U.S.-Nicaraguan Relations Chill as Ortega Faces Domestic Tests

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- U.S. relations with Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a former Cold War foe, have become icier after the former Sandinista rebel leader recognized the independence of two breakaway Georgian regions. While the international community condemned Russia for sending troops last month to support the two rebel enclaves South Ossetia and Abkhazia, Nicaragua quickly became the first country other than Russia to recognize the two provinces' as independent nations. Five days later, U.S. Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez canceled a planned trip to Nicaragua, with U.S. Ambassador in Managua Robert Callahan saying, "It isn't the appropriate moment for the visit."

Ortega returned the favor this week by announcing that he will refuse to meet with President Bush later this month in New York. Ortega had been invited to discuss regional trade issues with Bush and other Central American leaders, but turned down the invitation in solidarity with his Bolivian counterpart Evo Morales, who recently expelled the U.S. ambassador in La Paz, Philip Goldberg, for allegedly supporting anti-government protests. (See Marcelo Ballvé's WPR news brief.) On Thursday, Goldberg called Bolivian government allegations that he encouraged anti-government protests "absolutely false, without foundation."

The deteriorating relations come at a time when the U.S. is trying to convince Ortega to destroy more than 1,000 Soviet-era anti-aircraft missiles -- considered one of the largest missile caches in the hemisphere. Though Ortega last year offered to destroy 651 of the Sam-7 shoulder-fired rockets in exchange for U.S. medical supplies, he said last month that he plans to hold onto them in case of a conflict with Colombia, with which Nicaragua has an ongoing border dispute.

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