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Alignment with China: “Ortega seeks resources to stay in power”

China expert warns: “Cooperation agreements with little transparency are coming. China is very transactional and recognizes strategic opportunity”

China expert warns: “Cooperation agreements with little transparency are coming. China is very transactional and recognizes strategic opportunity”

Carlos F. Chamorro

14 de diciembre 2021


Political scientist Evan Ellis, professor and researcher at the U.S. Department of Defense War College and expert on China-Latin America relations, was expelled from Nicaragua on June 15, 2016, after being in the country for less than 24 hours. His objective as an academic was to conduct interviews and gather information on the interoceanic canal project promoted by the Government with the Chinese company HKND.

Upon learning of Nicaragua's severance of relations with Taiwan, Evans published an article in the Global Americans media entitled: “Nicaragua’s turn to China: What does this mean for the region?”, and answered a brief questionnaire from CONFIDENCIAL.  

How do you assess Nicaragua's break with Taiwan and alignment with China? What are the implications?

It is something we have been expecting for a long time. In the short term, it will probably give new life and help the Ortegas continue in power, through additional resources and the opportunity to hand out money diverted from new loans and contracts with Chinese companies (just as it happened in Venezuela, under Hugo Chavez and Nicolas Maduro; in Ecuador, under Rafael Correa; and in Bolivia, under Evo Morales). It is yet another reminder of the corrosive, albeit indirect, role played by the People's Republic of China in undermining democracy in Latin America and facilitating a more authoritarian region, and one less oriented to cooperate with the United States through its own strategic interests. China lends resources regardless of whether its partners violate their own constitutions and laws or abuse human rights, while the arrangements are structured so that the Chinese are paid.

To what do you attribute the decision to align with China at this time?

I think the Ortega's reached an arrangement with the Chinese to get more money than they had extorted from the Taiwanese in recent years. The US and European sanctions and the possibility of being suspended from DR-CAFTA also made it clear to the Ortega's that they needed to create alternative resources to stay in power. The “Democracy Summit” held by the Joe Biden Administration, to which Nicaragua was not invited, was a symbolic opportunity for them to show their independence, deflect the US message from the Summit and spit in the eye of “Uncle Sam”. 

What is the underlying reason for Ortega's calculation: geopolitical alignment or economic expectations?

I believe it is the Ortega's imperative to stay in power, especially in anticipation of more U.S. and European sanctions, and the possibility of being excluded from CAFTA, and also losing Western investment that they have attracted as part of their integration with the U.S. market. Like China and Russia's position with Venezuela, having the People's Republic of China as a partner also helps in hindering actions by organizations such as the UN against Nicaragua for its lack of democracy.

Taiwan used to give Nicaragua $30 million a year with no strings attached. What can Ortega achieve in the short term? Donations? Loans? Investments?

Taiwan has been a good friend to Nicaragua, despite the uncomfortable situation that the lack of democracy, and respect for human rights in Nicaragua did not suit Taiwan. It seems to me that the Taiwanese diplomatic corps, Ambassadors Jaime Wu, and Alexander Yui, did an impressive job with limited resources, against enormous odds. However, Taiwan cannot compete with the magnitude of the Chinese economy, or its resources.  Soon, we will hear of the signing of many non-transparent cooperation agreements to facilitate sales of Nicaraguan coffee and fruit to the Chinese market, benefiting certain businessmen well connected to the Ortegas. I expect a new Confucius Institute in Managua, Hanban scholarships, and a training program about China for the Nicaraguan diplomatic corps. Agreements on construction projects, electricity generation and transmission, agricultural products, telecommunications, smart cities, etc., paid for by loans from the Chinese Development Bank, and guaranteed by the Sandinista government with Nicaraguans' money. It is still early to see if the Government will breathe new life into Nicaragua's canal project, but the sight of Laureano Ortega meeting in Tianjin with the Chinese indicates to me that it will be on the minds of both sides.

How will China treat this new Ortega regime, which in the 1980s was distant and uncooperative?

China is very transactional. It recognizes a strategic opportunity. Like Judas, the Ortegas are going to get their money for their betrayal of Taiwan. For a long time, he differentiated himself from the other countries that have made a “diplomatic turn” in recent years, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Dominican Republic, Panama.

If they relaunch the canal project, the drama of China's role in the country, and the debts, will be much greater.

Also in this context, Nicaragua would be a candidate, if someday China thinks of establishing a military presence in the hemisphere. But in the medium term, if there is no canal or military base, just like Costa Rica with Oscar Arias, with Laura Chinchilla, once it is no longer useful, Nicaragua will be left with debts with the Chinese, the dependence of its economy on Chinese companies, and an authoritarian state sponsored by the Chinese for their benefit, against democracy and the interests of Nicaraguans in development and prosperity.

This article was originally published in Spanish in Confidencial and translated by our staff


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Carlos F. Chamorro

Carlos F. Chamorro

Periodista nicaragüense, exiliado en Costa Rica. Fundador y director de Confidencial y Esta Semana. Miembro del Consejo Rector de la Fundación Gabo. Ha sido Knight Fellow en la Universidad de Stanford (1997-1998) y profesor visitante en la Maestría de Periodismo de la Universidad de Berkeley, California (1998-1999). En mayo 2009, obtuvo el Premio a la Libertad de Expresión en Iberoamérica, de Casa América Cataluña (España). En octubre de 2010 recibió el Premio Maria Moors Cabot de la Escuela de Periodismo de la Universidad de Columbia en Nueva York. En 2021 obtuvo el Premio Ortega y Gasset por su trayectoria periodística.