- The Washington Times - Friday, December 13, 2019

The Trump administration pushed anew this week to undermine what it calls the “corrupt” government of Nicaragua at a moment when Russia is accused of pumping weaponry and security expertise into the Central American nation in a bid to reassert Moscow’s once-powerful Cold War-era influence there.

The administration announced fresh financial sanctions Thursday targeting companies tied to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega’s son Rafael, asserting the entities are purely shells for money laundering designed to enrich and uphold the ruling family against increasing outcry from pro-democracy opposition.

The point of the sanctions, according to a statement from Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, is to “hold the government of Daniel Ortega accountable for acts of corruption and unconscionable human rights violations and to support the Nicaraguan people’s struggle for a return to democracy.”

Mr. Ortega is a former Sandinista and was a hero among Latin American socialist revolutionaries in the 1980s, but has attracted few international friends with the current authoritarian-style government he’s been running in Managua since rising back to power in 2007.

Still some analysts say the Trump administration’s current moves against the Nicaraguan strongman and his family amount to risky U.S. meddling. Such allegations have a history, reaching back to the Cold War, when the CIA armed rebels to fight Nicaragua’s Sandinista’s in a politically controversial scheme that later became known as the Iran-Contra Affair.

The Trump administration has focused increasingly on Nicaragua as haven of bad governance and corruption, aligning with a Nicaraguan opposition movement — as well as key human rights organizations — that accuse Mr. Ortega and his family of rigging elections and jailing critics.

Human Rights Watch has warned that “an enormous concentration of power by the executive [in Nicaragua] has allowed President Daniel Ortega’s government to commit egregious abuses against critics and opponents with complete impunity.”

Trump administration officials say they are committed to reversing that.

“The United States urges the Ortega regime to resume dialogue with the opposition and restore democracy in the country, thereby fulfilling its obligations under the Inter-American Democratic Charter,” Mr. Pompeo said Thursday. “Nicaragua’s painful political crisis can only be resolved through free and fair elections that credibly reflect the will of the Nicaraguan people and with full respect for their human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Thousands of Nicaraguans have been killed, arrested or forced into exile since protests against Mr. Ortega erupted in April 2018. Nicaraguan officials have called opposition protesters “terrorists” and consider the demonstrations tantamount to an attempted coup.

There is also widening behind-the-scenes concern in Washington over rising Russian influence in Nicaragua. Former Trump administration National Security Adviser John R. Bolton last year called Nicaragua a member of a “troika of tyranny” that includes Cuba and Venezuela — two other nations receiving Russian military support despite being accused of authoritarianism and corruption.

Armando Chaguaceda, a political scientist and historian at the University of Guanajuato in Mexico, says “Russia’s collaboration with Nicaragua is at its highest point since the collapse of the Soviet Union, extending itself as much into the civil sector as that of security and mutual diplomatic support.”

“Russia’s partial rearmament of Nicaragua is occurring in parallel to broader efforts by the government of Vladimir Putin to build up Russia’s presence beyond the post-Soviet space, recovering old alliances and opening new spheres of influence in the West,” Mr. Chaguaceda wrote in an analysis published earlier this year by the Scotland-based Institute For Statecraft and the U.S.-based Global Americans think tank.

Defense ties between Managua and Moscow include armament delivery, training, and temporary Russian access to Nicaraguan ports, meaning “Russia has a key ally in a strategic area, near the Panama Canal and the Caribbean Sea,” he wrote.

“As protests against the Ortega regime raged throughout 2018, [there was] well-documented use of a diverse array of Russian-made armaments, including AK automatic weapons and Dragunov sharpshooters, by national police and government-aligned special forces,” Mr. Chaguaceda wrote.

The sanctions announced Thursday by the State Department and the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) made no mention of such developments. They instead focused on Rafael Antonio Ortega Murillo, asserting he uses two companies to support his mother, Vice President and first lady Rosario Murillo, who was already placed under U.S. sanctions last year.

Treasury identified the companies as Inversiones Zanzíbar, SA and Servicio De Protección y Vigilancia, SA, according to The Associated Press, which noted that OFAC also imposed sanctions on Distribuidor Nicaragüense de Petróleo SA, a third company it said is used by members of the Ortega family for their personal enrichment from non-competitive Nicaraguan government contracts.

The sanctions mean all U.S.-based property of the companies — such as cash in banks tied to the American financial system — will be blocked by U.S. authorities.

The Trump administration separately sanctioned three Nicaraguan officials last month, accusing them of human rights abuses, election fraud and corruption.

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