- The Washington Times - Monday, November 6, 2006

Shocking as it may be that a widely reviled leader whose tenure was marked by disastrously hard-line Marxist policies and a bloody civil war would be positioned to return to power, early returns show Daniel Ortega above the 35 percent threshold and well ahead of the five-point margin needed for a first-round victory in Nicaragua’s presidential election. If the final results bear this out, Nicaragua will be governed again by the same dictator who left the country in political and economic ruin. The major difference for the United States, of course, is that Mr. Ortega would no longer rule with support from the Soviet Union. That Nicaragua is of limited strategic importance to the United States is the only (very limited) consolation Washington can take from an Ortega victory. Nicaraguans have no such recourse.

During the campaign, Mr. Ortega retreated from the Marxist policies and presented himself as a devout Catholic. Expecting Mr. Ortega to adopt an approach substantially less antithetical to free trade and developing business, however, is too optimistic. Nicaragua’s economic rehabilitation in the decade and a half since the Sandinistas were voted out of office has been substantial, but the country still ranks as the second-poorest in South America. Mr. Ortega cannot simply be judged by his more moderate facade; according to reports, some of his campaign rhetoric, especially in poor rural areas, is still radical. If he should try to break Nicaragua away from CAFTA and resort to nationalizing industry — neither an unlikely scenario — the relapse would precipitate an economic collapse and, among other things, substantially increase immigration from Nicaragua to the United States.

In an effort to prevent a return to power of the Sandinistas, Washington threw its support behind former Finance Minister Eduardo Montealegre. That opposition to the Sandinistas was fractured between Mr. Montealegre and the ruling-party candidate, Jose Rizo, is the only reason that Mr. Ortega is leading in the early returns. Oliver North wrote in his syndicated column that supporting Mr. Montealegre over Mr. Rizo showed that “U.S. policy in Nicaragua has been blind to the realities of Nicaraguan politics.” The only two parties of consequence, Mr. North argued, were Mr. Rizo’s Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) and the Sandanista National Liberation Front, together compromising 85 percent of the vote. While Mr. Montealegre is a stellar candidate, Washington should have based its support on which candidate was most able to keep Mr. Ortega from power.

Washington’s other miscalculation was its overtly heavy-handed approach. In a year of elections in South America, including a drawn out battle in Mexico that had much greater implications for the United States, the election in Nicaragua has been the only one that has prompted criticism of American interference. The real problem, however, is that these criticisms impeded Washington’s ability to denounce Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez’s far more pervasive meddling in Nicaragua. Mr. Chavez has shipped discount fertilizer to Sandinista-friendly villages and promised heavily subsidized oil to the poor country if Mr. Ortega is officially declared the victor. Mr. Chavez knows he has a strong ally in Mr. Ortega, and Nicaragua will join Bolivia and Cuba in the small Chavez alliance.

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