BY CAROLE JEROME
On a hot summer’s day in Managua, Nicaragua, in 2021, the eerily soft, hypnotic voice of Vice President Rosario Murillo spoke seductively to the audience under the trees, of a new era for Central America, with Nicaragua at its literal centre. It was the opening ceremony for a new public park called the Park of Central America.
This seemingly innocent event went largely unnoticed by the rest of the world. But it was a declaration of geopolitical war. The regime of Nicaraguan dictator Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo has a new plan for a Union of Latin America, first envisioned by the legendary 19th century leader Simon Bolivar, who liberated most of northern South America from Spanish colonial rule. In the 1920s and 1930s Nicaraguan revolutionary Augusto Sandino fought to oust the Americans from his country and the whole region, envisioning a federation of free republics.
But the current Nicaraguan rulers go further. Their vision is for one vast military dictatorship in Central America, dominated by Nicaragua, in alliance with Russia and China. Both seek to supplant the hegemony of the United States.
The Russian war against Ukraine which threatens Europe, has overshadowed this menace in Washington’s backyard.
However, there is extensive Russian military presence in Nicaragua – and now increasing Chinese economic involvement. Daniel Ortega announced this June that he intends to push forward with previously stalled plans to build an inter-oceanic canal through Nicaragua to rival that of Panama, with Chinese financial aid and Russian military security.
If Communist Cuba is an old thorn in the side of the US, a growing presence of Russia and China in Nicaragua is a potential migraine. In the not-so-distant past, this scenario would have been unthinkable. How did we get here?
For most of the 20th century, America propped up the dynastic dictatorship of the Somoza family: first, Anastasio senior, then his son Anastasio junior. Their rule was brutal, a police state enforced by the Guardia Nacional, with a corrupt elite who bled the country, keeping the people in illiterate poverty.
Somoza Jr. regarded Nicaragua as his own private ranch – and made no secret of it. The Somozas put their country at the disposal of American corporations and politics, even supplying a launching point on their coast for the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt once famously said of Somoza, “Well he’s a sonofabitch, but he’s our sonofabitch”.
This short-sighted cynicism was adopted in the name of anti-Communism, the rationale behind American support of repressive regimes from Chile to Greece to Iran. Washington always touted its protection of “freedom and democracy” but in reality, this was a “pro-capitalist” policy. Democracy came in a poor third to money and power.
The turning point in Central America was the Sandinista Revolution which overthrew Somoza Jr. in July 1979. The Sandinista Liberation Front, the FSLN, was inspired by Augusto Sandino’s earlier struggle. It had gained overwhelming popular support during years of dramatic confrontations and clandestine organization throughout the country.
The alliance of the Sandinistas with the Soviet Union at that time began slowly with some military aid and weapons sent to the new revolutionary government. Russia’s ally Cuba sent teachers and medical help. All children received a free education – which included Russian language lessons.
Daniel Ortega was one of the nine leading Commandantes of the FSLN revolution who survived the guerrilla war to be appointed to the governing National Directorate. Ortega had suffered years of privation and torture in prison under Somoza and was liberated in an operation by some of his fellow revolutionaries.
Then, in exile in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, Ortega was an apt pupil of Soviet tactics at a military academy where many of the FSLN fighters had special coaching from Russian officers. It was described by some graduates as “Marxist Leninist indoctrination, designed to erase individual will and humanity.”
After winning the first presidential elections in 1984, Ortega subsequently lost the 1990 elections that brought Violeta Chamorro to power for seven years. Her husband Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, editor of the anti-Somoza newspaper La Prensa, had been assassinated by Somoza’s paramilitary enforcers.
Daniel Ortega lost the next three elections and vowed “never again.” With the help of his ambitious and ruthless wife Rosario Murillo, he was returned to power in 2006 in blatantly rigged elections. Murillo eventually became his vice president and many believe it is now she who rules.
In the summer of 2018, student protesters organized large demonstrations against the Ortega government when it tried to drastically reduce state pensions. This was another critical turning point.
The Ortegas responded with ferocious repression. More than 300 unarmed young people died, many with bullets to the head. The regime ordered that no protesters were to receive medical care.
