According to USAID, "with a per capita income of $1,239 in 2011, Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere." Moreover, "the average number of years of schooling in Nicaragua is 5.8, the second lowest in the sub-region" and in Nicaragua’s Atlantic Coast region, "45 percent of school age boys and 40 percent of girls are not in school, and 25.6 percent of girls and 25.2 % of boys are illiterate."
So how does the Nicaraguan government react? By spending $80 million to buy 50 Russian T-72 tanks.
Why? To ward off foreign enemies? Not even the Nicaraguan government, led by Sandinista Daniel Ortega, makes that ludicrous argument. The argument it does make is that Nicaragua faces drug trafficking and crime. Tanks are not the usual weapon police forces use to reduce the homicide rate or fight drug traffickers.
What we are seeing instead is a government preparing to put down any internal challenges. Here’s part of the story in the San Jose, Costa Rica newspaper The Tico Times:
Carlos Cascante, director of the National University’s International Relations Department, said that the tanks are part of President Daniel Ortega’s plan to strengthen the army as a political force inside Nicaragua.... University of Costa Rica political scientist Carlos Zamora agreed that the tanks were part of a domestic agenda....the government may be trying to bolster its ability to respond to a potentially violent protest. During a news conference Wednesday, President Luis Guillermo Solís [of Costa Rica] said the tanks were “unnecessary” and that there was no justification for such an investment in Central America.
“More than a concern or a threat, it constitutes a feeling of sadness because these are people who still lack much in terms of human development,” he said. Solís added that Costa Rica is a major destination for migrants fleeing the country’s poverty.
Why might Nicaraguans turn to demonstrations and protests against their government? Here’s USAID again:
The international community viewed the 2008 municipal elections, the 2011 Presidential elections, and more recently the 2012 municipal elections as flawed, which in part led to half of all bilateral donors to depart or reduce the scope or scale of their programs.
In other words, the Ortega regime is stealing elections so it can stay in power, and is preparing to put down protests with Russian tanks.
In its 2016 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report on Nicaragua, the State Department said "Nicaragua remains a primary transit route for drug trafficking." The Report’s conclusion was this:
In 2015, Nicaragua in cooperation with the United States and others worked to combat drug trafficking through joint interdiction operations, capacity building of law enforcement and the military, and drug demand reduction programs.
The Government of Nicaragua must increase efforts to combat organized crime within the vulnerable Caribbean coast regions of Nicaragua, which remain the primary routes for international drug trafficking. In addition, an increased focus on drug prevention programs and rehabilitation facilities, institutional corruption, and judicial independence is recommended to complement interdiction efforts.
But the Government of Nicaragua isn’t doing any of this. It is stealing elections, not building judicial independence. It is using $80 million--more than its entire 2015 military budget--to buy tanks to use against protesters, instead of buying fast boats or helicopters that might be useful against drug traffickers.
Congressional appropriators should take another look at U.S. aid programs of all sorts to Nicaragua. The regime there is interested in holding on to power at any cost, and is not our partner in building democracy or fighting drug trafficking.