- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 21, 2001

The U.S. government has "serious concerns" about the possibility that Daniel Ortega, who headed Nicaragua's authoritarian Sandinista government in the 1980s, will retake power in November elections, State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said.
In a poll published Monday in Nicaragua's Confidencial magazine, Mr. Ortega led with 31 percent, ahead of either the liberal or conservative candidates. The poll was conducted by the Center for Investigation of Communication in Managua, the Nicaraguan capital.
The Sandinistas are likely to win because the ruling Liberal Constitutional Party and the opposition National Conservative Party have been unable to agree to work together, said analysts and diplomats.
The liberal party has been tainted with charges of massive corruption and abuse of power ministers there earn more than the U.S. president's salary of $400,000, although Nicaragua is an extremely poor country.
The Sandinistas, however, retain a solid core of followers in the leftist intelligentsia as well as the very poor who benefited from the Sandinista confiscations of the property of the wealthy.
Sandinistas are seeking funds for November's elections from the region's populist leader, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, according to Manuel Orozco, director of the Central American Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank.
Mr. Orozco, who recently returned from Nicaragua, was trying to learn whether Mr. Chavez, who has spoken of a Latin-American union opposed to U.S. dominance, was supplying them with finds.
"As little as $10,000 could make a difference in a country like Nicaragua," he said.
The State Department's spokesman said the United States would work with any party brought to power in a free and fair election.
"We want to promote democracy and free and open markets … the previous Sandinista regime did not support those values," he said.
"Absent the clear commitment from Daniel Ortega that he is now prepared to embrace those democratic policies, we will continue to have serious concerns about the FSLN," the Spanish acronym for Sandinista National Liberation Front, Mr. Reeker said.
A diplomat from a nearby country said in an interview that a Sandinista victory could destabilize a region undergoing a painful adolescence in its new democratic institutions.
He said there is fear that a Sandinista government could polarize the region once more and spark refugee flows or military confrontations among the six countries of Central America.
The region was the focus of intense conflict in the 1980s with Cuba and the United States sending weapons to leftists and rightists fighting in Nicaragua, Guatemala and El Salvador.
President Reagan faced the biggest scandal of his 1980-1988 administrations after his White House aide Col. Oliver North violated a congressional ban on arms to the anti-Sandinista Contra guerrilla group.
Mr. North sold weapons to Iran in secret and used the profits to arm the Contras, a Miami- and Honduras-based exile group. They failed to defeat the Sandinistas on the battlefield but weary of war and a U.S. embargo Mr. Ortega agreed to hold elections, which he imagined he would win.
He lost the election and agreed to respect the victory of Violetta Chamorro.
Recently the Sandinistas won the mayorship of Managua, capitalizing on the split between the liberal and conservative parties.
Helping them is the fact that many young voters in Nicaragua do not even remember the period of Sandinista control, when virulent hostility toward America, the Catholic church and capitalism was taught in the schools.
Mr. Orozco said Nicaragua's neighbors are facing the possibility of these political upsets:
El Salvador's rightist ARENA government is unlikely to win a fourth term and is likely to lose to the leftist former guerrillas in two years.
Guatemala's president faces a power struggle with former strongman Rios Montt, now head of the Legislature, and from the army itself.
Honduras' parties have tried to exclude the most popular candidate by accusing him of being a Panamanian.


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