- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 25, 2001

MANAGUA, Nicaragua Suddenly, Managua has a skyline.
New hotels and shopping centers with elevators, and even escalators have sprouted in a capital flattened by a 1972 earthquake and laid low by failed socialism. Arco gas stations, Pizza Huts and the golden arches of McDonald's rise from the gentle hills.
Once a live-fire franchise of the Cold War, Nicaragua and other Central American countries have embraced franchise capitalism.
Yet the image that still dominates Managua from a hilltop is a giant metallic silhouette of Gen. Cesar Augusto Sandino, Nicaragua's anti-U.S. hero, from whom the left-wing Sandinista movement took its name.
And a decade after President George Bush celebrated the Sandinistas' downfall, Mr. Bush's son may see their leader, Daniel Ortega, return to power in the November presidential election.
Politics throughout Central America remains divided by the fault line between civil-war foes. The poverty and inequality that fed those conflicts still lurk beyond the gloss and glass of the new office buildings.
Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua are probably as closely tied to the United States as they have ever been. All three rely heavily on investments from the United States and on the dollars sent home by workers there.
Yet 10 years after the Soviet Union dissolved and global politics was reorganized, parties with openly socialist yearnings have a strong chance of winning elections in Nicaragua and El Salvador.

Region still struggling
A few fragile years of peace and democracy have not yet brought prosperity, nor warded off hunger. Millions across Central America still struggle to stay alive in urban shantytowns or muddy, forgotten villages. Crime has replaced war as the cause of fear.
The region's greatest advance is that the struggles that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives now are waged in democratically elected congresses rather than on jungle battlegrounds.
In the 1980s, the region seemed to be descending into its own heart of darkness: whole villages exterminated, nuns and priests massacred, death squads roaming the streets, Salvadoran Archbishop Oscar Romero shot to death as he said Mass.
Guatemala, whose war was the longest and bloodiest, has the longest way still to go.
It is governed by a party founded by former military dictator Efrain Rios Montt and is still haunted by fear of death squads. As courts probe military involvement in the 1998 murder of a Roman Catholic bishop, death threats have prompted a string of judges, witnesses and prosecutors to flee the country.
A weak leftist opposition is pitted against a strong national consensus around generally pro-business politics. The nation's Indian majority remains largely shut out of power and wealth.
In El Salvador, the party of leftist former rebels runs the capital, San Salvador, while conservatives govern the country and have made the U.S. dollar its legal currency.

San Salvador prospers
With modern highways, hotels and restaurants, the capital looks to be the most prosperous in Central America outside of Panama.
But the ravines that cut through wealthy neighborhoods are clotted with shantytowns. The city center, and parts of the countryside, are ravaged by gang crime, much of it imported by youths who have spent time in Los Angeles.
Most Salvadorans are less interested in ideology than in finding good jobs, crushing crime and recovering from earthquakes that damaged the homes of nearly 1 million people this year.
Hundreds of thousands have moved to the United States and send home money crucial to El Salvador's economy.
In Nicaragua, where the U.S. military was perhaps most heavily involved, Sandinista policies and an American boycott almost shut down American business in the 1980s.
"We had been practically underground because we were accused by the Sandinista government of being on the payroll of the CIA," said Armando Castillo, an advertising executive.
He is a past president of the American Chamber of Commerce, which is growing again as U.S. companies arrive to build power plants and telephone networks, to sell hamburgers and pizza. Foreign investors who were fleeing the country a decade ago put $280 million into Nicaragua last year.
Donald McGregor, a 40-year-old Nicaraguan businessman, was 18 when he left the country for fear of being drafted. Returning after the Sandinista election defeat in 1990, "what shocked me was how run-down the place was," he said.
"I'm not a McDonald's fan, but it felt good to see the opening of a McDonald's in Nicaragua."

Political upheavals
For most of the past century, free elections in the little nations of the Central American isthmus were risky experiments, and the winners or losers often had to flee for their lives. Power was wielded by homegrown generals and eccentric dictators, and rebellions were frequent, often supported from afar.
In Guatemala in 1954, a CIA-organized coup drove out an elected left-leaning government, but it led to a series of barracks governments and laid the groundwork for a 36-year civil war in which more than 200,000 died.
Nicaragua's Gen. Sandino fought to expel the U.S. Marines from his country in the 1930s. They eventually left, but Gen. Sandino was murdered, apparently at the behest of the Somoza family, which ran the country as a spectacularly corrupt private plantation until the Sandinistas toppled Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979.
The Sandinistas quickly alienated their moderate allies by embracing Cuba and socialism. That, combined with a U.S.-sponsored rebellion and boycott, set an already tattered economy back by half a century.
Eleven years later, Mr. Ortega was defeated by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in a free election. Just before leaving power, however, he oversaw the transfer of hundreds of confiscated properties to Sandinistas, including himself.
He also used official immunity first as a member of congress, later under a new law protecting former presidents to avoid charges of molesting his stepdaughter while in power.
With a legacy like that, Mr. Ortega would be written off politically in most countries.
But the Sandinistas can count on a hard-core of 30 percent to 35 percent of Nicaraguans. For many, even hard times under the Sandinistas were better than what came before or after.

Aleman regime tainted
The government of exiting President Arnoldo Aleman Lacayo has also been tainted. Critics accuse Mr. Aleman of amassing millions of dollars while in office a claim he denies. Foreign creditors threatened to cut off aid because they suspected mismanagement.
In Granada, a colonial town linked to the capital by a new, Aleman-built highway, long-haired foreign youths in T-shirts stroll through the town plaza. They may look like "sandalistas," as the sandal-wearing supporters of the former government were dubbed, but they're just tourists, and tourism itself suggests the country is changing.
There's another hint of change alongside the Sandinista union hall: Cafe Che, emblazoned with the image of revolutionary hero Che Guevara, offers organic coffee grown by an American named Charlie Southwell.
Mr. Southwell also owns the shop next door, a real estate office called First American Title Insurance, for foreigners seeking an affordable place to retire to.
"There a resurgence of the country," Mr. Southwell said. "Everybody's just getting up to speed."
Even the Sandinistas insist they've changed. Mr. Ortega still speaks of revolution, but insists he wants to work with private business, not confiscate it. He recently said he had been wrong to shun the free market.
He's now pinning his hopes on discontent with Mr. Aleman's Constitutionalist Liberal Party. His running mate, Agustin Jarquin, is a former comptroller who investigated corruption and was fired by Mr. Aleman.
"The system itself is a fountain of corruption; it is a fountain of instability," Mr. Ortega said recently. "We are proposing a new revolution. It is a peaceful revolution. It is a civic revolution. It is a democratic revolution."
The Liberals and the Sandinistas have agreed on one thing: new election laws that make it tough for other parties to get on the ballot and challenge their hegemony. In 1996, 24 candidates ran for president. This year, there are three.
Salvador's pain lingers
In El Salvador, too, old wounds remain painful nine years after the end of a war in which 75,000 died.
"That was not a civil war," said Juan Jose Daboub, chief aide to President Francisco Flores. He called the rebels, now the chief opposition bloc in congress, "terrorists" backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union.
"To many people, it was an armed invasion of the country," he said.
Mr. Daboub said El Salvador needs to create "a common vision" of liberty through open markets, deregulation and a strong private sector.
The rebels-turned-congressmen are led by Salvador Sanchez Ceren, a former guerrilla commander and one of several possible candidates for president in 2004.
Like Mr. Ortega in Nicaragua, Mr. Sanchez sounds like a socialist on hold.
"Although our orientation is socialist, we are not thinking now about building socialism," he said. "We want to build bases for a different society" with "an important role" for business.

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