RIO BLANCO,Matagalpa – Controversial plans to build a $200 million Iranianfinanced hydroelectric dam in Nicaragua’s northern highlands have fueled U.S. concerns over the Islamic country’s push into Nicaragua and staunch opposition from local ranchers who say the project would flood them off their productive lands.
A community of 30,000 ranchers and farmers who rely on the rich soil in the Tuma river basin vow to block plans for the Iranian-funded hydroelectric dam, which they say would devastate one of the region’s most productive agricultural communities.
“What worries us is that people don’t know what’s going on. We don’t know if they’ll relocate us or pay us for our land,” said Agosto Artola, a rancher from the tiny mountain town of San Andres de Boboke.
Artola is a member of the recently-formed Committee Against the Dam, which was organized earlier this year to block the expected flood of investment from an Iranian development bank to build the dam.
Not only has the dam proposal – and an unidentified helicopter that keeps visiting the proposed dam site – been raising tempers in this mountainous region,which remains heavily armed following the contra war, but it has also been raising questions abroad about the Iranian government’s interest in Nicaragua.
The dam proposal and other Iranian plans for infrastructure and aid projects in Nicaragua are turning heads in Washington, D.C., which accuses Iran of supporting terrorist groups and clandestinely trying to produce nuclear bombs.
Iran’s courting of left-wing allies in Latin America – Nicaragua included – is an increasing concern, U.S. officials say.
“We are worried that in the event of a conflict with Iran, that it would attempt to use its presence in the region to conduct such activities against us,” Thomas Shannon, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, recently told reporters.
A U.S. State Department official in Washington, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Nica Times that the main concern is that Nicaragua and Iran’s new allies in Latin America respect U.N. sanctions against Iran “and work with the international community to convince Iran it should not produce nuclear capability.”
University of Miami professor of Cuban studies Joe Azel said Iran and its leftists Latin allies are making “concerted and coordinated efforts to undermine Western-styled democracies in general and U.S. influence in particular by any means at their disposal.”
Azel’s concerns echo those recently put forth by U.S. National Intelligence Director Michael McConnell in a February Senate appearance, when he said Iran’s influence in Venezuela and Cuba has spilled into Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador, which “are pursuing agendas that undercut checks and balances” of democratic governments.
Iran expert Arshin Adib-Moghaddam, a former Oxford professor, told The Nica Times that Iran’s push into Nicaragua is part of a larger strategic effort to deepen ties with other poor countries by funding infrastructure projects like dams.
“Of course, Iran’s increasing relations with leftist governments in Latin America are not ad hoc. They evolved out of Iran’s changed strategic preferences after the revolution, i.e. the effort to position the country more firmly within the Third World,” Abid-Moghaddam said in an e-mail.
For Nicaraguan political analyst Julio Icaza, the concerns are being exacerbated over time due to a lack of transparency, which is the way the Ortega administration has also handled its aid from Venezuela (see separate story, page N1).
“If Iran-Nicaragua relations aren’t sufficiently transparent, it will create a problem,” he said.
Iranian Ambassador in Nicaragua Akbar Esmaeil Pour wouldn’t comment on the dam or other forms of Iranian cooperation with the Ortega government. He instead promised The Nica Times a future interview without agreeing on a date – the same promise he’s made for the past six months.
Though Ortega and the Iranian ambassador in Managua have been tight-lipped about the dam proposal, Energy and Mines Minister Emilio Rappaccioli recently met with members of the Matagalpa ranching community after they trekked into Managua to express their concerns.
In a statement he made after the meeting, Rappaccioli said Iran’s Council of Ministers, with orders from President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, approved a $200 million loan to finance a 3-year plan to build the 70 megawatt hydroelectric dam, which is being called “Boboke” for the region in which it will be built.
“If that financing comes through,” President Ortega said in March, “it’s a blessing, because not too long ago the lights were out here.”
Ortega has criticized political opponents who have chided the project for lacking transparency.
“Their sin is ignorance,” he said.
Rappaccioli said the large-scale project, because of its magnitude and because it involves management of Nicaragua’s protected water resources, will require a special commission in the National Assembly to “get the project marching forward.”
Though the loan has been approved in Iran, the project is still in the early stages.
“The project costs around $190 million,” Rappaccioli said. “But that’s just a calculation. There’s no exact number yet because we still have to do the feasibility studies and design the project.”
Construction could begin in 2011, he said. The dam is just one facet of the Iranian government’s larger pact with Nicaragua’s former Marxist revolutionary president.
Under the pact, Iran is to fund or help fund the construction of a farm equipment assembly plant, 4,000 tractors, four hydroelectric plants, five milk-processing plants, a health clinic, 10,000 houses, two piers in the western port of Corinto and a deep-water port on the Caribbean in collaboration with Venezuela.
In exchange Nicaragua is to export coffee and other agricultural products to Iran.
The pact is constantly evolving. Last month, Ortega asked the Iranian ambassador for more aid to help increase agricultural productivity as part of his food-security program.
Waiting for Answers
Critics say the Nicaraguan government’s attempts to explain Iranian aid haven’t been sufficient.
Rio Blanco Mayor Mario Morales said the government has been too quiet about the Iran dam project since it was announced. For nearly a year, he said, a helicopter has been landing in the area where the dam would be constructed, raising concerns among local residents.
“They come and inspect the place with their maps and everything, and they don’t tell us what they’re doing,” he said.
Tucked between mountainous, verdant farmland and rainclouds, the community of San Andres de Boboke has a large indigenous population that is skeptical of outsiders to begin with,Morales explained.
Many of them still own arms after years of heavy combat here during the war in the 1980s. And reports are circulating around town that some local residents have fired gunshots at the mysterious helicopter, which locals believe is carrying around members of the Nicaraguan or Iranian governments.
“People here don’t know how to defend themselves so it’s understandable they would resort to that,” said San Andres resident Celso Lumbi.
There have been similar reports on the Caribbean coast of indigenous groups clashing with an Iranian delegation in a helicopter surveying the location for the proposed deepwater port at Monkey Point.
Despite Rappaccioli’s recent effort to talk with San Andres residents, residents here say they’re not satisfied.
“We have 30,000 people living in this area,” said Morales, pointing to the planned dam site on a map in his office. “The majority of them would be submerged in water.”
Plus, he said, many are upset by the idea of a dam being built on the land in which their ancestors are buried.