Serious accusations of Sandinista corruption, alleged campaign donations from drug traffickers and worrisome anti-democratic tendencies by President Daniel Ortega are the focus of a series of newly leaked WikiLeak cables published Monday in the Spanish daily El País.
The leaked U.S. State Department cables, allegedly written by U.S. ambassadors in 2006, 2008 and 2010, detail the worrisome decline of democracy in Nicaragua under President Ortega, who is described in the missives as a power-hungry, unscrupulous and unstable leader.
But ultimately, the cables might prove to be more embarrassing to the U.S. government than to Ortega, who’s already heard it all before.
“Daniel is too thick-skinned to be affected by this; he’s been around politics for too long,” said Francisco Aguirre, opposition lawmaker and former Nicaraguan ambassador to Washington, D.C. “Ortega has got to be thinking, is this the worst you can do?”
It might not be, but it’s a start. The three Nicaraguan cables leaked yesterday by the Spanish newspaper are reportedly only the first of many more to come.
In any other country – one that isn’t bombarded by scandal every day – the leaked cables perhaps would have been more shocking. But not in Nicaragua, where many of the cables reported information that has already made headlines, or at least is well-known rumor.
What the Cables Say
The leaked cables did cover the Sandinista government’s alleged corruption, blackmail of public figures and involvement with international drug traffickers to finance political campaigns.
An older series of “unclassified” cables from 2006 detailed the involvement of the first Sandinista government with infamous Colombian narco-kingpin Pablo Escobar, who reportedly lived in Managua for eight months in 1984, under the protection of the Sandinista government.
“In 1984 Daniel Ortega negotiated a deal with Colombian drug kingpin Pablo Escobar whereby Escobar received refuge for several months in Nicaragua after he had ordered the killing of the Colombian Minister of Justice,” reads one of the leaked U.S. embassy cables. “At the same time, Escobar’s drug trafficking operation received Ortega’s approval to land and load airplanes in Nicaragua as they sought to ship cocaine to the United States. In return, Ortega and the FSLN received large cash payments from Escobar.”
The cable continues, “Interior Minister Tomás Borge and his subordinates went so far as to assist Escobar with the loading and unloading of drugs onto his airplanes in Nicaragua. The Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) managed to place a hidden camera on one of Escobar’s airplanes and obtained film of Escobar and Ministry of the Interior officials loading cocaine onto one of Escobar’s planes at Managua’s international airport.”
While the Sandinista-Escobar scandal is not new – the allegations have been made numerous times by various Colombian and Nicaraguan sources over the past five years – the leaked cables claim that the Sandinistas’ ties to narco-financing did not stop when the revolution ended in 1990.
“Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas have regularly received money to finance FSLN electoral campaigns from international drug traffickers, usually in return for ordering Sandinista judges to allow traffickers caught by the police and military to go free,” reads a leaked 2006 cable by former U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli. “Most of these schemes are orchestrated by Lenin Cerna, the former Director of State Security, and are supervised by Sandinista Supreme Court judges such as Rafael Solís and Roger Camilo Argüello.”
Rafael Solís, a close Ortega confidant, is currently a de facto magistrate who refuses to step down from his chair on the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court, even though his judgeship expired six months ago. Solís also made headlines this year when he led a Sandinista mob attack against the Holiday Inn in Managua.
The first of the Nicaraguan WikiLeaks cables also reveals Ortega’s growing dependence on Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, alleging that Sandinista officials have returned from trips to Caracas with suitcases full of cash.
But according to a 2010 cable allegedly written by U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan, even Ortega’s relationship with Chávez could be chilling.
“There are indications that the Ortega-Chávez revolutionary partnership may be suffering a cold snap. Over three years, Chávez has supplied Ortega with nearly a billion dollars in badly needed ‘assistance,’ but Ortega’s constant need for operating cash to offset forfeited donor assistance is likely now wearisome for Chávez, who faces growing domestic economic difficulties,” the cable reads.
Parts of the cables are also entertaining, such as when Trivelli refers to Ortega as Chávez’s “Mini-me” (in reference to Dr. Evil’s midget clone in the Austin Powers movies) and when Callahan refers to the two presidents as the “dynamic duo.”
The U.S. Embassy in Managua would not comment on the WikiLeaks cables.
“As a matter of policy, we do not discuss alleged classified information leaked to the press,” embassy spokeswoman Lillian Nigaglioni told The Nica Times.
Ortega, despite being painted as lecherous, corrupt and an unscrupulous leader, could very well come out on top of the WikiLeaks scandal, at least in immediate diplomatic terms.
“While it looks like (Ortega) is losing, he really wins because (the leaked cables) cripple U.S. diplomats’ capacity to engage Nicaraguans during the upcoming electoral cycle,” Arturo Cruz, former Nicaraguan Ambassador to the United States and a political science professor at Central America’s INCAE Business School, told The Nica Times in a phone interview Monday night.
“The cables have a gossipy and dated tone that doesn’t reflect well on American diplomacy,” Aguirre added. “This certainly gives Daniel some leverage that he didn’t have before.”