Washington Can’t Stop Meddling in Managua

Eduardo Montealegre on the campaign trail

MANAGUA, Nicaragua—Members of the Bush administration haven’t been coy about their desire to see Sandinista presidential candidate Daniel Ortega go down in flames when Nicaraguans vote on Sunday. They’ve also made it no secret that Eduardo Montealegre, a Harvard MBA and former finance minister, is their preferred candidate. If you’re guessing that the Anointed One isn’t exactly a man of the people, you’re correct. The balding and bespectacled Montealegre looks like a guy better suited to giving a PowerPoint presentation than pressing the flesh.

But on Tuesday afternoon, Montealegre did his best impersonation of a glad-handing pol when a campaign truck ferried him into one of Managua’s shantytowns. His entrance was very rock ’n’ roll: Firecrackers exploded, and about 60 supporters decked out in red and black T-shirts bearing the candidate’s name ran to greet him. After Montealegre descended from the truck and pumped his fist a few times, he walked around the neighborhood at a pace that might have left the Road Runner winded. Residents who poured out of the tin shacks that lined the road were greeted with a handshake and occasionally a kiss.

Montealegre didn’t actually talk to anyone. Granted, conversation would have been difficult anyway, since the trucks accompanying his excursion were blasting music. (The songs had been specifically recorded for the campaign; one that played over and over proclaimed: “Change is Montealegre. … That is who you’ll vote for on Nov. 5.”) Still, even if it had been feasible for the candidate to have a heart-to-heart with these potential voters, he didn’t seem too keen to do so. You don’t move that quickly—and slip away as soon as you can—unless you’d prefer to be somewhere else.

The following morning, the candidate met with the foreign media in a place about 30 minutes away and a world apart from the impoverished neighborhood where he’d done his campaign jog. In the confines of the Inter-Continental Hotel, the most luxurious in the city, you’d never know that Managua is a ramshackle and extremely poor city. As waiters poured coffees and served a two-course breakfast, Montealegre explained how he hoped that Nicaragua could become a country where being born into poverty didn’t condemn a person to live in destitution. The solution, he explained, was to create “more and better jobs.” (Coincidentally, that’s the slogan that screams out from his campaign posters.) This would be accomplished primarily by attracting foreign investment. And he would be the best person to accomplish this—not just because of his background, but because he’s not Daniel Ortega.

While Montealegre was most eager to focus attention on his comparative advantages vis-à-vis his main rival, a big chunk of the questions focused on U.S. interference in the election. Here, the candidate attempted to walk a tightrope: He emphasized how disastrous it would be for the country if Washington really did cut off aid and remittances to Nicaragua in the event of an Ortega win. At the same time, he tried to distance himself from the bullying. “About 35 percent of our budget comes from foreign aid,” he said. “We need that generosity.” Still, the candidate allowed, “No one likes it when someone tells them what to do.”

Of course, the United States has a long tradition of telling Nicaraguans what to do. Successive administrations have meddled in the country since the 1800s, often in cahoots with Nicaragua’s conservative elite. One of our earliest—and most infamous—incursions occurred in the mid-1800s, when William Walker accepted a bribe from Nicaragua’s Liberal Party (paradoxically, to American ears, the conservative faction) to overthrow the government. Walker’s ragtag army of 50 or so men managed to pull off that feat, but the Nicaraguans who laid out the welcome mat got more than they’d bargained for. Walker eventually named himself president, legalized slavery, and declared English the nation’s official language. After he made noises about taking over five other Central American countries, Walker was executed by a firing squad in 1860.

About four decades later, the United States invaded the country again, when President José Santos Zelaya sent out feelers to Japan and Germany about constructing a canal, after Washington unexpectedly chose Panama as the site of its waterway across the isthmus. Conservative leaders, sensing an opportunity, approached the United States about staging a coup. President William Howard Taft complied and sent in the Marines in 1909.

The United States maintained an intermittent military presence in Managua until 1933, when outgoing President Herbert Hoover withdrew U.S. forces. One of the American mission’s last moves—urging the newly elected Nicaraguan president to appoint Anastasio Somoza as head of the National Guard—unwittingly put the Central American country on the path to an almost-half-century dictatorship. Somoza had ingratiated himself with the U.S. expatriate community in Managua, thanks in part to the fluent English he had picked up at a Philadelphia prep school.

The guard was ostensibly nonpolitical, but Somoza quickly seized on his newfound military muscle to consolidate power. Correctly calculating that nationalist hero Augusto César Sandino would be a threat to his burgeoning dictatorship, Somoza had the guerrilla leader assassinated. While the first Somoza met a familiar dictator’s fate and was shot to death in 1956, his family remained in control of the country for several more decades: His son Anastasio “Tachito” Somoza ruled until 1979. One of the major factors in the latter Somoza’s fall was his reaction to the 1972 earthquake that leveled Managua. His National Guard looted homes and businesses with impunity at a time when 250,000 of the 325,000 Managuans were homeless. The dictator himself pilfered from the relief supplies and foreign aid that poured into the country. Widespread disgust with Somoza’s venality eventually helped the Sandinistas to stage their revolution.

In the 1980s, the United States was directly involved in Nicaragua once again, funding and training the Contra rebels. While U.S. meddling has been much more sporadic since Ortega was booted out in 1990, GOP representatives in particular haven’t been shy about playing favorites in Nicaraguan elections. In the 2001 election, for example, the U.S. ambassador none-too-subtly passed out bags of rice stamped “USA” at a campaign event for the winning candidate, now-President Enrique Bolaños. (Montealegre served as his finance minister.) This year, U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli has seemed more like a political operative than an impartial foreign representative. In a widely criticized move, he attempted to coax the conservative candidates—Montealgre and Jose Rizo—into a primary, so that just one right-of-center choice would be on Sunday’s ballot, reducing Ortega’s chances of victory. The candidates didn’t bite.

Perhaps the ambassador’s actions will add to Montealegre’s vote count on Sunday. But a short-term “success” could breed resentment over the long run. Americans have thrown their weight around in Nicaragua for more than a century, and our actions have rarely dovetailed with the interests of the country’s poor, who comprise the overwhelming majority of the population. Whether or not the United States manages to keep its old Cold War foe from office, our actions this year have done nothing to help Washington’s reputation in this corner of Latin America.