MANAGUA – Celebrated by Sandinistas as a revolutionary triumph and decried by the opposition a government boondoggle, the recent donation of 130 Russian buses to the government of Daniel Ortega has become Nicaragua’s latest political scandal with international implications.
The Russian-made busses were donated earlier this month during a celebration and political rally that featured the busses parading through Managua flying Sandinista and Russian flags – an image that has since become part of the government’s new TV advertising campaign.
The donated busses, administration officials say, represent Russia’s “unconditional” support for Nicaragua. The government also says it’s part of their commitment to modernizing the capital’s transportation system, used by some 800,000 people every day and comprised mostly of broken-down secondhand schools buses from North America.
But when the band music stopped, the controversy started. Opposition lawmakers and journalists demanded to know the conditions of the donation, and why it was handled by the mysterious company ALBA-CARUNA, a private Sandinista enterprise with alleged ties to Ortega’s family.
There has also been controversy over whether the buses, which the government has announced will be sold for $25,000 each, were donated or sold to ALBA-CARUNA.
Alexis Argüello, the Sandinista mayor of Managua, said the buses were purchased, while Russian Ambassador Igor Kondrashev said they were donated.
Several city councilmen for the opposition Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) are crying foul and accusing Kondrashev of meddling in internal affairs by helping the Sandinista Front fatten its party coffers. The councilmen last week sent a formal letter of complaint to PLC lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, president of the National Assembly’s Commission on Foreign Affairs.
Aguirre said the PLC councilmen “have no business butting into foreign affairs.” The problem, he said, is not Russia’s doing, rather the Sandinista government’s handling of the donation.
Still, Aguirre added, the Commission will call upon the Russian Ambassador to explain the issue in detail before lawmakers.
“What Committee members want is to get to the bottom of this deal since, as usual, there is a lot of confusion over how this ‘aid’ was given,” Aguirre told The Nica Times. Ambassador Kondrashev, for his part, has blamed the scandal on a “dark campaign” by the media, which he claims he doesn’t understand.
“I am surprised because instead of thanking Russia, some in the media are making noise and I don’t understand why,” Kondrashev said in a statement to one of the government’s official news outlets.