Nicaragua's Ortega Signs Trade Pact

The Associated Press
Thursday, January 11, 2007; 9:13 PM

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Nicaraguan revolutionary Daniel Ortega's first day as president was spent signing a socialist trade pact with allies Venezuela, Bolivia and Cuba, and planning a meeting with Iran's hard-line president, actions sure to irritate the U.S. government.

Before taking office, Ortega assured Washington that he would maintain ties and remain part of the regional Central American Free Trade Agreement. But none of those promises were evident Thursday, during which he agreed to join Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, or ALBA, designed to serve as a counterweight to a U.S. proposed, hemisphere-wide trade deal.

"This act is a symbol of Latin America's desire to be independent," Ortega said.

On Sunday, Ortega was to host a daylong visit by a member of what President Bush has called "the axis of evil:" Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has refused U.S. calls to dismantle the country's nuclear program.

Appearing Thursday with Chavez, Bolivian leader Evo Morales and Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, one of the Cuban revolution's oldest surviving leaders, Ortega said he would continue to work with organizations like the International Monetary Fund, but only "so that they don't keep sacrificing the Nicaraguan people."

Morales praised Ortega for "seeking alternative economic policies," while Chavez lashed out against U.S. influence in the region, including the decade-long, Washington-backed Contra rebel movement that helped push Ortega from power 17 years ago.

"Think of what Nicaragua would be like today if the North American imperialists had allowed Daniel to continue his revolution!" he said.

He promised a slew of aid and investment, including 100,000 barrels of oil under preferential terms and the construction of an oil refinery and factories for Venezuelan products. Later, Ortega and Chavez signed agreements giving Nicaragua $20 million in loans with little or no interest for the country's rural poor as well as help improving health care and education.

Chavez announced his oil-rich nation would forgive $30 million in debt owed by Nicaragua and donate $10 million for Nicaraguan social projects.

Playing to the crowd, Chavez also donated tractors to several farmers who were in the crowd. Chavez announced the aid next to a metal electrical plant, donated by Venezuela shortly after Ortega's Nov. 5 victory.

"As soon as they said Daniel won, it was on a boat," Chavez said of the plant.

Also Thursday, Ortega signed a memorandum promising to maintain ties with Taiwan, dispelling rumors that he might cut ties with the island and seek stronger relations with China.

Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949, but Beijing still claims sovereignty over the island.

Nicaragua' new foreign minister, Samuel Santos, said the move was aimed at "assuring the continued investment, commerce and financing" from Taiwan.

Private investors have remained optimistic, and there are no signs they are pulling money out the country, as they did when Ortega began seizing private property and businesses in the 1980s.

Ortega led Nicaragua throughout the 1980s after his Sandinista rebel movement pushed out dictator Anastasio Somoza. Following his 1990 loss, he ran for president three consecutive times, losing twice before finally claiming victory in November.

© 2007 The Associated Press