The Miami Herald
Dec. 9, 2010

U.S. cables leaked on WikiLeaks reveal Venezuela-Nicaragua tensions, blackmail


U.S. diplomats viewed Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega as a mercurial opportunist who bashed the United States in public even as he cozied up to officials in private -- particularly when he feared Venezuela and other benefactors might not come through with funds.
In a fresh batch of diplomatic communiqués published this week by WikiLeaks, U.S. diplomats describe how Nicaraguan officials toted suitcases of cash from Venezuela as part of an off-the-books aid effort that also was used to finance municipal campaigns.

A cable from 2006, part of a trio of memos designed to provide talking points in the run-up to the Nicaraguan presidential elections, rehashes two decades worth of incendiary misdeeds and allegations about Ortega and his Sandinista Front for National Liberation, or FSLN. Among the allegations: that Ortega and the Sandinistas blackmailed drug traffickers and a prominent boxer.

The allegations aren't new but the cables provide a deeper look at U.S. diplomatic efforts in Nicaragua -- a country that is reliant on U.S. aid even as it rails against the sins of its ``imperialist'' benefactor.

In a memo from Feb. 25, 2010, titled ``Ortega and the U.S.: New-Found True Love Or Another Still-Born Charm Offensive,'' U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan speculated that Ortega's sudden responsiveness to embassy requests came amid financial duress. Attempts to recruit Iran and Russia as financial backers fell flat and there were signs Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was tired of forking over cash.

There are ``indications that the Ortega-Chávez revolutionary partnership may be suffering a cold snap,'' the cable reads. ``Over three years, Chávez has supplied Ortega with nearly a billion dollars in badly-needed `assistance,' but Ortega's constant need for operating cash to offset forfeited donor assistance is likely now wearisome for Chávez who faces growing domestic difficulties.''

Ortega -- a former guerrilla commander who helped topple a U.S.-backed dictatorship in 1979 -- has a kindered spirit in Chávez. The staunch allies are members of the left-leaning ALBA bloc of nations, which includes Cuba and Bolivia.

The cable speculates that relations between the ``dynamic duo'' were strained over how to best ``exploit'' the 2009 coup in Honduras and ``rivalry over who is the hemisphere's rightful heir to Castro's `revolutionary' legacy.''

Ortega was said to be stung when Chávez and Cuban President Raúl Castro failed to appear at the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution and a military ceremony. Referring to Ortega as Chávez's ``Mini-Me,'' the embassy concedes that their partnership is ``not in imminent danger of collapse.''

The relationship has been fruitful for Nicaragua.

In August, Ortega's senior financial advisor, Bayardo Arce, told McClatchy News Service that Venezuelan assistance topped $1 billion, and had facilitated the fight against poverty.

But critics worry that the discretionary and opaque nature of the funds also give Ortega and his party an oversized role in the economy and a slush fund to finance political campaigns.

In a cable from May 2008, U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli, citing ``multiple contacts,'' said that Ortega was using Venezuelan cash to fund municipal election campaigns.

``We have first-hand reports that [Government of Nicaragua] officials receive suitcases full of cash from Venezuelan officials during official trips to Caracas,'' the cable said.

In 2006, the embassy issued a series of ``rap sheets'' prior to that year's presidential elections designed to remind ``Nicaraguan voters and others of the true character'' of Ortega, the FSLN and former president and convicted felon Arnoldo Alemán.

Citing media reports, the cable said the FSLN party received money from ``international drug traffickers, usually in return for ordering Sandinista judges to allow traffickers caught by the police and military to go free.''

In one 2005 case, a Supreme Court judge ``coordinated a complicated scheme to make 609,000 dollars in drug money seized from two Colombians `disappear' from a Supreme Court account,'' the cable reads.

Another Sandinista judge accused of complicity in the bribery scheme, Rafael Solis, denied that he took bribes, calling the WikiLeaks documents ``baseless,'' The Associated Press reported. In another case, the cable said that Ortega and his party blackmailed Nicaraguan boxer Ricardo Mayorga in 2004 after he allegedly raped a woman in a Managua hotel.

``Ortega and the FSLN agreed to protect the boxer in the courts if he would give the party a large portion of his international boxing winnings and `advertise' for Daniel in public,'' the cable reads. ``Much of Mayorga's winnings now reportedly go to Ortega, and when Mayorga fought in Chicago in August 2005, he dedicated the fight to Daniel.''

Despite the embassy campaign to remind voters about Ortega's past, he won the election that year.