Russia in Central America, Again

The Kremlin is up to its old tricks in Daniel Ortega’s corrupt Nicaragua.

By Mary Anastasia O’Grady

An image of President Daniel Ortega painted on a wall next to the phrase 'Killer is wanted' in Managua, Nicaragua, July 4. Photo: jorge torres/epa-efe/rex/shutter/EPA/Shutterstock 

Sometimes it seems that Central America is unwilling or unable to make the connection between strong institutions and a free and just society. The privation in the northern triangle—Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador—that has sent thousands of migrants to the U.S. border in search of work and a better life is ultimately the result of failed institutions.

The bloody upheaval in Nicaragua is another case in point. Since April 19 more than 300 people have been killed while protesting against strongman Daniel Ortega, according to local human-rights groups. The U.S. Treasury last week imposed sanctions on three Ortega henchmen—the national police commissioner and a Sandinista Youth official for human-rights violations, and the head of Nicaragua’s state-owned oil company for corruption. 
Central America is strategically important to enemies of the U.S., and Russia’s role is particularly notable. It has a large and secretive satellite compound at the edge of the Nejapa lagoon on the outskirts of Managua, and its Interior Ministry has a large “police training center” in the capital’s Las Colinas neighborhood. The Soviet Union was an Ortega ally in the 1980s, and Russia today has every incentive to help him prosper as a dictator.

Nicaragua hasn’t had a fair, transparent national vote since the one that brought Mr. Ortega to power in 2006. He and his unpopular wife Rosario Murillo, now Nicaragua’s richest couple, are often called “the new Somozas,” a reference to the ruling family Mr. Ortega’s Sandinista movement removed in 1979.

When it’s all over except for carting away the dead, as in Venezuela, U.S. diplomats and legislators are good at tsk-tsking abuses of power. But when something can still be done about it, they are mostly AWOL and sometimes complicit. Witness U.S. funding of the U.N.’s International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG.  
CICIG’s abuse of a Russian migrant family, which I have written about several times, is one example of how the commission egregiously tramples rights. But CICIG’s perniciousness goes much deeper. Claims that it has morphed into a tool of power-hungry political and economic interests are credible. By weakening already weak institutions, it threatens Guatemala’s democracy.

Well-known organized-crime groups, like one famous for blatantly stealing electricity to fund its militant, left-wing activism, remain untouched by CICIG. Meanwhile the commission uses its unchecked power to go after center-right business interests that have traditionally backed democratic capitalism. Lead CICIG prosecutor Iván Velásquez has made no secret of his desire to bring down democratically elected center-right President Jimmy Morales.

Nicaragua ought to be a lesson for Guatemalans and the U.S. The checks and balances to contain Mr. Ortega were in place a decade ago. But he gradually eroded them, and his power grab was permitted and even celebrated at home and abroad. He was said to be helping the poor while he shared the spoils of his power grab with the business community. He has also made Russia feel at home.

It all began when he made a deal with the corrupt former center-right President Arnoldo Alemán to lower the minimum vote threshold necessary to win a presidential election in the first round to 35%. He won in 2006 with 38%.

Venezuelan oil largess boosted his might from the start. He controlled the army and he had a sizable representation of Sandinista judges on the Supreme Court. Mr. Ortega’s creeping authoritarianism was clear as early as February 2010. He continued dismantling limits on his personal power with little push-back. By 2011 he was running for re-election in defiance of the constitution.

Only when Venezuelan oil dried up in 2016 did things begin to get difficult for him. A slowing economy has made the Somoza-like Ortega dynasty more objectionable. University students are angry about government hints of new social-media restrictions and about a huge fire in an important biological reserve in April.  
The tipping point was when retirees, demonstrating on April 18 against a social-security reform decreed by Mr. Ortega, were roughed up by thugs while police watched. Student protests began the next day. Meanwhile Mr. Ortega has lost the support of his business allies. They were already miffed about Ms. Murillo’s increasing power and her heavy-handed style. Not consulting them about the pension reform was a step too far.

Citizens are being indiscriminately gunned down by Ortega police and trained paramilitaries.

At a Mother’s Day march May 30, called to show solidarity with victims’ families, 15 people were killed by snipers using Russian Dragunov rifles.

Russia knows how to put down rebellions. The Soviets did it in Cuba in the 1960s for Fidel Castro by quashing the uprising in the Escambray mountains. The Nicaraguan city of Masaya was an opposition stronghold until Mr. Ortega called in police reinforcements from Managua on June 19 and took it back. Without greater international help, that may go down as the turning point in this struggle. Good news for the Kremlin, but heartbreaking for Nicaraguans.

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