Nicaragua Elections: Ortega Appeals to a Higher Power

  • For the fourth time since his unceremonious electoral ousting from the presidential office in 1990, Daniel Ortega is looking to become the next leader of Nicaragua – and thanks to his forgiving supporters, along with his increasingly preachy sermons, he may achieve it
  • The U.S., in spite of the best covert efforts at intervention undertaken by Ambassador Paul Trivelli, has failed to bring cohesion to Ortega’s opposition and is likely to lose even more leverage in Latin America in the event of a Sandinista victory

In a campaign replete with warm-and-fuzzy rhetoric aimed at influencing the populace to look less critically at his infractions incurred during three-decades of public life, Daniel Ortega is once again running for president. Some analysts have concluded that this time he will not lose his bid as he did in 1990, 1996 and 2001, as his current closest competitor is straggling more than ten points behind him. However, looking beyond his evangelical-styled appearances at public rallies, where he never fails to pronounce the importance of reconciliation, it becomes increasingly apparent that Ortega does not really have a clearly etched platform regarding key issues such as land reform, free trade initiatives, workers’ rights or drug policy, only tactics of the day. Concomitantly, his likely victory has to be seen as providing momentum behind South America’s pink tide movement, and the strong likelihood that, to Washington’s great chagrin, he will develop some kind of a relationship with Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and Bolivia’s Evo Morales. One clue to the true nature of his presidential bid is the fact that his past enmity towards the U.S. obviously still runs deep, as shown in his periodic blasts at the “empire” given at whistle stops along his campaign trail. At the same time, however, his style has been to minimize the stormy history of Nicaragua’s past and future bilateral relations between the two countries. Come November 5, Nicaraguans will have to decide if Ortega really is the changed man he claims to be.

Ortega’s Obstacles to the Altar
The country’s once-bipartite political scene has expanded considerably, and now consists of a contest among four very different political wedges. According to the polls, Ortega, the indefatigable and self-perpetuating leader of the quasi-socialist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), retains 34.4 percent of the electorate. Although far from being a majority, this figure is preciously close to the 35 percent needed to secure him a win under Nicaraguan electoral law, which he helped to author. Eduardo Montealegre, the U.S.-educated businessman and political conservative who is the candidate of Washington as well as of the National Liberal Alliance (ALN), closely follows with 23 percent of the votes. With 19.3 percent backing and in third position sits Jose Rizo of the Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) — a man whose task has been made more difficult given that the party’s boss and former president, Arnoldo Alemán, has been found guilty of embezzlement and is under “house arrest” in Managua. Finally, Edmundo Jarquín leads the FSLN-breakaway Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), whose figure hovers around 10 percent. Since as much as 60 percent of the Nicaraguan electorate purportedly swears to never again vote for Daniel Ortega, Jarquín stands a good chance of attracting some of the votes of those who intellectually sympathize with Ortega’s original political vision but have come to detest the man himself.

Ortega: Holier Than Thou?
Ortega’s fame was launched with his ousting of dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and lasted throughout the 1980s when he had to contend with a U.S.-sponsored civil war that killed 30,000 Nicaraguans. In recent years, the sexagenarian Sandinista has skillfully altered his persona for an electorate that no longer sees him as a fiery revolutionary as much as a penitent cultivating the Catholic Church, and welcoming former ideological foes into his political folds. Indeed, by chance, Ortega expropriated the home of his vice-presidential running mate, Jaime Morales Carazo, a former negotiator for the Contras. Even though Ortega still occupies Ortega’s former residence, the ex-Contra still throws his weight behind his erstwhile adversary, convinced that Ortega is a changed man. Almost every speech that Ortega has given during this campaign season has centered on Nicaragua’s perceived desire for increased fraternal love. There have been few bitter jabs at opponents, and no underhanded remarks cast towards the current president and bitter past foe, Enrique Bolaños. According to Ortega, all Nicaragua really does need is love –and forgiveness.

Ortega could be on to something. By appealing to a religious electorate, of which nearly three-quarters are Roman Catholic, he is challenging the faithful masses to forgive him his past sins and come together as one. For example, the October 20 issue of the FSLN Boletín, an online Sandinista newsletter issued to a worldwide audience, features the brandishing of Ortega’s born-again faith. The first words that greet readers are, “What does Nicaragua want, what do we want in Nicaragua…? Work and Peace, Work and Peace! And, in order to have work and peace….What does there have to be? Reconciliation!”

