From the print edition
MANAGUA, Nicaragua – For a story that appears to be based more on fear than fact, the rumors of Hezbollah activity in Nicaragua will not go away.
Former presidential candidate and radio producer Fabio Gadea last weekend criticized the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama for not taking a stronger stance against President Daniel Ortega, who he called “a friend of the worst tyrants and enemies of the United States.”
Gadea, who lost to Ortega in last year’s presidential elections, also criticized why no one has investigated recent reports in Israeli media that claim the Lebanese Shiite military group Hezbollah is currently training terrorists in a secret location in northern Nicaragua, near the Honduran border.
“Approximately 30 members of the terrorist organization reside inside the area, which is closed to locals,” the Times of Israel reported earlier this month, citing only Israel Radio as its source. “The Hezbollah men reportedly receive all their supplies from Tehran.”
Other Israeli media outlets picked up the report, citing “local media” in Nicaragua as the source of information. In Nicaragua, however, no local media is reporting that Hezbollah has a training camp here.
Nicaraguan authorities, meanwhile, have not commented on the accusations.
“I don’t know those reports, or in what media that is being reported in,” said Nicaragua Army spokesman Lt. Col. Orlando Palacios. “I would have to see [the reports] to give an opinion on them, but for the moment I don’t have any opinion.”
Asked if the army could categorically deny the existence of Hezbollah training camps in Nicaragua without reading the articles, Palacios repeated that the army has no comment.
“I repeat, I don’t know the articles and I can’t opine on something I haven’t read. Neither the army nor I have any opinion about this at this time,” Palacios said earlier this month.
Neither the army nor any other government authority in Nicaragua has issued additional comment on the Israeli media reports.
Though the reports appear unsubstantiated, they also are cause from some concern on Capitol Hill.
On Sept. 19, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, spoke in favor of House Resolution 3783, or “Countering Iran in the Western Hemisphere Act of 2012.” The bill, which Ros-Lehtinen helped get passed in a House voice vote last week, calls for a comprehensive U.S. government strategy to counter Iran’s growing presence in the Western Hemisphere.
Ros-Lehtinen has been deeply concerned for some time with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s overtures to Latin America – a move she calls his “tour of tyrants” to meet with “his fellow tyrants: the Castro brothers in Cuba, Ortega in Nicaragua, Correa in Ecuador, Chávez in Venezuela, and Morales in Bolivia.”
The congresswoman claims that Iran’s diplomatic foray into the leftist bloc of countries belonging to the Venezuelan-propped Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA) is nothing more than a front for Iran to “carry out its nefarious activities in the region” and establish a “potential platform to increase the presence of Qods Force operatives, an arm of the Revolutionary Guard of Iran.”
The alleged Hezbollah training camps in Nicaragua, which no one has proven to exist, are a perfect example of Iran’s allegedly nefarious meddling, according to the Florida congresswoman.
“According to media reports, Hezbollah, which is Iran’s proxy, has established a training base in Nicaragua. It is also concerning that the Ortega regime in Nicaragua does not require any visas for Iranian officials to enter the country, which can then become the gateway to enter the U.S. through our southern border,” Ros-Lehtinen told the U.S. House of Representatives last week.
Ros-Lehtinen, however, has been saying that Iranian activity in Latin America poses “an immediate threat” and a “clear and present danger” to the U.S. for the past year. So far, there doesn’t seem to be any substantial proof to support that claim or suggest that Iran is up to anything other than awkward diplomacy and peddling empty promises for aid.
Officials from the U.S. Southern Command, which presumably would be very interested in any such terrorist activity in Nicaragua, said they have no idea where reports of Hezbollah training camps are coming from. José Ruiz, spokesman for U.S. Southern Command in Florida, said he has never heard of any Hezbollah activity in Nicaragua.
“We are aware of [Iran’s] growing diplomatic and economic presence in the region, we are not aware of a military presence,” Ruiz said in an interview earlier this month. “This is definitely the first time I have heard of any Iranian presence in Nicaragua of this nature.”
Miguel d’Escoto, one of President Ortega’s closest advisors on foreign policy, said the accusations made by Israeli media amounts to “absurd craziness.”
“You smear as much as you can on the wall and some will stick,” said d’Escoto, who still holds the honorary rank of foreign minister. “It’s like Al Capone accusing someone of being a thief.”
A shift toward Latin America
The warnings about the Iranian threat in Latin America started last year about the same time as the U.S. pulled troops out of Iraq. The dramatic military drawdown after a decade of fighting a two-front war in the Middle East means there is a bloated military defense industry that needs to find a new mission after the final Iraqi and Afghan contracts are doled out, some analysts pointed out.
With drug-war violence, gangs and political instability rampant throughout Mexico and most of Latin America, the Western Hemisphere might have all the ingredients the military-industrial complex – both public and private – needs to retool its mission and head back out into the field.
Add a dash of Iranian mischief and Hezbollah intrigue, and defense contractors might have the selling points they need to secure another allotment of lucrative contracts in this hemisphere, said Latin America analyst Samuel Logan, director of Southern Pulse, a Latin America risk analysis firm.
Logan said the recent deployment of U.S. Marines to Guatemala and the uptick in U.S. anti-drug trafficking operations in Honduras suggest a shifting tide might already be happening.
“The military-industrial complex that has been in Iraq for the past decade is going to be looking for the next theater to make the argument for slush money and defense contracts,” Logan said. “These guys could be hot to trot on Latin America for the next five to 10 years.”
Tim Rogers is editor of www.nicaraguadispatch.com