- The Washington Times - Friday, November 3, 2006

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Daniel Ortega, the Marxist-Leninist leader of the Sandinistas who battled the U.S.-backed Contra army throughout much of the 1980s, is poised for a comeback in tomorrow’s presidential election with the help of an inadvertent ally — the United States.

U.S. officials during the weeks leading up to the election spoke out in support of right-leaning, Harvard-educated banker Eduardo Montealegre, who split from the ranks of the ruling Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) to form his own political party.

Supporters of PLC candidate Jose Rizo took umbrage with the U.S. decision, creating an even more acrimonious divide between Mr. Ortega’s opponents.

Even before the U.S. endorsement of Mr. Montealegre, reported talks failed between the PLC and Mr. Montealegre’s National Liberal Alliance to choose a single candidate that could secure a first-round victory over Mr. Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front.

U.S. backing of Mr. Montealegre failed to dissuade Mr. Ortega from running for the presidency, an eventuality abhorred by State Department officials because of his problematic past and his current close ties with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

“The United States has become very nervous about the friendship between Ortega and Chavez,” former Foreign Minister Emilio Alvarez Montalban told The Washington Times in an interview yesterday.

Mr. Chavez has promised to supply Nicaragua with plenty of discount fuel if Mr. Ortega wins, a hard deal to resist considering much of the populace lives on less than $2 a day and the country is the second poorest in the hemisphere. Only Haiti is poorer.

Meanwhile, heading into the election, polls showed Mr. Ortega with almost enough votes to win in the first round. Nicaraguan electoral law states that a candidate must garner 35 percent of the vote plus five percentage points over the next leading candidate.

Some polls showed Mr. Ortega just shy of the 35 percent. Others had him as a lock with nearly 40 percent.

The transformation of Mr. Ortega from two-time loser to presidential favorite has been a startling one. Since losing the presidency in 1990, he has managed to shed the indignity of the death blows dealt to the Sandinistas by U.S.-backed Contra rebels and cast himself in a new light.

Today, Mr. Ortega is embraced by a younger generation of Nicaraguans who know him as the man who preaches equality for the country’s poor as well as “unity” and “understanding” among the political parties, a concept unfamiliar to those old enough to recall his first administration, which was accused of torturing those opposed to his Marxist-Leninist ideals.

“For me, Daniel [Ortega] is the best because he wants to help poor people in Nicaragua who don’t have jobs or a home get both,” said Ana Gabriela Juarez Espinoza, 16, who works in a kitchen making tortillas. Universal suffrage in Nicaragua comes at age 16 and Miss Espinoza is one of a multitude of young Nicaraguans who consider themselves Ortega loyalists.

With the courts and Congress behind him and a new image to boot, Mr. Ortega’s chances of returning to power, much to Washington’s consternation, have never seemed better.

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