By Raul K. Bautista
HAVANA TIMES – The Ortega-Murillo regime is engaging “in activities that pose a threat to the security of the hemisphere,” states the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) communiqué issued on June 18, reporting new sanctions on the Nicaraguan Mining Company (ENIMINAS) and the president of its board of directors, Ruy Lopez Delgado.
This assertion by an agency other than the State Department indicates that the Biden Administration has either already developed a strategy to confront the Ortega-Murillo regime or has made significant progress in formulating one. It also responds to the RENACER Act’s request to US intelligence services to report to Congress on Russian activities in Nicaragua that “pose a threat or risk to United States national interests and national security,” and on “significant transactions” that violate the Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA, 22 U.S.C. 9525), which imposed sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia.
Since November 2018, through Executive Order 13851, the United States had already labeled the actions of the Ortega-Murillo regime as an “unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security and foreign policy of the United States.” The presence of Russian military personnel and armaments has been in Nicaragua since the 1980s and for some time it has had satellite (Glonass) installations for spying, intelligence and police training. What is new is the international context after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Putin and Lavrov’s threats about the use of nuclear weapons, Putin’s imperialist pretensions and his declarations that transform him from an adversary to an enemy of the United States and the West.
Ortega has given enthusiastic support to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and refrained from condemning it at the United Nations. Days before the imposition of sanctions on ENIMINAS, on Tuesday, June 14, Nicaragua’s Sandinista-controlled National Assembly approved the entry of Russian troops, ships and planes into Nicaragua “for humanitarian purposes” and to combat drug trafficking. Weeks before, the official Russian television anchorwoman, Olga Skabeeva, suggested that since Ukraine was going to receive missiles that can reach Moscow, the Russians should install missiles in Nicaragua that can reach Washington DC, with Ortega’s approval.
Authorizing the entry of Russian troops and weaponry in the current context, even if it is a routine activity and with humanitarian purposes, is a provocation, said Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian A. Nichols at the Summit of the Americas, This warning —as well as all the State Department’s calls for the release of political prisoners and the suspension of torture— was ignored by Ortega.
The consequence is the strongest economic blow to the Ortega government since the sanctioning of Bancorp. Gold exports, says the OFAC statement, increased dramatically in recent years. “In 2021, gold exports from Nicaragua to the United States increased by thirty percent, totaling over $744 million. These exports accounted for seventy nine percent of all Nicaraguan gold exports during the year,” it added. According to Ryan C. Berg, the Nicaraguan government has been laundering Venezuelan gold and the Russians have also been involved in this operation. Although the scheme has been kept secret, it was projected that, by 2022, gold would surpass meat as Nicaragua’s main export item, reaching some US $1 billion.
Confidencial’s investigation revealed that “raw gold exports grew 172.8% between 2017 and 2021, going from $322.7 million to $880.5 million dollars. That growth of 557.8 million” is one of the indications that the regime is gold-washing Venezuelan gold. The main beneficiaries have been the ruling family and officials assigned to that company.
A new round of sanctions after the Summit of the Americas had already been announced. However, OFAC’s sanctions break with the tradition of imposing US sanctions on the Ortega dictatorship every 4 to 6 months or more, because a few days earlier, on June 13, visa restrictions were imposed on 93 members of the National Assembly, public prosecutors, and Interior Ministry officials. Prior to this round of sanctions, the last ones were imposed on January 10, 2022.
So far, as the State Department itself acknowledges in the press release accompanying OFAC’s imposition of sanctions, the Ortega-Murillo regime has not only continued to deepen its relationship with the Russians but has also increased repression and torture of political prisoners, entrenched itself in power, and has “established a dynastic dictatorship similar to that of the Somoza regime.”
Perhaps the acknowledgement that the Ortega-Murillo regime represents a threat to the security of the hemisphere and that the consolidation of totalitarianism in Nicaragua is a challenge to the future of democracy in the region will lead the State Department to consider that stronger and more continuous diplomatic and economic sanctions are required to strike the fortune of the Ortega-Murillo family and hinder their ability to govern; because that is the only way that it can arrive at the accountability and compliance with international norms that the US puts forward as its goal.