Remember Daniel Ortega? He's back.
EL JICARAL, NICARAGUA
Little seems to have changed in this small rural village in the past two decades: women are down by the river doing their washing, cattle are roaming among the cacti, cowboys are drinking beer at the canteen, and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is in the town square, holding forth on the evils of capitalism and the United States.Skip to next paragraph
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"The US no longer rules Latin America!" Mr. Ortega thunders into the dark night. "The Yankees no longer rule Nicaragua!" The small crowd of farmers hoist their black and red Sandinista flags high and chant: "Daniel, Daniel!"
Fifteen years after unexpectedly being voted out of power, and with two unsuccessful runs for the presidency since, the iconic head of the Marxist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) is back on the campaign trail. Ortega, a name many US officials had hoped to consign to the history books, has a fighting chance of returning to power.
Just staying in the running has looked doubtful for Ortega at times. His credibility has taken a beating since he signed a self-serving pact in 1999 with political rival and former President Arnoldo Aleman, now serving a 20-year sentence for embezzlement; his grown-up stepdaughter accused him in 1998 of abusing and raping her for years; and his former comrade-in-arms Herty Lewites is now running against him, mounting the first serious challenge to his leadership from within the Sandinista ranks.
But despite it all, Ortega says he is confident the November 2006 elections will put him back in the presidential palace. Even his critics say divisions within the ruling party, coupled with Ortega's grip on the electoral machine, make his resurrection possible. "Conditions are ripe for triumph," says Ortega in a late-night interview in Managua. "We will win, and we will wield great power here."
Washington, which backed the contra rebels in a civil war against Ortega's government of the 1980s until he lost the 1990 election, is none too pleased with the prospect. After toppling the Somoza family dictatorship in 1979, Ortega's Soviet-backed Sandinistas sparked widespread US intervention in Central America to counter what Washington saw as a communist threat in the region.
Roger Noriega, the Bush administration's outgoing top envoy to Latin America (who has called Ortega a "hoodlum"), told the Managua newspaper La Prensa last month that if the Sandinistas returned to power, Nicaragua would "sink like a stone and reach depths such as those of Cuba."
Ortega's democratic credentials "are very doubtful," sniffed US Ambassador Paul Trivelli, taking up his new post in the country this week.
"The triumph of the Sandinistas will raise the morale of Latin America," says Ortega, tapping into the Bush administration's worst fears of a growing left-leaning, populist, anti-American movement on the continent, led by Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. "Other countries will say - 'look, that small country got away with it - so can we!' We will spread the revolution." There is an alternative, he whispers, his voice hoarse from weeks of rallies, "to succumbing to the American Empire."
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a former editor of the Sandinista newspaper Barricada, says too much US interference in the lead up to the election could actually help Ortega. The problem with Washington, he argues, is that they are stuck in the past. "The new right running Latin America policy are all leftovers from the '80s, who still behave like we are in the middle of the cold war," he says. "Every time Washington attacks Ortega, his supporters close ranks."
Otto Reich, a chief architect of President Ronald Reagan's policy against the Sandinistas and today a private consultant, shoots back: "Ortega is a communist, or whatever he calls himself," says Mr. Reich, in a phone interview from Washington. "If he wins, there will be no foreign investment and no US aid." Washington might see the world through '80s glasses, he concedes, but Ortega "...is stuck in the '60s and is acting like a Bolshevik."
Talking to Ortega, or hearing him on the campaign trail, is indeed more history lesson than interview, more nostalgia for the past than concrete plans for the future.
"[President] Bush is the Reagan of these times," Ortega tells a crowd gathered in the scorching sun of Santa Rosa del Pinon, a village in the mountains north of Leon - and immediately segues into tales of days gone by. "Yankee Reagan forbade peace," he rails. "He wanted to bring death and destruction to the region."