In the last election, in 2021, the FSLN-dominated Assembly banned all viable opposition parties. Opposition candidates were imprisoned, the arrests carried out with brutality by squads of heavily-armed paramilitary enforcers.
These political prisoners were held on spurious charges of “money laundering” and acting as “foreign agents” – a law borrowed from President Vladimir Putin, who created it for use against his own citizens. This and other “legal” measures were used to accuse critics of “undermining national integrity” and often on trumped-up charges of drug trafficking. In jail, they were held in conditions condemned internationally as torture. Among them was Cristiana Chamorro, daughter of Violeta and Pedro Joachin and pre-eminent candidate for the presidency.
With all opposition banned or jailed, Ortega and Murillo “won” the “election” of November 2021, a farce condemned as corrupt and invalid by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, and many governments around the world.
Ortega was defiant, shouting abuse in a rabid post-election speech and accusing countries that condemned him, including Canada, of perpetrating their own historic crimes against humanity. He was not, however, disturbed by the similar crimes of the Soviet Union and Putin’s Russia. He has staunchly endorsed Putin’s war against Ukraine, even after the International Criminal Court indicted Putin for war crimes.
Then in February 2023, the Ortega regime suddenly released 222 of the political prisoners in a secretly brokered deal with the U.S. State Department, which provided for them to be flown to the United States. The prisoners had served their purpose: to terrify the population and allow Ortega and Murillo the time to consolidate power. The FSLN-dominated National Assembly had voted to abolish presidential term limits, enabling them to remain rulers for life.
Today, public backing for Ortega and Murillo is down to 16 per cent. More than 200,000 civilians have fled the country, saying Ortega is the same as Somoza. But the regime now has other powerful supporters.
Ortega’s links with Moscow today cause major headaches in Washington. Ironically, the alliance was strengthened when the American CIA funded and advised anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan rebels known as Contras, based in neighbouring Honduras. When they began the
cross-border Contra War in 1982, the Soviet Union stepped up its military aid to the Sandinista government, to fight off these counter-revolutionaries.
Since the defeat of the Contras, ten years later and the fall of the Soviet Union, aid from Moscow became a constant flow when Vladimir Putin came to power in the new Russia.
One sign of the Kremlin’s success in supplanting American power in Nicaragua was the dramatic presence of the military attaché of the Russian Embassy at centre stage with the Ortega couple at the July 2021 celebrations of the Anniversary of the Revolution. The big Russian, in his distinctive Cossack hat, looked like the third person in a triumvirate, while the Nicaraguan Army Commander was shunted off to the side.
With all opposition banned or jailed, Ortega and Murillo “won” the “election” of November 2021
This spoke volumes, like the old photos of former dictator Anastasio Somoza gladhanding American presidents. Moscow was in charge here now.
Earlier in 2008 Ortega and Murillo were feted by Putin in the Kremlin, a visit reciprocated by Putin’s visit to Managua in July 2014. One result was the purchase of $50 million worth of Russian tanks by Ortega.
There have been numerous diplomatic contacts with Russia by the Ortega’s sons Rafael and Laureano Ortega Murillo. Their negotiations included an agreement “to promote the peaceful use of applied nuclear technology,” which must ring alarm bells for anyone familiar with Putin’s ideas of peace.
But most tellingly, in June of 2022, and again in June of 2023, Ortega signed decrees inviting Russian troops, ships and aircraft to come to Nicaragua for six months on what were called “training tasks in security operations and for humanitarian assistance in emergencies.” Venezuela and Mexico were invited to participate as well. Strangely, the USA was also invited – but only for the humanitarian exercises, such as disaster relief. But this taunt did not fool anybody. Russian state television anchor Olga Skabeeva gave extensive coverage to Ortega’s initiative and said, “It’s time for Russia to flex its muscles near some US cities.”
The Russian troops were to be dispersed throughout the country and Moscow’s ships were to patrol both coasts. Ostensibly, this was to fight organized crime and drug trafficking, as well as train for unspecified “emergencies.” To Nicaraguans, it meant to help put down any popular insurrection.
