260. Telegram 867 From the Embassy in Nicaragua to the Department of State1

867. Subject: FY 1977 Military Security Assistance Program for Nicaragua. Ref: State 36160.

1. As requested in reftel, para 6, an assessment of U.S. Military Security Assistance for Nicaragua is herewith submitted.

2. Nicaragua’s Military Dependency. The USG is the traditional supplier of military equipment and training to Nicaragua which looks upon the U.S. as its protector and the guarantor of Central American-Caribbean stability. Small, weak countries like Nicaragua naturally seek the protection of a stronger neighbor, or some other system of alignment, which enables them to fulfill their perceived internal and external security requirements.

3. Nicaragua does not have, nor for the foreseeable future can it expect to have, an indigenous arms production capability or adequate training base to provide the military equipment and training skills needed to maintain a small, effective defense force. Therefore, Nicaragua remains highly dependent on outside sources of supply of arms and training.

4. The United States is the dominant foreign supplier of military equipment for Nicaragua, although small amounts of arms and equipment have been purchased from Belgium, the United Kingdom and Israel in recent years. Dependence on U.S. military training is nearly total, the only exceptions being third country training (such as in Mexico and Venezuela) in isolated skills not available in the United States because of our more modern or complex equipment and techniques.

5. Nicaragua’s Security Threat. At present, the National Guard faces a low level threat from the pro-Castro FSLN (Sandinista National Liberation Front) which it has the capability to meet. For the immediate [Page 695] future, a serious subversive threat is not likely to develop although FSLN retains a diminished capability for conducting isolated attacks and incidents throughout most of the country. Despite political uneasiness over historic Costa Rican tolerance of anti-Somoza groups and Soviet-supported Cuban combat involvement in Angola, there exists no discernible external threat from its Central American or Caribbean neighbors.

6. The Military Security Assistance Program neither contributes to any regional arms race nor helps to build an offensive military capability that threatens neighboring countries. The National Guard is a small, professional, defensive force capable of coping with present internal security threats but lacking the resources and structure to contain an externally supported, widespread insurgency and/or support large sustained operations.

7. While we do not agree with the Nicaraguan view that a potential Cuban military threat exists at this time, there is evidence that Havana is providing limited support to the FSLN such as a guerrilla safehaven and training in Cuba. The Cuban threat to Nicaragua, and other countries of the region, is less likely to be a direct military one and more apt to take the form of political and ideological subversion. Now that Cuban foreign policy is closely aligned with that of the USSR, Havana believes that the fostering of an anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist (i.e., anti-U.S.) trend in the domestic and foreign politics of the Central American Caribbean States can best be achieved by providing support for orthodox Communist infiltration, propaganda and subversion, including the formation of popular front type coalitions where feasible.

8. MSAP Contribution to U.S. Policy. The FY 1977 Military Security Assistance Program (MSAP) can make an important contribution to the U.S. foreign policy objective of maintaining Nicaragua as a close friend and cooperative partner in regional and world affairs. It helps Nicaragua obtain the means to defend itself against internal and external threats to its national security, and also provides needed assurance of the continuity of the U.S. policy of friendly relations and military protection under the Rio Treaty. The Military Assistance Program can continue to make a positive contribution to Nicaraguan solidarity with the U.S., a solidarity that includes consistent, loyal support for the U.S. in the United Nations (viz., recent UNGA resolutions concerning Zionism, Korea and Puerto Rico), and other international and regional fora.

9. The U.S. Military Security Program for Nicaragua is our most cost-effective policy instrument for maintaining influence with the GON. The cumulative historical impact of this modest program on the National Guard, which is a fundamental institution of the GON, has been a profound one. It has contributed in a major way to the strong [Page 696] pro-U.S. technical and cultural orientation as well as personal friendships and allegiances evident within the leadership of the National Guard.

10. The small military training program (averaging $600 thousand in recent years) is particularly important for retaining U.S. influence and prestige within the National Guard and the GON. The gradual erosion of the training program due to inflation and repricing policies has been offset by GON efforts to supplement the program with its own resources. The importance accorded the training programs by President Somoza is illustrated by his recent decision to pay transportation costs for his students and to shift pilot training from the jet-oriented USAF programs to cheaper, but more appropriate to Nicaraguan needs, U.S. Army flight training.

11. My single reservation is a doubt that the training program, at its proposed level of $600 thousand for FY 1977, will be adequate to maintain the program at its current effective level, even with possible additional GON participation in defraying student living costs and selective FMS course purchases.

12. Nicaragua’s Need to Modernize. The bulk of Nicaragua’s military purchases in recent years have been for the purpose of modernizing the National Guard after several years of neglect. The past two years have shown an accelerating participation in direct FMS sales, primarily in the purchase of spare parts for MAP provided equipment and common use items such as uniforms and rations. During FY 75 these single purchases and FMS open-end sales contracts exceeded $1 million for the first time. The additional purchases generated by the available FMS credits will have the effect of further increasing FMS direct sales in future years.

