In the mid eighties the destinies of Afghanistan and Nicaragua were intertwined in the East-West confrontational chessboard. Today, as Ortega’s authoritarianism reaches unspeakable levels and his submissive alliance with Putin opens spaces for Russia in the region, Biden is suspected of weakness and inefficiency in his foreign actions. It makes sense to ask whether the US defeat in Afghanistan will have consequences for the Biden administration’s policy with Nicaragua.
Let’s assess the case history. In March 1985 Mikhail Gorbachev became Secretary General of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. A month later, he received President Daniel Ortega at the Kremlin, leading a high-level delegation from Nicaragua. The White House, the State Department and the US Congress considered this meeting an affront from the Kremlin and its new leader, given the showdown Ronald Reagan was holding with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. What was the significance of that early visit to the new leader of the Soviet Union?
Those of us who participated in that meeting with Gorbachev saw clearly that great changes would come in the internal and international politics of the USSR. The Soviets were no longer in a position to continue sustaining external commitments that dangerously aggravated the limited possibilities of their own economy. It was not difficult to interpret that the USSR’s military support for the war with the Contras in Nicaragua entered an uphill terrain and that the expectations and needs of the Sandinista Army entered swampy ground, at a time that Reagan and the Contra became more threatening.
For this reason, perhaps Gorbachev urged Ortega not to do anything that would further provoke US hostility, not to skip stages, to maintain the mixed economy while preserving the space of the private sector in the economy, to maintain political pluralism, and the unity between the Sandinista leadership and the mass movement. What Gorbachev did not say was, perhaps, the most important message. He was on our side, but he did not commit to the war effort. And he requested that we carry out steps with the COMECON countries to share with them the cooperation with Nicaragua.
The war waged by the Soviet Army in Afghanistan since 1979 was too heavy a burden for the limited capacities of the USSR economy, depleted by its inefficiencies and after decades of an arms race against the United States.
In the Russo-Afghan war the Mujahideen had received support from more than a few countries including Iran and China. However, the United States, in complicity with Pakistan, was the main logistical support in the fight against the communists. This US involvement handled covertly under the responsibility of the CIA had become one of the open causes of the new Reagan Administration. The US President bragged about his commitment with the Mujahideen, just as he did of his support for the Contra.
For many analysts, the growing Soviet presence in Nicaragua was the counterpart to the US intervention in Afghanistan. Reagan even solemnly maintained in the United States Congress that if his objectives were not achieved in Central America, his alliances in the world would weaken.
The final retreat of the Soviets in Afghanistan would be part of the preamble to the collapse of the USSR, and in a certain way it would be months later for the Sandinista Revolution with the defeat in the 1990 elections.
In 2021, it is the turn of the US military to suffer an unquestionable defeat in Afghanistan, accompanied by all its NATO allies, after two decades of occupation. This defeat becomes, from a broader perspective, Islam’s first victory over the West since the Middle Ages.
Will this historic US defeat have any consequences for Nicaragua and the rest of our region? Analysts agree that the image of Biden and his government are affected nationally and internationally. This image of weakness conspires against the decisive and upcoming mid-term legislative elections in the United States. On the other hand, among important members of NATO there is uncertainty about how and to what extent to entrust its security in its until now all-powerful strategic ally.
The United States defeat in Afghanistan comes as Ortega and Putin try to reestablish the Russian presence in Central America. Recently, Russian Defense Minister Serguei Shoigu declared that Nicaragua has the support of his government including threats that represent “an open use of military force.” That is saying a lot. These statements are added to other material support, such as the military training school to combat drugs, armored vehicles, security and cyber espionage, international backing and even Putin’s visit to the country.
Of course, this time it is not about the defense of the Sandinista Revolution, but about supporting the maintenance of an autocratic regime in Nicaragua so that it operates as an unconditional ally of Putin’s international policy.
Until a few years ago, Washington’s policy towards Ortega has been consistently pragmatic. As long as there was an alliance with the Nicaraguan business sector, his rhetoric and political authoritarianism hardly mattered. Ortega received a complacent attitude and financial support. All in exchange for a Trumpian immigration policy, guaranteeing US investments and support for containing drug trafficking.
April 2018 changed everything. Ortega stopped being reliable for the United States Government. He went from being a factor of stability and security to becoming a risk for the region, also accused of horrendous crimes against humanity. Ortega became an uncomfortable partner, a questioned dictator only supported by a partisan minority, weapons and…Putin.
The US government fears a chaos product of a post-Ortega power vacuum in Nicaragua, beginning a period of instability undesirable to its interests. It fears waves of migrants. For the United States, stability in the region has always been more important than the absence of democracy. In the past, numerous bloody autocrats and despots have been its allies. In this case, however, Ortega will be re-elected at will, imposing his boot internally and mocking everyone, including the United States and its sanctions. But even more, he will do so having become a submissive partner of Putin, ready to serve as a platform for Russia, an adversary of the US government.
After suffering a heavy defeat in Afghanistan, the pressure on Biden’s foreign policy increases. In view of the Russian presence in Nicaragua and Ortega’s defiant attitude towards the international community, Afghanistan — “the graveyard of empires” —could have an impact on Biden’s policy in the region and particularly for our country. Once again Afghanistan, Russia and Nicaragua seem to connect. We will see.