June 29, 2008
Opponents of Iran's deepening ties to Latin America are suspicious of its plans to build Nicaragua a new dam.
RIO BLANCO, Nicaragua -- Iran's plan to build a $200 million hydroelectric dam in this energy-starved country is raising concerns here and in Washington about its mounting influence in Latin America.
The plant proposal is part of a push to wean this oil-addicted country -- 80 percent of electricity is supplied by fuel-burning plants -- off increasingly expensive crude and help stem an energy crisis that has created electricityrationing blackouts.
The dam is the latest among a handful of projects that Iran plans to build in Central America's most impoverished nation. Others include the construction of 10,000 homes for the poor, providing 4,000 farming tractors, and a joint effort with Venezuela to link deep-water container ports on the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. In turn, Nicaragua is to export coffee and other products to Iran.
But the hydroelectric dam, for which construction is to begin in 2011, faces staunch opposition from a group of cattle ranchers who say the dam would flood their pastures.
Local opposition to the dam is consolidating as U.S. officials and international observers voice concerns over how Iran might capitalize on the influence it is gaining through diplomatic efforts in leftist Latin American countries like Nicaragua, where President Daniel Ortega took office in 2007.
Thomas Shannon, U.S. assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, said at a June 10 conference in Coral Gables that the United States is watching Iran ''with great interest and concern'' as it ``reaches into the hemisphere.''
Experts say Iran's deepening ties in the region are more than just friendly gestures.
'Iran's increasing relations with `leftist' governments in Latin America are not ad hoc,'' said former Oxford professor and Iran expert Arshin Adib-Moghaddam. 'They evolved out of Iran's changed strategic preferences after the revolution, i.e. the effort to position the country more firmly within the `third world.' ''
University of Miami Cuban studies professor Joe Azel said Iran and its left-leaning Latin American allies -- including Cuba, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Nicaragua -- are making concerted efforts to ''undermine Western-styled democracies'' and U.S. influence.
Ortega has been criticized for circumventing the Nicaraguan congress when using Venezuelan and Iranian funds for public-works projects. More recently, opponents say he used influence as the Sandinista party head to disqualify minority parties from upcoming elections.
THREAT TO FLATLANDS
The dam would destroy the fertile flatlands where the cattle graze, forcing one of Nicaragua's most productive ranching communities to relocate to nearby mountains while inundating sacred burial grounds, activists say.
''We'd be living on islands of highland,'' said Agosto Artola, a leader of the Commission Against the Dam, which represents about 30,000 ranchers.
Ortega publicly recognized for the first time in a June 7 speech that the dam would involve a massive population displacement: ''If people have houses there, we'll have to give them better houses nearby,'' he said.
Artola is skeptical of Ortega's promises.
''If the government promises to pay us, they better pay us,'' he said.
A group of campesinos in the rural community of San Andres de Boboke, a community near the Tuma River where the dam would be located, also are perturbed by an unidentified helicopter that keeps landing at the future dam site without public explanation.
Pushed up against green mountains covered with cloud-forest and cattle pastures, San Andres de Boboke is a largely indigenous community that's a 10-hour bus ride northeast of Managua.
Artola said the government hasn't been open about the dam project while the military has allegedly been surveying the future dam site with a helicopter. Reports are circulating around town that some local residents have fired gunshots at the chopper, which locals believe is from the Nicaraguan or Iranian military.
Cesar Zamora, the head of Nicaragua's largest energy provider, Corinto Power, said the energy sector is desperate for investment, but doubts the Iranian project is feasible because the Iranian government is asking for price guarantees that will be difficult for the Nicaraguan government to fulfill.
Opponents have demanded that the dam project be debated in congress. Ortega has been widely criticized for a lack of transparency in handling more than $520 million in Venezuelan aid and financing without seeking congressional approval
''Iran and Venezuela have promised a lot of things. But there's no control or transparency. It's all a mystery,'' said opposition legislator Samuel Talavera. ``At what cost does this help come?''
U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli has said Iran can be a ''problematic'' partner and has reminded the Nicaraguan government that Iran has U.N. sanctions against it as a state sponsor of terrorism.
Two decades ago, Nicaragua had little in common with Iran beyond near-simultaneous 1979 revolutions and the Iran-Contra scandal, in which the Reagan administration used profits from illegal arms sales to Iran to support contra rebels fighting Ortega's Sandinista revolutionaries.
Today, the two are united by what Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called ``common enemies.''
Calling Ortega ''a symbol of justice,'' Ahmadinejad flew into Nicaragua soon after the former guerrilla leader took office in January of 2007.
While dam opponents wait to hear more from the government, Artola and others are collecting petition signatures against the dam.
''What worries us is that the government doesn't tell us what's going on,'' he said.