The Strange Return of Daniel Ortega

On November 5, the United States held an election in Nicaragua, and the candidate of El Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), Daniel Ortega, became the President of Nicaragua. It was the fifth consecutive time Ortega was the Sandinista candidate, from the 1984 slam dunk victory of the revolution when no Sandinista candidate could lose, through the electoral defeats of 1990, 1996, and 2001. This year, in a five party race, Ortega won the Presidency with 38% of the vote, despite the best efforts of the United States.

I observed the final week of the election with the Witness for Peace election delegation. Our 20 accredited observers in 8 municipalities joined over 11,000 Nicaraguan observers, and hundreds of international observers who were all certified by the Nicaraguan Supreme Electoral Council (Consejo Supemo Electoral, or CSE) to watch the voting on election day. The Carter Center, the Organization of American States, the Procuraduria de Derechos Humanos (PDDH, a Nicaraguan human rights ombudsman group) all were watching. Rodrigo Boneto, the Chief of Staff of the CSE, estimated that there were, on average, 1.7 observers at each of the 11,243 voting stations (Juntas Receptoras de Votos or JRV’s) in Nicaragua.

The United States financed the vast majority of these observers to guard against electoral fraud by the FSLN, through the Nicaraguan organization Ética y Transparencia, which placed over 11,000 Nicaraguans at the polling places. Ética y Transparencia did a “quick count” of results, in order to have a check on any possible fraud during the counting. All of this observation proved unnecessary. 65% of registered voters turned out in a peaceful and orderly fashion to make their choice. The Sandinistas had no need to try any illegal maneuvers. The US observer effort would be better directed to Ohio and Florida, where results are much more suspect than in a process where each political party watches every vote as it is hand counted.

Further, the United States trained the Nicaraguan CSE in the voting process. They also trained 48,000 poll officials from two political parties who were challenging Ortega in this race, the Movimiento Renovador Sandinisata (MRS) and the Alianza Liberal Nicarag_ense (ALN) after they requested assistance. In total, the United States Agency for International Develoopment (USAID), through the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and the International Foundation for Elections Systems spent about $15 million on this election. The US promoted the vote, published the lists of registered voters, paid for OAS observation, coordinated donors, and assisted the CSE. To place this spending in perspective, our group estimated that the Nicaraguan political parties spent, in total, $17 million on the campaign.

Before the election, United States officials and political players also intervened energetically in the campaign. Otto Reich, Jean Kirkpatrick, Jeb Bush, Oliver North, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Tom Shannon, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick, and US Ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli weighed in publicly on the elections. Trivelli offered to fund a primary among the right parties in order to identify one candidate to oppose Ortega, and thereby not split the vote. Congressmen Dan Burton and Dana Rohrabacher threatened to embargo the over $500 million a year in remittances that Nicaraguans send back to Nicaragua from the US. The US Embassy spokesperson, Kristin Stewart, linked Ortega and the Sandinistas to international terrorism. USAID official Adolfo Franco and US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez threatened a loss of jobs and aid if Nicaraguans chose Ortega.

On Thursday, November 2, our delegation visited the US Embassy in Managua for an off-the-record “Election Briefing for American Citizens in Nicaragua”. (Of course, they meant “United States Citizens”.) We passed into the gated compound, through a construction site that will soon be a series of concrete walls. The Embassy is a mansion on a hill overlooking Managua. To our surprise, Paul Trivelli and a group of State Department and USAID decision-makers were present. Trivelli’s short talk was instantly forgettable.

The USAID official present, however, laid it all out for us: the money spent, the groups used, the regrets. At one point he stated”If we had wanted to throw the elections, we could have invested about $2 million and probably done that.” The fact that Nicaragua was totally dependent on the United States for this election process did not seem the least bit objectionable to him. When I tried to reach him with my “Red Dawn” analogy, which runs along the lines of “How would you like it if your country were invaded for the purposes of establishing a political system that suited someone else?” The official responded, “We would never allow that.”

Nicaraguans do not have a choice. The United States owns the store, owns the customers, and all serve the needs of the Empire. When the OAS filed a complaint that the US should “respect the decision of Nicaraguans”, it was simply shrugged off. As our election delegation coordinator, Brynne Keith-Jennings, noted, “the very least Trivelli could do is to demonstrate due respect for the Vienna Convention on Diplomatic Relations, which states that ‘it is the duty of all persons enjoying such privileges and immunities not to interfere in the internal affairs of that State’.”

So it is no surprise that when Ortega accepted the concession of his closest rival, Eduardo Montealegre, on November 7, he was not smiling. He had returned to the Presidency after 16 years, but the challenge ahead is daunting. His party is compromised by the deals necessary to attain the office, and his nation has immense and immediate needs.

Nicaragua today is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti. Three fourths of the population of 5.6 million receive less than the minimum level of nutrition, and half receive “critically deficient” nutrition. One million school-aged children do not attend school. 55% do not have access to basic medicine. 45% live on less than $1 a day. Literacy has decreased 20% from 1990, to 67.5%. An increasing number are emigrating to Costa Rica and the United States to work. The United States waged the Contra War that claimed 50,000 Nicaraguan lives in the 1980’s in order to defeat the Sandinistas, and in the years of our influence, the country has declined with disastrous effects on the population.

