The Once and Future Daniel Ortega – A Green Analysis of the Recent Election in Nicaragua

 

By Steve Herrick for the Green Institute

 

By
now, most people have heard that Daniel Ortega was elected President of
Nicaragua on November 5th. How did this happen, and what does it mean?

 

Ortega
led the ruling Board ("junta") of Reconstruction from 1979 to 1985, and
then was elected President by a landslide, only to be voted out in
1990. He ran again in 1996 and 2001, and lost both times, as the Right joined ranks to defeat him (largely under pressure from the US).

This
time, the Right was unable to reconcile its differences, and ran two
candidates: Jose Rizo and Eduardo Montealegre. The sticking points
between them, in broad terms, were that Rizo symbolized national
capital, and Montealegre, international capital. Rizo's supporters were
afraid of being crushed if Nicaragua
were fully open to foreign investment. Montealegre's supporters wanted
a nation that was friendly to global business, not tied down by
parochial and highly corrupt local elites.

 

Herty Lewites

 

There
was also a split on the Left. Ortega faced serious competition from
former mayor of Managua Herty Lewites. During his term in office
('91-'96), Lewites had approval ratings in the 60-70% range, when most
other politicians were below 30%. This, combined with his charm and
self-effacing wit, gave him a running start on his Presidential
campaign.

 

When
Ortega learned of Lewites' ambitions, he canceled the party primaries
and arranged to have Lewites kicked out of the FSLN. This move largely
backfired on Ortega, and resulted in more Sandinistas leaving the party.

 

They
followed Lewites into the Movement for Sandinista Renewal (MRS), which
split from the FSLN in 1994. It was founded and led by Sandinista
artists and intellectuals (Sergio Ramirez, Dora Maria Tellez, Gionconda
Belli, Carlos and Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy, Ernesto Cardenal, and
more), but never found much traction among the grassroots until Lewites
became its standard-bearer.

 

Just
as the MRS was hitting its stride, and not long after the Green Party
of Nicaragua officially allied with it, Lewites abruptly died of a
heart attack. He was quickly replaced by his Vice-Presidential
candidate, Edmundo Jarquin, but the poll numbers never recovered. Even
the new VP candidate, immensely popular singer-songwriter Carlos Mejia
Godoy, could not rescue the ticket.

 

As
the election went on, the US Embassy interfered with the process even
more shamelessly than usual. At one point, the Ambassador threatened
that if Ortega won, the US would cut off remittances from the US. Remittances bring in upwards of a million dollars (16 cents per person) a day to Nicaragua, which is substantially more the total foreign aid it receives.

 

This
meddling polarized the Left, but not the Right, which meant that the
Embassy's efforts actually helped elect Ortega. It's very possible that
if the US had kept a respectful silence, the results would have been more to its liking.

 

Daniel Ortega: a retrospective

 

During the 1980s, Ortega became a mythical figure on the Left throughout the Americas,
almost on par with Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Not only did
his government successfully fend off a proxy army of the US,
it simultaneously ran a literacy campaign and an immunization campaign,
and still found time to promote painting, music, and poetry.

 

To
squander that level of good will would require making a long string of
poor decisions, but Ortega has done just that. Here is a representative
sampling.

 

In
1990, a war-weary nation voted the Sandinistas out of power, and the
top government officials responded with a package of laws that awarded
them large expanses of state land, vehicles, cattle, state businesses,
and other assets. Ortega was at the center of this scandal, which
became known as the "piñata," because they broke open the state and
grabbed up the "candy." This gave Nicaragua
two parallel and competing business classes: the Sandinistas and the
anti-Sandinistas. (The Sandinistas who saw this as a betrayal of their
movement's ideals became dissidents, left the FSLN, and formed the MRS.)

 

In
1998, Ortega's stepdaughter publicly accused him of sexually molesting
her for years. Ortega denies it to this day -- as does her own mother
-- but many people, including Sandinistas, believe her.

Next,
he cooked up a "pact" with the spectacularly-corrupt President at the
time, Arnoldo Aleman, that gave huge advantages to their respective
parties, and themselves personally. For example, all significant
government posts would be split exclusively between their followers,
and given out according to loyalty, not qualifications or ethics. Also,
former Presidents would automatically be awarded lifetime seats in the
national legislature, where they would enjoy blanket immunity from all
criminal charges. (In a well-calculated move, Ortega then saw to it
that the legislature voted to strip Aleman of that immunity. But once
Aleman was convicted, Ortega arranged for what amounts to a suspended
sentence.)

 

Ortega
has gradually become cozy with his old archenemy, the Catholic Church.
During the campaign, he said his two role models were "Sandino and
Christ." He was married to his long-time partner, Rosario Murrillo, by
the very archbishop who warned parishoners not to vote for him in '90,
'96, and '01. To cap things off, during the campaign this year, Ortega
spearheaded the effort to outlaw the only legal form of abortion in Nicaragua: cases where it is necessary to save the life of the mother.

 

Even
more bizarrely, Ortega sought -- and got -- support from former contras
in this campaign. In fact, his Vice-Presidential candidate is Jaime
Morales Carazo, who was once a contra leader. During the Revolution,
Carazo had large amounts of land nationalized, including his house. In
the Piñata, Ortega received the house, and still lives there today.

 

Back to the future?

 

In Nicaragua,
the 1980s are the glory days -- things were simple, and young people
bravely offered their lives to fight their enemies. Today, political
issues are still framed in reference to those days, and more so when
the US
government sticks its nose into things. As a result, there are
Nicaraguans who sincerely believe that Ortega's inauguration will
automatically trigger a new war with the United States.

 

The
global context has changed so much since the '80s, however, that
comparisons to those days are not useful. The recent past is much more
indicative of what to expect from an Ortega administration. Specific
predictions are impossible to make, but here are several factors that
will shape the next five years.

First,
let's dispense with Oliver North's recent statement that Ortega is "a
leopard that does not change its spots." The Ortega of 2006 is almost
unrecognizable as the college dropout who led the revolutionary
government in 1979. He is now pro-business, pro-clerical, and almost
entirely free of any ideological grounding, rhetorical flourishes
notwithstanding. His only goal is power.

 

Second,
the FSLN will have only 40% of the legislature, meaning they will have
to cut deals to accomplish anything. Their relationships with the other
four groupings in the National Assembly range from opportunistic
alliances to open hostility.

 

Third, Nicaragua is already locked into so-called "free-trade" treaties like CAFTA and debt repayment programs with the World Bank. Nicaragua is the second-poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere, and has the highest per-capita foreign debt in the world. There is little Ortega can do about any of these.

In
short, there will be triumphalist celebrating on the ostensible Left
and overblown fearmongering on the Right. In the resulting dust-up,
almost everyone will overlook the fact that most of the war of words is
theatrics, and that Ortega's return to power means very little in the
lives of the poor.

Steve
Herrick lives in Madison, WI, where he works as a translator and writes
on fair trade and Green politics. He learned most of his Spanish and a
bit of his politics during the five years he lived in Nicaragua.