Will Marxist Sandinistas Return to Power in Nicaragua?

With Bolivia, Venezuela, and other Latin American countries recently electing leftist anti-American leaders, will Nicaragua be the next to make a sharp left turn by electing former Sandanista strongman Daniel Ortega its president this November?

Ortega’s potential return to power is a subject of increasing worry at the State Department.

Following a visit to Managua last fall, then-Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick said that Ortega “has never accepted democracy” and hinted that a victory by the former dictator could lead the U.S. to cut off much of its aid to Nicaragua. (When I asked White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan at his final briefing May 5 if the administration stood by Zoellick’s October statement, McClellan said: “I’ll let his words speak for themselves.”)

After overthrowing the pro-U.S. Somoza regime in 1979, self-styled Marxist Ortega confiscated private lands and businesses, closed opposition newspapers, put hundreds of political opponents in jail, welcomed Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to his country, allied himself with the Soviet Union, took Soviet military aid, and supported the Marxist insurgency in El Salvador. Convinced that Ortega was a threat to freedom in our hemisphere, President Reagan backed the “Contras” who opposed his Marxist regime.

Under international pressure, Ortega finally agreed to free elections in 1990 and was soundly defeated by the pro-U.S. Violetta Chamorro, widow of an anti-Sandanista editor.

Third Time a Charm?

Now 60, Ortega, who has twice been defeated in presidential bids, is running again. This time he stands a chance of winning. Thanks to a deal Ortega cut with the regime of former President Arnoldo Aleman Lacayo (who was convicted of corruption), a candidate for president of Nicaragua now needs only 35% to win without a run-off. Currently, five candidates are running for the office.

Unlike his past failed campaigns, Ortega now has some powerful friends in the region other than Castro. These include leftist Presidents Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia.

Ortega’s most conservative and pro-American opponent is Eduardo Montealegre, a Harvard-educated former Nicaraguan finance minster who is a strong believer in free markets. During a recent speech at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., Montealegre charged that “Hugo Chavez is directly intervening in our country’s election in a blatant attempt to buy the election for Ortega.”

In an interview, Montelegre cited published reports about a recent two-week caravan headed by a local Sandanista mayor who handed out bags of fertilizer as gifts from Chavez’s Venezuela to Nicaraguan voters in what Montealegre called “a brazen attempt to grow the Sandanista vote.” Montealegre also cited reports of petroleum from oil-rich Venezuela being sold at low prices to municipalities that are historic Sandanista strongholds.

Although there is no firm evidence of assistance from Bolivia’s Morales (who recently nationalized his country’s oil and gas facilities), Morales is close to Ortega. Within hours of Morales’ election last December, Ortega sent him a message of “revolutionary jubilation.” Nicaraguan novelist Sergio Ramirez — who served as Ortega’s vice president in the 1980s but has since broken with him — told the American Prospect he expects Chavez and Morales to “do whatever they can to help Ortega’s presidential campaign.”

Montealegre also warned that Ortega’s network of anti-American friends extends beyond this hemisphere. Noting that Nicaragua still recognizes Taiwan and that Ortega has vowed to switch recognition to the People’s Republic of China, Montealegre told me Ortega’s election would lead to “a dynamic new relationship between Beijing and our hemisphere and would clearly enhance mainland China’s influence in the hemisphere.” He also expects that under Ortega, Managua “would be a way station for Iran, as it was for Libya, the PLO, and Basque terrorists in the 1980s.”

“This is the most important election in our country since [Chamorro] defeated Ortega in 1990,” he added, “and I also fear that if Ortega wins this free election, it will be last free election we have.”