and the world by accommodating the business class and maintaining free trade agreement with the United States. The business class had no problem with Ortega as long as its interests were not harmed. A tacit agreement was established between Ortega and the business sectors. Thus, Ortega guaranteed the proper environment for business investments while the entrepreneurs looked the other way as Ortega consolidated a dictatorship by securing its indefinite reelection through fraud, corruption and subjugation of the institutions of democracy and the judicial system.
Thus, Ortega established a sort of Chinese model of government where it kept a dictatorship with Marxist and socialist justification while legitimizing it through a sort of pro-business economy. Nicaraguan entrepreneurs even managed to lobby U.S Congress against the Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act (NICA Act). The NICA Act, would require the President to oppose certain loans by international financial institutions that would benefit the government of Nicaragua until the Nicaraguan government takes effective steps to combat corruption and promote democracy, free speech, civil society and rule of law. The bi-partisan NICA Act passed the House of Representatives but it is still being held in the Senate, presumably under the pressure of lobbyists.
However, with the protests that began in April, this pact between business and government seems to be breaking down. For Ortega, the maintenance of the dictatorship is the priority. The business class was betrayed and now they are paying heavily for their naiveté. The illusion of separation between economics and politics is over.
Repression in Nicaragua is being carried out through the use of para-military forces, gangs, thugs and the Nicaraguan army. Following the Cuban and Venezuelan models, Ortega targeted the military in order to secure its loyalty. Ortega established a direct relation with top generals and they supported Ortega’s indefinite reelection. Furthermore, Ortega also enabled the indefinite reappointment of the army chief of staff and gave the military all kinds of economic privileges. The army has become an economic power with investments in the stock market, the hotel industry, the health sector, real estate, and other industries.
Thus, reports that army officers and soldiers have a role in the current repression comes as no surprise.
These individuals have been seen using heavy military weapons. According to reports, most deaths were reported to have been caused by high-caliber weapons usually used by the military.
Russia is playing an important role in the arming of the Nicaraguan army, particularly since 2015. Indeed, in the last three years Russia has been providing sophisticated weaponry to Nicaragua that according to reports have included T-72 tanks, war boats, warplanes, and powerful bombs.
Russia would play the role of guarantor of Ortega’s dictatorship and would become its strategic ally as well. Russia is planning now to train Nicaraguans in the fight against “drug trafficking and terrorism” but that could well be a façade to train guardians of the regime. The Venezuelan and Nicaraguan peoples might be forever condemned to live in a situation similar to that of Cuba, namely enslaved to the caprices of an unending dictatorship.
Russia views the Nicaraguan and the Venezuelan regimes as allies against the United States and as such as bastions of Russian influence in the Western hemisphere. Russia is also close to Iran. Iran is close to the drug cartels and already has a strong and solid presence in the continent and very strong relations with Venezuela and Nicaragua. We may be condemned to live with this nefarious influence in our neighborhood.
Before President Donald Trump met with Vladimir Putin on July 16th, the outgoing Colombian president Juan Manuel Santos urged Trump to demand Putin to cease his support of the Venezuelan regime. This subject-matter was probably not discussed during the meeting.
Russia is a greater challenge than President Trump is willing to admit. Latin America is only a portion of that challenge but important enough to take it seriously.