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NICARAGUA
Ortega´s triumph opens old wounds
Lorraine Orlandi
11/16/2006
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Former president smoothes out his image as divided electorate waits for his return to power.

Yamilett Cuadra fought in Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista army against the US-backed Contra rebels during the 1980s, and her 16-year-old brother died fighting in the war. She voted against her former comandante in his successful bid to return as Nicaragua’s president after 16 years.

Cuadra and other former comrades-in-arms say Ortega has betrayed the Sandinista movement by "embracing" the Catholic Church and the Contras in his quest to return to power. In 1979 Ortega led a popular revolution that overthrew the Somoza family dictatorship and made himself a Cold War enemy of Washington.

Cuadra cast her vote for Edmundo Jarquín of the breakaway Sandinista Renewal Movement party, who trailed fourth in the field of five presidential contenders in the Nov. 5 election.

Ortega, 61, will take office Jan. 10 to lead the Central American nation after winning his fourth comeback bid. His three other attempts at re-election failed starting in 1990 when an electorate weary from economic crisis and a civil war elected Violeta Chamorro (1990-96) in 1990. He replaces conservative President Enrique Bolaños, who is limited by law to one five-year term.

The Sandinista leader will take over a nation mired in poverty, still scarred by war and deeply divided among political camps on the left and the right. To build consensus behind his agenda, Ortega must persuade disillusioned leftists like Cuadra that he remains committed to ideals of social justice while showing conservatives in his country and the United States that he is no longer the belligerent Marxist of the past.

"It’s a question of minds and hearts," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. "About 50 percent or so of Nicaraguans hate Ortega and would do anything to prevent him from having a successful rule."

The only option

Many poor Nicaraguans still throng to Ortega and say he is their only hope for a decent life after a series of conservative, free-market governments allied with Washington failed to dent rampant poverty, unemployment and illiteracy. With as many as 80 percent of its 5.1 million people struggling on less than US$2 a day, Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere after Haiti.

"Daniel [Ortega] would see that the wealth is distributed," said Daisy Ramos, 52, who has a house in a Managua neighborhood where the Sandinista government subdivided a park and gave lots to poor families. "He looks out for the poor."

Conservatives fear he will alienate the United States and cost his nation crucial international aid by falling into the arms of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. US favorite Eduardo Montealegre, a Harvard-educated banker who came in second in the polling, warned during the campaign that Ortega would take the country back to economic chaos and misguided socialist programs of the 1979-1990 Sandinista government, which was beset by a US economic embargo and the Contra war that cost 30,000 lives.

But Ortega says he has grown into a moderate and conciliatory leader willing to work with business leaders, international banks and lending nations to ease Nicaragua’s poverty. Ortega says he supports the Central American Free Trade Agreement, although he may seek to renegotiate some provisions.

A call for unity

In the hours after winning the election, he repeatedly called for unity among political and social sectors.

"It is very important that we bring together the Nicaraguan people through reconciliation, all of us working together to eradicate poverty," Ortega told reporters as his jubilant supporters poured into the streets of Managua waving Sandinista banners and blaring the campaign theme set to the tune of John Lennon’s "Give Peace a Chance."

"We want to reassure the private sector, investors and the international community," Ortega said.

The US State Department was non-committal about his return to power. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States would respect the outcome and await Ortega’s policies before making decisions about future relations.

Venezuela already is sending oil on cheap credit and other aid to Nicaragua, and Ortega will need more help from the oil-rich South American country to implement social spending programs.

But having felt the brunt of the US embargo in the 1980s he is not likely to want to alienate the United States again. US markets receive about half of Nicaragua’s exports — mainly agricultural products including coffee, meat and tobacco — and Washington can play a pivotal role in ensuring his government continues to receive tens of millions of dollars in relief from international lending agencies and nation.

It may prove a delicate balancing act for Ortega.

"The big question for Daniel Ortega is how to maintain fiscal responsibility and at the same time meet the people’s expectations," said Arturo Cruz, an analyst at Managua’s Central American Business Administration Institute.

Some remember only hard times under Ortega, with land expropriations, press crackdowns and a military draft. They accuse him of political deal-making to steal this election in a so-called pact with far-right factions led by ex-President Arnoldo Alemán, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison for embezzlement after his 1997-2002 term.

The pact made way for an amendment to electoral law that allows a candidate to win outright with 35 percent of the vote and a 5-point margin over the nearest rival. Ortega took 38 percent of the vote and had about a 9-point margin over Montealegre with almost 92 percent of the votes counted, according to Nicaragua’s Supreme Electoral Council.

Montealegre and Sandinista dissident candidate Jarquín accepted the results but warned Ortega to keep in mind that he has only a minority mandate. Both from new parties on the right and the left, they applauded what they called an erosion of Nicaragua’s polarizing two-party system and the political deal-making it has fostered.

"This election opens a new era in Nicaragua," Jarquín said. "We are moving toward a multiparty system where our political faction will play a relevant role in defense of democracy."


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