13. President Somoza has been very explicit in stating that his goal is to modernize the National Guard in order to make it a more efficient and well-equipped force capable of defending against outside and internal threats and through civic action to support national development in the opening of the interior. Such a policy of gradual modernization is unlikely to have any effect on the arms balance in the region and makes a great deal of sense for the GON. The offer of $2.5 million in FMS credit for FY77, which brings the cumulative three-year (FY1975–77) FMS credit level to a modest $8 million, therefore is based on a justifiable need, and is compatible with U.S. policy objectives for Nicaragua.

14. Other U.S. Assistance. It is important to note that the Military Security Assistance Program is only one aspect, albeit in Nicaragua’s case an extremely important one, of the structure of political-military relations between the U.S. and Nicaragua. As a result of the other factors that shape bilateral relations between the two countries, it is ex[Page 697]tremely difficult to separate out with precision the considerable impact of the military relationship.

15. However, in terms of the total flow of U.S. official resources (economic and military assistance) to Nicaragua, the Military Security Assistance Program is small, averaging less than $5 million a year in FY 1974–76. The micro-economic impact on Nicaragua’s $1 billion national economy and balance of payments is insignificant. The U.S. Economic Assistance Program, which has averaged about $35 million a year after the 1972 Managua earthquake, is of much greater economic importance, and of considerable political value to us, in maintaining mutually beneficial and cooperative relations with Nicaragua.

16. Impact of Changing Context of MSAP on Nicaragua. The international and regional context within which our Military Security Assistance Program operates is undergoing profound change which could have adverse long-term repercussions on U.S.-Nicaraguan relations, and, U.S. interests in Latin America more generally.

17. With respect to Nicaragua, the U.S. policy of East-West détente, the general perception of U.S. retrenchment and withdrawal under pressure, the sense of weakness and vacillation of U.S. policy in Viet Nam and the recent inability of the U.S. to react to Soviet-supported Cuban combat involvement in Angola have combined to create a strong sense of anxiety in GON circles that U.S. interest in Nicaragua’s internal and external security may be weakening.

18. While the internal security threat posed by the FSLN guerrillas now is a minor one, having apparently diminished since the end of 1975, the GON views Cuban-supported guerrilla activity, and the Soviet-supported Cuban combat capability, as a serious potential threat.

19. Small countries like Nicaragua are extremely sensitive to perceived regional and global shifts in power balances. Their political and military vulnerability make it imperative for them to adjust their foreign policy to these changes. The GON perceives a Latin and Third World drift towards a policy of so called nonalignment, active bloc-formation by the LDC’s (including the Latins), and the emergence of a global military capability of Russia and its Cuban client states.

20. Furthermore, the GON has various options open to it for the purchase of required arms, munitions and training. In fact, the regional trend has been towards gradual diversification of military relations and a declining arms dependence on the United States. Like other Latin American governments, the GON no longer need be dependent on the U.S. for arms supplies and training, although the U.S. still is the preferred supplier.

21. Therefore, it is not surprising that GON fears have been aroused that its pro-U.S. orientation may lead to its isolation in Latin [Page 698] America and the Third World, and that the U.S. commitment to regional peace and stability may be wavering. The GON has begun to fear that it might be let down by the United States, its major friend and ally, and began in 1975 to reassess its foreign policy, including its relations with the U.S.

22. The willingness of the U.S. to maintain its Military Security Assistance Program in Nicaragua has in the present global and regional context a political and symbolic significance that far transcends the small amounts of military credits and training involved. Our military assistance is looked upon by many in the GON as an important sign of the U.S. will to help its friends to resist the expansion of communism in an area widely perceived to be the U.S. backyard, and of whether or not our professions of friendship and cooperation are sincere or only rhetoric.

23. The failure to nurture our military relations would be interpreted as evidence that we are unsympathetic to the GON’s need for the means to satisfy legitimate national defense and internal security requirements. There are a few actions so certain to alienate Latin American governments, and the politically influential armed forces, as attempts to thwart their efforts to meet these needs.

24. Therefore, in the context of current GON uncertainty concerning the general drift of U.S. policy and fears that there may be a waning of the U.S. will to provide assistance against pro-Castro guerrillas, any sharp reduction or cutoff of U.S. credit sales or grant training assistance would likely have far-reaching political and psychological repercussions, given the small amounts of credit and assistance involved and the existence of alternative suppliers who would welcome the opportunity to develop political-military influence here.

25. As long as the USG continues its willingness to offer some military assistance, which reinforces the Guardia’s perception of dependence on the friendship with the U.S. military, there will be very little pressure to seek third country assistance. As such, through the Military Assistance Program, the USMILGP and the USG maintain maximum influence with the GON with virtually no third country competition.

  1. Summary: The Embassy concluded that U.S. military assistance to Nicaragua had a symbolic importance that was far greater than the relatively small amount of aid involved would suggest.

    Source: National Archives, RG 59, Central Foreign Policy File, D760067–1037. Confidential; Priority. In telegram 36160, February 13, the Department asked Chiefs of Mission in Latin American countries programmed to receive military aid to provide an assessment of “the need for, the effectiveness of, and interrelationship between, the various elements of U.S. Military Security Assistance for FY 1977.” (Ibid., D760056–1006) In telegram 186 from Managua, January 13, the Embassy reported that the FSLN guerrilla forces opposing the Nicaraguan Government were beset with internal conflicts and were winning less sympathy from the general public than they had a few months earlier. (Ibid., D760013–1194)