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The return of the Sandinistas: a complicated affair

By Rodrigo Acuña - posted Friday, 24 November 2006


The victory of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) against Eduardo Montealegre - a former banker and the wealthiest of five candidates - in the recent presidential elections in Nicaragua, presents some interesting questions for Latin America serious progressive policies and of course, Washington.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Cuba’s Raúl Castro, will certainly claim to have a new political ally despite the fact Nicaragua - an agrarian export economy of over five million people and the second poorest country in Central America - is of small strategic value, in contrast to Peru or Mexico where the centre-left candidate López Obrador recently lost due to electoral fraud.

While serious progressive policies which benefit poor people may indeed be implemented by a new Sandinista government, throughout the region its victory will be seen as a propaganda coup for the political Left - which is why some are losing sleep in Washington. Having attempted to reclaim the presidency twice since his electoral defeat 16 years ago, Ortega’s third attempt has seen his party triumph despite huge obstacles.

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Like 2001, where the US used its leverage to prevent an FSLN victory (the US ambassador virtually campaigned with then-president Arnoldo Aleman), the 2006 elections witnessed similar practices by Washington.

According to Ben Beachy - an educator with Witness for Peace based in Managua - on October 28 Nicaragua’s La Prensa newspaper published an advertisement paid by the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) party in which Florida governor Jeb Bush warned Nicaraguans they had a choice of returning to the totalitarianism of the Sandinistas or choosing “a vision towards the future”.

On November 2, Michael Shifter - vice president for policy at the Inter-American Dialogue and lecturer on Latin American politics at Georgetown University - wrote in the Washington Post that:

Both Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez and the American Ambassador in Managua, Paul Trivelli, have said that an Ortega presidency would scare off foreign investors and jeopardise Nicaragua's participation in the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States. Nicaraguans have been given notice that US aid would be cut under an Ortega administration. Most egregious, Reps. Dana Rohrabacher, Ed Royce and Pete Hoekstra sent letters to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff requesting that they block remittances sent by Nicaraguans living in the United States back to their families - an important part of the Nicaraguan economy - in the event of an Ortega win.

With approximately half a million Nicaraguans living in the US sending over $US500 million to their families each year, Rohrabacher’s request, if followed through, would immediately impact the small nation’s economy.

Another belligerent editorial in La Prensa on October 29, this time by Otto Reich - former Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs - in which he accused the FSLN of maintaining ties with terrorist groups and among other acts, a visit to Managua by Mr Iran-Contra Affair himself, Colonel Oliver North, who also warned against a Sandinista win, the Bush administration did little to conceal its actions during the elections.

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Democracy in Nicaragua today is of course in better shape than the days when Washington organised elections with US marines on the streets and “only one candidate being allowed to run”, as General Smedley Butler wrote to his wife in 1912. One of the reasons why the FSLN is still hugely popular is quite simple: they overthrew the brutal dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979 and implemented wide social reforms which benefited poor people.

Tachito, as he was commonly known, inherited the presidency from his father Anastasio Somoza García who ruled Nicaragua from 1936 until his assassination by poet Rigoberto López Pérez in 1956. With a hobby of taking strolls with his family around his private zoo as they observed the various animals and tortured political prisoners next to them, Somoza’s son was well coached by his father to being another US-backed thug.

When the Sandinistas took power in 1979, hope and devastation soon followed. An Oxfam Report in 1985 stated that “from Oxfam’s experience of working in 76 developing countries, Nicaragua was to prove exceptional in the strength” based on the dedication of the leadership “to improving the condition of the people and encourage their active participation in the development process”.

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About the Author

Rodrigo Acuña is a PhD candidate in International Studies at Macquarie University, Sydney. A recipient of Benchmark Prize in Hispanic Studies by the University of New South Wales, he was also runner up for Open Prose in the Unsweetened 2007 Literary Journal. He writes regularly on Latin American affairs and has presented seminars at various Australian universities on political developments in Venezuela, as well as other Latin American countries.

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