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Post-Cold War Blues in Latin America

Dealing with Ortega

by NADIA MARTINEZ

For the Bush administration, it wasn’t just the U.S. elections that brought bad news last week. Citizens of Nicaragua voted Nov. 5 to return former leftist President Daniel Ortega to power.

In what seems like a case of Cold War blues, U.S. officials had unsuccessfully attempted to sway the elections in favor of Mr. Ortega’s opponents. The meddling backfired, however.

Nicaragua, a country ravaged by decades of dictatorship and civil war, is second only to Haiti as the poorest country in Latin America and the Caribbean. With almost 80% of its population living in poverty, it is hardly a threat to American security interests. And yet right-wing pundits, engaging in outdated and unfounded predictions of democratic regression, went to great lengths to prevent a victory by Mr. Ortega’s Sandinista Party.

Mr. Ortega was a leader of the revolutionary movement against the prolonged and brutal Somoza dictatorship, and he ruled Nicaragua in the midst of a war against the U.S.-backed contra rebels. Since losing the elections in 1990, he has been the target of accusations-from corruption and abuse of power as a member of Nicaragua’s legislative assembly, to sexual abuse by his stepdaughter. But Nicaraguan voters were willing to give Mr. Ortega another chance.

While the Bush administration has managed to keep surprisingly quiet in this year’s dozen or so other Latin American elections, U.S. officials, including Ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli and Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, made public threats of reprisals if Nicaraguans voted for Mr. Ortega.

As election day drew near and Mr. Ortega remained the favorite in the polls, Republican members of Congress stepped up the pressure by threatening to cut off aid and block the millions in remittances that immigrants living in the United States send to their poor families in Nicaragua every year.

Nicaraguans are all too familiar with U.S. economic embargoes and military bullying. They experienced both during the 1980s, the last time the Sandinistas were in the presidency. This time around, voters didn’t budge.

With Mr. Ortega in power, Nicaragua joins the ranks of countries in Latin America whose voters are using the power of democracy to show political leaders their discontent with their governments’ corporate-friendly, free-trade policies.

Latin Americans from Bolivia to Argentina are electing politicians who have been critical of free-market reforms and are promising more socially focused government programs that help the poor.

The Bush administration should take the Nicaraguan election as an opportunity to rethink its policies toward Latin America.

NADIA MARTINEZ was born and raised in Panama. She is co-director of the Sustainable Energy and Economy Network, a project of the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.