Not that the country was in good condition in 1990, when Nicaragua was enduring a huge inflation rate, an 11 billion dollar debt, an infrastructure damaged by the contra, the shock of the war, a hated compulsory military service program, and the United States government. The United States not only kept the Contra War active throughout the 80’s, but also held out a well-publicized carrot during the 1989 ­ 1990 election period. They offered the candidacy of Violeta Chamorro to run against Daniel Ortega of the FSLN. She was the wife of the newspaper publisher Pedro Chamorro, whose assasssination in 1979 united Nicaragua against Somoza. In a well-funded billboard and newpaper campaign, the voters were told the war would end with the election of Violeta. The Nicaraguan voters rejected Ortega and achieved a dearly bought “peace”. After the election, Ortega and the Sandinistas accepted the results, but carried out a desperate pillaging of assets for personal gain, known in Nicaragua as the “piñata”.

Violeta promptly placed Nicaragua squarely under the neoliberal thumb of the US and the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, and The Interamerican Development Bank. She released the US from the 17 billion dollar judgment levied in favor of Nicaragua by the World Court. The assets and people of Nicaragua were literally sold at bargain prices. Since 1990, Nicaragua has gone through various “structural adjustment” fire sales of public assets and constrictions of public services at the insistence of the international predators.

In 1996, the US tilted, again, toward a unity candidate of the right, Arnoldo Alemán of the Partido Liberal Constitucionalista (PLC), who defeated Daniel Ortega of the FSLN. Arnoldo raised the art of political corruption to new heights, and increased the family fortunes to over $250,000,000, of which an estimated $100,000,000 came directly from government coffers. While Arnoldo was enriching himself at the expense of an impoverished population, Daniel was fighting off accusations that he had been sexually abusing his stepdaughter for years. The two men found common interest in uniting their parties, not in ideology, but in political control of the government and treasury. Thus was born a pact between the PLC of the right and the FSLN of the revolutionary left, known in Nicaragua as “El Pacto”. It divided the spoils of government, and also provided both Ortega and Aleman automatic Assembly seats, which carry with them immunity from criminal prosecution.

In 2001, the candidate of the united right under the banner of the PLC was Enrique Bolaños, Aleman’s Vice-President. Daniel Ortega, again, gained the nomination of the FSLN. By now, both parties had developed factions that opposed the leadership. Sandinistas such as Doña Maria Tellez, Sergio Ramirez and Ernesto Cardenal had been falling away from the Ortega-led party for years. They formed a party reform movement called Movimiento Renovador Sandinista (MRS). However, the power of patronage and El Pacto were used by both Alemán and Ortega, and the dissident factions were marginalized. Daniel had real chances to win in 2001, which were dashed with the attack on the Twin Towers. After 9/11, the US financed a campaign in Nicaragua that linked the Sandinistas to international terror, and Bolaños won.

After the 2001 elections, the US position began to twist back in a knot of contradiction, as both the US and Nicaragua brought criminal charges against Alemán and officials in his government. Bolaños was forced to strip Alemán of immunity, and oppose his own party in order to do so. Alemán was convicted of stealing government funds, and sentenced to prison. He continued to maintain his control over the PLC, however, even from prison. He is currently under “house arrest”, allowed to travel within the large area of the Department of Managua. His PLC candidate this year is José Rizo, and his daughter, Maria Dolores Alemán, is an Assembly candidate who figures prominently on campaign billboards around Managua.

The PLC had developed a faction that wanted to end the grip of Alemán. A group of rightwing parties formed under the banner of the Alianza Liberación Nicarag_ense (ALN), and presented a slate of candidates led by Presidential candidate Eduardo Montealegre. This candidate and party gained the favor of the US, which was clearly embarassed by the continued presence of Alemán in a position of political power. Our delegation met with ALN campaign leaders Commandante Henry Zelaya and Javier Llanes, ex-contra fighters. According to Commandante Henry, “We lost democracy 26 years ago.” He went on to extoll the virtues of life under Somoza, when the debt was less and the country, in general, better off than during the Sandinista years. These fervent anti-communists are reliving the cold war, and were the political darlings of the US government in this election.

In 2005, the popular FSLN ex-mayor of Managua, Herty Lewites, made a bid to become the presidential candidate of the Frente in 2006. Ortega would not allow a primary, and, when Herty would not back down, Ortega and the FSLN leadership expelled him from the party, along with other longtime Sandinistas such as Hugo Tinoco. This dispute led, finally, to the split of the MRS from the FSLN, with a ticket led by Herty as a Presidential candidate, Edmundo Jarquin, a banker and economist, Vice-President. In July, Herty died of a heart attack, and Edmundo became the MRS Presidential candidate, joined on the ticket by Carlos Mejía Godoy, the poet, musician and singer.

