Sandinista Aims for Comeback in Nicaragua

By N.C. Aizenman
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, July 23, 2006

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Sixteen years after voters swept Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua's presidency, the former Marxist icon appears to have his best chance yet for a comeback in elections scheduled for Nov. 5.

The bloc of staunch anti-Ortega voters who denied him victory by backing the rightist Liberal Party in three previous elections has been fractured by the recent emergence of popular splinter parties on both the left and the right.

Ortega, 60, whose armed revolution made him the Reagan administration's chief antagonist in the hemisphere during the 1980s, is also getting a boost this time from Washington's current bête noir in Latin America: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Among other shows of support, Chávez recently bypassed Nicaraguan President Enrique Bolaños and negotiated a deal directly with Ortega to sell oil to Nicaragua under a long-term credit scheme intended to free more government funds for social spending.

Yet in recent elections in Peru and Mexico, Chávez's backing has proved a mixed blessing for the losing candidates. And the shifting political landscape could prove Ortega's undoing if a breakaway Sandinista party, known as the Sandinista Renovation Movement, or MRS, manages to peel off more of Ortega's traditional supporters in the next several months.

The rise of so many strong parties also threatens to upend a long-standing power-sharing pact between Ortega's Sandinistas and the Liberals -- which have largely divvied up control of the National Assembly, the courts and the council of elections supervisors.

"It's a completely unprecedented moment for Nicaragua," said Carlos Chamorro, a prominent journalist and political analyst here, and a son of former Nicaraguan president Violeta Chamorro. "We've always had the pro-Ortega vote and the anti-Ortega vote, and it was always predictable that Ortega would lose. Now we're talking about four competitive parties. The outcome is totally uncertain."

Whiffs of change were evident last week even at one of Nicaragua's most traditional political events, the annual rally held in the capital to commemorate the anniversary of the Sandinistas' 1979 overthrow of U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. As usual, weather-beaten, dewy-eyed veterans of the ensuing civil war against U.S.-funded contra guerrillas turned out in force, pumping their fists as they belted out revolutionary songs to the accompaniment of guitar music. Teenage girls and boys -- far too young to remember the revolution or the contra war -- squealed as Ortega jogged to the podium, looking heavier than when he first marched into Managua at age 33. He sported jeans, a white shirt and a Nicaraguan flag draped over his shoulders in place of military fatigues, but he was still instantly recognizable by his mustache.

When Ortega asked for a moment of silence to honor the most recent Sandinista luminary to die this year, there was an awkward ripple through the crowd. No one needed reminding that Managua's folksy, beloved former mayor, Herty Lewites, 66, had been expelled from the Sandinista party for challenging Ortega and was running for president on the MRS's ticket when he suffered a fatal heart attack earlier this month.

Indeed, so many former Sandinistas have become disaffected with Ortega that for the first time since the revolution they held an alternative anniversary commemoration in the nearby city of Masaya.

"Daniel and his group don't fulfill their promises," Victor Hugo Tinoco, a leading member of the MRS, said in an interview in Managua afterward. "The majority of them have become millionaires. They are now just a powerful economic group whose only goal is to protect its interests by using anti-democratic means to control the party, and by using false leftist speech and inflammatory anti-American rhetoric to gain the support of Nicaraguan society."

Ortega was leading the opinion polls with as much as 30 percent in this nation of 5.6 million people just before the death of Lewites, who had about 17 percent. Much now depends on how many Lewites supporters remain loyal to his successor, Edmundo Jarquín, 59, an economist and former Sandinista diplomat who is politically astute but less known.

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