3rd Circ. Says Physical Harm Not Necessary For Asylum Claim

The Third Circuit revived a Nicaraguan woman’s asylum petition on Friday, saying an immigration judge had erred in ruling that her claim couldn’t go forward because she hadn’t suffered physical harm during the course of her alleged past persecution…

Read this piece in its entirety at Law360.

Nicaragua Claims No ‘Cartel’ Presence, But Past Cases Tell a Different Story

Authorities in Nicaragua are trumpeting their counternarcotics efforts, which they say have kept “cartels” out of the country. But a series of prosecutions of alleged crime bosses shows that sophisticated, large-scale drug trafficking groups do indeed operate in the Central American nation…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

Cargo Robberies in Northern Triangle Hamper Regional Commerce

Criminal groups are stealing commercial shipments transiting Central America’s Northern Triangle, illustrating how insecurity in the region is negatively impacting regional trade…

Read this piece in its entirety at InSight Crime.

Nicaragua’s “Grand Canal” Project: Dialogue Must Replace Repression

Cross-posted with Public Diplomacy Musings

According to a recent article by Tico Times journalist Larry Luxner, “Opponents of Nicaragua’s dubious plans to build a $50 billion interoceanic canal are trying to rally U.S. help in fighting the controversial project. But it’s not clear if official Washington is listening.” While the U.S. government has expressed some concern over a lack of publicly available information about the project in the past, the U.S. embassy in Nicaragua and the U.S. State Department have both been noticeably quiet on the issue.

“As controversial as the project is,” wrote Luxner, “U.S. officials won’t bring it up with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega during next week’s Summit of the Americas in Panama City.” Nicaragua’s ambassador to the United States, Francisco Campbell, told Luxner that he declined to attend a recent presentation given by three anti-canal activists in Washington, DC because it was “not interesting” to him.

The issue of the canal, which would be the largest in the world, has been highly contentious in Nicaragua, spurring numerous protests in recent months. A recent poll showed that less than half of Nicaraguans living along the canal’s path support it, compared to 71 percent of Nicaraguans not living along the route.

Experts and activists say the massive undertaking, which broke ground in December, could displace tens of thousands of people from their homes, threaten the local water supplies and prove disastrous for the surrounding natural environment, including Central America’s largest lake. In January, the journal Science released a report critical of the project, which it said has been “shrouded in secrecy since its inception 2.5 years ago” and has lacked adequate consultation with local residents.

The company behind the “Grand Canal,” HKND, is led by a Chinese billionaire named Wang Jing. Many critics of the canal claim that the Chinese government, which has denied direct involvement in the project, has nefarious geopolitical intentions in Latin America. Last month, BBC reported that the slogan “Serve the Country” adorns the conference room at HKND’s offices and Wang “wore a lapel pin with the national flag” to his interview with the news organization. “Outside in the corridor were signs reading ‘protecting state secrets is top priority,'” wrote reporter Carrie Gracie, “and in the reception area, [there were] exhortations to ‘enjoy hard work and fight hard.'”

Writing for Al Jazeera America, journalist Reese Erlich reported that an anonymous Chinese diplomat told her “that the Chinese government favors the canal but is not involved in the day-to-day decision-making. The Chinese government hopes to benefit economically and politically from the project but has no agenda beyond getting faster and cheaper delivery of oil and other key natural resources.” Others have claimed China plans to establish a military base in Nicaragua, but as Erlich writes, this assertion is “absurd…China has no military bases outside its territory and, as a practical matter, wouldn’t risk U.S. anger by establishing one in Nicaragua.”

Russia has also played a role in the canal project by offering to provide security during the construction of the waterway. Increasing security cooperation between Moscow and Managua has been a source of domestic and regional concern, as evidenced by the recent statement of Colombian Senator Jimmy Chamorro regarding the Nicaraguan government’s plan to purchase fighter jets from Russia: “Nicaragua is sending the wrong message…and it’s not a friendly message.”

Russia has backed Nicaragua in a dispute with Colombia over maritime boundaries in the Caribbean, but along with the government of President Ortega, it has also cooperated with the United States on counter-drug efforts in the region. Despite “various complicated elements,” Nicaragua’s cooperation with the U.S. drug war is “quite positive” according to William Brownfield, the Assistant Secretary of State for the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement.

The tensions surrounding the canal project reflect broader issues in Nicaraguan society. As Sara Van Note recently reported for The Christian Science Monitor, “Critics say Ortega has traded his political vision [of leftist policies such as land reform, nationalizing industries, and ensuring access to free education and health care] for the consolidation of power: In 2006, he formed a strategic alliance with the conservative Catholic Church. Since then, his government has consolidated independent media into state-controlled channels, enforced party loyalty by state employees, and restricted access to information, all seen as signs of growing authoritarianism.”

President Ortega has made moves to centralize control of the military in the executive branch, ostensibly in connection with the fight against drugs and crime, but as El Pais recently reported, the Nicaraguan army “has been heavily criticized by civil society after the harsh crackdown against thousands of farmers who have protested the Interoceanic Canal project…Nicaraguan Army soldiers have accompanied the Chinese census workers engaged in mapping the canal route and have been charged with protecting the interests of the Chinese company HKND as well as engaging in operations of repression against those who oppose the Canal, according to reports by human rights organizations.”

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, Ortega hasn’t held a public press conference for more than eight years. The closed-off nature of many of the major actors involved in the Grand Canal project – the Nicaraguan armed forces, HKND, as well as the Chinese, Russian and Nicaraguan governments – make it difficult for journalists and civil society organizations to operate effectively. In the case of the Grand Canal, this lack of open public debate and discussion has fueled fear and resentment on the part of those with legitimate concerns about the project. Rather than engaging in a dialogue with its citizens, the Nicaraguan government has responded with repression and propaganda.

