PUERTO CABEZAS – Despite President Daniel Ortega’s reservations about allowing a U.S. warship into Nicaragua’s maritime territory, U.S. military and volunteer medics spent the past two weeks treating ill Nicaraguans, building infrastructure and performing surgeries.
For more than two weeks, the 844-foot USS Kearsarge anchored off the shores of Puerto Cabezas – still recovering from last year’s category 5 Hurricane Felix – and deployed soldiers to attend to more than 1,000 patients a day and refurbish the town park, a bridge and other infrastructure.
The Aug. 11-25 visit kicked off the amphibious assault ship’s humanitarian tour of the Caribbean, part of a U.S. government push to shore up some “soft power” in a region where U.S. foes, namely –Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, have been gaining influence.
Ortega, who headed the Sandinista government during its war against U.S.-backed Contras in the 1980s, said the ship’s presence is proof that his government is improving U.S. ties. But old habits apparently die hard. The former guerrilla couldn’t resist accusing his erstwhile enemies of espionage.
“We welcome these boats that come for humanitarian work, but they also come to collect intelligence. We don’t welcome that kind of work, which they surely won’t miss the opportunity to do,” Ortega said in an Aug. 11 speech. Following Ortega’s comments, military journalists aboard the Kearsarge were given orders not to take photos from helicopters, so as not to look like spies.
But the ship’s Commodore Frank Ponds, who is pioneering the U.S. Navy’s new strategy, said, “We’re only here to do one thing: help.”
Designed to send 2,000 Marines into battle, the 40,500-ton Kearsarge is capable of launching Harrier jets, choppers and sparrow missiles in times of war. Five years ago, it was deployed for the invasion of Iraq.
But in its mission to-Nicaragua, the Kearsarge brought some 1,600 aid workers, construction workers, and doctors and veterinarians from the Netherlands and Brazil and the United States. The visit was part of the Virginia-based ship’s four-month tour of Central and South America, in which it will make a port of call in six countries.
Aid workers sleep aboard the ship and flew in helicopters each morning to their work sites in Puerto Cabezas and surrounding communities, where they were met with lines of patients waiting for treatment.
“We’re your neighbors from the United States of America. We’re your friends. I want you to have fond memories of us,” Ponds told a group of indigenous children after they received treatment in the small community of Tuapi.
Following a quick speech, Ponds handed out bags of rice to Miskito women as a band of military photographers snapped photos and took video.
In a contrast to Chávez’s “Operation Miracle” eye-surgery program, in which he flies patients from around Latin America to Caracas for surgery, soldiers flew residents to the ship for eye operations and plastic surgery.
The operation “shows Hugo Chávez we’re in the area, we’re active,” said Chris Albon, a civilian researcher aboard the Kearsarge whose studies focus on the U.S. military’s health aid programs abroad. Having learned the value of “soft power” in the aftermath of the Iraq conflict, the U.S. military has been dedicating more resources to winning “hearts and minds” abroad and the hemisphere, he said.
The mission comes as Chávez’s influence in Central America is boosted by high international
oil costs and dwindling levels of traditional foreign aid in the region (NT, Aug. 1).
After last September’s Hurricane Felix, a Venezuelan ship with 1,000 tons of aid arrived in Puerto Cabezas about the same time as did helicopters from the USS Wasp, which was redirected from Panama.
Since then, the Venezuelan military has begun paving notoriously rugged parts of the road between Managua and Puerto Cabezas, the regional capital of the North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN). In a project scheduled to begin next year, Venezuela has also promised to provide some $40 million for the reconstruction of the port town’s deteriorated wharf, the lifeline of the region’s lobster, shrimp and fish industries.
U.S. and Venezuelan companies have also been jockeying for resources in the region.
According to RAAN regional councilman Guillermo Espinoza, the regional government this month approved a concession for a Venezuelan-Cuban company to export $600 million worth of its share of the 10 million cubic meters of timber that was downed after Felix. While Venezuela hopes to import more oil to Nicaragua once it has built its new port facilities, U.S. oil company MKJ Xploration recently signed a contract with the Nicaraguan government to explore and develop oil off the coast of Puerto Cabezas in what is the first serious deal to explore for oil in Nicaragua’s Caribbean territory since the Somoza era. The regional governmenton Aug. 13 approved exploration and development contracts of a second U.S. oil company, Denver-based Infinity Energy Resources, to explore in 1.4 million acres of sea off the Puerto Cabezas coast. Infinity now awaits Ortega’s stamp of approval to begin exploration.
Still, Ponds said, the Kearsarge’s mission “wasn’t designed with Venezuela in mind.” “It’s not about engagement, it’s about a relationship,” he told The Nica Times while standing on the baseball field at the small indigenous community of Tuapi.
On the other side of the field, residents brought their horses, bulls, pigs, cats and dogs to the improvised veterinary clinic. After having his tooth pulled by U.S. medics at the makeshift military clinic, Tuapi resident Osvaldo Cockson brought his horse, “Asesino,” to the vet clinic.
“He doesn’t run as fast as he used to,” said Cockson, a lobster diver and father of four. After two military veterinarians treated and bandaged up the horse’s leg, they handed him the lead rope. He flashed a wide smile, revealing a mouth full of gauze left from his dental work.
Asesino might not be as fast as he once was, but slow and steady wins the race – a lesson the United States appears to be taking to heart in its new humanitarian efforts in the region.