Nicaraguans Head for the Polls
Ortega Attempts Comeback Under Close U.S. Scrutiny
By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
MANAGUA, Nicaragua, Nov. 3 -- In a race in which the Bush administration
has become an unabashed partisan, voters go to the polls here Sunday to
whether Daniel Ortega, the former Marxist guerrilla, will return to the presidency.
Administration officials -- and even President Bush's brother -- have
urged the defeat of Ortega, 55, who was locked in a virtual tie in recent
polls with Enrique
Bolanos, 73, a businessman and former vice president.
For many Nicaraguans, the election is largely about choosing a leader
to guide them out of a downward economic spiral caused by natural disasters,
a global crash in
coffee prices and years of rampant corruption.
But in Washington, the implications are seen as far broader than the
economic fate of a Central American country with 5 million people. The
Bush administration has
painted the election as a potentially dangerous return of a government that was aligned with the Soviet Union during the Cold War and led Nicaragua into a bloody
civil war against U.S.-backed rebels.
U.S. officials "have crossed over the line in their public support of
Bolanos," Alberto Saborio, the third-party candidate trailing far behind
Ortega and Bolanos, said in
an interview today. Intervening in Nicaraguan politics "is a dangerous tendency of the United States," he said.
Especially since Sept. 11, State Department officials have referred
to Ortega's "terrorist" links. They have also said they are uncomfortable
with his regional allies,
Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, calling the trio an "iron communist triangle."
Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) co-sponsored a bill this week citing "grave
reservations" over a possible Ortega victory and noting the Sandinistas'
links with Libya and
The president's brother, Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, wrote an op-ed piece
this week in the Miami Herald criticizing Ortega, saying he has "a 30-year
states and individuals who harbor and condone international terrorism."
"On the other hand, presidential candidate Enrique Bolanos is a man
whose past indeed promises a future of freedom," wrote Gov. Bush -- whose
George H.W. Bush, was bedeviled by Ortega's Sandinista government in the 1980s.
Gov. Bush's lavish praise of Bolanos was reprinted in a full-page newspaper
ad here under the headline: "Brother of the president of the United States
U.S. Ambassador Oliver Garza recently handed out rice -- in bags stamped
"USA" -- to poor people with Bolanos at his side. Earlier, U.S. officials
believed to have influenced the decision of another candidate to drop out because he was splitting the anti-Ortega vote and hurting Bolanos.
Nicaraguan voters clearly feel the influence of the United States. For
some, that means that they won't vote for Ortega because they worry that
the United States will
withdraw millions of dollars in aid. Others say the U.S. campaign against Ortega only makes him more attractive.
"The U.S. has been very interventionist, and it's not appropriate,"
said Luis Pastor Gonzalez, 28, an orthodontist who said he planned to vote
for Ortega: "He is the
only option that represents the whole country. Bolanos represents a government that didn't do anything to help the poor."
Former president Jimmy Carter, who is in Managua leading a delegation
of foreign observers, said at a news conference tonight, "I have noticed
the strong opinions
expressed in Washington" concerning this election. "I personally disapprove of statements or actions of another country that might influence the votes of people of
another sovereign nation." He added that "outside interference" sometimes has a negative effect.
Bolanos was vice president in Arnoldo Aleman's Liberal Party government
until he decided to challenge Ortega. Bolanos has had difficulty distancing
himself from the
mounting allegations of corruption and spendthrift ways of the Aleman presidency. A wealthy businessman educated in the United States, Bolanos was jailed and his
property confiscated by the Sandinistas in the 1980s. Those solidly anti-Sandinista credentials have endeared him to Washington.
Ortega, who met with members of the U.S. Congress here tonight, says he is a "changed man" from the days when he carried an AK-47 assault rifle.
Ortega, in a recent interview, said he now respects property rights
and would no longer confiscate property as he once did. He also said his
Marxist ideals are now
tempered by a new-found faith in Jesus.
Many poor voters, who have been devastated by Nicaragua's economic mess,
see the "new Ortega" as a route toward jobs, food and prosperity. But the
Roman Catholic Church here seems to be skeptical.
In perhaps the most significant event in the closing days of the campaign,
Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo told an overflowing crowd at Thursday Mass,
included Ortega and Bolanos, that voters should choose leaders who set "a good example with their own family."
That was widely interpreted on the front pages of newspapers here as
a thinly veiled reference to sexual abuse charges leveled by Ortega's stepdaughter.
never had to face those charges in court because he has immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament.
Yet despite his powerful critics, Ortega is still running strong --
partly because of the youth of many of Nicaragua's voters. The legal voting
age is 16, and many
people who will decide the election were babies when Ortega ran an unpopular military draft that led to many deaths two decades ago.
In some neighborhoods today, the tension was running high over the sharply
polarized vote. Soldiers in camouflage uniforms stood on many street corners
for signs of trouble. Huge banners hung over crowded streets proclaiming, "Your vote is secret."