This post was written by Mark Lester, Regional Director of Central America, office located in Nicaragua. This is in response to the US State Department’s Travel Alert dated June 29, 2016 for Nicaragua, which has since been taken down after the warning expired.
Within a seven-day period in June, the Nicaraguan government expelled 3 US officials, and 6 foreigners. The first of the three US officials was Evan Ellis, a researcher professor of Latin American Studies for the Strategic Studies Institute of the US Army War College, whose research focus is the canal. He apparently had notified the Nicaraguan government of his visit, and arrived on a diplomatic passport on the same flight as a couple of other US officials on diplomatic passports, But these latter two worked for US Customs, and had arranged their visit with Nicaraguan private enterprise. They were arriving to do a regular inspection of cargo being sent to the US to facilitate the security review required post-Sept 11.
The US Ambassador here in her initial comments on the expulsion stated that she felt that the expulsion of the customs officials was probably a mistake, that the Nicaraguan government mistakenly thought they were with Ellis, because they arrived on the same plane and were lodged in the same hotel as he. But she clarified that they were not related to his canal study. The Nicaraguan Embassy in the US issued a curious statement (attached) that explained that the latter two were expelled because they carried out their work “without the knowledge and/or proper coordination with Nicaraguan authorities”. So the US Ambassador here replied that this coordination in the past was never done with the government, but rather with the particular company wanting the inspection, and that if the rules had changed it would be important to notify the country and the businesses involved.
It is clear that the Nicaraguan government is very sensitive about the proposed canal, and I think these expulsions are related to the canal. It was interesting that in her initial statements to the press here, the US Ambassador did not challenge the expulsion of Ellis. Given the history of US/Nicaragua relations, the expulsion of an “academic” from the US Army War College coming to study the canal would not be surprising, although he had been here in the past and had informed the Nicaraguan government beforehand about his arrival and the purpose of his visit.
The 6 other foreigners expelled were environmentalists who were in the proposed canal zone area teaching local people how to use environmentally friendly appropriate technology, like improved wood stoves. They were being hosted by the leader of the anti-canal movement, and even some were staying in her home. She was detained initially along with them, and then they were expelled. They had met her in an anti-canal event, and then had decided to work in coordination with her organization. The conditions of their arrest did not correspond with international law, in the sense of their ability to contact their embassies etc. So while there were issues of due process, again, this incident also was directly connected to the canal.
Additional thoughts on the statement:
- the warning about “academics” I take as a reference to Ellis, because a week after his expulsion I had contact with two US academics who had no problems entering and doing their work. One studies the Potable Water and Sanitation Committees throughout the country, and the other coffee and ecology. So far we do not see there are problems with academics in general, outside of those working on the canal and possibly on sensitive issues for the government (and elections is clearly one of them). There was a Mexican journalist, Vidriana Rios, who left the country shortly after arriving because she felt she was being followed. She currently works with the Wilson Center, and studies violence and the impact of government corruption on the economy. But when she contacted the Mexican Embassy about her suspicions that she was being followed, at that time 4 Mexicans who were part of the environmentalist group mentioned above had been arrested, so the Mexican Embassy recommended she leave. The elections are a sensitive issue. That being said, we have had no problems in our meeting with opposition parties with our groups.
- We do not usually host volunteer organizations, but checking with a US group that regularly does, they are now confused about that part of the statement. Because on reading it, as the statement recommends, they checked with their normal contact from Cooperación Externa at MINREX (Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry) about the so-called new requirements, and the response they received from MINREX was that nothing had changed, they did not know what the statement referred to, and suggested that the US group contact the US Embassy to get a clarification. The contact person at MINREX seemed irritated at the question, and according to the person reporting the conversation “seemed like he had already answered the question 40 times.” So MINREX contradicts what the statement says, that volunteer groups need prior approval to visit the country.
We will continue to monitor the situation, and while there have been anomalies in terms of how these incidents have been dealt with by the government, it seems clear to us that these actions have not been directed at the general US public, nor even necessarily to the professions mentioned in the warning, but rather specifically to people involved in research on the issue of the canal, and possibly other sensitive areas for the government like elections and government corruption. But like I said we have not had any problems meeting with opposition party officials as part of a normal educational program, nor have we heard of problems by other foreign researchers. Nor have we heard of any problems with groups coming down to do volunteer work. Things have tightened up at the Ministry of Health, but that has been a progressive process that we have kept nursing groups informed about.
Here is a link to what I think is a pretty good article in English on background related to those expulsions: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/jun/26/nicaragua-opposition-daniel-ortega-presidential-election?CMP=share_btn_link Within it is a link to an article in Confidencial that provides even more background, but in Spanish.