Dreams of Influence in Nicaragua

(International Relations and Security Network, 20/07/2006)


Washington remembers the days of the CIA-backed counterinsurgency organized to remove Nicaragua's Sandanistas from power. Since the end of the Cold War, the region's political climate has changed. Washington's desire for influence has not. It is no longer a fight against communism, but against the sway of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and what his political presence in Central America means for the eroding authority of the US in Latin America.


In the 1980s, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was a source of pride for many Nicaraguans. Those old enough to remember the Somoza family point out it was the Sandanistas who ended 43 years of its brutal dictatorship in 1979. This US-backed string of dictators began with Anastasio Somoza in 1936; it continued as power was passed from father to son to brother. Nicaragua entered into a new political arena with Daniel Ortega, Herty Lewites and others who took back Nicaragua for the people, staying in power until democracy finally won out in 1990.


Since then, Daniel Ortega has unsuccessfully run for president three times. On 5 November, Ortega will have his fourth chance for victory. To avoid a run-off, he must win 35 percent of the vote, with a 5 percent margin between him and the second-place candidate. The possibility of an Ortega first-round win has significantly increased since the death of former Sandanista and presidential candidate Herty Lewites.


Lewites died of a heart attack on 2 July. At the time, his candidacy split the Sandanista vote, considerably weakening Ortega's position. With Lewites no longer in the race, many observers believe Ortega could very well be the next president of Nicaragua.


Chavez has made no attempts to hide his support for Ortega and the Sandanistas. In April, Chavez reached an agreement with the FSLN to supply oil at a reduced price to areas of strong Sandanista support. Perhaps more valuable to Nicaraguan farmers is fertilizer. Some 20,000 tonnes, shipped from Venezuela to Nicaragua, are stored and sold by an organization close to the FSLN, according to the Miami Herald. One 110-pound sack costs Nicaraguan farmers US$16, some 20 percent below market prices.


Meanwhile, US Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Tom Shannon, visited Nicaragua in the first week of July. He made no attempt to hide his support for Ortega's competition, Harvard-trained technocrat Eduardo Montealegre, formerly the Nicaraguan foreign minister. It is likely that Shannon discussed with Montealegre the future of USAID in Nicaragua as well as continued US support.


Shannon knows that Nicaragua under the Sandanistas remained impoverished. Repression and war reigned, with Ortega on one side and the US government on the other. If Ortega wins, Shannon will work with him, but he will not have as warm a welcome. His message of US-backed policies would not have a happy home.


Beyond personal relationships, there are other items at stake. Nicaragua currently recognizes Taiwan as an independent nation, and is one of the remaining countries that has held fast against the consolidation of China's presence in the region. The US would like for Nicaragua to maintain its support of Taiwan. Yet under Ortega, Nicaragua may recognize Taiwan as part of China. It would be a small gain for China in terms of practical use, but a win nonetheless in China's long struggle as the leading Asian influence in the Americas. It would also be a win for Chavez, who tirelessly works to reduce US influence in the region.


Regional support for the installation of another US-military base in Honduras is also at stake. According to the Associated Press, the base would be installed in the northeastern region of Gracias a Dios, near the Nicaraguan border. Both US and Honduran strategists believe this region is currently wide open for the passage of illicit products moving between Colombia and Mexico. The US wants to count on Nicaraguan support.


General Romeo Vasquez told the Honduran daily La Prensa that the area was a "zone where there is conflict and problems," referring to the narco-trafficking in the region. Over 100 tonnes of cocaine are smuggled through Honduras, according to the US embassy in Guatemala, on its way from Colombia to the US. The base in Honduras is likely the first in a string of outposts the US would like to see from Panama to Honduras. However, Nicaragua under Ortega would likely not play party to a US-led effort to put more boots on the ground in Central America.


The stakes are still low since the election is still months away. Nicaraguan pollsters are on the streets assessing how Lewites' death has affected the Nicaraguan voting public. In the latest poll released by Nicaraguan marketing firm Borge and Associates, Ortega led the pack with 30.1 percent of the intended vote. Montealegre trailed by just under six points.


The poll, conducted from 20 June to the day of Lewites' death, 2 July, gave Lewites 17.2 percent of the intended vote. This is the margin that both Montealegre and Ortega seek to gain. Because Lewites is known to be a former Sandanista, most of his votes are likely to migrate to Ortega. If even half of the 17 percent decides to vote for Ortega, the Sandanista would move from 30.1 percent to 38.6 percent - enough to win if Montealegre does not come within five percentage points.


Chavez's horse, Ortega, is on his fourth run for president, and he has never been closer to winning. Perhaps that is why elections in Nicaragua, usually an event that comes and goes without an international headline, have attracted such attention. In the end, however, Washington and Caracas will have little more than bragging rights. After all, Nicaragua is still a small, poor nation that needs all the help it can get to improve the lives of the people who live there, not stroke the ego of its leaders or those who run the nations that support them.

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