Reconciliation is certainly in order. As president from 1985-1990, Ortega exacerbated the polarization of the country by embarking on a caudillo-styled rule, at the expense of his revolutionary goals. After seizing Somocista properties, not all of the land went to the state – some instead was distributed amongst Ortega and other Sandinista leaders. Both during and after his time in office, Ortega was accused by his detractors of quashing basic human rights guarantees, driving the economy into the ground and expelling key members of the Sandinista party (such as later presidential contender Herty Lewites, who stood a chance of pulling off a November victory under the MRS banner before he passed away in July of this year). But it was only after the rightwing Contra forces agreed to demobilize and Ortega lost the 1990 election to conservative Violeta Chamorro that the world began to see a different Sandinista leader.

Nine years after his ousting by Chamorro, and after being defeated yet again in the 1996 presidential race, Ortega consulted then-President Arnoldo Alemán, a hard-right conservative, with a power-sharing proposal that would satisfy the personal requirements of both men. At the time, Alemán desperately needed to solidify his own power base and ward off a growing swarm of critics who took him to task for his gross venality. He found Ortega’s suggestion – that they divvy up control of the nation’s basic institutions and seek legislative immunity from prosecution for any charges of delinquencies – highly attractive. Also, Alemán hoped that this step would alter the public’s perception that he was trying to rule as a dictator by promoting cooperation with the Sandinistas in order to help diversify his rule. Ironically, this allowed Alemán to rule with a heavier hand.

Once El Pacto was in effect, Ortega and Alemán revised legislation to permit a candidate who has 40 percent of votes, or 35 percent along with a 5 point or greater margin over his closest competitor, to be able to claim victory (which could be the key to Ortega’s victory on November 5) The two ex-presidents also awarded themselves seats in the National Assembly for life, which granted them the immunity that they both sought. According to plan, both have had to later invoke it – Ortega for sexual assault charges brought by his stepdaughter, and Alemán under fraud allegations. The Nicaraguan Parliament, however, under President Bolaños, later nullified Alemán’s immunity when evidence surfaced of his pilfering upwards of US$100 million in public funds.

Given Ortega’s past transgressions, some saw it as almost prophetic when he proclaimed, in a 1997 CNN interview, that his two role models in life are the Nicaraguan patriot Sandino, and Jesus Christ. Yet, some claim that Ortega remains more of a narcissist than a democrat. In a Lula-esque move, he has refused to participate in debates with his three opponents. He characteristically arrives in towns along his campaign route accessorized with pumping music, disco lights and fireworks, but not much content to his speech. This is hardly the deportment of a man who wishes to be seen as an apostolic penitent. The question on everyone’s mind, is how much has this man changed, if at all?

The U.S. Weighs in…
Washington appears poised to distance itself from an Ortega win for numerous reasons, the least of which bears important historical undertones. The leftist leader has a long, antagonistic shared past with Washington, which dates back to the peak of the Cold War in the 1980s. In a CNN interview, Ortega states that he and his fellow Sandinistas knew that a face-off with Washington was inevitable, though they hoped it would never reach a point of “geopolitical fatalism.” In a drive to avoid such confrontation, Ortega met with then-President Carter in mid-1979, when he asked the U.S. leader for economic and arms assistance. Ortega added that it would be a way for the U.S. to atone for past harm inflicted on his struggling nation by its aid to the Somoza dictatorship. Carter, given that conservative constituencies in the U.S. were already up in arms over Moscow’s allegedly growing influence in the hemisphere, and knowing that he would be committing political suicide for even broaching the topic to Congress, quickly turned down Ortega’s requests.

At this point, the Sandinistas appealed to the Soviet Union and Algeria for aid; after those deals were sealed, U.S. suspicions that Managua was the next Communist threat in the hemisphere became a growing fact of life in the waning days of the Carter administration. With the inauguration of President Reagan, matters heated up for Managua as his administration almost immediately began providing covert assistance to the Contras, an anti-Sandinista rightwing group formed in the early 1980s under CIA auspices to bring down the Ortega regime.

