Back by Unpopular Demand: Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega

By Roger F. Noriega
Special to's Think Tank Town
Monday, October 9, 2006; 12:00 AM

The triumph of democracy in Latin America is one of the great success stories of the 20th century. The United States played no small part in that victory, and has reaped substantial political and economic benefits since. But one of the cornerstones of Latin (and particularly Central) America's democratic transformation is sliding back toward the abyss: Sandinista dictator Daniel Ortega stands poised to seize back leadership of Nicaragua, the nation he and his Sandinista cronies nearly destroyed in the 1980s.

An Ortega win may well undo all the benefits Central America reaped in years of war and sacrifice. And while his resurrection will surely be an embarrassment to the United States, the region's democratically elected leaders have a great deal more to lose. They fear that a Sandinista rebound will wreak havoc in a region that has taken great strides toward economic integration and political stability; worse still, it will invigorate the axis of leftist proto-dictators led by Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chávez.

An Ortega victory will scare capital away and slow Nicaragua's sputtering economy -- only now beginning to recover after a decade of Sandinista misrule. Most importantly, a Sandinista victory could easily reverse current democratic trends and devastate a promising North-South partnership based on free people and free markets.

Right now, Ortega leads in most polls, but he is not the shoo-in some fear. After decades of misrule, many Latin Americans are leery of the populist left. Chavista candidates were defeated in recent elections in Peru and Mexico.

Two candidates have a chance to stop Ortega: Eduardo Montealegre, who leads the National Liberal Alliance ticket, and Edmundo Jarquín, a former official of the Inter-American Development Bank, who inherited the nomination of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (the anti-Ortega Sandinista party) upon the July 2, 2006, death of Herty Lewites. Former Vice President José Rizo -- who is supported by former President Arnoldo Alemán -- has no chance of being elected notwithstanding support from interested outsiders.

Nicaragua has been hit hard by spiraling oil prices, and the country has experienced blackouts in the middle of the presidential campaign, yet Ortega, Rizo, and Jarquín appear to be flush with cash thanks to donations from Chávez. The Venezuelan President's pledge of cheap oil and donations of fertilizer through a network of Sandinista mayors  -- as well as rumored cash contributions -- have given Ortega in particular a decided advantage.

The candidate with the fewest resources by far, Montealegre appears to be the candidate with the greatest commitment to democratic values and honest government. A capable technocrat who served as foreign minister under Alemán and as finance minister under current president Enrique Bolaños, he is the only one favorably disposed to the United States. Most experienced Nicaragua-watchers agree that if Montealegre gets the resources he desperately needs in the next few weeks to run a credible campaign, demonstrate his viability, and unify the Liberal vote, he can hand Ortega his fourth electoral defeat.

Most Nicaraguans are eager to climb to a brighter future, but they have been (and remain) ill-served by corrupt leaders on both the left and right. From 1979 until 1990, Ortega led a Cuban-style dictatorship, denying Nicaraguans their basic political freedoms, confiscating private property to benefit his cronies, and wrecking the Nicaraguan economy. His plans were undone by Nicaraguan democrats, and by an armed campesino guerrilla movement (the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan Resistance) that resisted oppression and demanded genuine elections.

Arnoldo Alemán, who took office in 1997 until 2001, proceeded to rebuild the disciplined Liberal Party political machine of Anastasio Somoza. His well-oiled machine defeated the Sandinistas handily in two successive presidential elections (1996 and 2001) and provided a nationwide platform that rivaled the Sandinista National Liberation Front's (FSLN) network.

Tragically, although Alemán may have had the best interests of the country at heart at the beginning of his presidential term, his notorious corruption and efforts to manipulate the state to destroy his political rivals proved to be his undoing. In an attempt to outflank Sandinista obstructionism and consolidate his own power, Alemán forged a pact (el pacto) with Ortega in 1999 that offered the FSLN just enough of a stake in government that it might give Nicaragua some political stability and permit economic recovery but would also set up the Sandinistas as a permanently disadvantaged opposition.

The result of this cynical power-sharing arrangement, converted various branches of Nicaragua's government into partisan instruments, used by Alemán and Ortega to harass their political opponents and, quite frequently, one another.

One characteristic that Alemán and Ortega have in common is dread of an honest, effective state that might hold them accountable, so the outcome of the 2006 elections is of paramount importance to both men. In addition to rigging the electoral apparatus by installing malleable cronies on the country's Supreme Electoral Council, they continue to abide by the contrived formula of el pacto in which a presidential candidate can win a first-round victory by garnering just 35 percent of the vote and leading his nearest competitor by five percentage points -- a deal which would give Ortega every opportunity to win a first-round victory.

Although Nicaragua is a poor country today, the fault lies primarily with wrong-headed leadership. Time and again, Nicaraguans from all walks of life -- particularly the very poor who were among the first to resist the Sandinista dictatorship -- have been afforded the opportunity to make decisions for themselves and have chosen wisely. International friends can and should help ensure a free and fair election. But Nicaraguans must look first to each other to take back their country and put it on a course toward greater social equity, sustained economic growth, and political stability. We can only hope they do not betray their own best interests.

AEI Visiting Fellow Roger F. Noriega coordinates the American Enterprise Institute's program on Western Hemisphere issues. He was Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs from 2003 to 2005, and United States ambassador to the Organization of American States from 2001 to 2003. Prior, he served as a staff member for the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and the House Committee on International Relations.

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