- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 28, 2006

JINOTEGA, Nicaragua — Two decades after battling Marxist government troops in the lush hills of northern Nicaragua, former U.S.-backed Contra rebel leaders are now supporting their old enemy Daniel Ortega’s election bid.

They say they are ditching their old ideals for realism and making peace with Mr. Ortega and his Sandinista party so Nicaragua can move on from its bloody Cold War past and focus on attacking endemic poverty.

Opinion polls for the Nov. 5 vote show Mr. Ortega with a big lead to win back the presidency after 16 years in opposition, helped by divisions in Nicaragua’s conservative parties and the conversion of some of his former enemies.

Thousands of former civil war Contras live in the mist-covered hills around Jinotega, whose central square has a mural showing coffee pickers wielding rifles in the civil war. Many of these ex-fighters are fuming about their leaders.

“They are traitors. It’s their fault if he wins,” former Contra commander Fano Perez, still known as Comandante Hombrito, said of the dozen or so ex-Contras now backing Mr. Ortega.

Among them, Mr. Ortega’s running mate is graying former Contra heavyweight Jaime Morales, whose mansion-sized former home Mr. Ortega still lives in after seizing it in the 1979 Sandinista revolution that toppled the Somoza family dictatorship.

Salvador Talavera, head of the Nicaraguan Resistance Party, or PRN, which groups ex-Contras, last month signed a peace accord with Mr. Ortega. Mr. Talavera said 16 years of supporting corrupt Liberal Party governments has done nothing to help the thousands of Contra widows and unemployed war veterans with missing limbs.

The civil war raged throughout the 1980s, leaving 30,000 dead and the economy ruined. Mr. Ortega was voted out of power in 1990 and has lost two more presidential elections since then.

He promises he will not pursue radical policies if elected this time and has courted Contra leaders for their support. Mr. Ortega also claims he has become a devout Catholic who regularly attends church.

Mr. Talavera said ex-Contras were tired of being used by the Liberal Party as a scare tactic to stop people from voting for the Sandinistas, then ignored between elections.

“We have done nothing contradictory except get rid of the fear campaign. We want to show we are not a toy of the right, which likes to take us out of the closet like a favorite weapon every time Daniel Ortega appears in public,” he said.

The peace accord means that in exchange for ex-Contras’ not taking up arms if Mr. Ortega wins, the Sandinistas will push for funds and land rights for families hurt by the war.

Still, former Contra foot soldiers in Jinotega, a major battleground of the civil war, are skeptical. They say Mr. Talavera, Mr. Morales and a string of other senior Contras with such names as “Commander Bulls-Eye” have sold their souls for personal gain or false promises.

“Daniel has tricked them, because he’s not going to deliver,” said Mr. Perez, who joined the Contras at age 17 after his father was killed in the 1979 revolution. He fought for 10 years in the rebel army trained and financed by the administration of President Reagan.

Washington still firmly opposes Mr. Ortega, but polls show Mr. Ortega slightly ahead in the region around Jinotega for the first time, and black-and-red Sandinista flags increasingly mingle with the scarlet flags of the Liberal Party, which ex-Contras traditionally have supported.

“The Contras were born from a Liberal family. Thousands of young men died for this red flag. Now they want to help the communists,” said an angry Adrian Gonzalez, a 51-year-old ex-fighter.

Mr. Talavera already had divided the Nicaraguan Resistance Party by opting to back center-right candidate Eduardo Montealegre, who broke away from the Liberal Party to run as a clean-government alternative. That split has left Mr. Ortega far ahead in polls, although if he fails to take victory in the first round, he could lose the run-off because conservatives will rally behind one candidate.

Mr. Talavera insists he is looking out for the long-term welfare of his rebel fighters.

“Eduardo Montealegre is a very talented person, but it looks certain that Daniel Ortega is going to win. It’s my responsibility to look beyond November 5,” said Mr. Talavera.

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