An Old Bogeyman Makes a Comeback in Nicaragua

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Few places on earth deserve a break more than Nicaragua does. For most of the last century, it was devastated by natural disasters like the massive 1972 Managua earthquake, brutalized by the Somoza family dictatorship and then betrayed by the venal incompetents of the Sandinista Front even as it was scarred by the U.S.-backed ontra war of the 1980s. But as the Western hemisphere's third poorest nation goes to the polls this Sunday to elect a new president, it looks set to prolong if not worsen its misery — thanks, in part, to Washington's failure to give Nicaragua's voters enough incentive to look to the future for leadership instead of reaching into the past.

Leading in the polls is former President Daniel Ortega — the leftist Sandinista whom Nicaraguans tossed out in 1990 after he presided over a civil war-torn decade of Marxist authoritarianism and economic disaster. Ortega was a bona fide guerrilla hero who had helped lead the Sandinista insurrection that overthrew the tyrant Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979. But Ortega proved to be a clueless and corrupt head of state, and after his 1990 electoral humiliation, he had looked set for the Cold War scrap heap. He failed in presidential bids in 1996 and 2001, and in 1998 his stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, accused him of sexually molesting her throughout the 1980s and stalking her in the '90s, a charge Ortega denies.

Improbable as it may seem, Ortega, now 60, has reemerged as the frontrunner in Nicaragua's presidential race through his alliance with an unlikely chum, former President Arnoldo Aleman. The corpulent Aleman would seem to be the skinny Ortega's antithesis — an arch-conservative Somoza acolyte elected President in 1996 in a wave of nostalgia for the pre-Sandinista days. But as President from 1997 to 2002, Aleman stole tens of millions of dollars from public coffers, including $1.8 million he charged on a government credit card for his wedding in Miami to a woman 22 years his junior. Aleman's embezzlement binge was too much even for Nicaragua's notoriously crooked system: He was convicted and sentenced in 2003 to 20 years in prison. Due to unspecified "health" reasons, he's allowed to serve his time under house arrest, where he still commands a large faction of his powerful Liberal Constitutionalist Party.

Aleman's record didn't deter Ortega from cozying up to his erstwhile nemesis, and in 2000 the Sandinistas struck a cynical deal with the Liberal Constitutionalists to control Nicaragua's Congress (which this month passed a controversial total ban on abortion) and its courts, and to freeze out the country's more moderate parties. One key dividend for Ortega: In 2001 a Sandinista judge dismissed Narvaez's sexual abuse charges against Ortega, despite the fact that the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an arm of the Organization of American States, has ruled that her case has merit. The dismissal, along with the new power Ortega has amassed in recent years via his alliance with Aleman, has helped make the Sandinista leader Sunday's front-runner, with 30% or more of the vote in recent polls. And under new electoral rules written by the Sandinista-Liberal partnership, Ortega needs to win only 35%, and defeat his closest opponent by at least 5 percentage points, to avoid a runoff election. The race could be close, however, with a right-of-center candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, nipping at Ortega's heels.

The prospect of an Ortega victory has Washington alarmed — especially after the Reagan Administration had worked so obsessively in the 1980s to topple the Sandinistas, and because the Bush Administration had urged Aleman's prosecution as part of a wider crackdown on corruption in Latin America. Ortega is also a friend of Bush's hemispheric archfoes, Cuba's communist leader Fidel Castro and Venezuela's radical leftist President Hugo Chavez. The Bush Administration, in fact, has warned that if Ortega wins it may cut U.S. aid to Nicaragua.

But if the Sandinista leader wins, Washington in many ways will simply be reaping the fruits of its own neglect. Nicaragua emerged from the contra war an economic basket case, and despite having played such a major role in fueling that conflict, the U.S. has not done enough to help the country back onto its feet. Nicaragua may simply be echoing the theme playing out all over Latin America right now, where U.S.-backed capitalist reforms have failed to reverse an epic gap between rich and poor, prompting voters to turn to leftists like Chavez. Seeing little to like in their immediate future, Nicaraguan voters could be poised to turn back the clock.