Daniel Ortega, left, appears with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in… (Mario Lopez / EPA )
Reporting from Mexico City — President Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua has received "suitcases full of cash" from Venezuela and is believed to have used money from drug traffickers to finance electoral fraud, according to secret U.S. diplomatic cables disclosed this week.
Ortega's fawning and lucrative relationship with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez prompted a U.S. diplomat to dub Ortega a "Chavez 'Mini-Me,'" a reference to a diminutive movie character, the cables say.
In the latest leak from the cache of U.S. diplomatic communications released by the WikiLeaks website, officials paint a harsh picture of Ortega, a long-time foe of Washington, his politics and the secretive, abusive way he runs his government.
Former U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli, writing in May 2008, asked of Ortega's foreign policy ambitions: "Petulant Teen or Axis of Evil Wannabe?"
The cables were first published by the Spanish newspaper El Pais. The diplomats' observations are based largely on reports from Nicaraguan informants and local press accounts. While the allegations are not surprising to those who have followed Nicaraguan politics, the overall portrait is scathing and comes at a time Ortega is attempting to rewrite the constitution to be allowed to run for reelection next year.
Ortega, in office since 2007 in his second turn as president, is said in the cables to have bribed a prominent Nicaraguan boxer to stump for him in exchange for not facing sexual assault charges, which Ortega himself faced when accused by his stepdaughter of long-term abuse. By stacking much of Nicaragua's judiciary and legislature with supporters from his Sandinista National Liberation Front party, the cables say, he managed to have the stepdaughter's case buried.
"We have firsthand reports that GON [government of Nicaragua] officials receive suitcases full of cash from Venezuelan officials during official trips to Caracas," Trivelli wrote in 2008.
Much of the money goes to finance Ortega's campaigns and none of it is accounted for through the national treasury or other formal venues, he wrote. A few months later, Nicaragua held municipal elections that have been widely condemned as fraudulent and in which Ortega supporters won most seats.
Opponents of the government are subjected to Ortega's "anti-democratic tendencies," the same Trivelli cable continues, including harassment, violent attacks, even unannounced audits.
Trivelli wrote in 2006 that Ortega and his party had "regularly" received money from international drug traffickers to finance electoral campaigns, "usually in return for ordering Sandinista judges to allow traffickers caught by the police and military to go free." The diplomat cited news reports and does not offer independent verification.
In February, current U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Robert Callahan wrote of "uncharacteristically" cordial behavior toward U.S. officials by Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo. Callahan concluded it was a tactic with ulterior motives.
"The motivation behind the current 'charm offensive' is still unclear, but is unlikely to portend a new, friendly Ortega with whom we can work in the long-term," he wrote.
Ortega has not commented on the cables. But Sergio Ramirez, who served as Ortega's vice president during the 1980s and broke bitterly with him more than a decade ago, wrote in El Pais that the Nicaraguan president will probably use the episode to his advantage.
"We will see an indignant Ortega threaten the imperialists of Washington, maybe even get his supporters to protest at the U.S. Embassy," Ramirez wrote. "But nothing will come of it. This imperialism, about which Ortega screams to high heaven, is just a … noisy pretext."
Hernandez is a news assistant in The Times' Mexico City Bureau.