For more than a decade, Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega was in the nightmares of U.S. policymakers. As leader of the Sandinista revolution of 1979, and then as president of Nicaragua, he was a lightning rod for Washington's fears of hemispheric subversion and anti-American rebellion. The Reagan and Bush administrations spent hundreds of millions of dollars--to finance a "Contra" war and various campaigns of political destabilization--to rid Nicaragua of Ortega and his Marxist Sandinistas. In 1990, the U.S. won when Ortega was voted out of office and replaced by pro-American rivals. But in presidential elections taking place today in Nicaragua, the same Ortega, now 55, has an even chance of being voted back into power.
Ortega's return to prominence--and possibly to the presidency--is more than an irony of history. It is also a cautionary tale about the type of nation-building the U.S. may intend for Afghanistan.
Like some dreary rerun from the Cold War in the 1980s, the Bush administration has loaded up its foreign-policy apparatus with the "Contra Alumni Assn.," a group of leftovers from Oliver North's old Contra network, with newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., John Negroponte, as the most prominent among them. And once again, the U.S. is meddling in Nicaraguan affairs to scuttle Ortega's chances. This time around its pretext to interfere is the war against terrorism. After Secretary of State Colin L. Powell met with the Nicaraguan foreign minister last month, the State Department issued a statement saying it had "grave reservations" about Ortega's party, claiming it had "ties to supporters of terrorism." The next day, the acting deputy for Western Hemisphere affairs, John Keane, fired a second salvo. "I would be dishonest if I did not acknowledge that the possibility of a Sandinista victory is disconcerting to the U.S.," he said in a speech. "We cannot forget that [during the Sandinista period of government], Nicaragua became a haven for violent political extremists from the Middle East, Europe and Latin America."
Ortega's pro-U.S. opponents took the cue and started running TV ads saying that if Osama bin Laden could vote in Nicaragua, he'd vote for Ortega.
The U.S. blasts at Ortega have left many Nicaraguans scratching their heads. "If the CIA had any brains," one Nicaraguan political analyst told me, "they'd have figured out by now that the Sandinistas not only do not represent a Marxist threat, but that the party was [long ago] taken over by opportunistic yuppies."
Indeed, the Sandinistas have embraced the free market and global capitalism and have proposed no economic reforms that would embarrass the U.S. Democratic Party. Whatever allure the Sandinistas exuded as young revolutionaries was erased by the party's naked grab for money and property after its defeat in the 1990 elections. As for Ortega, he talks more about Jesus than Marx. His personal image has been tarnished not only by the general corruption of the Sandinistas, but also by credible charges that, while sitting as president, he sexually molested his teenage step-daughter.
If Ortega is elected today, it will only be because frustrated and desperate Nicaraguans can no longer bear the status quo--not because they dream of socialist revolution. It's in that light that the U.S. should examine its own conscience.
As some 50,000 people, a staggering 1% of the population, were dying in the U.S.-funded Contra war, Washington repeatedly promised that a post-Sandinista Nicaragua would flourish because of generous U.S. aid. But once the Sandinistas were voted out of power, the U.S. abandoned Nicaragua, turning its back on the underlying social inequalities that had produced the Sandinista revolution.
The outcome has been devastating. Nicaragua today is poorer than ever. Some 80% of its population live in poverty; unemployment runs as high as 70% in some areas; malnutrition stalks more than a half million; and streets teem with scruffy children begging, stealing or simply sniffing glue.
Little surprise, then, that incumbent President Arnoldo Aleman is perhaps the most unpopular in Nicaragua's history. Ostentatiously enriching himself while in power, celebrating his rule with a lavishly built pastel-hued presidential palace, Aleman is thought to have skimmed as much as $250 million, according to a dissident congressman from his own party.
With prices for Nicaragua's chief export, coffee, at new lows, the economic situation only worsens. Fears of a social explosion escalate, and social disorder grows.
The despair has been mounting for a decade, but the State Department could never find its voice to express any "concern" for the country's deteriorating living conditions. Instead, Washington offered unconditional support for the governing business elite, which systematically looted its own population. The only advice Washington offers today is for Nicaraguans to vote for Aleman's hand-picked successor, 73-year-old Enrique Bolanos, one of the richest landowners in the country and a former key supporter of the Contras.
It matters very little whether Bolanos or Ortega wins the presidency. In either case, Nicaragua will remain an economic basket case. Ask just about any Nicaraguan what "democracy" and "freedom" mean, and the words "food" and "jobs" are likely to be heard in the answer.
As U.S. policymakers watch tonight's returns from Managua, they might ponder the lessons of Nicaragua as they apply to our current strategy in Afghanistan. We are sparing no expense to bomb our declared enemies. Our political leaders and media speak glibly of who "we" will install in Kabul in the post-Taliban future. But what will our commitment be to the people of Afghanistan? Unless we answer that question properly, a decade from now we may be watching a return of the Taliban to power--maybe even by election.
Marc Cooper, a contributing editor to The Nation and a columnist for L.A. Weekly, recently returned from Nicaragua.
Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times