Central American countries have shifted their voting records on United Nations resolutions related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine during the past months, underscoring their complex relationships with global superpowers and each other, according to analysts.
Nicaragua was one of only five countries to vote against a UN resolution last week calling for non-recognition and a reversal of Russia’s “attempted illegal annexation” of four regions in Ukraine. Russia, Belarus, Syria and North Korea also voted against the resolution.
The October 12 resolution passed in the UN General Assembly with 143 votes in favour. Honduras was among 35 abstentions and El Salvador was one of eight countries not present for the vote.
The three Central American countries voted differently on a March 2 resolution demanding Russia immediately withdraw all military forces from Ukraine. Honduras voted in favour of that resolution and El Salvador and Nicaragua both abstained.
“The surprising thing is not now, but rather Nicaragua’s choice in March,” said Carlos Cascante, a professor of international relations at the National University in Costa Rica.
Since President Daniel Ortega took office in 2007, Nicaragua has developed a close relationship with Russia, though ties are primarily political. The United States is Nicaragua’s top trading partner by far, followed by other Central American countries and Mexico.
Nicaragua has consistently been outspoken in its support for Russia and its voting record at the UN usually reflects that. Analysts were unsure why Nicaragua broke from its pattern and abstained in March.
One hypothesis is that Nicaragua aligned its March vote with China’s abstention before returning to its alignment with Russia, said Cascante. Nicaragua cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan and re-established relations with China in December.
Meanwhile, Nicaragua’s June authorisation of the deployment of military personnel from Russia and other countries made international headlines, but it was essentially a required periodic renewal of a longstanding policy.
“Russia has had different kinds of military presence in Nicaragua, especially military advisers and intelligence advisers,” Cascante told Al Jazeera.
Still, the timing was also notable as news of the renewal hit global headlines during the Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles, Cascante noted. The US had not invited Nicaragua, Venezuela or Cuba.
“What is happening is that the international context [of the Russia-Ukraine war] and the internal situation in Nicaragua reframed how the renewal of the agreement was perceived,” said Carlos Murillo, a professor of international relations at the University of Costa Rica.
Ortega’s perpetual concern is US intervention, so Nicaragua’s interest is to project support from a powerful ally for dissuasive effect, he said. “Historically, Nicaragua has been very skilful at managing its diplomatic actions, although it may not always be apparent,” Murillo told Al Jazeera.
Honduras and El Salvador have close trade relationships with Nicaragua, as well as a longstanding border dispute. Both countries abstained this year on Organization of the American States resolutions condemning Nicaragua on civil and political rights issues.
Following its abstention at the UN General Assembly last week, Honduran officials from the administration of President Xiomara Castro, who took office in January, stated the abstention should be understood as a position of neutrality with regard to wars. Earlier this year, however, Honduras took a clear side against Russia in UN votes.
“Central American countries, especially Honduras, understand that [these votes] are an element with which they can pressure the United States to get things out of them,” said Cascante.
“Internally in Honduras … it benefits [Castro] to maintain a position of saying, ‘I am not a puppet of the United States like [former President] Juan Orlando Hernandez was,” he said.
Meanwhile, Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele has a strained relationship with the administration of US President Joe Biden and El Salvador’s votes at the UN on the Russia-Ukraine war may reflect that.
“There’s some thumbing the nose at the US that we’ve certainly seen coming out of the Bukele administration,” said Christine Wade, a professor of Central American politics at Washington College in Maryland.
“There isn’t significant Russian investment in El Salvador but there is a lot of Chinese investment in El Salvador, so one question becomes whether this is signalling to China, as well as to the United States,” she told Al Jazeera.
El Salvador abstained in March but was a no-show on the vote last week. Countries that do not want to register any stance either fail to attend or withdraw before a vote.
“Not voting or an absence is understood as a manifestation of a country having commitments on both sides,” said Murillo. “It is to avoid being questioned.”