Nicaragua’s ‘revolutionary’ drug war

Ortega’s fixation on getting support for the ‘war on drugs’ may simply be an attempt to appeal to social conservatives.

Daniel Ortega
Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega's fixation on getting support for the war on drugs may be 'tacking to the right in order to curry favour with socially conservative voters' argues author [AP]

Rivas, Nicaragua – Ravished by violent drug trafficking organisations flush with prohibition profits, Central America is now one of the deadliest places on Earth, with Honduras experiencing even more murders per capita than Iraq. That’s led some politicians to start talking about something they never would have considered just a decade ago, at least publicly: breaking with the militarised, literal war on drugs favoured by the United States in favour of decriminalisation – and perhaps even outright legalisation. But contrary to what one might assume, it’s not the “anti-American” leftists leading the charge, but the reliably pro-American heads of the region’s center-right governments.

Indeed, when it comes to the drug war, it’s the revolutionary socialists siding with the empire. So it’s been left to the likes of Guatemalan President Perez Molina – a former general elected last year on a platform of going after drug traffickers with an “iron fist” – to state the obvious: the status quo isn’t working. And it about time to start considering alternatives. “We have to talk about decriminalisation of the production, the transit and, of course, the consumption” of drugs, he recently told CNN en Espanol, stating something that previously only ex-heads of state have had the courage to say.

Perhaps even curiouser still, the reaction from Molina’s fellow conservatives in the region hasn’t been overwhelmingly negative. Echoing his call for an open and thorough debate about the war on drugs, Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla in March told reporters in San Jose that, “If we keep doing what we have been doing when the results today are worse than 10 years ago, we’ll never get anywhere and could wind up like Mexico or Colombia.” To give you an idea how fast the discussion has changed, less than year earlier Chinchilla rushed to Guatemala for a press conference with Molina’s predecessor to denounce as “naive” a proposal from a group of former Latin American leaders to legalise marijuana.

Nicaragua relatively unscathed by drug menace

When Molina hosted a conference to talk drug policy, the region’s leftists, El Salvador’s Mauricio Funes and Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, were no-shows, saying they quite like the status quo, thank you.

Legalise it

“Legalisation doesn’t make sense,” Ortega remarked around the same time other leaders in the region were talking decriminalisation in Guatemala. “It’s as if we were to say, ‘were beaten’. It would be to legalise crime,” he said, making the obvious but unassailable point that legalising something that is currently a crime would be like legalising a crime.

A leader of the Sandinista rebels who helped topple the US-backed Somoza dictatorship in 1979, Ortega returned to the presidency in 2006 a changed man, making a show of publicly converting to Catholicism. While his Marxist government in the 1980s confiscated the property of absentee landlords and redistributed it to the country’s poor, leading the Reagan administration to back a right-wing insurgency that left over 30,000 dead, today his government is praised by the decidedly not-Marxist International Monetary Fund (IMF) for pursuing “broadly appropriate macroeconomic policies” and generally providing a stable market for foreign investors. The Nicaraguan military now even holds joint training exercises with the same government that not so long ago was busy illegally mining Nicaragua’s ports.

Indeed, the only thing that’s really revolutionary about Ortega these days is his rhetoric. Speaking to a gathering of national police, he justified his support for drug prohibition by channeling fellow drug warrior Fidel Castro, calling the illicit drug trade a product of “savage capitalism”. Curiously, Ortega did not denounce the savage capitalists freely selling beer in his country, suggesting drug traffickers would do well to package their product with crass patriotic slogans: “Soy Nica. ¡Como el San Juan!”

“Ortega’s support for the US-led war on drugs is not surprising,” says Michael Shifter, executive director of the Inter-American Dialogue, a think tank based in Washington. “The presidents who have most strongly challenged US drug policy are those who lead countries with high levels of related violence. For a variety of reasons, so far Nicaragua has been spared the high costs of the drug war, so there is little pressure for Ortega to make this a big issue.”

