Ortega sells new image: kinder, gentler, and capitalist

Two presidential candidates face close race in Nicaragua's elections Sunday.


Weeks after the repeat images of jetliners crashing into the twin towers began to give way to regular programming on TV screens around the world, they continue to be broadcast here, and in a most unexpected place - in political ads for Nicaragua's upcoming presidential elections.

The image of the flaming towers and their victims gives way to shots of Sandinista revolution leader, former president, and current presidential candidate Daniel Ortega with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Libya's Muammar Qaddafi, and Cuba's Fidel Castro. The seemingly incongruous images are used to deliver a clear message: Daniel Ortega is on the wrong side of the post-Sept. 11 world order.

Mr. Ortega claims to have thrown off his Marxist mantle and is trying to make his comeback in presidential elections Sunday. The question for many Nicaraguans is whether a President Ortega would cast this poverty-stricken nation into disfavor in US eyes.

"The evidence is in his own words," Liberal party presidential candidate Enrique Bolaños says. "Just less than a year ago, Ortega was once again proudly showing his support for a Libyan terrorist group ... and he always touts his connections with the 'anti-imperialists.' "

In the 1980s, the US-backed Contra rebels battled Ortega's Soviet-backed Sandinista government, turning this small Central American nation into ground zero for the cold war. Today, terrorism has replaced the specter of communism in defining the world order and, once again, Nicaragua, and its upcoming elections, is being pulled into the fray.

"I think everything has changed since Sept. 11 in Nicaragua, both in terms of the elections and in terms of future relations with the United States," says Miguel Orozco, the Central America director for the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. "The question in Nicaraguans' minds isn't if the Sandinistas are terrorists, but if in this new reality the Sandinistas can work with the United States."

A recent State Department statement expressed serious concerns about a possible Sandinista victory in the Nov. 4 elections given, among other things, the Sandinistas' ties to terrorism supporters.

Results of a CID Gallup poll released Tuesday show Bolaños with 49.6 percent of the valid votes cast and Ortega with 46.4 percent - still considered a technical tie. Analysts consider it noteworthy that a CID Gallup poll released last week marked the first time Bolaños polled ahead of Ortega, if even slightly.

"The US government declarations about the Sandinistas, and the US government saying 'you are friends with us in the war against terrorism or you are on the other side,' and the heavy negative ad campaign by the Liberals are the most likely explanations for Bolaños's rise and Ortega's stagnation," says CID Gallup senior analyst Fred Denton.

Analysts say fears of a deterioration in relations with the US could well sway the roughly 3 percent of undecided voters, who will likely determine the winner.

That fear may well be warranted. Not only would Ortega be back in power, but the Bush administration has brought many of Ortega's cold-war foes back into government.

For his part, Ortega and his party have expressed support of the US-led counterterrorism movement. "In the past, the Sandinistas had relationships with terrorist countries - but in the past the US had relationships with bin Laden, and the CIA trained him," says Ortega's running mate, Agustín Jarquín. "We don't live in the past, and we have a firm commitment to the fight against terrorism."

But many citizens are skeptical. They fear that foreign investors would take their money elsewhere, and that the US would place Nicaragua on a red list for US visas, complicating life for the thousands of Nicaraguans who have family in the US or travel there for business.

In a recent move widely viewed

as an attempt to improve relations with the US, Ortega announced that he would name Antonio Lacayo as his foreign minister.

Mr. Lacayo served under former President Violeta Chamorro, whose coalition toppled Ortega and the Sandinistas in the 1990 elections. Lacayo is considered to have been the principal architect of the reconstruction of relations with the US in the early 1990s.

But the announcement appears to have done little to assuage US reservations. "Naming a person associated with a past democratic administration doesn't change our concern about those who are in the race," says US Ambassador to Nicaragua Oliver Garza. Positive relations with either administration will depend on their positions on issues such as human rights, drug trafficking, "and now the new issue of terrorism."

Another litmus test for any future regimes would be whether they continue the process of returning property the communist-backed Sandinistas expropriated from US citizens in Nicaragua during their rule.

In the absence of the Soviet Union, and in a world order with far less room for political and economic maneuvering, many say Ortega would have little choice but to pursue good relations with the US, like it or not.

The pressing fear for many here is that in the time it would take a Sandinista government to convince the US of its good intentions, the US could suspend financial aid to Nicaragua and even block desperately needed loans from multilateral banks.

More than 70 percent of Nicaragua's 5 million people live in poverty. At $6.6 billion, the foreign debt is more than 10 times the annual export income of roughly $600 million.

"If the Sandinistas win, the US government is not going to accept them overnight," says Alejandro Serrano, a professor of political philosophy at a number of Nicaraguan universities. "The government will be put in a kind of quarantine period, and that could be dangerous, considering the economic crisis the country is suffering."

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