MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — When Daniel Ortega took the stage at an appearance at Elvira Blandon's local park this week, this grandmother who once made tortillas for his army, lit up like a teen. "My Daniel," she says, patting her chest.
But "her Daniel" – the former Marxist revolutionary leader of Nicaragua and the current front-runner in Sunday's presidential election – elicits the opposite response from US officials who once battled communism and are now trying to counter tide of leftist leaders in Latin America – in particular, Venezuela's president Hugo Chávez.
Sixteen years after Mr. Ortega was defeated at the ballot box, and after three failed presidential bids, an election that might otherwise be a blip on the world stage has let loose decades of historical baggage, created preferential prices for Venezuelan oil, and sparked warnings from the US about repercussions if "Comandante" Ortega takes the helm of this tropical nation.
"If [someone else] were running for president of Nicaragua, and said 'I am a friend of Fidel Castro, and Hugo Chávez, and I oppose US policy,' that would be enough to create some friction, to put it mildly," says Otto Reich, who was a senior official in the Reagan administration when it backed the Contra rebels against Ortega. "The fact of history compounds the problem."
After helping to overthrow Nicaragua's Somoza dictatorship in 1979, Ortega and his Moscow-backed Sandinistas repelled intense US intervention during the cold war. The US trained and financed Contra rebels to fight Ortega's Sandinista government throughout the 1980s in a civil war that killed 30,000 people.
Today, opposition campaign ads in Nicaragua feature Ortega in army gear, with the word "danger" across the television screen. Yet these days he opts for a white cotton shirt, pink hats, and touts reconciliation as his main message. During the event at Ms. Blandon's local park, Ortega's wife, Rosario Murillo, took the stage in bangled bracelets and rings, her speech lathered with references to love and solidarity. Ortega stood behind, both hands in the air forming the sign for peace.
Ortega is leading the polls – though he might not win enough votes to win outright in the first round. According to the latest CID-Gallup poll published in La Prensa, 33 percent of 1,242 respondents surveyed would vote for the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) candidate, 22 percent for Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), and 17 percent for Jose Rizo of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC).
The US has been conspicuously outspoken in its disapproval of a potential Ortega win. US Ambassador Paul Trivelli has cast doubts on Ortega's commitment to democracy. Rep. Dan Burton (R) of Indiana visited Nicaragua this fall and warned that relations with the US could be threatened if Ortega wins.
"I don't see how we can seriously get along with him after all the water under the bridge," says Timothy Brown, who was once a senior US liaison for the Contras and is now at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University..
Sitting in his office next to Ortega's home, Bayardo Arce, a top FSLN party member, says that ties with the US won't be severed if his party wins. He says the US will continue to be Nicaragua's principal trading market, but that its US ties shouldn't overshadow ties with the rest of Latin America. "That's not to say that we are going to turn into Republicans, or that Bush is going to become a Sandinista," he cautions.
The FSLN has also been the target of US criticism, particularly because of an oil plan by Venezuela, which shipped cheap fuel to Nicaraguan mayors last month. It has been condemned as a vote-generator for Ortega.
Dionisio Marenco, the mayor of Managua, a staunch Ortega ally and a leader of the fuel program, denies that politics are a factor. "Our country needs this, and if the same offer were given on these terms by [President] Bush or by [Mexico's President Vicente] Fox or anyone in Saudi Arabia or the Sultan of Brunei, I'd take it."
The Organization of American States has issued two statements slapping the wrists of "other countries" interfering in Nicaragua's electoral process.
Michael Shifter, the US vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, says the US's heavy-handedness could backfire. "Unlike Chávez, who has a lot of money and has huge regional ambitions and appetites, Ortega's agenda is to accumulate and maintain as much power as he can in Nicaragua," he says. "It's not good for Nicaragua, but it's not necessarily a reason for the US to get so worked up."
The US may be undermining Mr. Montealegre, a more conservative candidate. "Should he win," Mr. Shifter adds, "he'll be seen as the candidate of the gringos."
At a press breakfast Wednesday, Montealegre said that anti-Ortega sentiment expressed by US officials is mere freedom of expression, and that this election is a decision between "receding or advancing."
But others say the interference has been harmful. "In general, the population feels that no other country should get involved in our elections," says Alejandro Serrano Caldera, a political analyst in Managua.
The country remains deeply divided after nearly a decade of civil war. Some Contras have come to the side of Ortega – his running mate is his former Contra rival – but some former Sandinistas are disillusioned with Ortega.
"Ortega? Never again," says Mario Romero, a taxi driver who has Montealegre bumper stickers all over his car. He fought in the Sandinista Army with his brother, who was killed during the conflict.
Ortega's supporters speak of finding jobs and say 16 years of pro-market reform in one of the poorest countries in the Western hemisphere has left them worse off. Oscar-Rene Vargas, a political analyst in Managua, says US threats of economic repercussions are empty – that the US economy is as vested in free-trade agreements and the immigrants who send remittances home as is Nicaragua.
Such geopolitics means nothing to Blandon. She, like many of her generation, is faithful to Ortega. He gave her the land where her house now stands. Her granddaughter, Yuri Massiel, says she'll vote for Ortega in her first election Sunday, because she wants to go to college and become an accountant. "I don't want to rupture ties with the US," she says. "But I want a better youth."
• Ms. Llana is Latin America correspondent for the Monitor and USA Today.