How WikiLeaks may give Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega an upper hand with US

WikiLeaks revealed that Nicaragua received 'suitcases full of cash' from Venezuela, but also showed the limitations of US intelligence-gathering in Ortega's country.

Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Newscom
View of the WikiLeaks homepage taken in Washington on Nov. 28.
Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and other top officials in his Sandinista administration have bankrolled their political campaigns and party activities with “suitcases full of cash” from Venezuela and narco-dollars from Colombian drug lords, according to a new batch of cables that WikiLeaks published Dec. 6.

The latest series of leaked diplomatic cables, allegedly written over the past five years by the current and previous US ambassadors to Nicaragua, detail the worrisome decline of democracy under Mr. Ortega, who is described as corrupt, power-hungry, and unscrupulous.

But the cable leak also reveals the limitations of United States intelligence-gathering in Nicaragua, potentially empowering Ortega as he attempts to sidestep the Constitution and run for reelection in 2011. Ortega, whose political career suggests he’s not easily shamed by accusations or scandal, could even gain the upper hand from the latest WikiLeaks dump, especially if US diplomats embarrassed by "Cable Gate" try to tip-toe around him.

“Daniel will try to capitalize on this and put the US embassy at a disadvantage in their future dealings with him,” says opposition lawmaker Francisco Aguirre, the former Nicaraguan ambassador to the US. “He’s been dealt a card he didn’t know he could play.”

'Nicaragua's Most Wanted'

Two "unclassified" cables from 2006 are titled "Nicaragua's Most Wanted Part 1: The Crimes of Daniel Ortega and His Family" and "Nicaragua's Most Wanted Part 2: The Crimes of the Sandinistas." The documents detail the alleged murky relationship between the former revolutionary government and Colombian narco-kingpin Pablo Escobar, who reportedly lived in Nicaragua for eight months in 1984 under Sandinista protection and disguised as a Colombian guerrilla.

The leaked cables, attributed to former US Ambassador Paul Trivelli, claim that hidden cameras revealed Mr. Escobar loading cocaine onto a plane in Managua along with the then-Minister of the Interior Tomas Borge, who currently serves as Nicaragua’s ambassador to Peru.

“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 leaked cable reads. The US embassy in Managua would not comment on the leaks.

Though the Sandinista-Escobar connection has been public knowledge in Nicaragua for years, this week’s leaked cables claim the Sandinistas’ connection to narco-financing continued well after the revolution ended in 1990. Ortega was eventually reelected president in 2006, after 16 years out of power.

“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 cable from 2006 attributed to Ambassador Trivelli.

Ortega’s government has not responded to the allegations in the leaked cables.

From Chávez, 'suitcases full of cash'

A more recent series of leaked missives attributed to current US Ambassador Robert Callahan addresses Ortega’s current standing in the world of diplomatic affairs.

The cables discuss Ortega’s economic and political dependency on Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, his fruitless overtures towards Iran, his attempts to flirt with Moscow, and his love-hate relationship with the US, which Mr. Callahan describes as swinging unpredictably from “vicious and malicious” anti-imperialist rants to toothy “charm offensives.”

The latest cable, dated February 2010 and marked as “secret,” details the failure of Ortega’s foreign policy rather than describing the emergence of a new regional threat to the US.

“Three years of persistent overtures to Iran have failed to produce anything besides ideological capital and a handful of commercial delegations,” the leaked dispatch reads.

Ortega’s chummy relationship with Mr. Chávez, whose largess – $1.44 billion in aid to Nicaragua over the past four years – allegedly included “suitcases full of cash” given to top Sandinista officials, may also be sputtering, according to the leaked cables.

“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 off-set forfeited donor assistance is likely now wearisome for Chávez, who faces growing domestic economic difficulties,” reads the 2010 cable attributed to Ambassador Callahan.

'This isn’t intelligence, it’s gossip.'

Though the leaked documents tell a tale of Sandinista malfeasance, erratic and criminal behavior, and personal impropriety, perhaps the most shocking part of the story so far is that none of the news is shocking – at least not to Nicaraguans.

“This is all vox populi in Nicaragua – it’s just a collection of information that people already talk about on the street. But there’s nothing new here,” Sergio Ramírez, Ortega’s former vice president in the 1980s, told the Monitor. “This isn’t intelligence, it’s gossip.”

Some Nicaraguan analysts claim that the reporting in the leaked cables reads too much like a Facebook post to embarrass Ortega, who’s heard it all before and developed a thick hide in the process. If anything, pundits say, the US diplomatic mission could find itself in a tight spot for having its cards tipped and exposing the limits of their hand.

“These leaked documents don’t tell me anything I don’t already know,” says Mr. Aguirre, the opposition lawmaker.

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