Nicaragua’s continued reaching out to state sponsors of terrorism such as Cuba and Iran, as well as its invitation of Russian and Chinese military advisors to the Western Hemisphere are some, but not exclusive, examples of action items by the Sandinistas that may require severing Millennium Challenge Account funding to that country. A more recent example is Nicaragua’s refusal to destroy its arsenal of aging Soviet-era shoulder launched missiles.
A group of Russian military experts are supposed to visit Nicaragua this month to provide the government of President Daniel Ortega with advice on modernizing Nicaragua’s military. The potential for military cooperation was announced in September by Russia’s Ambassador to Nicaragua, Igor Kondrashev, soon after Nicaragua and Venezuela became the first countries to officially recognize the independence South Ossetia and Abkhazia.
MANPADS are usually shoulder-launched missile systems that are lightweight and easy to conceal. They are a favorite tool of terrorists since, weighing in at just under 60 pounds, it takes just one or a few individuals to operate and plentiful. According to a U.S. State Department official, “since the 1970s, more than 40 commercial aircraft have been attacked with MANPADS, causing at least 24 crashes and more than 600 deaths worldwide.” The Organization of American States adopted a Resolutionin 2005 calling on member states to deny MANPADS to terrorist and control their distribution in the Americas.
Nicaragua has a lot of mostly Soviet-era made MANPADS dating back to the Sandinista dictatorship era during the Cold War. In 2003, the former President, Enrique Bolanos, promised the U.S. that Nicaragua would destroy all of its close to 2,000 MANPADS. About 1,000 MANPADS had been destroyed by the time Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista strongman turned democract, was elected in 2006 with barely 39% of the popular vote.
Nicaragua is not the only country in the Western Hemisphere with MANPADs. In addition to the 1,000 or so Nicaraguan MANPADS that remain to be destroyed, experts contend that there are close to 100 circulating in the black market that Nicaragua has failed to account for. Other countries with MANPADS include Bolivia, Venezuela, and Ecuador. With regards to non-state actors, it is highly probable that the Colombian terrorist group, the FARC, possesses several MANPAD systems.
In early 2007, Ortega publically announced he was not going to destroy the remaining MANPADS cache because neighboring Honduras and El Salvador were upgrading their air defense systems. Ortega said that “if on the one hand they are going to renovate the Honduran air force, an air force of war, a military air force, and on the other hand they are going to ask us to destroy the rockets, it would be absurd, inconceivable” for Nicaragua to destroy its MANPADS and other civial air defense systems.
The only thing “absurd” is Ortega’s Cold War-era mindset. There is absolutely no military reason whatsoever for Nicaragua to renege on its promise to destroy its Soviet-era stash of shoulder-launcedmissile systems. The region is stable. Honduras and El Salvador pose no threat whatsoever to Nicaragua. By failing to destroy more than 1000 MANPADs, Nicaragua recklessly increases the odds that these weapons could end up in the hands of terrorist organizations.
The incoming Administration should make this issue a top priority. If Nicaragua insists on going through with wasting Nicaraguan taxpayer monies on unnecessary weapon systems, the U.S. should respond by limiting, or eliminating, certain U.S. taxpayer assistance programs to Nicaragua. A good place to start is the Millenium Challenge Account(MCA).
According to the U.S.-Nicaragua MCA Compact, the U.S. can terminate the assistance if it finds that “continued implementation of the Compact would be in violation of applicable law or U.S. Government policy.” See Compact, Section 5.4(b)(i). In addition, termination can also take place where the U.S. Government finds that Nicaragua is “engaged in activities that are contrary to the national security interests of the United States.” See Compact, Section 5.4 (b)(ii). Other provisions may also apply towards termination.
The Russian visit to Nicaragua this month to review proposed military upgrade needs is supposed to include modernizing Nicaragua’s air defense systems with newer MANPADS and other systems. In the end, Nicaragua has demonstrated that it is incapable of controlling the proliferation of such weapon systems. In a post-09/11/01 world, no country in the Americas can afford these weapons falling into the wrong hands.
Nicaragua should cease playing politics with regional security, destroy the current systems, and not purchase new ones from the Russians. If not, U.S. taxpayers should not be forced to indirectly underwrite, or offset the cost of Nicaragua’s new-found military modernization. U.S. taxpayers are investing $175 million in MCC funds for Nicaragua. The U.S. should dock further disbursement of these funds until the 1,000 remaining Nicaraguan MANPADS are destroyed. Furthermore, if Nicaragua refuses to proceed with the purchase of new MANPADS from the Russians, the MCC Compact should be terminated.