- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

MANAGUA, Nicaragua

Washington’s old foe from the Reagan years has returned as the favorite to win Nicaragua’s presidential elec-tion next month.

The sight of a mustachioed former Marxist revolutionary and U.S. Cold War foe hugging babies and autographing baseball caps as he embraces democracy should thrill the United States. But the fact that the election campaign of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is going so well that he may return to power causes alarm in Washington.

Although Mr. Ortega’s Soviet mentors have gone, his country is once again the focus of a regional power play in Washington’s back yard. Twenty-seven years after his Sandinista movement overthrew the corrupt Somoza dynasty and 16 years after his election defeat, Mr. Ortega is the front-runner in a splintered field for the Nov. 5 presidential election.

His black mustache and wavy hair, though thinning, are familiar, but his uniform for election rallies now is a collarless white shirt and blue jeans instead of the trademark army fatigues of the 1980s. Mr. Ortega’s supporters still call him El Comandante.

To the tune of the Beatles’ “All I am Saying is Give Peace a Chance,” the Sandinista campaign song blares out here in the capital, calling for jobs and better health and education. Posters and banners proclaim the virtues of peace and reconciliation against soothing backdrops of pink and turquoise.

Nicaragua has a population of 5.5 million, no oil or gas reserves and is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, with an annual per capita income of $910. Only Haiti’s economy is in worse shape.

In the 1980s, Nicaragua’s thick jungles and colonial cities were the battleground for influence and ideology between the Kremlin and Washington as about 30,000 people died in a brutal civil war.

Soviet and Cuban aid and advisers poured into Managua, while President Reagan backed the Contras. Some of his senior aides devised a scheme to channel funds to the guerrillas from illegal arms sales to Tehran, in what became the Iran-Contra scandal.

U.S., Chavez roles

This year, U.S. anxieties are focused on the aspirations of Hugo Chavez. Awash with petrodollars, Venezuela’s president is seeking to establish a populist, left-wing, anti-U.S. alliance in Latin America, and Mr. Ortega has made clear he would join it.

U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli has signaled that Washington would review its aid for Nicaragua if Mr. Ortega wins the election. In what critics see as blatant intervention, Mr. Trivelli also tried, unsuccessfully, to unite the two main center-right candidates to create an anti-Ortega majority.

Washington risks a backlash against its role, but that is probably balanced by local resentment at interference from Venezuela, after Mr. Chavez recently arranged a cheap oil sale with a Sandinista-led mayoral association and invited “my friend Daniel” to join him on his weekly television broadcast. More subsidized gas and oil is likely to flow to Nicaragua if Mr. Ortega wins.

Indeed, the Venezuelan leader has as much riding on this outcome as Washington does, as he tries to develop an anti-U.S. bloc with Cuba and Bolivia. Victories for his allies in Ecuador’s election this weekend and in Nicaragua would strengthen him dramatically.

“The United States operates here like a domestic political player. That does not go down well, but Chavez’s behavior is also perceived as interference and resented,” said Carlos Chamorro, a political analyst whose mother, Violeta, defeated Mr. Ortega in the 1990 election.

Ortega on the stump

A country of volcanoes, lakes, rain forests and unspoiled beaches, Nicaragua’s natural beauty belies its turbulent past. Even Managua has a low-key air for a Latin American capital, partly because parts of the city have been reclaimed by vegetation since a devastating 1972 earthquake.

The harsh reality of life is all too clear in the city’s slums, where dogs scavenge on festering rubbish heaps, barefoot children play in the dirt and people eke out a living as street hawkers, day laborers and seamstresses.

Not surprisingly, it is here that Mr. Ortega receives the most enthusiastic reception. Late most afternoons, as the temperature and humidity finally begin to slide from their daytime highs, he leaves his compound in an open-topped, four-wheel-drive vehicle.

The ritual rarely changes. As his car approaches cheering supporters, he stands up and flashes victory signs alongside his constant companion, campaign manager, chief adviser and wife — Rosario Murillo, who is the architect of his softer public image.

Cars, vans and trucks join the Sandinista caravan as it winds its way, horns blaring, music blasting, through the streets to the venue for that night’s rally. One recent evening, a hand-picked group of workers and peasants was brought for a round-table forum with Mr. Ortega before a flag-waving crowd.

‘Savage capitalism’

“We are the victims of a savage neo-liberalism,” said a street vendor, spitting out the phrase used by critics here for unfettered capitalism. “But united, we will keep fighting this neo-liberal system that lets our children die of hunger.”

El Comandante sat back, nodded and jotted down his thoughts on a writing pad. Meanwhile, other supporters passed his aides notes petitioning Mr. Ortega with their concerns and difficulties, asking his help and intervention.

Then the microphone was passed to Mr. Ortega. His voice was gravelly and soft as he returned to the campaign theme of reconciliation. “War is finished,” he said. “We will build a new Nicaragua.”

He warmed up as he attacked the economic records of the three center-right governments that have run the country since his 1990 loss. “They privatized everything, and now we are seeing the consequences,” he said. “The Sandinistas never privatized anything and never fired anyone.”

This is fertile ground for him, because Nicaragua’s privatized electricity industry — owned by a Spanish company — experiences frequent blackouts. “The woes of this country are the fault of savage capitalism,” he said. “We’ll end savage capitalism when we win.”

Although most Nicaraguan voters do not support Mr. Ortega, he may win the election because he faces not one but two conservative opponents. Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance is a U.S.-backed former foreign minister, and Jose Rizo of the Constitutional Liberal Party is popular in rural areas.

The leading candidate after the first vote on Nov. 5 could become president, even with just 35 percent of the vote, if he is more than five points ahead. If not, the top two go head-to-head in a second vote in which, with a clear anti-Sandinista majority, Mr. Ortega would be defeated.

However, recent polls give him 29 percent to 34 percent support, with a lead of five to 14 points, and the national electoral body is controlled by Sandinista appointees.

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