The United States is withholding military aid to Nicaragua until it eliminates its stockpile of shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles, known as Man-Portable Air Defense Systems (MANPADs).
A staple of many militaries’ air defense arsenals for decades, MANPADs were mass produced by Washington, Moscow, and other capitals and exported around the globe. As many as 750,000 of these surface-to-air missiles may now exist, according to a May 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office. U.S. officials fear that some may fall into the hands of terrorists, emphasizing that more than 40 commercial aircraft have been targets of MANPADs attacks since the 1970s.
Nicaragua acquired some 2,000 MANPADs when it was a Soviet arms client. In 2003, Nicaragua pledged to destroy these missiles after the United States urged it to do so. Managua was about halfway through the process when Nicaraguan lawmakers passed a December 2004 law effectively halting the demolition. In response, the United States has suspended roughly $2 million in military assistance to Nicaragua pending the conclusion of the destruction program.
The Nicaraguan legislature is controlled by the Sandinista Party, which ruled Nicaragua in the 1980s and fought a bitter and bloody civil conflict against U.S.-backed contras. The Sandinistas say they do not support Nicaragua’s unilateral destruction of MANPADs without a broader Central American agreement governing the region’s armed forces. Nicaragua’s president and military leaders continue to support the MANPADs destruction.
Department of State officials criticized the legislature’s position in a June 24 briefing. “The Sandinista Party and the Sandinista president of the legislative assembly need to accept responsibility for this grave threat to international civil aviation and do the right thing, namely, allow the assembly to pass legislation authorizing the Nicaraguan government to destroy the remaining MANPADs,” said Acting Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Rose Likins.
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs Daniel Fisk said Nicaragua presented a particularly alarming situation because it has “a history of weapons leaking.” He and Likins both pointed out that the Nicaraguan government had recovered an SA-7 MANPAD during a January drug sting operation.