A recent study by a Central American think tank Expediente Abierto (Open File) sounded the alarm, concluding that these dynamics constitute a significant escalation of Putin’s plans for increased power outside his own backyard. It was entitled “Russia and Nicaragua: A Peculiar Relationship Threatening Security and Democracy in the Western Hemisphere” . The study’s author, Vladimir Rouvinski, regards Nicaragua as a “more important ally in the region for Russia than Cuba and Venezuela.”
“A training center in Nicaragua that is owned and operated independently by Moscow and a GLONASS station (for Russia’s GPS satellites) can guide high-precision arms and facilitate the navigation of navy ships and military aircraft. Russian law enforcement personnel train the Nicaraguan police forces in several aspects of intelligence and surveillance that aids the Ortega regime in oppressing the opposition,” the study adds.
Another extensive report on Russia’s role in Nicaragua, in the online opposition journal Confidencial recently detailed how the regime had been utilizing a Russian technological tool called SORM – the System for Operational Research Activities – to spy on Nicaraguans since 2018. Most citizens now avoid speaking openly on their cell phones, or in emails. They are afraid.
International pleas for ending human rights violations have been met with vitriol from Ortega and Murillo They can now afford to thumb their noses at the rest of the Western world, knowing Vladimir Putin, and presumably his successors, will back them to the hilt.
And now, in addition to Russia, the Ortega dynasty has support from China. Nicaragua is about the size of England, and is a strategic prize, sitting between the Atlantic and the Pacific.
An inter-oceanic canal through Nicaragua has been planned and abandoned several times since the 19th century when the French came up with the idea. In the 1920s the U.S. considered it, but opted for the Panama route, resulting in the famous canal of today. Russia had for many decades wanted to build an alternative route through Nicaragua; its strategic value is obvious, as the Americans have considerable clout in the Panama operation.
The Nicaragua route would be more than three times longer than the Panama Canal and total 260 kilometers. Earlier plans were developed for a “dry canal,” essentially a railway track requiring massive excavation through jungle and low mountains. Ships would be offloaded at one end and cargo reloaded onto other ships at the other end. Nicaragua is not alone in these plans. There are dry canal projects for several countries in Central American. But they are for internal transport, and cannot compete with Panama.
The most recent attempt to build a water canal in Nicaragua was a deal in 2012 between Ortega and a shady Chinese businessman named Wang Jing, who was awarded a concession giving Wang land and mineral rights for a wide swath beside the proposed canal.
Wang was to finance the project for $50 billion. Russia was to supply troops for security. There were massive protests by indigenous peoples, whose hereditary lands would be expropriated. Ortega simply jailed some of the leaders. The project collapsed in 2014 amid engineering problems and dire financial woes for Wang. His contract with Ortega’s regime lapsed. So, Ortega now needed the Chinese government, not just a dicey Chinese financier.
The Chinese government, however, already had made extensive investments in the Panama Canal system itself. In 2016 a new expanded branch of the canal, Panamax, was opened to handle modern mega-freighters. The Chinese Landbridge company then acquired the Isla Margarita peninsula near the Caribbean entrance to the Canal for $900 million, to build a massive deepwater port there, able to handle the huge ships. In 2017, Panama cut ties with Taiwan, moving closer to Beijing.
However, Ortega was still supporting Taiwan in its dispute with China, so he was left out in the cold, and it looked like his Nicaragua canal plan was scuppered.
Chinese companies, meanwhile, had become major players in logistics, construction, water management, and electricity systems for the Panama Canal. They manage the ports at either end of it. In 2018 a Chinese consortium revealed it had won a contract to build a
$1.4 billion bridge over the canal.
Roads, ports, railways, and other infrastructure are the hallmarks of China’s “Belt and Road” (BRI) strategy, a grand design to create a modern version of the old Silk Road trade routes connecting China with all of Central Asia. The BRI now includes Africa as well. Panama was the first Latin American country to sign on.
A 2021 study for the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington reported that these Chinese initiatives in Panama have “stirred alarm for the United States” regarding the neutrality of the canal. It is operated by the Panama Canal Authority, not the government, but the Permanent Neutrality Treaty between Panama and the U.S. allows the Americans to use military force if there is a threat to neutral, fair access to the canal.
There, America has been pushing back against the Chinese. When the companies involved were based in independent Hong Kong they were not regarded as a threat. But now things have changed. Numerous projects of China’s have been canceled by the Panamanian authorities, including, it appears, the giant canal bridge.
