The Nicaragua Army is not commenting on a series of articles published today by the Israeli press alleging that Iran and Hezbollah have set up a training camp inside Nicaraguan territory.
“I don’t know those reports, or in what media that is being reported in,” Nicaragua Army spokesman lieutenant colonel Orlando Palacios told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a phone interview. “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.
According to Israeli media reports, which are wildly unsubstantiated, Hezbollah is 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,” reports the Times of Israel, citing only Israel Radio as its source. “The Hezbollah men reportedly receive all their supplies from Tehran.”
Other Israeli media outlets picked up the suspicious report, citing only “local media” in Nicaragua as the source of information. In Nicaragua, however, no local media is reporting that Hezbollah has a training camp here.
U.S. Southern Command, which presumably would be very interested in any such terrorist activity in Nicaragua, also says they have no idea where such reports are coming from. Jose Ruíz, spokesman for U.S. Southern Command in Florida, says 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 told The Nicaragua Dispatch. “This is definitely the first time I have heard of any Iranian presence in Nicaragua of this nature.”
Miguel d’Escoto, one of President Daniel Ortega’s closest advisors on foreign policy, says the accusations made by the Israeli media amounts to “absurd craziness.”
“You smear as much as you can on the wall and some will stick,” d’Escoto, who still holds the honorary rank of foreign minister, told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a phone interview this afternoon. “It’s like Al Capone accusing someone of being a thief; that’s the amount credibility that the Zionists have.”
D’Escoto, the Sandinistas’ foreign minister in the 1980s who later served as President of the United Nations General Assembly from 2008-2009, said he doesn’t know what would motivate Israeli media to launch such an unsubstantiated accusation against Nicaragua, but says he doesn’t expect anything less from Israel or the United States.
“The only ones who train terrorists in this world— that I know of—is the United States in the first place, and in second place the Zionists,” d’Escoto said.
As unsubstantiated as the concerns about Hezbollah activity in Nicaragua may be, they are not new.
Last March, U.S. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), Chairwoman of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, alleged that Nicaragua could be as platform by Iran and Hezbollah “to carry out attacks against our homeland.”
Those concerns, though never backed with any proof, have been repeated with increasing frequency, notes Roberto Orozco, a Nicaraguan security expert at the Managua-based Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policy (IEEPP).
“We don’t have any information at all that this is going on,” Orozco said in response to the Israeli media reports published today. “We don’t know if this is fantasy, but we don’t have any concrete information about any such activity.”
Orozco says that since Ortega’s return to power in 2007, there have been a wide range of media rumors of Iranian and Hezbollah activity in Nicaragua published and broadcast in Costa Rica, U.S., Israel and Europe. Orozco says the concerns were further perpetuated by WikiLeaks cables that made Nicaragua seem like “the tip of the spear for Iranian activity in Central America.”
More recently, there has also been speculation about what Nicaragua is offering Iran in exchange for the Iranian government’s debt forgiveness plus a $250 million loan for unspecified “development” projects.
But so far, Iran’s presence in Nicaragua has been more rhetorical than substantive. Since 2007, the only project that has come to fruition is a $1.5 million health clinic donated by Iran. None of the other projects—including an alleged mega-embassy— even made it beyond the rumor stage.
Iranian Ambassador Akbar Esmaeil Pour—head of a three-man diplomatic mission here, which he calls “the smallest in Latin America”—describes his country’s relationship with Nicaragua as “win-win.”
“We have not come here against anybody,” Pour told me in April 2010, in his first—and, as it turns out, only—comments to western journalists. “We have come to demonstrate our collaboration and solidarity with countries such as Nicaragua.”
Other than conjecture and political fear-mongering, there is no credible evidence to back any of the claims that Iran is now up to no good here, Orozco says. IEEPP, he says, is “evaluating” the most recent Israeli media reports to “see what is behind all this.”
Nicaragua’s unwelcome press
What is apparent, Orozco says, is that Nicaragua is getting mentioned with increased frequency in foreign-language media stories related to terrorism. IEEPP, which monitors foreign media on issues related to defense and security, has noticed a recent uptick in bad press for Nicaragua.
“Nicaragua is starting to reappear in international media in respects to terrorism and international movement of terrorists—and that’s the truth,” Orozco told The Nicaragua Dispatch.
But even then, Latin American analysts in the U.S. are scratching their heads over the latest reports from Israeli media.
Latin America analyst Samuel Logan, director of the Southern Pulse research and analysis firm in the United States, notes that “Geopolitical proximity to Tehran doesn’t directly translate into leniency of Hezbollah activity inside your country.”
Hezbollah, he says, probably doesn’t have a reason to set up a training camp in Nicaragua. And Nicaragua—a country that is building a nascent economy on foreign investment and tourism, much of which comes from the U.S.—definitely doesn’t have a good reason to allow Hezbollah into the country.
“I wouldn’t put it past Ortega to make a bad call, but I don’t know if he is going to make that bad of a call to give implicit or explicit permission for Hezbollah to train in Nicaraguan territory,” Logan says.
reporting for this story sponsored by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.