During a protracted proxy war, the U.S. took less and less pain to disguise its funding of the Contras, whose members Ortega described as “[acting] as tools of an imperialist policy.” Ortega still feels that without the U.S.’s training, arming and funding, there would have been no Contras and no rupture of Nicaragua’s civic life. A more personal grievance may be harbored by Ortega, who claims that the first Bush administration’s 1989 invasion of Panama and the overthrow of Manuel Noriega was a blow to Ortega’s domestic support base. This also led to the defeat of the Sandinistas in the following year’s Nicaraguan elections by an electorate that had been cowed into believing that Washington had to be granted its way, as was proven by its invasion of Panama.

With George W. Bush slated for another two years in office, an Ortega victory could prove to be quite a sharp thorn in the increasingly isolated American president’s side. Egged on by his brother Jeb, who in the 1980s was a full-time Contra booster, the Bush administration, through the instrumentality of its ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli and the International Republican Institute, has once again intervened in Nicaragua’s internal affairs by attempting to superimpose an anti-Ortega bloc on the nation, and to unite behind a conservative candidate that could match Ortega in polling strength by not splitting the anti- Sandinista vote.

According to a report issued by the Washington, DC-based Nicaragua Network, on April 5 Ambassador Trivelli wrote letters to the country’s major right-wing political leaders and presidential candidates, offering to help finance their campaigns. His office has neither confirmed nor denied these allegations. The International Republican Institute, a right-wing operation almost entirely funded by the Reagan-era Cold War instrument, the National Endowment for Democracy, has reestablished itself in the country to bring cohesion to the conservative bloc, as it did in Nicaragua’s 1990 presidential election. Program Officer Ivania M. Vega Rueda was quite candid concerning the organization’s influence in the small country, claiming that the IRI “created” the Movement for Nicaragua, a group which has staged several anti-FSLN and PLC marches. Also, the IRI has been working to strengthen the youth groups belonging to Montealegre’s conservative ALN-PC party. But despite all of these efforts, the U.S. has been unable to successfully unify Nicaragua’s right-wing parties, and Trivelli’s clumsy interventions may have inadvertently produced a backlash.

Those Nicaraguans who rebel against U.S. intrusion may choose to ally themselves with one regional figure who has outwardly declared his allegiance to Ortega – Hugo Chávez. The Venezuelan president has promised oil assistance to the poverty-stricken state while simultaneously announcing his support of Ortega’s electoral campaign in order to increase the tally of those sympathetic to the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Revolution, in contrast to the failed attempts by the U.S. at anti-Ortega solidarity.

Is a Change in the Air?
Thus far, Nicaraguans have bore witness to an intense effort spearheaded by the U.S. to ensure that its leading Central American Cold War foe doesn’t return to haunt the region. They simultaneously have refused to give credence to a scenario that sees the return of an Ortega who insists that he has exchanged his rifle for the peace sign, and promises pacification and good will rather than ideological strife. Despite Ortega’s increased propensity for preaching and his calls for redemption, in a September interview with the Christian Science Monitor, an old-style Ortega emerged to blast President Bush as “the Reagan of these times,” and reiterated his belief to some of his more fervent followers that “Yankee Reagan forbade peace…He wanted to bring death and destruction to the region.”

Nevertheless, there could be more than one Ortega at any given time, for while he rails against “savage capitalism,” his October 25 FSLN Boletín states that an Ortega administration looks forward to maintaining a meaningful relationship with the IMF. Perhaps the greatest factor working in Ortega’s favor is his talent as a performer. He has perfected his aura of devotional piety which could serve to blanket what may well be a carefully disguised desire for vengeance towards the U.S.

There is no doubt that, if elected, Ortega has the confidence and stamina to carry Nicaragua through the next four years. One can only wonder what would have resulted if, rather than having had to be a war president, he had had the opportunity to direct his mountains of energy into constructive initiatives, such as poverty alleviation. Unfortunately, years after he was elected out of office by a war-weary populace, Ortega chose to pursue a power-sharing agreement by immoral means for self-serving ends. Those voting in the November 5 elections will want to question, and with their eyes open, the depth of Ortega’s commitment to his recently acquired high-minded ideals, and compare his record with those of other candidates that do not possess such a complex past or carry such heavy baggage.