Nicaragua: Might Trump See Opportunity?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Donald Trump and Daniel Ortega

U.S. President Donald Trump (left) and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega (right). / Flickr (edited) / Creative Commons

There is no evidence that President Trump is contemplating any sort of military action in response to the political conflict in Nicaragua, but precedents set by previous U.S. administrations frustrated with challenges at home and abroad suggest he could conceivably see opportunity in throwing the United States’ diplomatic and military weight to finally boot out a government that Washington has never liked.

  • The White House last week issued its most forceful condemnation yet of the government of President Daniel Ortega for “brutalizing” the Nicaraguan people with “indiscriminate violence” that has resulted in 350 deaths. Vice President Pence recently accused Ortega of “virtually waging war on the Catholic Church.”
  • The Trump team also announced it was increasing U.S. financial support to Ortega’s opponents – adding $1.5 million to an ongoing $30 million annual program to support “democracy and governance.” Visa and financial sanctions have been put in place against three officials the administration blames for human rights violations during the four-month showdown between Ortega and opponents.  The State Department earlier had condemned the violence and issued a warning to U.S. travelers to “reconsider” travel to Nicaragua – another blow to the country’s image and its reeling tourism industry.

But there is pressure on the administration to do more.  U.S. Senator Marco Rubio – widely seen as the most influential congressional voice on U.S. policy toward Latin America – has led the way.  “As Nicaragua follows Venezuela’s dangerous path,” Rubio recently said, “the U.S. should be prepared to take further action with our regional allies to address the threat of Ortega’s regime.”

  • Rubio did not specify what “further action” he desired, and the reference to “regional allies” – all of whom would presumably oppose U.S. military action – may temper options. But President Trump’s own rhetoric, and that of senior officials, suggests the full array of options may be on the table.  In August 2017, the President publicly floated the idea of invading Venezuela to end the years-long crisis there.  According to amply-sourced press reports, National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson opposed the intervention, but both moderating voices have since left the administration.  (Tillerson in February trumpeted the Monroe Doctrine, under which the United States arrogated to itself the right to intervene where it wished, as a guiding principle of U.S. policy for the western hemisphere, saying “it clearly has been a success.”)
  • Subsequent press reports based on purportedly high-level sources indicate that Trump’s invasion comment was not as spontaneous as it appeared; he’d argued with senior staff that military action against Venezuela could be a success as were, he reportedly claimed, the invasions of Grenada (1983) and Panama (1989). Those interventions gave a political bounce to two previous Republican Presidents, Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, respectively, as did President George W. Bush’s wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  Donald Trump’s polls among his political base are extremely high, and his broader approval rating has risen slightly, but nervousness about the various investigations into his campaign and presidency, and about his prospects in upcoming congressional elections, may tempt him to seek a distraction.

U.S. military action of any kind – albeit a remote possibility at this time – cannot be ruled out entirely.  The Trump administration’s policies have been highly impulsive and, in many analysts’ view, have been driven by political factors rather than considered analysis based on deep knowledge of international affairs.  Ortega has been the bane of two generations of Republicans’ efforts to forge a consistently pro-U.S. Central America, thumbing his nose at Washington repeatedly and even co-opting traditional U.S. allies in Nicaragua such as the business community.  Some analysts’ predictions that Ortega’s control over the electoral apparatus could result in his victory in early elections – a key opposition demand – also may feed Washington perceptions that bolder action is necessary.

  •  With the 72-year-old erstwhile revolutionary on the ropes and resorting to increasingly ugly tactics to remain in power, Ortega may look ripe for toppling with a little nudge from Washington. The intervention need not be a full-fledged invasion, and the pretext need not be elaborate – the Grenada invasion was supposedly a rescue mission for U.S. medical students on the island.  The administration may believe, moreover, that the Nicaraguan military, many of whose officers have appeared more comfortable with a non-partisan institutional role than with backing Ortega to the hilt, would not muster a strong reaction.  It is all hypothetical at this point, but, while Secretary of State Tillerson is gone, perhaps the Monroe Doctrine is not, and there is a long history of Washington’s treating Central America as a convenient place to “send in the Marines.”

August 7, 2018