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Nicaraguans say US turns blind eye to abuses of Daniel Ortega

Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega has been accused of rigging elections, manipulating the Supreme Court, and threatening the press. Unlike during his term in the 1980s, this time Washington has other problems to deal with.

By Tim RogersCorrespondent / August 25, 2010

A man walks past a painting of Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega in Managua August 7.

Oswaldo Rivas/Reuters

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Managua, Nicaragua

Twenty years after the US-funded contra war ended and Nicaragua faded from the US nightly news, aging Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega – who returned to the presidency democratically in 2007 – is again being accused of pushing this small Central American nation back toward dictatorship.

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Only this time around, the United States government may be too distracted by problems in other parts of the world to bother with Nicaragua. At least that’s the perception here.

In the past two years, Mr. Ortega has been accused of rigging the 2008 municipal elections, manipulating the Supreme Court to get a green light on his reelection aspirations, usurping powers from the National Assembly, illegally replacing democratically elected mayors, threatening free press, and cracking down on opposition protests. Concerns over the Sandinistas’ commitment to democracy have led to the US and EU canceling some $190 million in development and budgetary aid over the past two years.

Headlines in Nicaragua’s opposition dailies read like cries of distress: “Sandinista Dictatorship Established in Supreme Court,” “Dictatorship Thanks to Weakened Opposition,” “Dictatorship, Step by Step.”

Obama takes it slow

Yet in Washington, the US government doesn’t seem to care as much about Nicaragua as it did in the 1980s. Aside from occasional declarations, there is little evidence to indicate that Nicaragua still matters on Capitol Hill.

“Nicaraguans always say to me, ‘What’s going on in Washington? The United States isn’t worried about Nicaragua anymore?’ ” says Richard Feinberg, the senior director of the National Security Council’s Office of Inter-American Affairs during the Clinton administration.

Mr. Feinberg, who spoke to a group of business leaders in Managua on Aug. 19, points to free-trade agreements, aid for education, health and development, and joint private sector initiatives as proof that the US is still interested in engaging Nicaragua and Latin America. But he says times have changed, and notes that presidents Ortega and Obama "are from different generations." Plus, when it comes to promoting democratic values and US idealism, the Obama administration might still be taking it slow after the perceived abuses of the Bush administration.

“Unfortunately President Bush mistreated the concept of ideology and he used it as justification to invade a country. So throughout the world, many countries don’t believe the US when they talk about democracy because it looks like a justification of other things,” Feinberg says.

Actions 'reek of authoritarianism'

Ortega, meanwhile, pretends – at least in public – that he still holds the same importance as when the Reagan administration funded an decade-long counterrevolutionary war against his government. In a rare interview to a Russian television reporter Aug. 18, Ortega said the only reason the US hasn't attempted a coup against his government is because "they don't have any military instrument to provoke a coup [here]."

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