No Parting Consolation for Trivelli

On July 27, in one of his final acts as U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli floated an interesting arms proposal to Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega. The agreement was to provide Nicaragua with medical aid in return for the destruction of 675 of its Cold War-era Soviet surface-to-air missiles – purportedly to prevent terrorist organizations from acquiring the missiles from Nicaragua’s 1,051-unit arsenal. On August 1, Ortega responded that Nicaragua “would not be pushed” into an agreement with the State Department, effectively denying Trivelli a parting victory.

Ambassador Trivelli, criticized throughout Latin America for his interventionism in Nicaraguan affairs, had been pressuring the country to reduce or eliminate its aging inventory of Soviet-made SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles since before Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007. Because the missiles are man-portable and require little training to operate, they have stirred fears of ground-based terrorist attacks on passenger jets by radicals who might easily acquire them from Nicaragua’s casually-guarded supply. Many have applauded Trivelli’s efforts, citing the example of an Airbus A300 cargo plane that was downed by an SA-7 missile launched by Iraqi Fedayeen as it was taking off from Baghdad International Airport in 2003.

Despite seemingly justifiable fears, Nicaragua’s SA-7 missiles are mainly a symbolic rather than a tangible threat. Nicaragua’s missile units were acquired from the Soviet Union during the 1980-1989 Sandinista administration, and are well beyond the projected shelf-life of their guidance systems and batteries. Even when new, the weapons have very limited capabilities against aircraft flying at over 2,000 feet, and maintain a sub-50% hit-ratio within that range. Realistically, terrorist organizations with enough resources to buy a shoulder-fired missile would do business with any number of ex-Soviet bloc sources before buying such relics from Nicaragua. The presence of SA-7 units in Nicaragua is not a significant security threat to the U.S. Rather, the missiles represent a lost tour de force for Trivelli and a prized mechanism by which Ortega can continue to leverage the State Department.

From the Sandinista triumph in 1979 to his 2006 political resurrection, Ortega has built a legendary reputation as a shrewd pragmatist. Trivelli has chronically underestimated the Sandinista leader, and is paying the consequences – just as he did after his controversial failed effort to keep Ortega from the presidency in 2006. Trivelli’s proposal overestimated Ortega’s willingness to cash in the SA-7 bargaining chip, denying Nicaragua the helicopters it originally requested in return for destroying the missiles. Now, Ortega has backed away from the bargaining table, opting to negotiate for more attractive considerations with Trivelli’s successor.

Ortega is well aware that the SA-7s are worth far more destroyed (to the State Department) than they are operational (to Nicaragua), and will bait the incoming U.S. ambassador, Robert Callahan, with this potential legacy booster. Callahan would be wise to learn from Trivelli’s mistake. Ortega, justifiably wary of the State Department, will hold on to the SA-7s long enough to test Callahan. If the incoming ambassador proves to be another thorn in Ortega’s side, the missiles will be maintained as pressure against him, and Callahan may leave with a tattered legacy similar to Trivelli’s.