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Sandinista leader hoping for return in nicaragua

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Posted 10/6/2005 7:21 PM
Ortega hoping for a second act in Nicaragua
By Danna Harman, USA TODAY

EL JICARAL, Nicaragua Little has changed in this village in the past two decades: Women still wash clothes in the river. Cattle graze between cactuses. Cowboys drink beer at the local cantina.

And in a flashback to the 1980s, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega holds forth at an evening rally in the town square, railing to a small crowd of farmers about the evils of capitalism and the United States. "The U.S. no longer rules Latin America!" he thundered in the dark last month. "The yanquis no longer rule Nicaragua!"

Fifteen years after he was swept from office, the Marxist revolutionary is on the campaign trail, hoping to join a growing band of left-of-center politicians and populists to take power in Latin America.

Ortega, 59, expects to be one of three candidates in presidential elections tentatively scheduled for November 2006. A victory for him would be a setback for the Bush administration, which has watched as Argentina, Venezuela, Brazil and Bolivia have distanced themselves from the liberal markets and conservative social policies championed by President Bush.

Ortega has trailed in opinion polls, but his chances have been improved by his unusual alliance with ex-President Arnold Aleman, a conservative who was convicted of corruption but has kept control of the Constitutional Liberal Party. The two politicians have a "corrupt pact" and are pushing Nicaragua toward a "creeping coup," said U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick during a visit to Managua this week.

Sex-abuse allegations

An Ortega triumph would mark an extraordinary personal comeback. Voters kicked him out of office in 1990 presidential elections and rejected him again in 1996 and 2001. In the meantime, he has been forced to deny accusations that he pocketed national bank funds and gave nationalized land to Sandinista cronies in the 1980s. More recently, his stepdaughter accused him of sexually abusing her when she was a child. (A Nicaraguan court dismissed rape charges against Ortega in the case.) The aging guerrilla still heads the Sandinistas the second-largest bloc of seats in Nicaragua's parliament but his party has been beset by infighting and defections by other revolutionaries.

Ortega is currently running third, according to a poll by B&A, a Costa Rican polling company. Support for former Sandinista Herty Lewites is at 35%; center-right candidate Eduardo Montealgre has 23%; Ortega has 20%.

The country's electoral commission, where Ortega has close ties, has ruled against a runoff of the top two candidates as long as someone on the ballot claims at least 35% of the vote the Sandinistas' traditional level of support.

On the stump, Ortega issues vague promises of help for Nicaragua's poor: more schools, free health care but few details on how to pay for it. He says he will fight against approval of the Central America Free Trade Agreement, a trade deal with the United States and neighboring countries modeled on NAFTA. Beyond that, he vows to battle what he says is U.S. interference in Nicaraguan affairs.

"Conditions are ripe for triumph," Ortega says. "We will win. And we will wield great power here."

Ortega's political resurrection has been greeted with alarm in Washington. Ortega's democratic credentials are "very doubtful," says U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli, who became the top U.S. envoy to Nicaragua recently.

Roger Noriega, until recently the Bush administration's top envoy to Latin America, told the Managua newspaper La Prensa that the Sandinista leader is a "hoodlum." Nicaragua would "sink like a stone and reach depths such as those of Cuba," if the Sandinistas returned to power, Noriega said.

Ortega's clashes with the United States date to 1981. That's when the Reagan administration, fearing a communist threat in the region, began organizing and funding contra rebels to fight the Sandinista government from bases in neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica.

An Ortega victory in November would leave Latin America with a third U.S. antagonist in the region, along with Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez. It would "raise the morale of Latin America," Ortega says. "Other countries will say, 'Look, that small country got away with it. So can we!' We will spread the revolution."

Victor Borge, director of B&A, doesn't expect it to happen. Moderates dominate politics elsewhere in Central America. El Salvador, Costa Rica, Panama and Honduras have largely rejected calls toward the socialist policies that were in vogue in the 1980s, just as they have avoided the strident anti-Americanism emanating from much of South America today.

"If Ortega manages to come to power in 2006, it would indeed symbolically be a big deal and might motivate other leftists," he says. "But that doesn't seem in tune with the mood in the region."

Still, U.S. interference in the election would help Ortega, says Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who hosts a political show on Nicaraguan TV and is a former editor of the Sandinista newspaper Barricada.

Washington is stuck in the past, Chamorro says. The Bush administration officials running U.S. policy in Latin America "are all leftovers from the '80s, who still behave like we are in the middle of the Cold War," he says. "Every time Washington attacks Ortega, his supporters close ranks."

Otto Reich, a consultant who was a key architect of U.S. policy in the region under Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, shoots back: "Ortega is a communist. ... If he wins, there will be no foreign investment and no U.S. aid."

Reich says Ortega is "trying to cook the election" by getting Sandinista opponent Lewites disqualified and persuading the electoral commission to lower the threshold for the presidency to 35% of the vote.

Ortega is the one who is "stuck in the '60s and acting like a Bolshevik," says Reich. Talk of U.S. interference is "a joke," he says.

Still taking on Reagan

Nicaragua is the hemisphere's second-poorest country after Haiti. Forty-five percent of its 5.5 million people live on less than $1 a day, says Adolfo Acevedo, a Managua economist. He says a third of the population over age 15 is illiterate.

To the faithful on the campaign trail, Ortega offers more nostalgia than concrete plans for the future. "Bush is the Reagan of these times," he tells a crowd in the scorching sun of Santa Rosa del Pinon, a mountain village. He relishes the chance to tell of battles gone by. "Yanqui Reagan forbade peace," he yells. "He wanted to bring death and destruction to the region."

Adults cheer, children step forward for free Sandinista bandannas. Old rebel anthems blare from loudspeakers. Ortega's wife, revolutionary poet Rosario Murillo, thrusts her thin arms into the air.

Lewites says he does not share Ortega's obsession with the United States, adding that he isn't seeking Washington's approval, either. "I think we should maintain good relations with the U.S. We need each other," he says. "I will be respectful but firm."

Ortega insists the United States is the issue for voters. Elections here "are a confrontation between the U.S. and the Sandinista front," he says. "The U.S. will do anything to decimate us. But we are here."

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