The Miami Herald
August 29, 2001

Sandinistas' misdeeds haunt presidential candidate Ortega


 MANAGUA -- Armed with a shovel and a vengeance, human rights activist Reynaldo Aguado did some digging this month on the site of an old prison, a spot that a former jail guard identified as the place where inmates had been killed by the Sandinista Front back when they were in power.

 To everyone's surprise, Aguado uncovered a middle-aged man's skeleton and underground jail cells, just as his tipster had described.

 Although geologists later said the bones had been there for up to 700 years, it really didn't matter because the discovery evoked the ghosts of a
 previous political regime that have come back to haunt Daniel Ortega.

 The Sandinista presidential candidate is locked in a tight race with a former vice president, Liberal Party candidate Enrique Bolaños. Between now
 and election day, Nov. 4, the past -- specifically, the record of the Sandinistas in power -- may well become the principal issue.

 With his shovel and a news conference, Aguado again reminded Nicaraguans of a 1980s era of human rights violations and war that Ortega wants
 everyone to forget. Those old buried bones have come to symbolize the main question of this year's presidential elections: Should the Sandinistas
 get another shot?

 And if the latest polls that show an evenly divided electorate are right, voters who once seemed to favor Ortega are having increasing doubts about
 his candidacy.

 ``Daniel Ortega keeps saying the past is over. He's wrong,'' said Aguado, himself jailed by the Sandinistas for allegedly spying for the CIA during the 1980s. ``People are criticizing me for doing this excavation during election season. Yes, this is political. If someone was a dictator and assassin, he should not be elected.''

 Days after the official kickoff of the presidential election season, local polls showed a statistical dead-heat between Ortega, the former Sandinista president, and Bolaños. Ortega had been leading for months, leaving the impression that Bolaños is gaining momentum.

 As election day nears, Nicaraguans appear torn between going back to the former Marxist guerrillas who improved education and healthcare even as they seized
 properties and jailed dissidents, or reelecting a party riddled with corruption and scandal.

 Following a number of Sandinista victories in last year's municipal elections, Ortega believes he can take back the seat he lost 11 years ago.

 ``This is the Sandinista Front's year,'' he said.

 Ortega's first chance came in 1979, when he and other rebels toppled the Somoza dictatorship. The years that followed were brutal: While the Sandinistas were
 considered champions of the poor, inflation soared, banks were seized, properties confiscated. And a war raged against U.S.-backed rebels, dubbed the contras.

 Ortega was in charge from 1984 to 1990, a period people remember for its mandatory military service and a U.S. economic embargo that destroyed the currency, giving rise to new levels of misery. Peace accords brought the nation's first free elections in 1990, when Ortega lost to Violeta Chamorro. His bid for the presidency failed again in 1996, when he lost to the Liberal Party's Arnoldo Alemán.

 For a time, things looked different this year. His now-vanished lead in the polls narrowed when a third-party candidate dropped out last month, but he stayed ahead
 nevertheless, and the dropout candidate's eventual replacement is not considered a threat.

 In the meantime Ortega's real rival, Bolaños -- a former business sector leader who lost $9 million in confiscated properties -- has presented a serious challenge and is waging a come-from-behind campaign that is steadily gaining ground.

 ``There's an expression they use in horse racing, `The horse that catches up wins,' '' said Conservative Party congressman Adolfo Calero, who is supporting Bolaños. ``That's the case with Bolaños, he's been inching up and inching up.''

 Ortega managed to secure 38 percent of the vote in 1996, when he lost to Alemán. But this time, Ortega is counting on the youth factor: 75 percent of the nation's voters are under 25, young enough to be unprejudiced by the past excesses of the Sandinistas -- and young enough to be turned off by the 73-year-old Bolaños.

 Most election-watchers say Ortega has a real chance of winning.

 Ortega, experts say, is helped because the Liberal Party's tenure was marred by corruption and the perception that Alemán used his presidency to enrich himself. At
 least 75 percent of Nicaraguans suffer poverty that is considered among the worst in the hemisphere, and experts estimate that up to 44 percent are jobless.

 ``The poor people who haven't eaten breakfast today don't think things have gotten better,'' said the former assembly president, Luis Humberto Guzmán, whose
 Democratic Christian party is backing Ortega.

 Like most observers, Guzmán said he thinks it is unlikely that the Sandinistas would enact the drastic changes they imposed in the 1980s. The political climate for
 shutting newspapers down or seizing property is long over, he said.

 ``The Sandinistas are not fools. They are smarter than their enemies give them credit for,'' he said. ``The 1980s are unrepeatable. Fear of Sandinistas is not based on real panic, it's based on propaganda.''

 For his part, Bolaños is undeterred -- by Ortega or the corruption scandals that tarnished his party.

 ``The Sandinistas feel euphoric. But even within their own party, they know they don't have the votes to win,'' Bolaños said.

 ``Look at the polls. . .They have no chance. We have faith.''

                                    © 2001