By Nicholas Hanlon

“A new political, economic and geopolitical map can be perceived in Latin America and the Caribbean.” (Hugo Chavez, February 3, 2009)As a consequence of Chavez’s win in the recent February 15th referendum the Venezuelan constitution now allows elected officials to run for unlimited terms in office.  It is the final step in the process of making himself dictator for life. This move is but one of many in a grand strategy to create a Marxist Bolivarian super-state in South America which Chavez hopes will counter the U.S. and market capitalism.  So, as Daniel Ortega maneuvers to consolidate power in Nicaragua, he does so in the context of making Nicaragua a part of the Bolivarian revolution.  He is following the Chavez model by using “democracy” to subvert democracy.  Daniel Ortega, like his counterparts in the leftist parties of other South and Central American countries, has used Chavez’s oil revenue to finance his election.  Ortega is also providing Iran with strategic advantages on Nicaraguan soil in exchange for energy and infrastructure which will further entrench his domestic power and influence.  As Washington continues to take Latin American democracy for granted, proxies of Hugo Chavez march forward as they capitalize on anti-U.S. alliances.

Since Ortega took the presidency in 2007, he has forged a new alliance with Iran and has provided diplomatic cover for men who are likely Iranian Revolutionary Guard operatives.  Ortega has also entered anti-free trade arrangements and intimidated the press with police raids under imagined pretenses all the while retaining financial aid and maintaining relations with the U.S.; Nicaragua’s largest trading partner.  All of this is symptomatic of a game of trade-offs and compromises made in hopes of tightening a loose grip on power.  Ortega does not completely resemble his Bolivarian counterparts in terms of popularity.  Skillful strategy and a world champion poker face have allowed Ortega to take power with a minority of domestic support and even dissent in his own party.  “Ortega, who had lost the last three presidential elections, won only 37.9% of the vote in the November 2006 elections, but Nicaraguan law allowed him to avoid a run-off vote since he was more than 5% ahead of the next closest candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, then head of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN).”[i] The Sandinista National Liberation Front (SFLN) was instrumental in passing the law earlier.

Across Central and South America, presidential candidates have found that electorates respond to a message that puts the practical above the ideological.  For some leaders, this was actually the case.  For others, “pragmatism” became a winning message to facilitate the re-establishment of old dogmas.  In late 2006, Daniel Ortega won the presidency of Nicaragua by moderating his campaign strategy to adopt a message of pragmatism while assuaging concerns of extremism.  It is difficult to reconcile the Daniel Ortega we see today with the man whose campaign catch phrase was “reconciliation.” In his pre-election speeches, Ortega promised not to resurrect the ideologically based conflicts that dominated his first presidency.  He pledged not to do battle with the United States, the church, and that he would no longer seize land.  Ortega’s key move was to form alliances with many former enemies.  These included a former Contra leader, Jaime Morales Carazo as his vice president, and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the highest Vatican official in Nicaragua.  His most impressive feat was convincing the electorate and the Bush administration that he would not threaten U.S. relations or in any way inspire capital flight.  Max Blumenthal of The Nation had this to say on the subject; “With an eye on the $175 million Millennium Challenge grant for Nicaragua, approved before the election by the Bush Administration, Ortega has toned down his anti-American rhetoric. The day before his inauguration, he held court with Bush Administration Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt and U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli, a hated figure in Nicaragua who has openly demonized Ortega. The new Daniel Ortega is a uniter, not a divider.”[ii] Blumenthal’s comment was in contrast to a telling description he gave of Ortega’s inauguration ceremony which was attended by Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales who delivered the standard Bolivarian fare in the traditional theatrics.  For example, “Morales pledged that he, Chávez and Ortega would nationalize their countries’ industries and bring death to American imperialism.”2

There are signs that Daniel Ortega is moving quickly towards dictatorship.  His strategic foreign policy is too grandiose to be sustained by a temporary presidency.  He is making long term moves, internationally.  Opposition across the political spectrum in Nicaragua characterizes his behavior as being dictatorial, including former members of his own party.  Members of the Sandinista Renewal Party, a dissident faction of Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front, have “denounced Ortega as a man leading Nicaragua into a dictatorship.”[iii] This was after their plan to join other opposition parties to protest FSLN mayoral election fraud this past November which was violently prevented by Sandinista supporters.  Though pro-Sandinista mobs have proven effective thus far, it fits the Chavez model to place ones party in power at the municipal level in order to control police forces for the coming dictatorship. The Sandinista party has won a decisive number of victories in stark contrast to what public opinion polls have indicated.  In response, the U.S. and some European governments have withheld $200 million in aid until an electoral review can take place.

Last October, prior to the November municipal elections, Nicaraguan police raided the offices of the Center of Media Investigations.  Carlos Fernando Chamorro is one of the journalists whose computer was seized as part of an investigation of “misused foreign funds.”  Many can appreciate the irony considering how much Venezuelan cash flooded Ortega’s own campaign.  Chamorro is the son of former president, Violetta Chamorro, and an outspoken critic of the government.[iv] Besides police raids, Ortega has used investigations, arrests of opposition leaders, and expulsion of international election monitors in order to intimidate the opposition.  Ortega has also investigated journalists and NGOs for money laundering but then ceased after the U.S. and some European governments withheld over $100 million in aid.[v] This was prior to the aid withheld in response to last year’s election fraud.

As part of the Chavista block of countries (that include Cuba, Ecuador, Bolivia, and Nicaragua) and led by Hugo Chavez, a meeting of the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) summit was held on February 2,2009 and was attended by Ortega.  According to VOA, “Venezuela and communist-led Cuba created the ALBA alliance in 2004 to counter U.S. influence in the region.  ALBA also aims to advance regional integration to confront the U.S.-backed free trade deal.” [vi] More than a burgeoning trade bloc, ALBA is a sort of Bolivarian version of the EU which includes the goal of a common currency and is based on the idea of a “great nation.”  Even more, it is the grand vision of this group of caudillos, whom have an affinity for the nationalization of industry, to create a “supranational company.”   Daniel Ortega had this to say, “Long live the peoples’ unity, ALBA, the Bolivarian Revolution…that will never be defeated and will never surrender”.[vii]

What is Iran doing in Nicaragua?

The Americas report has well chronicled the Iranian embassy compound in the Managua suburb, Las Colinas (The Hills).  The mansion, which is surrounded by 12 foot high walls topped with razor wire, is home to Iranian envoy to Nicaragua, Akbar Esmaeil-Pour.  For those in the intelligence community, the number of diplomats (over 100 individuals) and the shear size of the compound is disproportionately large and suggests extra-diplomatic activity.  Iran is known for having staged terrorist attacks from it’s embassy in Argentina. It is also well known that at least 21 Iranian men have been able to enter Nicaragua without visas.   Esmail-Pour seems to be a bit stressed out by the media attention that followed the leaking of documents which revealed to the press that Nicaragua’s chief immigration minister had authorized the 21 Iranians entry into the country.  His response to some press inquiries has been agitated and hostile. U.S. intelligence is certainly attentive to the compound.  Former FBI associate deputy director of intelligence and international affairs has said of Iran in South America that; “They use their embassies to smuggle in weapons. They used them to develop and execute plans,” and that “Diplomats have immunity coming and going.  It is a protected center for both espionage and, on occasion, for specific operations.  So an embassy in Managua is definitely an area that will be of concern to our national security apparatus.”[viii]

In exchange for hosting the Iranians, Daniel Ortega will receive key investments from Iran which will help him with domestic issues while simultaneously increasing Iran’s ability to establish a front.  Todd Bensman from the San Antonio Express News has traveled to Nicaragua to investigate Iran’s activities.  One of the places he visited was a remote and quiet place on the Caribbean coast called Monkey Point.

“But perspectives broadened suddenly in March, 2007 when Iranians and Venezuelans showed up aboard Nicaraguan military helicopters. They had come to scope out Monkey Point’s bay for transformation to a $350 million deep-water shipping port. The port idea is part of a new diplomatic relationship between Iran and the Sandinista revolutionary president, Daniel Ortega that has flown largely under American press and broadcast radar since its announcement. Iran has issued fantastic promises that would include financing a rail, road, and pipeline “dry canal” from Monkey Point to an upgraded Port of Corinto on the Pacific, hydroelectric projects, and 10,000 houses in between”.[ix] 

The money and engineering expertise from Iran will help Ortega address Nicaragua’s current energy crisis.  Iran will greatly increase its presence in Central America if it has an excuse to regularly traffic engineers, workers, cargo, and ships on the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.  For over a decade Nicaragua has been planning to construct a dry canal which will alleviate the overflow of trade when the Panama Canal reaches capacity.  If such a profound source of national revenue is realized under Ortega with the help of Iran both entities will be greatly strengthened in the region.  It is often noted that Iran has no common ground for relations in Latin America except where it can find enemies of America.  Iran’s primary gain from a relationship with Nicaragua is the base of operations at its embassy.  The energy and infrastructure projects could also provide cover for Iran to increase it’s capability in equipment, manpower, and illicit trade.  According to the CIA World Fact Book, Nicaragua is already a “transshipment point for cocaine destined for the U.S. and …for arms-for-drugs dealing.”  Hezbollah, a terrorist proxy of Iran, is well known for its ability to raise incredible amounts of money from organized crime and illicit trade in the Americas.

The U.S. intelligence community is aware of Iran’s activities and intentions in Nicaragua.  Yet, the United States Congress could also play an important role in how we deal with the Ortega government.  Last years Congressional Research Service report lists many ways in which Nicaragua benefits from its relationship with the United States.  It includes bi-lateral aid, counter narcotics aid money, Millennium Challenge Account money, huge trade benefits, remittances and even assistance in fighting gangs.  In turn, Daniel Ortega oppresses human rights and the press, forms alliances with our enemies, and is generally hostile towards democracy. To continue to fund such a regime only puts a stamp of approval on their policies, emboldens them while weakening the opposition and makes the U.S. appear as a country that does not understand the difference between its adversaries and its friends.


Nicholas Hanlon is a foreign affairs writer and researcher at the Center for Security Policy in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of Georgia State University and has a BA in Political Science with a concentration in International Affairs and a Minor in French.


[i] Clare Ribando Seelke (Analyst in Latin American Affairs Foreign Affairs, Defense, and Trade Division) Nicaragua: Political Situation and U.S. Relations CRS Report for Congress March 17, 2008

[ii] Max Blumenthal The Kinder, Gentler Daniel Ortega The Nation January 19, 2007

[iii] Luis Fleischman Nicaraguan elections, Venezuelan fraud The Americas Report | Nov 20, 2008

[iv] Nicaraguan press freedom threatened Associated Press/ The Gleaner: Jamaica January 28, 2009

[v] Blake Schmidt President Ortega spurs worries about the future: Critics say the former rebel has installed a dictatorship  THE WASHINGTON TIMES February 17, 2009

[vi] Venezuela Hosts ALBA Summit VOA News 03 February 2009

[vii] Venezuela’s Chavez Marks 10 Years in Power with Big Rally Latin American Herald Tribune February 18,2009

[viii] Todd Bensman Iran making push into Nicaragua 12/18/2007

[ix] Todd Bensman Iranian Plant Their Flag in Nicaragua The New York Sun February 7, 2008



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