MANAGUA– A proposal by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez to create a united “Army of ALBA” to defend member states from potential hostilities from the United States or Colombia is being ridiculed by Nicaragua’s opposition leaders as “crazy,” “stupid,” “adventurist” and – most importantly – unconstitutional.
Chávez proposed the idea Jan. 27 during his weekly national address, “Aló Presidente,” in which he was accompanied by President Daniel Ortega, who was in Venezuela for a summit meeting of the countries belonging to the socialist cooperation agreement known as ALBA, or the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas.
During the address, Chávez spoke of the need to create an Army of ALBA to defend the member nations – Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Bolivia and Dominica – from potential aggression from the United States or Colombia, which he said is governed by a “yanqui-pitying oligarchy” that is “worse than the yanquis themselves.”
“We are going to create an ALBA Council of Defense, and not only that, but an Armed Forces of ALBA,” Chávez said. “United, the people of ALBA are nearly 60 million.We are invincible! Long live ALBA and the united people of ALBA!”
Ortega added, “Let this be a lesson to them… If they touch Venezuela, it will ignite the region, because no one here would remain quiet. To touch Venezuela is to touch all of Latin America and the Caribbean, because no one would remain quiet!”
As is the case with other ALBA initiatives, it was unclear whether the proposal to create a NATO-like military alliance among the four countries was something that had been thought out in advance, or whether it was just Chávez talking off the top of his head. Regardless, Ortega’s willingness to go along with the plan raised harrumphs back home.
“I think Chávez and Ortega must have either been drunk or on drugs because nothing they said had to do with reality,” Liberal lawmaker Enrique Quiñonez told The Nica Times. “We have a president who doesn’t know the Cold War is over and that the Berlin Wall has come down; [Ortega] has the same discourse as he did in the ’80s.”
Quiñonez, president of the National Assembly’s Commission on Peace and Defense, said Ortega’s relationship to Chávez is “submissive” and one that puts personal interests above those of Nicaragua.
Jamileth Bonilla, president of the National Assembly’s Commission on Foreign Affairs, said that the proposal to create an Army of ALBA is just another example of “crazy talk” from Ortega and Chávez. She said she thinks the whole thing is a smokescreen to hide everything else that is going on under the cloak of ALBA, such as the mysterious Venezuelan aid and oil profits that no one in the Ortega administration has accounted for thus far.
Both Bonilla and Quiñonez insist there’s no way the National Assembly will ever go along with Ortega’s military adventure.
“Thank God the Constitution is clear that only the National Assembly can authorize troop movement,” Quiñonez said. “Ortega can sign any crazy accord he wants, but the National Assembly is still controlled by democratic forces.”
Nicaraguan defense expert Roberto Cajina said that the creation of a common army of ALBA is highly unlikely for legal reasons, as well as political and financial.
Cajina said that the Constitution stipulates that the military can only be sent abroad for humanitarian purposes in times of peace, and that any deployment of Nicaraguan troops abroad or the entrance of foreign troops onto Nicaraguan soil must be approved first by a majority in the National Assembly.
Cajina, a civilian military consultant and a director of the Latin American Security and Defense Network, said that the Nicaraguan Army stands only to lose from getting involved in an ALBA army alliance.
“The first thing the United States would do would be to cutoff military aid to Nicaragua,” Cajina said, noting that the U.S. has used the threat of military aid cutoff in the past as leverage.
Also, Cajina said, by embarking on a political project such as the ALBA military alliance, the Nicaraguan Army could also stand to lose its institutional legitimacy, which he said it “has worked infinitely hard to achieve” since evolving from the days of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) in the 1980s.
Geographically, Cajina said, the ALBA army also doesn’t make much sense because the alliance would be neither “sub-regional nor hemispheric,” rather a patchwork of countries from different parts of Latin America and the Caribbean. Plus, the military consultant noted, there are already two other regional military treaties in place that state that an attack on one country in the Americas will be interpreted as an attack against the whole hemisphere, so in that sense the ALBA alliance would be redundant and unnecessary.
In addition to all the other reasons why the joint ALBA military force is a bad idea, Cajina said, Nicaragua has little if nothing to offer such a venture.
In the last 20 years, the Nicaraguan Armed Forces has gone from being the largest and most well-financed army in Central America – 134,400 troops with an annual budget of $180 million in 1986, during the height of the Contra war – to the smallest and least financed military in the region today, with 7,594 troops and a budget around $33 million, which is split with the Ministry of Defense.
All of Nicaragua’s attack helicopters were sold to Peru in 1992, and what’s left of the Nicaraguan Air Force are a dozen clunky Soviet-made Antonov troop helicopters that have already been stretched beyond their useful lifespan, Cajina said.
Even Venezuela’s Armed Forces, with 92,000 troops, represents only about 10% of the United States troop capacity if the United States were to attack.
“Putting an ALBA Armed Forces up against the U.S. military would be like sending a baseball team from San Judas [a poor neighborhood in Managua], where they play on the street with a rag ball, up against the Boston Red Sox,” Cajina said.