Washington strategists have been scrambling to develop a coherent policy to protect American security in the northern part of Latin America, and are now focusing on this southern sector: Panama, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua.
American allies belatedly stepped in to fill the need for new infrastructure in Nicaragua. In 2019, a new road through dense jungle to the isolated town of Bluefields on the Caribbean coast was opened, with $115 million in financing from Japan’s government, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank.
But for Daniel Ortega, America is the “Antichrist.” So, he and his powerful wife have set about wooing Beijing, sensing it might be ready to listen, as the Americans woke up to the danger in Panama.
In December 2021, the Ortegas officially severed ties with Taiwan, accepting it now as part of the People’s Republic of China. Soon after, Beijing resumed diplomatic relations with Managua and reopened its embassy there. In January 2022, China and Nicaragua announced an agreement for China to build major roads in Nicaragua.
The relationship warmed. On June 16th this year, this groveling happy birthday message to President XI appeared in Barricada, the Sandinista official news daily:
of the People’s Republic of China
Comrade Xi Jinping
…We greet you with Great Affection, Respect and Recognition for all your efforts to improve the Life of so many in the World, which we receive with Joy and Confidence the Unconditional Brotherhood and also the Unconditional and Solidarity Cooperation of its People and its Great Country.
With the admiration of Always, Happy Birthday, Comrade President, may God give you more Health and Strength to continue fighting for Peace and Justice in the World.
Daniel Ortega Saavedra Rosario Murillo
After the renewal of relations with China, the Nicaraguan National Port Company announced that Nicaragua had investors for a massive deepwater port project in Bluefields, able to handle modern mega ships. Bluefields is one of two proposed termini of the Nicaraguan Canal.
The nightmare this prospective canal poses for Washington and for global trade is hard to overstate. The disastrous effect on world commerce caused by one ship blocking the Suez Canal in 2021 showed just how vulnerable the global system is.
For Russia and China, having their “own” canal route would give them enormous power to leverage their geopolitical demands and ambitions. Ortega might appear powerful in this scenario, but in reality his overlords would rule the canal. He and his family and friends, however, stand to reap a fortune.
It is by no means certain that these grand plans will come to fruition. Russia is seriously overstretched in Ukraine, militarily and financially, so ventures further afield may not be feasible. Putin is also threatened with instability after a rebellion by the leader of the Wagner mercenary group. Russia has its own problems.
Most people do not realize the Panama Canal is not like Suez, flat and straight. It is a winding series of channels cut through the jungle and mountains, with a series of locks to carry ships up and over the heights. The Nicaragua route is not quite as mountainous, but longer.
However, in addition to strategic interest in the project, China has a labour problem now, with too many young people out of work. The canal would keep thousands occupied for many years.
In June 2023 Daniel Ortega announced that the project would proceed; whether it is with Chinese financing is not officially confirmed. He made the statement during the state visit of Russia’s ally, the President of Iran, adding a new twist to this complex tale.
With few headlines in the Western media, Russia and China are succeeding in replacing American hegemony in Latin America. And it is hard to see what options Washington has to change this new dynamic, although it is considered a matter of national security by President Joe Biden.
On June 19th, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken went to Beijing to defuse tensions over Taiwan. The State Department said the Biden administration’s efforts “to strengthen America’s ability to outcompete China…requires intense and tough diplomacy to ensure that competition does not veer into confrontation or conflict.”
We will never know if a more enlightened policy in Washington in the previous hundred years would have had a far different outcome. As it is, American support of the repressive, exploitative Somoza regime seems to have nurtured precisely the dragon it was meant to slay.
Nicaragua is the Ortega dynasty’s ranch now and they want to extend it throughout Latin America. They constantly praise the inspiration of Simon Bolivar, “El Liberador”. But the former powers of Spain and America have only been replaced by new muscular overlords, China and Russia
In our next issue, Carole Jerome examines the unexpected new player in Nicaragua: Iran. In June, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi paid an official visit to Managua which was labelled, “strategic, not just diplomatic.”
Carole Jerome is a former CBC journalist who has reported from the Contra War and the Nicaraguan Revolution, the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia, the Iranian Revolution, and Washington.