Indeed, Nicaragua is generally considered the safest country in Central America, with traffickers preferring to ship their drugs to bigger markets up north rather than set up shop in the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Nicaragua’s poverty may also help explain its nominally left-wing government’s support for a reactionary war: it means money. Almost immediately after returning to the presidency just over five years ago, Ortega called on the US government to provide Central America with a US $1bn aid package to fight drug trafficking. And that’s not a new thing for him, either: in the late 1980s, after years of fighting a US-backed insurgency fuelled by selling cocaine, his government likewise called for a greater US role in combating drug trafficking in the region.

Drug war gold

The US has thus far declined to offer that billion dollar pot of drug war gold. But even amid an otherwise rocky relationship, the Ortega administration has been rewarded for, as a report from the US embassy in Managua puts it, “protect[ing] its territory as best it could with limited resources”. Indeed, the US boasts of having boosted Nicaragua’s military and national police with millions in drug war dollars, enabling it to establish “random checkpoints at strategic points on the national highway system” throughout the country. Foreign aid also helped Nicaragua hire more than 1,300 new officers in 2011, a single-year record, with the European Union also helping to open “a central criminal forensic laboratory” to the tune of $7.4 million.

“It would be wrong to say Ortega’s support for the war on drugs is just about money. It’s also about something closely related: power.

Not that this aid has had much in the way of results, beyond the dubious effect of boosting the power of Nicaragua’s security forces. As the US embassy report notes, Nicaragua “did not report the dismantlement of any high-level drug trafficking organisations” last year, law enforcement instead preferring to target “smaller gangs” and drug dealers operating in Managua rather than the big-time players shipping drugs up the Caribbean coast.

Still, it would be wrong to say Ortega’s support for the war on drugs is just about money. It’s also about something closely related: power. “I’d put this in the same category as his view on abortion: tacking to the right in order to curry favour with socially conservative voters,” says Adam Isacson, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America, referring to the complete ban on abortion the erstwhile revolutionary signed into law soon after taking office in 2006. Indeed, Ortega’s position is in complete alignment with what conservative religious leaders in Nicaragua are saying – and his own campaign slogan, “Cristiana, Socialista, y Solidaria”, which emphasises his personal religious beliefs over any left-wing political ideology.

Socrates Rene Sandigo, head of the country’s Episcopal Conference, recently told Managua newspaper La Prensa that he strongly opposes removing penalties on drug consumption, to say nothing of drug selling, saying to do so would put the country “at risk of following into anarchy”. Not wanting to cede the presidency anytime soon – Ortega won a constitutionally prohibited second consecutive term last year – the power-to-the-people socialist turned socially conservative statist isn’t about to test the Nicaraguan electorate’s willingness to accept drug legalisation, particularly when a 14-year-old with a quarter ounce of weed is treated as a national scandal by the country’s tabloid television news programs.

Not that there aren’t voices in Nicaraguan civil society calling for reform, not content to leave in peace and relative comfort as their neighbours to the north are gunned down by drug traffickers and, allegedly, US DEA agents. Saying legalisation deserves to be part of the drug war debate, La Prensa managing editor Eduardo Enriquez pointedly asked in a March editorial, “How many more deaths do we have to put Central Americans through?” But those voices don’t get much respect from the Nicaraguan state; last year Enriquez’s truck was shot up by police and the outspoken Ortega critic was detained for 12 hours after he allegedly got in the way of a government motorcade.

Like any good revolutionary, Ortega can still now and then give a solid, righteous harangue against imperialism, particularly when the imperialists are taking on one of his government’s benefactors. But when it comes to his own backyard – be it for the sake of money or political power or a genuine belief the drug war is consistent with revolutionary socialism – he has proven to be a loyal soldier of the empire, helping squash drug war dissent in Central America even as the empire’s closest allies talk of defecting. Heading a party named after a man who fought the US occupation of Nicaragua in the 1930s, Ortega has even invited the US military to train on his soil, that too in the name of fighting drugs. One wonders what Augusto Sandino would think – and what happened to the Nicaraguan revolution.

Charles Davis is an activist and writer who splits his time between Washington, DC, and Nicaragua. He is a contributor to the newswire Inter Press Service and his work has aired on public radio stations across the United States. To read more of his work, visit his website.

Follow Charles on twitter: @charlesdavis84