U.S. Attempts to Stem Flow of Weapons from Nicaragua
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
The US has frozen military aid to Nicaragua because of its handling of Soviet-made shoulder-fired missiles. The US worries those missiles could wind up in the hands of terrorists. But as NPR's John Burnett reports, Washington's move has strengthened the political standing of an old US adversary.
JOHN BURNETT reporting:
Until lately, the Nicaraguan army was doing everything right to win friends and influence with its old nemesis, the Pentagon. The stridently anti-Yankee Sandinista army has evolved from a force of 130,000 to a professional military of 12,000 troops. As a gesture of goodwill, it even sent a small contingent of troops to Iraq. Most importantly, the Nicaraguan army, at the Pentagon's request, has destroyed about half of its stockpile of some 2,000 SAM-7 missiles left over from the guerrilla wars of the 1980s. Reporters were invited to one of the demolitions last summer.
Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)
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BURNETT: The Soviets originally sold these portable surface-to-air missiles to the Marxist Sandinista government to fight the US-backed Contra rebels. Though the Soviet SAM stockpile is well-guarded, there are scores of loose weapons floating around postwar Nicaragua, including Redeye shoulder-fired missiles the US supplied to the Contras.
Washington's fears were confirmed earlier this year when three Nicaraguan civilians were arrested trying to sell a black-market anti-aircraft missile for $50,000 to a Nicaraguan undercover agent posing as a Colombian guerrilla. Peter Brennan is charge d'affairs at the US Embassy in Managua.
Mr. PETER BRENNAN (US Embassy Charge D'Affairs, Managua): The capture of this surface-to-air missile set off alarm bells for us that there are quite a few of these stray missiles and stray weapons that remain from the 1980s here in Nicaragua. These SAM missiles pose a serious danger to civil aviation and to all of us.
BURNETT: Nicaragua is known as an underground weapons bazaar. In 2003, the Organization of American States issued a report chastising senior Nicaraguan army officers for their apparent collusion in the illegal diversion of 3,000 government-owned AK-47s and millions of rounds of ammunition to Colombian guerrillas. Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolanos initially promised to destroy all the missiles, but now he has backpedaled because of power politics and national pride. Carlos Fernando Chamorro is a prominent journalist in Managua.
Mr. CARLOS FERNANDO CHAMORRO (Journalist): Everyone--the government, Sandinistas, liberals, common citizens--everyone has the understanding that we do not have to follow whatever the Pentagon is saying on the missiles.
BURNETT: The Pentagon has said it will unfreeze about $2.3 million in military aid only when all the missiles are destroyed.
Nicaraguans claim they have their own national security interests that require them to hold on to 20 percent of the arsenal, some 400 rockets. The Nicaraguan ambassador in Washington, Salvador Stadthagen, says his country is acutely aware of the regional balance of power.
Ambassador SALVADOR STADTHAGEN (Nicaraguan Ambassador to the US): We have a neighbor, Honduras, which has F-5 jets that have bomb racks. And a lot of people in Nicaragua view these missiles as important for the defense of the country.
BURNETT: Some observers say the aid cutoff is a pointless humiliation of President Bolanos, a staunch US free-marketeer, which only serves to stir up old anti-American feeling. After all, it was two rival political parties that got the Nicaraguan Congress to pass a law, over Bolanos' objections, requiring congressional approval for any further weapons destruction. Dr. Emilio Alvarez Montalvan, a former Nicaraguan diplomat and longtime Managua insider, says the US Embassy rebuked the wrong party.
Dr. EMILIO ALVAREZ MONTALVAN (Former Nicaraguan Diplomat): (Through Translator) It's a lack of diplomatic finesse. That's typical of the US, which doesn't understand the culture. They get nervous and they hit their hammer in the wrong place. They've created more problems for Bolanos.
BURNETT: The missile imbroglio has had the unintended effect of energizing an old US adversary, Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinistan National Liberation Front, who's making his fourth run for the presidency. It has given the party, still a powerful force in Nicaraguan politics, a new stick to thrash Uncle Sam. Thomas Borge served as Interior minister when the Sandinistas ran Nicaragua from 1979 to 1990, and he's now an elder party chieftain.
Mr. THOMAS BORGE (Former Interior Minister, Nicaragua): (Through Translator) Nicaraguans have a high degree of national pride. For many years, the US government told the Nicaraguan governments what to do, and this is more and more unacceptable in Latin America, more disgraceful.
BURNETT: Though recent polls show Daniel Ortega is a long shot, the US Embassy is said to be keenly interested that the Sandinista strongman not win the presidency and be in charge of a thousand shoulder-fire missiles. John Burnett, NPR News.
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