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Russia's courting of Nicaragua concerns Washington

| Thursday, Sept. 15, 2016, 7:36 p.m.

WASHINGTON — Russia's cozy military relationship with Nicaragua, which is rapidly evolving into a single-party regime, is raising concerns in Washington.

Russia recently sold Nicaragua 50 tanks, won access to Nicaragua's airspace and ports, and is building a law enforcement center near the Pacific coast.

The Obama administration is “closely monitoring” Russia's presence in Nicaragua and is expressing concern about the lack of democratic space. The White House tried unsuccessfully to pressure President Daniel Ortega to host international observers for the critical November elections. And now disappointed members of Congress, led by Florida Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, want to target Ortega's pocketbook.

“The only way the likes of (Venezuelan President Nicolas) Maduro or Ortega will feel the pressure is by cutting off their access to money,” Ros-Lehtinen said Thursday.

Ros-Lehtinen made comparisons between the Nicaraguan and Venezuelan governments during a hearing for the Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. She said Ortega's efforts to use the Supreme Court to increase his power and stifle opposition were much like Maduro's own effort to use the courts to block actions by the opposition-led National Assembly.

Last month, Nicaraguan military officials showed off the new Russian T-72 tanks in a scene that recalled when then-President Ronald Reagan used the possibility of Russian tanks as a pitch for funding contra rebels fighting Ortega's Sandinista government in the 1980s.

“It's always bewildered me how the second poorest country in the hemisphere is buying tanks, is buying planes, is buying all sorts of arms, and yet the need of the people seems to be ignored,” said Rep. Albio Sires, D-N.J., the ranking member of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.

The United States has multiple interests in Nicaragua. Nicaragua is a member of the Central American Free Trade Agreement, many U.S. businesses operate there and it's a key transit point for drugs and other contraband.

The State Department's 2017 budget seeks $14 million in foreign aid for Nicaragua, which has raised U.S. concerns about reports of repressive tactics and courting by Russia and China.

Ortega, a former rebel leader who was also president during the 1980s, is running for a third consecutive term in November after persuading the Supreme Court to overturn a constitutional ban on consecutive terms of office. He is expected to win.

In recent months, Ortega, who leads the Sandinista National Liberation Front party, announced that he would not allow international observers to monitor the upcoming election. He named his wife, first lady Rosario Murillo, as his running mate. In June, the Nicaraguan Supreme Court stripped two opposition parties of their leaders.

Ros-Lehtinen has teamed up with Sires to call for U.S. restrictions on loans to the Ortega government by international financial institutions, such as the World Bank, unless it accepts international observers and other steps that show its willingness to hold free and fair elections.

Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Juan Gonzalez said he couldn't comment on the pending legislation, but he raised concerns about proposals that reduce federal aid or restrict trade. The federal aid Nicaragua receives, he said, is very limited in scope and benefits the United States. Cutting counternarcotics assistance, for example, would hurt U.S. interests, he said.

“Unilateral sanctions are ones that actually impact the people,” he said. “The elites always find a way around them.”

Rep. Joaquin Castro, a Texas Democrat, said that even though what was happening in Nicaragua had been troubling, he couldn't support the proposed legislation now. He cited cooperation with Nicaragua on security and economic issues.

“I do think we need to work on holding them accountable,” he said. “That effort, for now, needs to be diplomatic.”

Nicaragua has avoided the gang and drug-related violence that plagues some of its neighbors. But it's also the second poorest country in the hemisphere, raising concerns about its ability to sustain itself in harder times.

The United States now exports about $200 million in oil products to Nicaragua, five times the amount exported in 2014.

Gonzalez said the administration would continue to speak out publicly and privately against the Ortega administration's efforts to limit its opposition. But he said the United States couldn't do this alone. An international response is needed, and the White House is already working with the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the European Union to help promote democratic principles.

“There is no silver bullet when it comes to these sort of issues,” he said. “But as we do around the hemisphere, it's something we'll continue to promote through various ways.”

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