Old Marxist's New Tunes: Democracy, 'Ode to Joy'

He was the Fidel Castro of the 1980s, bringing a Marxist revolution to a Central American country long ruled by a pro-US oligarchy. Today, Daniel Ortega again seeks to lead Nicaragua, only this time through a democratic vote on a free-market platform - and with promises of good relations with the United States.

In 1987, the US Congress gave $100 million to assist the contras in their war on Mr. Ortega's Sandinista government. Now, the Clinton Administration says it is a neutral observer of the second presidential election in Nicaragua since democracy was restored in 1990.

Ortega's phoenix-like rise from sure loser to potential victor has raised questions about US-Nicaraguan relations should the longtime leftist revolutionary again take his country's reins. But the cold war's end and the triumph of free-market economics across Latin America have changed both players enough for most analysts here to discount concerns of rough relations ahead.

"History cannot be forgotten," said Ortega earlier this month, "but that doesn't mean we're going to be fighting with the United States."

These days the former president, whom followers still call commandante speaks little of ideological warfare, emphasizing reconciliation for Nicaragua's 4 million people. Today a "truly revolutionary" act, he says, would be to form a unity government.

The former president, clad in his new trademark white shirt, drives himself around in a Jeep of trendy forest green, not olive drab. And without seeking party approval, he dropped the Sandinistas' hymn - which sang the "fight against the Yankee, enemy of humanity" - for Beethoven's "Ode to Joy."

Despite these overtures, US response has been mixed. US Ambassador to Nicaragua John Maisto earlier this month said the US would respect Nicaragua's choice and maintain interest in the country "no matter who is in power here or in Washington."

But one US official here says the "character and quality of US relations will depend on our ability to work together" on such issues as human rights and economic reform. And State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said Ortega would have to loosen his ties to Cuba, Iraq, and Libya, to prove his desire for better relations.

So has he really changed from the Marxist commandante of a decade ago? "Deep in his heart he doesn't like to say he accepts the market economy," says Carlos Chamorro, a journalist and former Ortega associate. "But he's pragmatic enough to say it, and to accept that if he does become president, that's the direction he'd have to go in."

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