WORLD

A BLAST FROM THE PAST!

Reagan’s nemesis, Daniel Ortega, is set to lead Nicaragua again

ISABEL VINCENT November 13 2006
WORLD

A BLAST FROM THE PAST!

Reagan’s nemesis, Daniel Ortega, is set to lead Nicaragua again

ISABEL VINCENT November 13 2006

A BLAST FROM THE PAST!

WORLD

Reagan’s nemesis, Daniel Ortega, is set to lead Nicaragua again

ISABEL VINCENT

Over the last few months, it appeared that the petro-diplomacy of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez was running out of steam. Presidential candidates whom he backed in Mexico and Peru met with defeat at the polls. On Oct. 15, populist Rafael Correa, his preferred candidate for the presidency of Ecuador, came in second place, forcing a runoff vote in late November. And at the UN, Chávez’s attempts to secure Venezuela a rotating temporary spot on the 15-member Security Council by lobbying world leaders to support his country against the U.S.-backed candidate, Guatemala, met with disappointment.

Will the Chávez touch also backfire when Nicaraguans go to the polls to elect a new president on Nov. 5? The Venezuelan strongman has openly supported the authoritarian Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, who ruled the country after the Sandinista revolution in 1979 but has lost his last three bids for the presidency. An Ortega victory would increase Chávez’s influence in the region and help spread his virulent anti-American rhetoric. So far, Chávez’s biggest allies in Latin America are Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia. Now, if Ortega becomes president of Nicaragua, “it will invigorate the axis of leftist proto-dictators led by Chávez,” says Roger Noriega, former U.S. assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs between 2003 and 2005, and a visiting fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington.

After the Sandinista overthrow of U.S.backed dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, Ortega became part of a ruling junta, and five years later became president with 67 per cent of the vote. At that time, he instituted a disastrous series of Cuban-style economic reforms that critics say “destroyed” the Central American nation. Still, he is poised to make a comeback, with the help of Chávez. In a year of presidential elections throughout Latin America, Chávez has been accused of using Venezuela’s oil revenues to buy votes for his candidates of choice throughout the region. Earlier this year, Chávez offered to send Nicaragua 10 million barrels of oil annually

VENEZUELA’S HUGO CHÁVEZ HAS BEEN OPENLY BACKING ORTEGA. HE’D LIKE ANOTHER ANTI-U.S. ALLY.

on a special 25-year credit arrangement to ease the country’s frequent energy blackouts and shortages. In a breach of international protocol, the oil deal was hammered out with the national association of municipal mayors, which is dominated by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), and not with Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños.

Chávez has also supplied Sandinista-affiliated co-operatives with fertilizer—which sparked outrage from one of Ortega’s rivals, the National Liberal Alliance-Conservative Party’s Eduardo Montealegre, a Harvardeducated banker and former finance minister who accused Ortega of “buying votes” with the aid of Chávez. Although he is backed by Washington, Montealegre was running second in a recent Zogby poll with 20 per cent support. In third place was José Rizo of the Constitutional Liberal Party, a former vice-president, with 16 per cent of the vote, behind Ortega, who had 35 per cent.

Chávez’s open support for Ortega has sparked a loud confrontation with the United States, for which Nicaragua has again turned into a battleground for influence in the region. Paul Trivelli, the U.S. ambassador, has been openly critical of Chávez and Ortega, calling the latter “anti-democratic” and “a tiger who hasn’t changed his stripes.” It’s no secret that Washington has tried unsuccessfully to unite several rightist parties in order to block Ortega’s chances of winning.

The 60-year-old Sandinista comandante, who weathered a CIA-backed Contra battle along with U.S. sanctions and the mining of Nicaragua’s harbours throughout his rule in the 1980s, has said he is shocked at the level of what he feels is undue American influence

in the campaign. “Even in the worst of times during the Ronald Reagan administration, the U.S. envoy was careful with his words,” said Ortega, who was defeated in elections held as part of a peace agreement in 1990. “But the current ambassador acts like he is the governor of Nicaragua.” Trivelli appeared nonplussed, and subsequently went on Nicaraguan television to defend his position. “I am not going to stop defending democracy,” he said. “That is part of our policy and it will continue to be part of our policy. I believe that speaking is not interfering.” The heated exchange led to condemnations by the Organization of American States, which noted that “authorities and representatives of other nations are interfering actively in the Nicaraguan electoral process.” Earlier, the Carter Center in Atlanta, an NGO founded by former U.S. president Jimmy Carter that is providing observers to monitor the Nicaraguan elections, had issued a statement “strongly” opposing “foreign intervention in Nicaragua’s electoral process.” Said a spokesman: “Almost all of the

Nicaraguans with whom we spoke expressed concern about foreign governments endorsing and funding specific candidates.” A recent poll found that 49 per cent of Nicaraguans believe that Venezuela is meddling in their affairs, while 46 per cent of those polled said the U.S. government is also intervening in their politics.

If it’s not foreign intervention influencing the election, many fear fraud and corruption could play a part in the vote, which is expected to give Ortega a first-round victory. In 1999, Ortega teamed up with one-time rival and then-president Amoldo Alemán to conclude a pact that placed FSLN and Alemán’s supporters in important government institutions, which included the judiciary and the Supreme Electoral Council, now stacked with Ortega supporters.

In 2003, Alemán was convicted of fraud and money laundering. And Ortega has also been dogged by allegations of corruption. In his last days in office in 1990, the government passed a series of acts known in Nicaragua as “la piñata.” Under the legislation, property seized by the Sandinistas in nationalizations in the 1980s became the private property of Sandinista officials, including Ortega. In another scandal, in 1998 Ortega’s stepdaughter Zoilamerica Narvaez publicly accused him of sexually abusing her as a child.

Ortega, who claimed immunity from prosecution at a court hearing into the abuse allegations, said the scandals were all part of a campaign by his enemies to smear the FSLN. During the current campaign, he has shrugged off most of the dirt that has dogged his comeback. He is presenting himself as a “reformer” working for “national reconciliation.” Polls have shown the approach to be working, in the lead-up to the real test on Nov. 5. Nl