As it stands, the Nicaraguan, Chinese, U.S. and Russian governments appears unlikely to engage in significant international efforts to ensure the canal project moves forward in a socially and environmentally responsibly way. Nevertheless, continued activism by groups and individuals on the ground in Nicaragua, combined with ongoing international media attention, has helped generate the beginnings of international relationships that can help grow and sustain awareness about this important issue.

As one anti-canal activist recently told Al-Jazeera, “[W]e have never seen anything like what is happening today…We’re not in agreement with this, and we’re going to fight until the end.”

Planned Nicaragua Canal Project Brings Complex Geopolitics into Play December of this year, construction is slated to begin on a five-year, $40 billion project to create a shipping lane linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through Lake Nicaragua, also known as Lake Colcibolca. Concrete details about the initiative, which is reportedly being managed by an enigmatic Chinese businessman named Wang Jing, have been few and vague since its unveiling in July.

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega has touted the potential economic benefits of the plan, telling Chinese state television in a recent interview that the canal would help safeguard his country from “global economic imperialism.” China, which has been expanding its economic ties with many countries in Latin America, also likely sees an advantage in having access to an alternative to the Panama Canal, which was under U.S. control for nearly a century until it was ceded to its close ally in 1999.

The Nicaragua Canal will have the capacity to accommodate larger vessels than the Panama Canal can, and if it is able to offer lower transportation costs than its southern competitor, Nicaragua could see increased traffic through its new waterway, along with an accompanying increase in revenue for the Nicaraguan government as well as the canal’s Chinese owners.

Russia has extended an offer to provide security assistance to Nicaragua during the canal’s construction phase. Like Beijing, Moscow has an interest in lowering the costs of trading with Caribbean allies such as Venezuela and Cuba. But, Russia’s total trade with Latin America amounts to just a few billion dollars per year.

For Russia, agreeing to provide security assistance for the canal’s construction is probably less about deepening overall economic ties with the region than it is about building upon its growing military relationship with many Latin American countries, especially Nicaragua. Policing the proposed waterway will require plenty of troops and equipment. No doubt Russia hopes to get an early foot in the door in terms of potential bilateral cooperation on training and arms sales.

Moscow has provided security assistance to Nicaragua as far back as the 1980s, when the Soviet Union aided the Sandinista government in its fight against the U.S.-backed Contras. A recent military ceremony in Managua showed off equipment that was likely supplied by Russia, including armored personnel carriers and advanced anti-aircraft artillery. The Nicaraguan armed forces also recently announced plans to purchase an unspecified number of military aircraft and mentioned Russia as a possible source for the equipment.

A number of political and civil society organizations in Nicaragua have publicly voiced their opposition to the planned canal and some observers have raised concerns about its potential environmental and social impacts. The LA Times reported that the “Nicaraguan Academy of Sciences calculated that nearly 1 million acres of tropical forest and wetlands could be destroyed” in the construction process. Some citizens have predicted it will forcibly displace many residents from their homes and communities without just compensation.

Similar development projects have provoked militant resistance from many communities elsewhere in the Americas. President Ortega’s administration has moved toward centralizing authority over the country’s police forces in the executive office, which has prompted criticism from political opponents that the President was “politicizing” the police, and there are concerns his administration might try to use the police to suppress the voices of those opposed to the canal. In February 2013, police were accused of injuring dozens of demonstrators in an attempt to repress a protest against the Canadian mining giant B2 Gold.

In addition, press reports of links between criminal groups and high-level officials in Ortega’s administration are supported by U.S. diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks, which read in part;

“Daniel Ortega and the [governing party, the National Sandinista Liberation Front, or FSLN] have regularly received money to finance FSLN electoral campaigns from international drug traffickers, usually in return for ordering Sandinista judges to allow traffickers caught by the military to go free.”

Nevertheless, the United States Southern Command recently pledged $4 million to the Nicaraguan navy to help with anti-drug operations. The U.S. has also allocated Nicaragua about $5 million in military and police aid each year since 2012, the vast majority of which falls under the counter-narcotics assistance programs administered by the Department of Defense known as Section 1004 and Section 1033.

While the U.S. seems primarily concerned with attempting to disrupt the activities of criminal organizations and the flow of drugs through Central America, Russia and China likely care much less about smugglers transporting their products to the United States. China wants the canal built, largely for economic reasons, and Russia is more than willing to provide assistance on security matters, especially if the payoff includes diplomatic support in international forums on issues such as Ukraine, Syria, and Iran.

The cooperation goes both ways. In November 2013, the Nicaraguan parliament voted to authorize Russian and U.S. military forces to perform anti-narcotics operations within its newly expanded maritime jurisdiction. The waters in question had been awarded to Nicaragua a year earlier by the International Court of Justice after a dispute with Colombia that was decided in favor of the former.

According to the BBC, “[t]he decision potentially gives Nicaragua more access to fishing grounds, as well as reported underwater oil and gas deposits.” Although Colombia has refused to recognize the ruling, Russia appears to have recognized Nicaragua’s claim by default, as it provided intelligence in an April 2013 drug bust in the area.

There are complex geopolitical factors at play here, but the bottom line seems to be that Nicaragua is pursuing an independent foreign policy aimed at promoting security and development at home. This independence has come at the price of entangling alliances and a tolerance for corruption, but thus far the Ortega administration has proven adept at handling the diplomatic complexities.

As Foreign Policy wrote last year, “[Ortega’s] actions to date suggest he is politically authoritarian, economically pro-business, socially populist – and, above all else, pragmatic.” The United States and China are two of the Nicaragua’s top trading partners, and the country has a deepening and important security relationship with Russia. The canal’s construction likely will not change the status quo. In fact, it might serve to strengthen it.