Back in February, weeks before NATO launched its Libyan bombing campaign but after the Tripoli regime had slaughtered hundreds of civilians, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega phoned Muammar Qaddafi multiple times to express his support. Speaking publicly, Ortega declared that the bloodstained despot was “waging a great battle.” Then, in late March, with the NATO war well underway, Qaddafi tapped former Nicaraguan foreign minister Miguel D’Escoto Brockmann (who served under Ortega’s Sandinista dictatorship during the 1980s) to be Libya’s new ambassador to the United Nations.
So it wasn’t terribly surprising last month when WikiLeaks released a pair of U.S. diplomatic cables speculating that “Libyan monies have maintained Ortega for years,” that “Ortega’s national and popular council model is based on the Libyan ‘Green Book,’” and that Qaddafi’s nephew (Muhamad Muhktar Lashtar) is employed as Ortega’s personal secretary.
Whatever the truth about Lashtar, the Qaddafi-Ortega friendship is not a recent phenomenon. Decades ago, when Libya was a leading sponsor of global terrorism, Qaddafi found the time to train Sandinista revolutionaries. When the Marxist rebels toppled the Somoza dynasty and gained power in 1979, Ortega turned Nicaragua into a Soviet client state, and he received financial assistance from Tripoli. In 2007, when Ortega was touring the Middle East, Qaddafi let him borrow a Libyan presidential plane.
Today, the erstwhile Sandinista dictator is a democratically elected president, but he has spent the last four years moving his country toward authoritarianism. Ortega has rigged municipal elections, trampled the constitution, corrupted the judicial system, persecuted his opponents, and weakened media freedom. His enduring comradeship with Qaddafi reflects their mutual preference for strongman rule and their mutual hatred of the United States. Ortega’s speech at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago was a deranged rant worthy of Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. Speaking of Chávez and Castro, they have joined Ortega in voicing solidarity with Qaddafi.
Indeed, regardless of their ideological and cultural differences, the world’s anti-U.S. autocrats and populists tend to keep close company. After the 2008 Russian invasion of democratic Georgia, Nicaragua was one of the few countries on earth to recognize the independence of the breakaway Georgian territories of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. (Venezuela was another.) Ortega has also honored Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with two of Nicaragua’s most prestigious awards: the Liberty Medal and the Rubén Darío Medal. When the Iranian leader blatantly stole his country’s 2009 national election, Ortega sent him a congratulatory note conveying “love and admiration.” The note (addressed to “Beloved Brother Ahmadinejad”) read in part: “I send you a fraternal revolutionary greeting, from this country and this revolution that saw the light of victory in the same year of 1979 when Iran rose up and liberated itself to found the Islamic Republic and its own Revolution.” (During the 1980s, Tehran furnished the Sandinista regime with generous loans that have never been repaid.)
Iran is ruled by radical theocrats, whereas Ortega is a radical leftist. But they share a visceral contempt for democracy and a fierce loathing of the United States. In 2009, Sandinista-appointed members of the Nicaraguan supreme court held an unannounced meeting at which they abolished presidential term limits and thereby cleared the way for Ortega to seek reelection this year. It was a thuggish power grab that highlighted the disturbing similarities between Ortega and Chávez.
Nicaragua is a small, economically weak country, the second poorest in the Western Hemisphere (behind only Haiti), so it’s tempting to dismiss the significance of Ortega’s attack on democracy and his partnerships with the likes of Chávez, Ahmadinejad, and Qaddafi. But the lack of U.S. resistance to Ortega’s autocratic maneuvers and belligerent foreign policy has encouraged him to be even more aggressive in Central America. Last fall, Nicaraguan troops, engaged in a river-dredging project, invaded and occupied the sovereign territory of Costa Rica. That’s what happens when aspiring dictators are emboldened by U.S. passivity and a dangerous leadership vacuum.
We can have a good chuckle about Ortega’s sycophantic praise for the tyrants in Tehran and Tripoli. He sounds like just another clumsy anti-American buffoon, a Cold War dinosaur nostalgic for ideological battles that he lost long ago. But his ongoing transformation of Nicaragua is no laughing matter.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica’s ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004, is director of the Center for Latin American Studies at the Hudson Institute.