While the initiatives for development signed by Moscow and Managua don’t seem to be advancing, technical-military collaboration is being strengthened.
HAVANA TIMES – If you follow the rocky road through the thick brush surrounding the Nejapa lagoon southwest of Managua – once the crater of a volcano – you reach a cement wall crowned by barbed wire. Just visible is the roof of a modest-sized building, painted in blue.
That’s all that can be seen of the ground station for the Global Navigation Satellite System (Glonass), the Russian version of the United States GPS and European Galileo system. The station was inaugurated on April 6 on the outskirts of the Nicaraguan capital.
Its creation was approved on January 26 of last year by an agreement between the governments of Daniel Ortega and Vladimir Putin. According to the BBC, it’s managed by the Russian Federal Space Agency, also known as Roscosmos.
The two sides decided to name it Chaika in honor of the identifying signal used by the first woman to travel in space in 1963, today the politician Valentina Tereshkova.
Whenever there are joint projects between Nicaragua and Russia, the hermetic tendency of both governments feeds endless speculation, and conspiracy theories become the order of the day. In this case, there are many who question the true function of the satellite station.
There are even those who assure that it’s for spying, something that the Ortega government denies. For their part, Russia has issued no commentaries on the subject.
“Today we are opening a new page in our history,” announced Igor Komarov, Roscosmos’ general director, in the opening ceremony for the controversial installation. This ceremony was the subject of a report in the official Sandinista website, El 19 digital.
It’s the “first and the only” terrestrial station of the Glonass system in Central America, the official noted during the event, presided over by Laureano Ortega, Daniel Ortega’s son, who works as a presidential advisor on investments.
There are, however, eight others in existence outside the region. According to the explanation given by the assistant director of the Russian space agency, Serguei Saveliev, to the official media Sputnik News, there are four in Brazil, three in the Antarctic region and one in South Africa.
Saveliev further stated that they foresee installing others in Kazakhstan, Belorussia, Armenia, China, India, Vietnam, Indonesia and Switzerland, as well as in Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador and Mexico, although this information couldn’t be confirmed by the BBC World service.
The plan is to have Nejapa form part of this global network. The station will receive signals from 24 Russian satellites and the information collected will serve to control the ships that operate in the country, help combat drug trafficking, prevent natural disasters and follow up on climate change, explained Orlando Castillo, director of the Nicaraguan Institute for Telecommunications and Mail (Telcor), during the inauguration.
In addition, the National Company for Electrical Transmission, and the Nicaraguan Electric Company “will utilize Glonass to synchronize all the lines of communications and energy systems,” the official added. It’s a “strategic project” for both Nicaragua and Russia, concluded Laureano Ortega, the President’s son.
It’s precisely the strategic nature of the station that’s generating doubt on the part of several experts, unconvinced by the explanations given at the inauguration.
“They say that its objectives are civilian, but the high level of secrecy regarding the activities they’re carrying out breeds suspicion,” stated Roberto Cajina, a consultant for security, defense and governance in Nicaragua, in an interview with the BBC World Service. “There’s no information on the cost of the installations or on the specialization of the personnel. The project – the result of a contract between the Russian space agency and Telcor – is wrapped in secrets,” the analyst added.
Cajina is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Latin American Network for Security and Defense, a mainly internet-based organization that brings together nearly 300 academics and experts on the topic from Latin America, the Caribbean, the United States, Canada and countries of Western Europe.
Roberto Orozco, director of the Nicaraguan Center for Strategic Research and Analysis goes further, and assures that “on a short- and medium-term basis, what we note is that everything they’ve said regarding the agreements and the cooperation in general between Nicaragua and Russia has been false.”
According to the expert, it was in 2009, during Ortega’s first term following 17 years out of power that Managua reopened the relationship they had maintained with Moscow during the cold war. “They did this with the excuse of opening markets in Asia to widen the circle of trade partners,” he explained to the BBC.
“However, that’s a façade,” he continued, since Nicaragua’s trade with this country that has the largest land area in the world continues to be “of little importance.” For example, the value of exports and imports between the two nations doesn’t surpass twenty million dollars a year.
Along similar lines, he criticized the fact that of eight agreements between both countries for health and development projects, not even one has materialized thus far. He offered the example of an installation for immunological research inaugurated in Managua last October 22, for which Russia put in some $14.1 million dollars.
By mid-year the facility should have been operating at maximum capacity. According to the Russian Minister of Health, Veronica Skvortsova, this implied the production of 30 million vaccines a year – among them 15 million against the flu – with which the entire region could be supplied.
Nevertheless, the laboratory is still not in operation; local media note the lack of resources and the poor management of the directors. “This illustrates that the agreements for development aren’t progressing, while the agreements for technical military collaboration are being strengthened,” Orozco reiterated.
He was referring to the agreement that facilitates the docking of Russian warships in Nicaragua announced by Russian Minister of Defense Serguei Shoigu during his visit to the Central American country in February of 2015.
He also recalled the accord that led to the donation of 50 Russian T-72B1 tanks to the Sandinista government. That agreement went into effect in August of last year, not without provoking the indignation of the country’s neighbors.
In addition, based on the monitoring carried out by the Center for Strategic Research and Analysis that he directs, Orozcoo noted that some 450-500 Russian military officials enter and leave Nicaragua each year.
The United States has shown concern over this military presence.
“Russia maintains a disturbing attitude in Nicaragua (…) and they could affect the region’s stability,” expressed the head of the U.S. Southern Command, Admiral Kurt Tidd, before the U.S. Senate Armed Forces Committee in April.
Experts consulted by BBC World concurred that Moscow intends to work from Nicaragua to extend their influence to other Central American nations.
“El Salvador and Guatemala are the other two countries in which (such a relationship) is being cultivated,” believes Evan Ellis, professor of Latin American Studies of the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College.
For Juan González, a Columbian who worked for the U.S. State Department under President Barack Obama, such a relationship poses an “incipient threat.” “If Russia has already asserted its influence in the presidential elections of the United States – something that’s under investigation – they could also do so in the region,” he declared to BBC World.
But what concerned this expert, now the Vice President of the Cohen Group based in Washington, is the capacity that Russia might have to gather information.
From the satellite station, high on the other side of the Nejapa lagoon, the U.S. embassy can be seen, something that several experts consulted by BBC World have emphasized.
Gonzalez also mentions Arcos – 1, the underwater fiber optic cable that runs for more than 8,000 kilometers, around several Caribbean countries and over which data is transmitted at a speed of 960 billion bits per second.
“It’s something that we still haven’t confirmed, but Russia could be using Nicaragua to create a sphere for military espionage,” he told BBC World. “In 2012, they closed the center for intelligence that was in Havana, precisely when Cuba began negotiations to reopen relations with the United States. They could now be developing a new version of such a base in Nicaragua.”
Russia has not issued any commentary on the matter, while for their part Nicaragua denies that the Nejapa station would serve that objective.
“It’s not for spying on anyone,” Telcor director Orlando Castillo declared to the media in May.
“The United States has more than 800 functioning satellites in space and in the world and no one’s thinking that they’re for spying on anyone. It’s the same with this,” added Castillo.