Frequent visits to the region by high-ranking Russian officials have stirred rumors of military weaponry sales to Nicaragua. This has caused the US and its allies to be on alert for Russia’s increasing interest in Latin American affairs.
Nicaragua’s interest in obtaining advanced military weaponry to combat drug trafficking is putting all of the Western Hemisphere on high alert. Officials in Moscow may soon strike a possible arms deal with Nicaragua that would provide the Central American country with fighter jets.
This past February, Nicaraguan Army inspector general Adolfo Zepeda Martínez said the country had “taken a few steps to obtain interceptor fighters” in an effort to seize drugs leaving the country, and described the interceptor fighters as “completely defensive” and “not attack aircraft.” Officially, there is no word on what type of jet Nicaragua is looking to obtain from Russia; however, there has been widespread speculation that it could be the $29 million Mig-29.
The purchase of Mig-29 fighter jets could possibly increase Nicaragua’s chances of becoming the region’s biggest competitive military authority, with neither Colombia’s mature C-7 Kfir fighters from Israel nor Honduras’ Super Tucano turboprop combat planes being able to match the firepower. The suspected deal has drawn plenty of objections from Nicaragua’s neighbors about the jets’ ostensible use in combating drug trafficking.
When it comes to arms deals, the United States and Russia are the two largest arms exporters in the world, comprising 31% and 27% of the global weapons trade, respectively. The two nations usually provide weaponry to different countries in an effort to fortify their influence.
U.S. concerned about Russian inroads
The US and neighboring allies are gravely concerned that the arms deal is a way for Russia to cement its presence in a region close to the US in retaliation for what Moscow believes is Western interference in the Ukraine.
Socialist Sandinista-ruled Nicaragua and the Soviet Union had close ties throughout the Cold War; however, the two countries parted ways after the fall of the USSR. Recently, relations between the two countries have started warming again since 2007, when Daniel Ortega assumed the presidency.
Russia is also in talks with Nicaragua to build military installations for the refueling of long-range bombers and navy vessels.
Many Nicaraguans are not pleased with the arms deal. Some believe the funds should be spent on social programs to combat extreme poverty, where Nicaragua has the second-highest poverty rate in Latin America.
“One doesn’t combat drug trafficking with that kind of heavy military equipment for fighting wars,” said Costa Rican Foreign Minister Manuel González in late February. Costa Rica, known as one of the few democracies in the region, does not have an official military.
If the fighter jets are acquisitioned, Nicaragua’s new muscle could present an imbalance for the region. Fighter jets are not commonly utilized to fight drug traffickers, and will instead give the impression to further increase Nicaragua’s military presence and power.
With Mig-29’s priced at $29 million a jet, even if Nicaragua were to spend its entire defense budget procuring Russian fighter jets, it could still only buy a limited amount of planes. Thus, the question of how Nicaragua plans to buy the jets is as puzzling as the why.
Emboldened by canal investment
However, Nicaragua is simultaneously interested in preserving trade and economic relations with Russia. What could this mean in terms of economic consequence? Nicaragua has signed a well-guarded deal to trade private land in order to build a canal with a Chinese canal-building company.
Economist Juan Sebastián Chamorro says Nicaragua does not have the skilled work force required to build the canal, and will need to hire many workers from foreign countries.
Many Nicaraguans worry that the huge capital investment in the project will benefit the business elite, and not the 40.5% of citizens who live below the poverty level. This suggests that the canal is a means to simple create another de facto Chinese exclave within Nicaragua.
If successful, the canal would do little to change the job market in Nicaragua or expand the country’s financial system. Moreover, the capital investment would be in an area that the Ortega administration has agreed would be tax-free.
Businesses and financiers interested in Nicaragua’s canal will have the opportunity to invest in and benefit from the canal subprojects, and those investments in the tax-free zone will further reduce the country’s already-low tax base.
It is up to the international community to remain vigilant on these issues to ensure stability and long-term security in the region.