If you listen to right-wing pundits and Republican officials, the return to power of former revolutionary Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua is not evidence of democracy in action but rather an invitation to Communist tyranny, terrorism and even nuclear holocaust. It appears that on November 5 Nicaraguans went to the polls and committed the sin of selecting a leader not in favor with the White House. With more than 60 percent of the votes now counted, Ortega has won 39 percent, while his nearest rival, right-wing banker Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, holds only 31 percent. In the five-way race for the presidency, this margin is enough to hand a victory to Ortega’s Sandinista-led coalition, giving the political party control of the executive for the first time since 1990.
A statistical sample of polling places suggests that Ortega’s lead will hold, and this likelihood has prodded US conservatives into some fits of fantastically overblown rhetoric. At the National Review, former Reagan and George H.W. Bush speechwriter Mark Klugmann writes, “a Nicaragua that opens its arms to murderous radicalism poses a threat for America and the world…. A nuclear North Korea and a nuclear Iran could be in position, with an ally so close to our porous frontier, to wreak the havoc we once thought only the Soviet Union could ever bring home.”
Of course, the fantasy that a small, poor and geopolitically marginal Central American nation could be a major threat to US national security is a throwback to cold war-era propaganda films like Red Dawn. It reflects the current foreign policy mindset of Washington conservatives but does not resemble anything like reality.
The return of Daniel Ortega to Nicaragua’s presidency hardly portends a menacing new danger for the US heartland. It does, however, mark two important developments in the rise of an increasingly independent Latin America. First, given concerted efforts on the part of the Bush Administration to influence the outcome of the election, it signals that US threats of retaliation may no longer be sufficient to keep Central American citizens from voting for leaders willing to buck Washington’s economic program. Second, in spite of Ortega’s standing as a deeply compromised political figure, his election provides a modest opening for hope that a new Nicaraguan administration might do a better job of addressing the country’s endemic poverty than have the past sixteen years of neoliberal rule.
The scare stories spun by conservative pundits like Klugmann echo the only somewhat more subtle alarmism voiced by Republican lawmakers in the lead-up to the Nicaraguan elections. In recent years, the White House has chosen to remain silent during many electoral contests in Latin America. This does not reflect a newfound respect for democratic self-determination; it is pragmatic. Washington learned the hard way that its admonitions can backfire when delivered to Latin America voters fed up with having economic policy dictated from the North–as was the case in Bolivia in 2002, when US attacks on Evo Morales helped him gain the stature that would ultimately propel him to the presidency this year. However, the United States has maintained an overt involvement in some elections, especially in cold-war hot spots Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Bush Administration efforts over the past year to prevent the Nicaraguan electorate from choosing Ortega were particularly heavy-handed. Violating diplomatic protocol, US Ambassador Paul Trivelli expressed an open preference for Ortega’s opponents, and he made repeated efforts to unite the Nicaraguan right around a single candidate. (He failed, and the divide among Nicaraguan conservatives helped pave the way for the Sandinistas’ victory.) Adding to Trivelli’s meddling, US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez suggested that more than $220 million in aid and hundreds of millions more in investments could be jeopardized if voters picked the wrong candidate.
In the last week of the campaign, several Republican members of Congress stepped up the threats. Most radically, they proposed to block the stream of money sent from Nicaraguan immigrants in the United States to impoverished family members back home in Central America. In an October 30 letter to Nicaraguan Ambassador Salvador Stadthagen, Representative Tom Tancredo wrote, “if the FSLN takes control of the government in Nicaragua, it may be necessary for the United States authorities to examine closely and possibly apply special controls to the flow of $850 million in remittances from the United States to Nicaragua–unfortunately to the detriment of many people living in Nicaragua.” In a public letter addressed to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Representatives Ed Royce and Peter Hoekstra added, “We share US Ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli’s assessment that an Ortega victory would force the United States to fully ‘re-evaluate’ relations with Nicaragua.”
With the memory of the United States’ debilitating economic embargo of the 1980s still fresh, Nicaraguan voters do not take suggestions of retaliation from Washington lightly. In 1990 the United States made clear that its embargo, as well as funding for terrorist contra forces, would continue if Ortega were re-elected. This blackmail played a decisive role in pushing the Sandinistas from office.
Ironically, even as the White House portrays Ortega as a committed and unrepentant leftist, the real concern is whether he has fully compromised the progressive ideals he once espoused as a leader in the movement that overthrew Nicaragua’s longstanding Somoza dictatorship. Ortega has been criticized by former partisans for keeping a tight hold on the leadership of the Sandinistas, quashing efforts to democratize the party and expelling members like former Managua Mayor Herty Lewites, who announced intentions to challenge Ortega’s power. In the 1990s, many of the most prominent cultural and intellectual figures in the Sandinista movement, including liberation theologian and poet Ernesto Cardenal, poet and novelist Gioconda Belli and Ortega’s former Vice President Sergio Ramirez, broke ranks to form a dissident party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement. In the first half of this year, Lewites made a strong showing as that party’s presidential candidate, but he suffered a massive heart attack and died in July, crippling the Renovation Movement’s efforts for the election cycle.
Beyond internal strife within the Sandinistas, Ortega’s record has been marred by public scandals. In 1998 a grown stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, accused Ortega of sexually abusing her for years, starting when she was an adolescent. The following year, Ortega brokered a pact with then-president Arnoldo Aleman, who was facing charges of corruption. El pacto, as the shady deal is ominously known in Nicaragua, allowed both men to avoid prosecution by granting them parliamentary immunity. It also made Ortega into one of the country’s most weighty power brokers by giving him control over many governmental appointments. While el pacto remains in place, Aleman was later stripped of his immunity and is now under house arrest, having been convicted of embezzling some $100 million from the government.
Despite Ortega’s many flaws, the return of the Sandinistas to power creates the possibility of change that can genuinely benefit Nicaragua’s poor. Ortega campaigned on a platform criticizing the “savage capitalism” implemented by the successive conservative governments that have ruled the country over the past sixteen years. In the decade and a half since the end of the contra war, neoliberal economic policies like privatizing public industries and creating “free trade” zones have failed to launch an economic recovery. Today Nicaragua ranks with Haiti and Bolivia among the poorest nations in the hemisphere.
It remains to be seen what Ortega’s political program will look like during his new term as president: whether he can be held accountable to the impoverished populations he claims to represent and whether his party can reverse trends of deepening hardship and desperation. But this is no reason not to applaud Nicaraguan voters who stood up to Republican threats, rejected a continuation of neoliberalism and demanded better of their government.