Nicaragua Becoming New Arena for Tensions in Central America
Tuesday, July 27, 2021
Lucas Leiroz, research fellow in international law at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro
Tensions continue strong in Central America. After the assassination of the Haitian president and the start of a wave of anti-government protests in Cuba, a great political persecution broke out in Nicaragua. As a tactic to gain political control, the persecution is primarily targeted at presidential candidates who will oppose President Daniel Ortega in the next Nicaraguan elections. The anti-US orientation of the current Nicaraguan government generates rumors about a possible regime change underway through a self-coup by the Sandinista Party.
On Saturday night, Nicaraguan police arrested opposition leader Noel Vidaurre, continuing a long process of political persecution against government opponents. He is the country’s seventh presidential candidate arrested in recent times. As a result, almost everyone who could challenge President Daniel Ortega in the November 7 election is now detained. With the exception of Ortega, the only candidates who remain free are Luis Fley and George Henriquez, not aligned with the government but considered less popular and unlikely to win.
Not only presidential candidates are being arrested, but also political activists. Student leader Lesther Alemán, popularly known in the country for his harsh criticism against President Ortega, was also arrested this month. The list of detainees is completed by peasant leaders Pedro Mena and Freddy Navas and student leader Max Jerez.
Almost all of these politicians and activists were arrested on charges of “treason” – something that has become a common charge in Ortega’s speech against his rivals. Most of them face allegations of crimes against the State, mainly due to their involvement in the protests that ravaged the country in 2018. These protests, according to the Nicaraguan government’s narrative, received foreign support and funding, which would be a treason.
With a socialist orientation, Daniel Ortega is a member of the Sandinista party and a former revolutionary leader, having actively participated in the history of the Nicaraguan political left. He believes that his opponents are US allies and are planning a coup in the country. Regarding his relations with Washington, Ortega said the following words in his last speech: “In front of the empire, there is no space for negotiation and understanding, those who have illusions are simply forgetting the history of their people who have suffered the most brutal aggressions and humiliations of the empire”. The word “empire” is commonly used by the Latin American left to refer to Washington and its projection of power over the entire continent.
It would be wrong to say that Ortega’s authoritarian tendencies started recently and are related to the wave of tensions in Latin America, but the worsening of the persecutions and the possible self-coup precisely at the present time may have some correspondence with events in other countries in the region. Nicaragua is an extremely strategic point for all Central American geopolitics. Located between the Caribbean Sea (Atlantic Ocean) and the Pacific, the country has always been the target of international ambitions for the construction of a large interoceanic canal through the Lake Nicaragua – the largest freshwater reservoir in Central America, which could be used to connect both oceans and create a new sea and trade route.
The US has always had ambitions in Nicaragua because of this location, but relations between the two countries have become more tense since the late 1970s, with the Sandinista Revolution (in which Ortega participated). A few years ago, it was China that started investing in the construction of the canal. Several reasons led to the project not being carried out, such as, for example, the similar geographical condition of Panama, where a canal was already built and is in operation.
However, Nicaragua’s strategic value remains the same, and certainly Beijing may turn its attention to the country as its presence in the region grows and a new route becomes necessary. Another point to be highlighted is that, with recent US incursions in the central subcontinent, considering that an eventual pro-US coup in the country would mean the Washington’s achievement of an extremely important strategic base.
More than that, it is necessary to emphasize the solid relations between Nicaragua and Russia. Since 2008, when Ortega returned to power (he had already been president in previous non-consecutive terms), relations between Moscow and Managua have significantly strengthened. Roscosmos maintains an important space base in Nicaragua, where satellite activities are regularly operated. Furthermore, civil and military cooperation between the two countries is vast and the geographic proximity between Nicaragua and the US makes this country, although the second poorest in the Americas, an extremely important base for Russian interests.
Russian interests also include the formation of a trade route. About the very Canal issue, there are strong expectations for cooperation. Since 2014, after Ortega recognized Crimea as Russian territory, Moscow has included the Nicaragua Canal in its strategic agenda and the plans have been advancing, albeit slowly. More effective measures have not yet been taken, certainly, due to financial difficulties in preparing the project (valued at more than 40 billion dollars).
With this, we conclude that Russia and China have strong interests in Nicaragua and will not ignore the country’s situation amid the American incursions in Central America. So, this is a point in the current scenario of tensions in Central America where, apparently, the US is losing ground and suffering a blow against its regional power projection.
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