SAN JUAN DEL SUR – A quarter of a century after he worked at the U.S. embassy in Honduras backing Contras in their fight against the Sandinistas, U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Robert Callahan came to a small beach to see how the Sandinista government has been using $10 million of recent U.S. military aid.
Upon symbolically handing over flippers for special naval operations to Nicaragua’s top general, Omar Halleslevens, Callahan said the United States hopes to avoid another arms race in the region with Russia, which plans to boost military aid to Nicaragua and its allies.
President Daniel Ortega became the first head of state to recognize independence of Georgian breakaway states South Ossetia and Abkhazia in September after Russia sent troops to prevent the Georgian military from retaking the regions in what was a short war that drew international condemnation.
Weeks later Russia’s Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin visited Ortega in Managua and promised to deepen military and political ties. This week Foreign Minister Samuel Santos announced Ortega’s plans to visit Moscow in coming months.
Russia recently announced plans to send warships for joint naval exercises in Venezuela, the first such deployment since the Cold War.
Moscow has been cozying up to Venezuela, Nicaragua and other leftist Latin leaders amid U.S. missile defense plans in Eastern Europe, NATO’s eastern expansion and U.S. warships being sent to Georgia.
“What we don’t want to see is some kind of arms race down here,” Callahan told The Nica Times. “At the moment we don’t see any threat to the United States. We see more of a threat to our allies.”
Callahan defended the right of the United States and the European Union to express concerns over Nicaragua’s electoral climate leading up to the Nov. 9 municipal elections after Russia released a statement chiding the two powers for their “aspiration to influence electoral results in favor of opposition forces against the government of President Daniel Ortega.”
The Russian Foreign Ministry statement was a response to declarations from the U.S. State Department and the European Union expressing concern over the Ortega government’s investigation of political opposition, the Supreme Electoral Council’s delay in accrediting electoral observers, and a ban on minority political parties from being allowed to participate in upcoming elections.
Callahan said the U.S. government never said anything in favor or against any political parties in Nicaragua, adding that it is “paradoxical” for Russia to allege U.S. meddling in Nicaraguan affairs after Russia invaded the rebel Georgian provinces.
“We want to see free elections. That’s all,” Callahan said.
Callahan was shipped by boat to the small beach north of San Juan del Sur, where he watched Nicaraguan navy officers demonstrate combat and covert operation skills they learned during training with a small group of U.S. Marines stationed in San Juan during the past two weeks. Callahan said Nicaragua’s 12,000-strong military has done an “impressive” job in drug enforcement – one of the bright spots in U.S.-Nicaragua relations.
In a related matter, Halleslevens confirmed reports that Ortega earlier this year approved sending Nicaraguan army officials to train at the controversial Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in FortBenning, in the U.S. state of Georgia. Ortega’s approval came even as he said he would continue to lobby for the school’s closure.
Ortega has said some members of the prior regime’s National Guard were trained at the school, formerly known as the School of the Americas, and were involved in torture under the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.