Ortega's Victory: Another Administration Blunder?

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The U.S. Congress wasn't the only place the Bush Administration suffered electoral embarrassment this week. In Nicaragua, cold-war bogeyman Daniel Ortega — whose Marxist Sandinista government had been an obsession of the Reagan Administration — was elected president again on Sunday despite frantic U.S. lobbying for his defeat. By most accounts, the yanqui politicking — which included a threat to cut off U.S. aid to impoverished Nicaragua if Ortega won — backfired miserably, actually helping boost the Sandinista leader to his first-round victory. That such U.S. pressure tends to work in favor of its opponents is a lesson Washington seems woefully unable to learn in a post-Cold War Latin America whose electorates have unexpectedly turned leftward in recent years.

The election of Ortega — who won with 38% of the vote, about 8 points ahead of his U.S.-backed opponent, conservative banker Eduardo Montealegre — is no doubt a concern. After he and Sandinista guerrillas toppled Nicaragua's brutal dictator, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, in 1979, Ortega led an authoritarian, Soviet-backed regime that wrecked the economy and fought a civil war with U.S.-backed contra rebels that killed some 50,000 people. Ortega was finally ousted in a 1990 election, and for the past 16 years, during which he twice failed to recapture the presidency, he seemed little more than a relic of the communist era.

But a decade after communism's collapse, Latin American voters began to express their anger at the failure of Washington-backed capitalist reforms and free trade agreements to narrow the epic gap between rich and poor in the region. That backlash has helped Ortega, 60, who insists his politics are more moderate today — he is widely viewed as more of a cynical opportunist than a radical Marxist — to take advantage of a divisive feud inside Montealegre's Liberal Constitutionalist Party that ended up splitting its vote this year. As Ortega's poll numbers climbed, the Bush Administration went into panic mode, publicly campaigning against him as it decried equally unabashed efforts by Venezuela's left-wing anti-U.S. president, Hugo Chavez, to boost Ortega. Roger Noriega, who until last year was Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, wrote that an Ortega presidency would "invigorate the axis of leftist proto-dictators led by" Chavez. Familiar Cold Warriors like former U.S. Marine Colonel Oliver North, a cynosure of the Contra war, started showing up in Managua to denounce the Sandinista leader. And U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez even warned recently that the Administration might suspend its almost $100 million in annual aid to Nicaragua if Ortega won.

The aid threat was reminiscent of a similar one made by then-U.S. Ambassador to Bolivia Manuel Rocha in 2002 regarding left-wing presidential candidate and Chavez acolyte Evo Morales. In Bolivia, the perception of imperious yanqui meddling helped turn Morales into a front-runner who was eventually elected President last year. Gutierrez did much the same for Ortega, says Ortega's running mate, Jaime Morales, a former Contra leader whose house had been confiscated by Ortega in the 1980s (Ortega has since paid him for the home) but who has reconciled and allied with Ortega. "I don't blame the U.S. for all of Nicaragua's problems as many do," says Morales. "But the U.S. and President Bush and his officials still seem to be in a Cold War hangover. They need to realize the Cold War has ended."

The Bush Administration did seem to get it this past summer during Mexico's presidential election. It kept quiet about its support of conservative candidate Felipe Calderon, while his leftist opponent, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, allowed himself to be painted as a Chavez clone. The result was a narrow Calderon victory. This week, perhaps chastened by the result in Nicaragua, the Administration backed off its aid threats and instead swallowed the fact that one of America's most reviled Cold War nemeses is now a democratically elected head of state. "We congratulate the Nicaraguan people," a State Department spokesman said, "for conducting peaceful elections and demonstrating their commitment to democracy."

— With reporting by Elaine Shannon/Washington