If you listen to right-wing pundits and Republican officials, the return to power of former revolutionary Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua is not evidence of democracy in action but rather an invitation to Communist tyranny, terrorism and even nuclear holocaust. It appears that on November 5 Nicaraguans went to the polls and committed the sin of selecting a leader not in favor with the White House. With more than 60 percent of the votes now counted, Ortega has won 39 percent, while his nearest rival, right-wing banker Eduardo Montealegre of the of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, holds only 31 percent. In the five-way race for the presidency, this margin is enough to hand a victory to Ortega’s Sandinista-led coalition, giving the political party control of the executive for the first time since 1990.
A statistical sample of polling places suggests that Ortega’s lead will hold, and this likelihood has prodded US conservatives into some fits of fantastically overblown rhetoric. At National Review, former Reagan and George H.W. Bush speechwriter Mark Klugmann writes, “a Nicaragua that opens its arms to murderous radicalism poses a threat for America and the world…. A nuclear North Korea and a nuclear Iran could be in position, with an ally so close to our porous frontier, to wreak the havoc we once thought only the Soviet Union could ever bring home.”
Of course, the fantasy that a small, poor and geopolitically marginal Central American nation could be a major threat to US national security is a throwback to cold war-era propaganda films like Red Dawn. It reflects the current foreign policy mindset of Washington conservatives but does not resemble anything like reality.
The return of Daniel Ortega to Nicaragua’s presidency hardly portends a menacing new danger for the US heartland. It does, however, mark two important developments in the rise of an increasingly independent Latin America. First, given concerted efforts on the part of the Bush Administration to influence the outcome of the election, it signals that US threats of retaliation may no longer be sufficient to keep Central American citizens from voting for leaders willing to buck Washington’s economic program. Second, in spite of Ortega’s standing as a deeply compromised political figure, his election provides a modest opening for hope that a new Nicaraguan administration might do a better job of addressing the country’s endemic poverty than have the past sixteen years of neoliberal rule.
The scare stories spun by conservative pundits like Klugmann echo the only somewhat more subtle alarmism voiced by Republican lawmakers in the lead-up to the Nicaraguan elections. In recent years, the White House has chosen to remain silent during many electoral contests in Latin America. This does not reflect a newfound respect for democratic self-determination; it is pragmatic. Washington learned the hard way that its admonitions can backfire when delivered to Latin America voters fed up with having economic policy dictated from the North–as was the case in Bolivia in 2002, when US attacks on Evo Morales helped him gain the stature that would ultimately propel him to the presidency this year. However, the United States has maintained an overt involvement in some elections, especially in cold-war hot spots Nicaragua and El Salvador.
Bush Administration efforts over the past year to prevent the Nicaraguan electorate from choosing Ortega were particularly heavy-handed. Violating diplomatic protocol, US Ambassador Paul Trivelli expressed an open preference for Ortega’s opponents, and he made repeated efforts to unite the Nicaraguan right around a single candidate. (He failed, and the divide among Nicaraguan conservatives helped pave the way for the Sandinistas’ victory.) Adding to Trivelli’s meddling, US Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez suggested that more than $220 million in aid and hundreds of millions more in investments could be jeopardized if voters picked the wrong candidate.