MANAGUA – The Nicaraguan government’s decision to destroy 30% of its stockpiled surface-to-air missiles, known as SAM-7s, has been celebrated as a sign that civil authority has taken root in Nicaragua, and criticized as a weakening of the country’s defense capabilities.The Nicaraguan army began the disarmament process last week by destroying 333 of its 2,150 Soviet-made SAMs during a private event that was closed to the press for safety considerations. The army announced it would destroy another 333 missiles sometime in next two months in the presence of an international inspection team from the Organization of American States.PRESIDENT Enrique Bolaños first announced his administration’s intention to reduce its number of SAMs following a meeting last October with U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who urged Nicaragua to destroy its missiles to prevent them from ever falling into the hands of terrorists. Bolaños’ proposal passed congressional vote last month and the army answered by destroying the first batch of weapons May 4.Military analysts are hailing the goodwill gesture as an indicator that Nicaragua’s army has become a professional institution in the 14 years since passing hands from the revolutionary Sandinista National Liberation Front to the state.“This shows there is a harmony between the military and civilian leadership; it is an important sign of maturity on behalf of both sides,” Joaquín Cuadra, former leader of the Sandinista Revolutionary Army and head of the Nicaraguan Army (1990-2000), told TheTico Times this week.BUT Nicaragua’s inability thus far to convince other Central American armies to follow its lead in reducing weapons has raised concerns among some nationalist hardliners that Nicaragua is making itself vulnerable to outside threats.Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have all agreed to establish a “reasonable balance” of military forces, though the definition of a reasonable balance is – in Cuadra’s words – a “generic term” based on each country’s geography, population, maritime territory and national security threats.The result is an isthmus that some analysts claim is very imbalanced in terms of army sizes, defense spending and weapon technology.Honduras, for example, has not agreed to reduce its fleet of F-5 fighter jets, which are considered an offensive weapon. Nicaragua, by comparison, has no fighter jets and sold its Ukrainian made attack helicopters to Peru in 1990.In terms of defense spending, even demilitarized Costa Rica last year spent double Nicaragua’s entire military budget on police, national security and other defense expenditures, according to studies by veteran Nicaraguan defense and security advisor Roberto Cajina.THE reduction of armaments in Nicaragua has been opposed by the leadership of the opposition Sandinista party, which appears to disagree with the move for ideological, anti-Washington D.C. reasons rather than well-defined military or defense considerations.The most vocal opponent of the destruction of the SAMs has been Edén Pastora, a former revolutionary hero and Contra leader, who wrote a letter to the daily La Prensa saying that if he were head of the army he would resign in shame for having put political interests over those of national defense.Inside sources, however, claim the missile destruction might have more to do with political showmanship rather than a real reduction of active weapons.“THE army is destroying weapon technology that, in some cases, is 40 years old; they possibly don’t even work anymore,” said Cajina, who has worked the past decade as an advisor to the Ministry of Defense, the Ministry of the Interior and National Assembly. Cajina claims the move has deeper political ramifications.The fact that Washington asked Nicaragua to reduce its missiles and did not make specific disarmament requests of other Central American countries demonstrates that the old Cold War hardliners who have been invited back into the U.S. government by President George W. Bush still do not trust Nicaragua, Cajina said.“THIS should be interpreted as a vote of no confidence in the professionalism of the Nicaraguan Army,” Cajina charged. The advisor believes the controversy over the missile destruction never would have happened if Nicaragua had a coherent national defense and security policy, or, for that matter, any clear foreign policy.Because Nicaragua has not clearly defined its “real” or “potential” security threats, it has allowed the United States to do it instead by identifying drug trafficking and terrorism as the country’s #1 enemies – neither one of which poses a serious threat to Nicaragua, Cajina said.CUADRA disagrees. The former military leader and founder of the upstart National Unity Movement says Colombia’s narco-guerrilla groups pose a serious threat to Nicaragua.Evidence exists that these wealthy and armed groups have already infiltrated Nicaragua’s isolated Atlantic coast, where they have started to play on the separatist sentiments felt by many indigenous groups who have been marginalized by the government, he said.Military and defense leaders from Central America met in Nicaragua last month – in part – to draft a resolution defining the real and potential security threats to the isthmus. The document has not yet been made public.