Shake hands with an old enemy

Nicaragua | Ortega's return to power puts U.S.-Latin America relations on bumpy course

Issue: "GOP downfall," Nov. 18, 2006

The military fatigues are gone and tongue-lashing the United States is out, but the man in jeans and the regular white shirt is definitely Daniel Ortega. And now, the Sandinista dictator will be Nicaragua's president again, 16 years after the country voted him out and civil war ended. He beat his closest rival, the center-right banker Eduardo Montealegre, and three other candidates to make his comeback.

By Sunday evening Nov. 5, with early returns showing an Ortega edge, the Sandinista's supporters were already streaming onto streets celebrating a win. They swayed to his now trademark campaign song, using the melody of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."

Ortega has undergone a makeover since the '80s when he battled against U.S.-backed Contra rebels. His hard-line Marxist dictatorship once seized property, abused human rights, and backed international terrorism. A softer, 61-year-old Ortega, on his fourth try for president since 1990, married his common-law wife in a Catholic Church before the election, and he now praises foreign investment and free markets.

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But Ortega's change may be largely cosmetic. He still talks of curbing "savage capitalism." That probably spells economic decline in the Western Hemisphere's second-poorest country after Haiti, says Stephen Johnson, a Heritage Foundation analyst.

Politically, Ortega has been active for years in Managua, chalking up deals that boost his power. One is el Pacto. The agreement, struck six years ago between the Sandinistas and former President Arnoldo Aleman's Constitutional Liberal Party, gave the two men lifetime seats in parliament and immunity from prosecution. The immunity has come in handy: In 1998, Ortega's stepdaughter accused him of sexually abusing her as a child, a scandal that continues to dog him. Aleman has not escaped so lightly: When authorities discovered he embezzled some $100 million, they lifted his immunity and he is serving a sentence under house arrest on his private ranch.

Even this election is an example of Aleman-Ortega legislative collusion: They lowered the threshold needed to win, so the victor has only to win 35 percent of the vote, with a 5-point lead over his nearest competitor. And then there are the old piñata laws, still in place, that outgoing Sandinistas in 1999 enacted to protect property seizures and money they grabbed from the Central Bank. Ortega and his wife live in a house seized from a former Contra enemy, who is now the revolutionary's vice-presidential candidate.

So why was fourth time the charm for Ortega? Part of the reason is demographics, Johnson said. Nicaraguans may vote at 16, and many of them "don't remember the Sandinistas as the bad guys," Johnson told WORLD. With fireworks and loud music on Ortega's campaign stops, "they see the Sandinistas as a party that goes out and has nice friendly rallies."

Washington, though, has fewer warm fuzzies. U.S. officials have threatened to cut off aid and said Nicaragua could lose $240 million in investments if Ortega meddles with the U.S-Central America-Dominican Republic Free Trade Agreement. Such actions would hurt, considering Nicaragua's small economy. Johnson gave this comparison: With 5 million people, Nicaragua's economy is worth about $4 billion a year-the same as Lebanon, Pa., a city of 124,000.

That's why Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and his oil money are so attractive. Chavez has eagerly backed Ortega and already has a deal supplying oil to Sandinista mayors. "Chavez will take Ortega's victory as his victory and trumpet it," Johnson said. An extension of Latin America's hard-left into now center-right Central America will also probably mean that Ortega will seek to influence his neighbors' elections. Still, Johnson says the Bush administration will need to maintain good relations with Ortega, while pressing him to remain democratic: "It's probably wise not to freeze him out, though it's not going to be easy to shake his hand."


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