Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Sandinista resurrection

Daniel Ortega appears set to complete a remarkable political comeback and be installed as president of Nicaragua. The 1980s Sandinistan leader of the country polled 40% of the vote after this weekends elections. Although officials have yet to release the formal result, he appears likely to have beaten his four opponents and avoid a run-off against Harvard-educated banker Eduardo Montealegre, who trailed by at least seven percentage points. Ortega needs 35% of the vote and an advantage of 5 percentage points over his closest rival to avoid a second poll in December. The US has threatened to pull aid from an Ortega government and has also said it was too soon to declare him the winner.

Ortega has claimed he is a changed man from the bogey figure that the US attempted to overthrow in the 80s. He spent much of this campaign preaching harmony, love and reconciliation, often campaigning with John Lennon's Give Peace A Chance playing in the background. Now 60 years old, he has toned down his revolutionary rhetoric, promising to favour free trade policies as well as improve health care and education.

Jose Daniel Ortega Saavedra was born in November 1945 to a middle class family in the southern city of La Libertad. Both his parents were political activists opposed to the regime of the Somoza family who ruled the country between 1937 and 1979. Daniel Ortega learned early and was arrested aged 15 for political involvement. He joined the underground opposition movement the FSLN (Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional). By 1967 he had was a leader of the movement. The Sandinistas took their name from Augusto Sandino, a Nicaraguan revolutionary and charismatic leader of a guerrilla war against a US military presence until his murder by the Government in 1934. The FSLN was founded in 1961 but did not emerge as a serious opposition force until the following decade.

The trigger was the 1972 earthquake that levelled the capital city Managua. It killed 10,000 people, destroyed 80% of the buildings and left over half of its population homeless. Much of the subsequent international aid to the country was embezzled by Somoza’s National Guard. The president’s personal wealth soared to US$400 million in 1974. The Sandinistas gained much support as many middle-class Nicaraguans reacted against blatant corruption. In December that year, guerrillas seized government hostages at a private party. They received $1 million in ransom and had 14 prisoners released from jail. One of the prisoners was Daniel Ortega. He had been in jail since his arrest after a botched bank robbery in 1967. Ortega fled to Cuba while the Somoza government responded with further censorship, intimidation, torture, and murder.

Guerrilla warfare intensified in the capital and elsewhere for the remainder of the decade. In 1979 the Sandinistas called a general strike and launched a full-scale uprising. Somoza resigned and fled to Florida. On 19 July the FSLN army entered Managua in triumph. The insurrection left approximately 50,000 dead with another 150,000 Nicaraguans exiled. Ortega was installed on a five-person junta to lead the country. Ortega was the chief FSLN leader on the junta. They inherited a country in ruins with debts of $1.6 billion and a devastated economy. Their first major success was literacy. Within six months they brought the national illiteracy rate down from over 50% to just under 12%. But despite early advances, disputes emerged between pro and anti Sandinista forces in the junta. Two members resigned including Violetta Chamorro who would eventually succeed Ortega and lead the country.

The military opposition to the government became known as "Contras" (short for "contrarrevolucionarios"). When Ronald Reagan assumed power in 1981 he condemned Nicaragua for its links with Cuba authorised the CIA to begin financing, arming and training rebels. The Contras operated out of camps in the neighbouring countries of Honduras and Costa Rica. Although the US Congress prohibited federal funding of the Contras in 1983, the Reagan administration began to covertly sell arms to Iran and channel the proceeds to the Contras.

In November 1984, Nicaragua called national elections; Ortega won the presidency with 63% of the vote and took formal office in January 1985. While international observers declared the election to be free and fair, opposition parties boycotted it, and it was denounced as unfair by the Reagan administration. The US continued their economic embargo crippling the country’s growth prospects. By 1987 the war with the well-armed Contras was at a stalemate. Costa Rica brokered the Esquipulas II treaty between the sides. The treaty called for a ceasefire, freedom of expression, and national elections. The elections were called for 1990.

Ortega crashed to a stunning defeat in this election. His ex-junta partner Violetta Chamorro led a centre-right coalition to win the election as impoverished voters took out their frustrations of a long and costly war on their government. To many people’s surprise, the transition of power was smooth and without violence. The Sandinistas accepted the people’s vote and gave up power peacefully. Their price of power was “the Piñata”. These were estates valued in the millions seized by Sandinista officials including Ortega himself. Ortega remained leader of the FSLN and stood again for unsuccessfully for Nicaraguan president in 1996 and 2001. In both elections, allegations of corruption related to the Piñata during his final days as president came back to haunt him.

The FSLN remains the second largest political party in the country. Current president Enrique Bolaños is stepping down after almost five years in the job. In September last year, Bolaños was threatened with impeachment by the opposition but the US threatened to cut off aid and the move was defeated. The US still has not forgiven its old enemy and has threatened to cut off aid to the country if he wins again in 2006. Adolfo Franco, USAID's adjunct director for Latin America and the Caribbean, told La Prensa (the newpaper owned by Violetta Chamorra) "we don't support any candidate in Nicaragua's electoral process, but some of Ortega's declarations worry us." Franco said Ortega might try to undermine a free trade agreement between Washington and the nations of Central America. If that happens, he added ominously, "we are going to analyse aid assigned to Nicaragua”.

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