Thus it came to be that the Nicaraguan voter had four serious choices for President and Assembly, the established PLC of the right, its breakoff the ALN, and the FSLN of the former revolutionary left, with its breakoff MRS. It was analogous to a United States election in which the Republicans and Democrats each developed rump factions that ran candidates to return the parties to their roots, against the fattened-at-the-trough corporate parties.

There was a fifth choice as well, another blast from the past, Eden Pastora, the candidate for Alternativa por el Cambio (AC, or Alternative for Change). He was Commandante Zero in the FSLN during the years of the revolution, and became a popular hero for such exploits as the taking of the National Assembly. When I was in Nicaragua in 1983, he was sardonically referred to as “Commandante Kodak”, for his propensity for jumping in front of any camera. His inability to achieve leadership status within the Sandinista government led him to form his own counter-revolutionary force in Costa Rica, from which he would attack. He was back this year as a Presidential Candidate, with his chiseled features on billboards, for Zero Corruption, Zero Pact, etc: alas, also a zero vote, a quarter of a percent.

As the election aproached, it became clear that the FSLN and Daniel Ortega were running in the lead. Daniel could count on a base 40% vote in this five candidate race. He would never get more than that base, however, as his history of corruption since 1990, and bad memories of a 1980’s war give him high negatives. He would never win a runoff, in a one on one race, which was what the Constitution demanded through the 2001 election if no one gained a majority on the first ballot. The solution for Ortega had been to mobilize El Pacto to change the constitution, to allow a President to win with 35% of the vote, as long as he was 5% ahead of the next challenger. As long as both a PLC and ALN candidate remained in the race, he had a good chance to reach the Presidency. Indeed, Ortega’s 38% was just enough compared to 29% for the ALN, 26% for the PLC and 6% for the MRS.

Daniel and the Sandinistas also made concessions to the right. On a personal level, Daniel “confessed” publicly of his sins of the 80’s to the conservative cleric Obando y Bravo. The Sandinista Party allied itself with the conservative Catholic Church to outlaw all abortion, in the weeks before the election. Nicaragua has had a law on the books for a century that allowed a woman to obtain an abortion in cases of rape, incest, or when her life was in danger. The law passed by the Nicaraguan Assembly in October, 52-0, outlaws all abortion. Already, a well-publicized case of a woman who died while attempting to receive care for a dangerous pregnancy has hit the papers, which ran a photo of her in her casket, with her dead fetus on her stomach. It was difficult to listen to Sandinista militants trying to justify their party’s support for this law.

The Sandinistas support an environmentally disastrous canal that would run in the San Juan River and through Lake Nicaragua. The Sandinista Vice-President, Jaime Morales Carazo, was a contra spokesperson during the war, and is a close associate of Alemán, godfather to his children. One of the leading forces in the FSLN is Rosario Murillo, Daniel Ortega’s wife and campaign manager. (They were married after years of co’habitation during the campaign by Obando y Bravo.) She fashioned a campaign that included John Lennon’s song “Give Peace a Chance” (in Spanish, “Lo que queremos, paz y amor, queremos la paz”), and a change in the FSLN colors to a hideous shocking pink and yellow, instead of the traditional red and black.

All of which is to highlight the clumsiness, the hypocrisy and inutility of US foreign policy in Nicaragua. The heavy-handed opposition to Ortega is simply not necessary. Luis Carrión, the chief of the MRS campaign, noted that it seems to be the policy makers of the Reagan years that still control the US government have an irrational hatred of Ortega ­ it is an impulse, not a policy. Ortega is not an ideologically driven foe, but a leader of a highly impoverished, small nation, just trying to survive. In his brief and sombre acceptance speech, Daniel spoke of opening up the country for investment, not of opening the country to the South. The Assembly will make him a weak President, as the seats will break down to 37 for the Sandinistas, 30 for the ALN, 18 for the PLC and 6 for the MRS, giving a clear majority to the rightwing parties.

One factor raised often by US leaders is the spectre of Chavez. In the war of words, Chavez is never a “democratic” force. He is accused of intervening in the elections. The Venezuelan oil and fertilizer aid was used to justify US intervention by USAID officials. There is no substance to this argument, or in the charges that the FSLN has links to terror groups. Venezuela, Cuba, the FSLN, a Hamas government in Palestine, are attacked by US policy makers because they have a capacity for sovereignty, which cannot be tolerated in the ever-expanding sphere of influence of the Empire.

Our delegation heard the hopes of people working among the poor and in civil society, perhaps to get a Cuban doctor in their community, to have real solidarity aid from Chavez and Venezuela. They have no illusions about any quick fixes. They expressed to our delegation their understanding that the Nicaraguan government, including Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, has abandoned them for 16 years. They will continue their work, and do not look for big changes with any election. Ortega’s seemingly impossible task is to balance the demands of the US, the bankers and the polarized domestic political landscape with the need of his people for a change.

JOE DeRAYMOND lives in Freemansburg, PA. He can be reached at: