Daniel Ortega, the Comeback Kid

Daniel Ortega

MANAGUA, Nicaragua—As anyone who has been subjected to political ads this year knows, immigration is one of the most divisive issues in the midterm election. But voters might be surprised to learn that the presence of illegal workers in the United States isn’t just a factor in the question of which party will control the U.S. Congress. It could decide who becomes the next president of Nicaragua.

At least that’s the hope of a Republican congressman, judging from the Oct. 31 front page of La Prensa, the major Nicaraguan daily. “Ortega could jeopardize remittances” screamed the headline, and the story quoted Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., warning that if former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega regains his old office when voters elect their next chief executive and congressional representatives on Nov. 5, Nicaraguans could find themselves cut off from the money their relatives and friends send from the United States. Rohrabacher evoked the possibility of Nicaragua becoming the Cuba of Central America: The consequences of the U.S. embargo are pretty severe for that island nation, the Californian pointed out, “and that would happen in Nicaragua if the Sandinistas take power.”

This is probably a bluff: It’s hard to see how the U.S. Congress could suddenly choke off the millions of dollars U.S.-based Nicaraguan workers send home each year. But it’s a sign of how potent an issue that flow of cash has become in U.S. foreign policy. Remittances dwarf the foreign aid we give to a country like Nicaragua, and those money transfers are a bread-and-butter issue—in the literal sense—for a lot of Nicaraguans. They depend on the earnings of their U.S.-based family and friends to put food on the table.

Rohrabacher’s comments don’t just reflect how the presence of millions of Latinos in the United States can affect our relationship with their home countries. It’s also an indication of the lengths conservative Republicans are willing to go to keep Ortega from winning this presidential election. It would be quite a resurrection if the now-61-year-old triumphs on Sunday. While most Nicaraguans were euphoric when Ortega drove U.S.-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza from office in 1979, they voted overwhelmingly to boot him out of office 11 years later. The rampant violence, quadruple-digit inflation, and political repression that marked Ortega’s term had eroded most of his support. Still, he is the front-runner to reclaim the presidency when voters go to the polls on Sunday.

This prospect is driving veterans of the Reagan administration in particular around the bend. Rohrabacher—who served as a speechwriter to the former U.S. president—is merely the most recent of the Reaganite crowd to issue a “don’t-you-dare” message to Nicaraguan voters. Oliver North, the retired lieutenant colonel who helped mastermind the Reagan-administration effort to fund the Nicaraguan Contras, the guerrilla group dedicated to dislodging the Sandinistas from office, has weighed in on the election, too. Ostensibly in the Nicaraguan capital to visit friends, North found his way to a TV station in late October, where he told viewers that an Ortega victory would be “the worst thing” for the country.

Not all the people strutting on the Nicaraguan political stage are former Reaganites. The current U.S. ambassador to the country, Paul Trivelli, was a junior foreign-service officer when Ronald Reagan took office, but he’s been almost as outspoken as Rohrabacher and North in his criticism of Ortega. Labeling the candidate “undemocratic” and “a tiger who hasn’t changed his stripes,” the ambassador has hinted that a victory for the Sandinista would prod Uncle Sam to withhold millions of dollars in foreign aid. The pro-Ortega international faction has a new face, too: In the 1980s, the Soviets and Cuban leader Fidel Castro provided financing and counsel to the Sandinistas. Today, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez—whose country has the largest proven oil reserves outside of the Middle East—is playing the Daddy Warbucks role. The helicopter ferrying Ortega around Nicaragua is allegedly a gift from Tío Hugo. Earlier this year, the Venezuelan offered fertilizer and cut-rate oil to Nicaraguans, some of the poorest residents of the Western Hemisphere.

The Venezuelan’s eagerness for a Danielista victory is understandable. He has made no secret of his desire to see leftist leaders win elections in Latin America. But aside from Evo Morales’ impressive victory in the December 2005 Bolivian presidential vote, Chávez’s anointed standard bearers have come up short. Elections in Peru, Mexico, and most recently Ecuador have not gone his way, and his efforts to snag a seat on the U.N. Security Council for Venezuela appears to have ended in ignominy. A victory in Nicaragua would end Chávez’s losing streak—and it would bring the added satisfaction of rankling conservative U.S. policymakers.

The blood feud between the GOPers and Ortega can be traced all the way back to the Cold War. High-ranking Reaganites were convinced that the Sandinista government was a Soviet beachhead in Central America, and they built up and bankrolled the Contra forces. It’s hard to remember now, but for a period, Nicaragua was as much an obsession for U.S. policymakers as Iraq is today. While times have changed—if Ortega is re-elected, he wouldn’t set up a Marxist government intent on exporting communism in Central America—the hatred many old foreign-policy hands have for the Sandinista is visceral and arguably a little irrational.

That’s not to say that all the criticisms leveled at Ortega are without merit. By many measures, his tenure in government was an abject failure. Hunger, disease, and crime reached levels far higher than before the revolution. The government occasionally dispatched club-wielding thugs to subdue protestors. Of course, the millions of dollars the U.S. government handed to the paramilitary force dedicated to overthrowing the regime may have doomed Ortega from the moment he landed in Reagan’s crosshairs. And the Sandinistas did manage to raise literacy rates and improve health care when they first took over from the grossly corrupt Somoza.

But the revolutionaries weren’t above ransacking the state for their own benefit, either. The most-infamous episodes occurred in the months just after the Sandinistas were voted out of power. Party members feverishly stole millions of dollars’ worth of property, ranging from homes and farmland to government cutlery and typewriters. (This episode is referred to as “the piñata,” drawing a parallel to the tradition in which children whack a papier-mâché toy filled with candy and gifts.) The pillaging didn’t just turn a number of high-ranking Sandinistas into wealthy capitalists—it also helped the party secure a base of support that made the Sandinistas a force to be reckoned with even after they were thrown out of office.

Given that track record, how is it that Ortega could be on the verge of becoming Nicaragua’s next president? While he wasn’t much of a head of state, he is a very effective party boss, and his shrewd backroom dealings have set the stage for his comeback. All the presidents who followed Ortega have had to share power with him in some way. His collusion with former President Arnoldo Alemán—who came to office in 1997 on a virulently anti-Sandinista platform and allegedly proceeded to steal millions of dollars once he was in office—has proved particularly helpful. Part of the horse-trading between the two men involved changing the electoral calculus: A constitutional amendment lowered the threshold for a presidential victory so that a candidate can win in the first round with just 35 percent of the vote, as long as they take 5 percent more votes than the runner-up.

This provision was tailor-made for Ortega. Polls indicate that 60 percent of Nicaraguans oppose him. That stalwart opposition meant the presidency was out of reach when he made bids in 1996 and 2001. But recent polls show him with nearly 35 percent support, and there are three other major candidates, which means the anti-Ortega vote will be divided. What’s more, the candidate who may have emerged as the toughest rival to Ortega—former Sandinista minister Herty Lewites—died of a heart attack a few months ago. Still, this mixture of electoral cunning and dumb luck may not be enough to give Ortega a win on Sunday. If he doesn’t secure the presidency in this first round of voting, he’s doomed; he’d never triumph in a run-off. But it’s not hard to see why Reaganites are threatening to cut Nicaraguans off from remittances and firing verbal fusillades at their old nemesis: This is Ortega’s best chance for a comeback.