- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 19, 2008

MANAGUA, Nicaragua | Jose Antonio Lopez, with a handkerchief hiding his face and rock in hand, helps a group of Sandinista party supporters defend a blockade in the Nicaraguan capital, Managua.

The barrier consists of a rickety yellow school bus plastered with campaign posters supporting Sandinista candidates who claim to have won municipal elections 10 days earlier.

“We’re taking back the streets, eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth,” Mr. Lopez told The Washington Times moments before his group broke into the parking lot of a nearby mall and began smashing car windshields with baseball bats.

Preliminary tallies by a government-controlled electoral council show the Sandinista candidate winning Managua’s Nov. 9 mayoral election, while the candidate from the opposition Constitutionalist Liberal Party, or PLC, contends that he won and is demanding a recount.

The day after the election, PLC candidate Eduardo Montealegre called on his supporters to “go to the streets” to make sure the “elections aren’t robbed.”

His supporters were met by backers of the Sandinista candidate, three-time world boxing champion Alexis Arguello in violent clashes that have persisted in parts of Managua and the northern city of Leon ever since.

Sandinista leader and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega finds himself at the center of the struggle.

A former Marxist revolutionary who ruled Nicaragua in the 1980s, Mr. Ortega lost power in a 1990 election and spent the next 16 years in the opposition. In 2006, he won the presidency with a 38 percent plurality. He ran a populist presidential campaign aimed at what he called the “other half” of Nicaragua [-] where nearly 50 percent of the population lives in poverty while an additional 17 percent live in extreme poverty. Under the slogan “power for the people,” Mr. Ortega said the neoliberal, capitalist model of his three predecessors failed to create opportunities for Nicaragua’s vast majority and instead bred widespread discontent and corruption.

Last week’s election for mayor of Managua and 145 other municipalities had been widely considered a referendum on Mr. Ortega’s two years since returning to power.

Using funds from leftist Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, Mr. Ortega has initiated a “zero hunger” program that provided 32,000 poor families with cows, pigs, chickens, fruit trees and seeds.

He says the program will stimulate farming productivity to make Nicaragua the region’s bread basket. He has also launched a nationwide literacy campaign with hopes of eliminating illiteracy by July 2009.

“As the Bible says, ‘So the last shall be first,’ ” Mr. Ortega said when casting his ballot Nov. 9.

Still, fewer than one in five Nicaraguans say they are satisfied with Mr. Ortega’s performance thus far, according to a September poll by M&R, a consulting company.

The Sandinista leader has drawn fire for creating Cuban-inspired neighborhood-watch groups, known as “citizen power councils” or CPCs [-] which critics say undermine democratic checks and balances.

He is also criticized for banning two political parties and for initiating a money laundering probe of 17 charities, including the prestigious British relief group Oxfam. The Paris-based Reporters Without Borders has labeled the probe a “witch hunt.”

In addition, Mr. Ortega refused to invite U.S. and European election observers to monitor the mayoral vote, saying that a handful of Latin American observers and 120,000 partisan electoral delegates were “more than enough.”

Mr. Montealegre says Mr. Ortega risks sending the country back to the dim days of dictatorship, in which elections were routinely rigged and dissent violently suppressed.

“People are tired of manipulation, of abuse,” said Mr. Montealegre, a Harvard-educated banker, whose every move this week has been met with Sandinista blockades.

He found himself trapped in a Managua church for two hours on Monday because Sandinista supporters blocked his way out.

“They had to send the riot police,” Mr. Montealegre said. “They sent us through the back roads.”

His attempt to lead an opposition rally in Managua on Tuesday was met with groups of Sandinistas firing primitive homemade mortars into the air.

His party says thousands of ballots were found in a dump and that unaccredited observers reported irregularities in nearly a third of all polling stations.

Mr. Montealegre, who conceded defeat to Mr. Ortega in the 2006 presidential election, conducted his own recount and claims to have taken more than 50 percent of the vote.

Backed by Nicaragua’s two most powerful business chambers and the Nicaraguan Catholic Church, Mr. Montealegre has called for an official recount.

The U.S. Embassy in Managua, which has said the elections were “not transparent,” has issued a travel warning for U.S. citizens in Nicaragua because of the ensuing violence.

At least seven police officers and eight protesters have been injured, some with bullet wounds, said police spokeswoman Vilma Reyes.

Juan Carlos Hidalgo, Latin America project coordinator for the Washington-based Cato Institute, said he is surprised the West “continues to pour” foreign aid into Nicaragua, despite Mr. Ortega’s attempt “to subvert democracy through voter fraud.”

The West may suspend aid or impose travel restrictions on Ortega government officials, but “the days of direct U.S. interventionism in the region are long gone,” Mr. Hidalgo said. He was referring to the 1980s, when U.S.-backed Contra rebels battled Mr. Ortega’s government.

Even if the West withdraws support, Mr. Ortega is deepening ties with alternative allies such as Venezuela, Russia and Iran.

“We’re talking about big programs, dreams, like the interoceanic canal,” Mr. Ortega said in a recent meeting with Russian Deputy Prime Minister Igor Sechin.

Nicaragua was the first nation after Russia to recognize the Georgian breakaway regions South Ossetia and Abkhazia as independent nations.

In response, Russia promised to boost military and humanitarian aid to Nicaragua, and expressed interest in revamping the Nicaraguan canal project the United States abandoned a century ago for Panama.

Iran plans to build health clinics, dams and a deep-water seaport here, and Venezuela’s Mr. Chavez has pumped $520 million in anti-poverty funding to Nicaragua. Opposition leaders call the money a slush fund.

The Chavez government charged the U.S. with “interference” in the Nov. 9 election and celebrated the Sandinistas’ declared victory as a “democratic triumph.”

But out on the streets, the victory doesn’t seem so clear-cut.

Flanked by protesters gripping baseball bats and lead pipes, Sandinista youth leader Santos #Zeledon said: “If the Supreme Elections Council can’t settle this, we will.”

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