In October 2016, Nicaragua inaugurated a project the Daniel Ortega regime sold the population as proof of the strong relationship between his government and Vladimir Putin: Russian vaccine plant Mechnikov. Two and a half years later the factory has yet to produce a vaccine. The project smells of bribery, Russia is losing interest, and nobody knows where the money invested ended up.
“The vaccine factory project represents the logic Russian investments follow in Nicaragua in recent years. The old partnership between both countries during the Cold War motivates Moscow’s cooperation,” Víctor Hugo Tinoco, former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations and former Sandinista National Liberation Front guerrilla, told Diálogo. “The investments never had a positive impact on the population. Russia only sought to expand its influence with Nicaragua and ensure access to the Caribbean Sea, while the Sandinista government only wanted to benefit through corruption.”
According to the Nicaraguan government, at least $35 million were invested for construction of the Mechnikov plant. The Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS, in Spanish) contributed $11 million, while Russia disbursed the remaining $24 million. INSS’ economic crisis triggered the protests against Ortega in April 2018. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, at least 264 people died in the demonstrations. A discretionary transaction, approved by Roberto López, INSS president and retired Army officer, made the investment in the vaccine plant possible.
Change of course
“In recent years, the relationship between Russia and Nicaragua moved toward a more physical scope, with constructions in some areas of Managua,” Tinoco said. “Russian investments were always done under the table, a situation that facilitated Orteguista corruption.”
Ortega’s regime promised the Mechnikov plant would produce 15 million influenza vaccines, and would then make vaccines against measles, hepatitis, polio, and Zika. In early April 2019, Nicaraguan Vice President Rosario Murillo, Ortega’s wife, announced that a Russian delegation would visit the plant for further inspection.
Russia seems to be losing interest in backing Ortega’s government. “It’s not that it’s not interested in Nicaragua; Russia will always take advantage of crises, and won’t abandon what it gained in Nicaragua. The thing is that [now] Ortega needs Moscow more than Moscow needs Ortega, because it’s one of the few partners that still support his dictatorship. In other words, Russia can cut down on what it gives, because Ortega needs to say that Putin is his partner,” Guillermo Barquero, a political scientist at the National University of Costa Rica, told Diálogo. “If Nicaragua falls, Russia won’t intervene. Russia is always interested in expanding, and won’t risk more than necessary for such an unprofitable regime as Ortega’s.”
Renewed Russian interest in Cuba
In February 2019, the Russian government approved a $42-million loan for Cuba to acquire new weapons. The move shows Moscow’s political and military interest in the island.
Carlos Murillo, an international relations analyst at the National University of Costa Rica, agrees with Barquero. He also points out Russia’s renewed interest in Cuba, possibly due to the political crises that affect Venezuela and Nicaragua, its closest partners in the region.
“The ideal situation for Moscow is to keep the Caracas, Managua, Havana triangle, but in the current situation, the country that seems more stable for their interests is Cuba, because in case of a domino effect that would see the ousting of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, Ortega will further wear down and might be overthrown,” Murillo told Diálogo. “But it might be difficult for the Castrist regime to fall now. Russia seeks to operate in any possible scenario and secure its presence in Latin America.”
The Nicaraguan people paid with their taxes for a project that is still adrift; Russian vaccines are still unavailable to citizens, while Russia shows little interest in helping Latin American countries. The vaccine factory is one of Moscow’s many ways to attempt to expand in the region by supporting corrupt states. But when those governments collapse, Moscow will turn to its next target. The well-being of Latin American nations will always come second for Russia.