LONDON — “Ortega is a tiger who has not changed his stripes,” warned U.S. ambassador Paul Trivelli before the former revolutionary leader won back the presidency of Nicaragua in Monday’s election. Retired U.S. Marine Col. Oliver North, who took the fall for President Ronald Reagan’s administration in the Iran/Contra scandal of the 1980s, showed up to warn that Daniel Ortega was as bad as Adolf Hitler. And Ortega just smiled and said: “Jesus Christ is my hero now.”
It’s deja vu all over again as American leaders denounce the Communist threat in Nicaragua and leftist Latin American leaders like Cuba’s Fidel Castro and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez celebrate the rise of the “pink tide” in their region. Old images of the Sandinista revolutionaries and their “sandalista” foreign admirers (leftwing youths who came to help the revolution by picking coffee beans and drinking lots of cheap rum) fill the media. Seventeen thousand foreign observers and a thousand journalists came to Nicaragua for the elections. But the whole drama is Hamlet without the Prince.
Ortega was once a revolutionary leader, but that was a quarter-century ago. Now he is a populist politician as cynical as any of his opponents, and the likelihood that his election will make any difference to Nicaragua’s poor is slim.
The Sandinista revolution that overthrew the Somoza family dictatorship in 1979 might possibly have made some difference to the people at the bottom of society — and the bottom is a long way down in Nicaragua — if it had been left alone to get on with the task. But it was the height of the Cold War and the United States didn’t want “another Cuba,” so the Reagan administration armed and financed an army of rightwing exiles, the “contras,” to wage a guerrilla war against the Sandinistas.
President John F. Kennedy’s similar attempt to strangle the Cuban revolution in its cradle ended in defeat and ignominy at the Bay of Pigs in 1961, but Reagan had more luck. He got around a congressional ban on U.S. government aid to the contras by turning a blind eye to White House aide Oliver North’s fundraising efforts, which involved selling U.S. arms to Iran with a secret markup that was then passed on to the contras. (When North got caught, Reagan escaped impeachment by claiming that he could not remember having been told about it.)
Ortega was elected president in 1984, but the constant attacks of the contras (between 30,000 and 60,000 Nicaraguans were killed in Reagan’s war) ensured that the Sandinistas never achieved any real transformation in Nicaragua. It’s questionable whether they would have done so even without that distraction, for the leading Sandinista leaders were mostly well-intentioned middle-class boys radicalized by the brutality of the Somozas, but with little self-discipline and even less by way of a plan.
There were kibbutz-style communal farms for peasants on land confiscated from the rich, and literacy classes for all, but the confiscations were almost random, and too often ended up in the pockets of Sandinista leaders. When Ortega left the presidency in 1990, he bought the confiscated million-dollar mansion of a contra supporter, Jaime Morales, for $2,000 — and he still lives there.
Ortega never suspected that he would lose the presidency in 1990, so he invited the whole world to come and observe the election in which he and the Sandinistas were booted out by the disillusioned Nicaraguan voters. In three subsequent runs for the presidency, he never got more than 40 percent of the vote, although Sandinistas continued to control many courts, municipalities and unions. His road back to power, however, was paved by “the pact” of 1999, a flagrantly corrupt deal with then-President Arnoldo Aleman.
At the time Ortega was facing charges of rape by his stepdaughter, while Aleman was embezzling huge amounts of money from the government. So the two men agreed to give themselves lifetime membership in the National Assembly, which gave them both permanent immunity from prosecution. Ortega also got the threshold for a first-round victory in presidential elections lowered from 50 percent to 40 percent — or even 35 percent, if the front-runner was five percentage points ahead of the next candidate.
“El pacto” didn’t save Aleman in the end. An outraged Congress stripped him of his legal immunity and he was given a 20-year sentence in 2003 for stealing about $100 million from the Nicaraguan people. But a Sandinista-run court allowed him to serve his sentence at home on his ranch due to “health problems” — and the pact has now given Ortega the presidency with less than 40 percent of the vote. (Under the old rules, there would have been a second round in which the 60 percent of Nicaraguans who don’t want Ortega back would unite behind a single candidate, as they did the last three times.)
Ortega is back, but socialism isn’t. He now presents himself as a devout Catholic, and recently voted for an absolute ban on abortion. His vice president is Jaime Morales, the former contra supporter whose confiscated mansion he still lives in. And all the excited promises by Venezuela’s Chavez to support the new Nicaraguan revolution with cheap oil, and all of Washington’s threats to cut aid and trade to a neo-Sandinista Nicaragua, are just time-warp fantasies about what used to be. The revolution was canceled long ago.