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Letter From Nicaragua: As Elections Approach, What'll It Be -- Lula or Hugo?

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"Daniel Ortega No Tolera La Democracia"
--headline in the once anti-Somoza La Prensa, October 8, 2008

Anybody recall when, back in the Cold-Wartime era of the legendary Ronaldus Rex, this wee country -- Central America's largest, but still just over the size of New York State -- made our headlines practically weekly? Things are mucho más tranquilas nowadays -- god knows the place is still one of the dirt-poorest in the hemisphere, but the crime rate, for example, is a fraction of that in neighboring El Salvador and Honduras. And though in November 2006 the Sandinistas slipped back into power, this time around president Daniel Ortega tempers his hoary "anti-imperialista" boilerplate (which may get at least somewhat toned down with the arrival of the Obama Administration) with vigorous bids for Euro and even damn yanqui investment, especially in the area of tourism.

In fact, earlier this month Managua for the first time hosted the annual Central American Tourism Market (CATM) and is following up next spring with a Central America Tourism & Hotel Investment Exchange. At the CATM exhibition hall in Managua's Crowne Plaza, I found nearly a thousand tourism businesses -- a goodly chunk of them Nicaraguan -- enthusiastically hawking some very attractive wares to foreign (mostly European) wholesalers and media.

It's certainly a beautiful and safe land to visit -- practically 80-percent virgin, with some amazing eco-tourism, beaches, colonial cities, coffee and cigar country, rainforests, volcanoes, lovely people, and some of the lowest prices in the hemisphere. So naturally at least some foreign capital has been very interested in getting in on what's essentially the ground floor; a 2,300-acre condo/resort/golf complex called Gran Pacífica has recently opened on the Pacific coast, and other, complete with Jack Nicklaus golf course, starts construction in '09, while a 40-megawatt windpower project is due to break wind (as it were) in November, also on the Pacific coast. The government has agreements with the IDB, the IMF and the World Bank, and has been courting foreign investment with an agency called ProNicaragua.

Unlike during Sandinismo 1.0, the usual global suspects (Pizza Hut, Shell, The Gap) pepper the capital, if not yet the hinterland. In fact, there's enough going on to support not one but two expat-run English-language newspapers, The Nicaraguan Post and The Nica Times. Sí, señor, it may still be one of the hemisphere's poorest countries, but crime is relatively low and Nicaragua does seem open for business. Foreign direct investment grew from $282 million in 2006 to $335 million last year, according to ProNicaragua director Javier Chamorro (a distant but Sandinista-affiliated relation of former president Violeta Chamorro).

Indeed, if anyone up here in Norteamérica was paying attention during the national elections here two years ago, they saw a supposedly "new" Daniel Ortega, in both good ways and bad. There was, for example, softpedaling of the revolutionary stemwinders cozying up to the rightwing oligarchy, the business community, even the Catholic Church. Some saw in this the possibility that Ortega's faction of Sandinistas might be aiming for the "third-way" approach of Brazil's center leftist president Lula da Silva instead of the Fidel Castro retread hawked by Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and his Bolivian sidekick Evo Morales. Thanks to this, a split opposition, and "El Pacto," a sleazy deal in place with the supporters of spectacularly corrupt and famously obese rightwing president Arnoldo Alemán to allow him to stay out of jail for embezzlement, the "Danielistas" (aka Orteguistas) managed to squeak back into power with a mere 38 percent of the votes.

Yet what has happened since seems simply schizophrenic. Some anti-poverty and education programs have had some (limited) impact, especially in the countryside, and at the same time the pro-business alliance and pro-investment attitude has for the most part held, as has the church connection. In fact, this last has infuriated more than a few Nicaraguans. Women's groups had already been upset with Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo because of their attacks against her daughter Zoilamérica Narváez, who a decade ago accused him of sexual abuse but last month finally dropped her official complaint (some in the media here speculated she was paid off to go away, to the tune of US$200,000). These days, supported by the U.N. Council on Human Rights, they're livid over the fact that the Danielistas proceeded to kill a century-old abortion-ban exception for the health of the mother (no word on whether air-quotes were used on "health") and are now attacking attempts to reinstate the exception as "illegal."

And remember the old Rocky Horror Picture Show lyrics, "Let's Do the Time Warp Again"? "It's just a jump to the left, and then a step to the right..." Or rather, vice-versa: increasingly, the so-called "new Ortega" is being pushed aside by flashes of Cold-War-era déjà vu, as tired old anti-imperialista yanqui firebreathing has once more become a staple. Don't make too much of the rhetoric, I was told by tourism and infrastructure Mario Salinas, "Americans are very welcome -- we love the American people. Besides," he winked, "last I heard, most Americans weren't too thrilled with Señor Bush, either." Added ProNicaragua's slightly chagrined Javier Chamorro, "it's been more rhetorical than practical, but still, we could create less noise on the public side. It's something we need to work on."

It does go well beyond mere gum-flapping, however. The government and its supporters have actively been ratcheting up attempts to demonize its opponents. Several political parties have been banned, foreign ambassadors harassed (take that, Sweden!), and NGO's criminally investigated, including the highly respected Oxfam (a real enemy of the people, that one); meanwhile, Reporters Without Borders has protested smear campaigns against dissident journalists. During my visit, I noted every downtown traffic circle filled, day and night, with people waving black-and-red Sandinista flags, and the cult of personality back in force, with so many billboards of Ortega, fist raised, promising "more victories!" that at times it felt like being back in Havana. Ah, sweet nostalgia...

All the while, corruption continues apace -- this past year Nicaragua was ranked 123 out of 180 countries in Transparency International's "Corruption Perceptions Index" -- and Freedom House ranks the country as only "partly free," with a downward trend since 2006. As a result of all the above, it's fair to say that many if not most Nicaraguans feel disgusted with and betrayed by the Danielistas these days (graffiti spotted in lovely colonial Granada: "Ortega , Alemán & Somoza Are the Same Thing"); a new Sandinista party has formed, and seven out of the revolution's eight original comandantes have repudiated Ortega, as have many former U.S. supporters. "I'm totally disenchanted with Daniel Ortega," Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) director Larry Birns told me. "After losing election after election he got to a point that he was so anxious to be president again that he was willing to pay any price. And in the process of doing so he's basically dismantled his personality and became a figure of ridicule." And furthermore, many Nicaraguans believe that behind the scenes First lady Rosario Murillo is the one pulling the strings.

Abroad, Ortega's firmly realigned Nicaragua with the "Bolivarian" leftist bloc led by neo-Castroite sugar daddy Hugo Chávez, and has been playing footsie with other unsavory players like Colombia's FARC, the neo-Soviet Alexander Lukashenko dictatorship of Belarus, and Vladimir Putin's Russia (even becoming the only country to recognize "independent" South Ossetia and Abkhazia, militarily wrenched from Georgia this past summer).

And now, after racking up Central America's lowest growth rate for 2007, even the business climate may be turning south again, according to a September 26 piece in the Nica Times and echoed October 27 in the U.S.-based Latin Business Chronicle; recently, the country has reportedly lost 17,000 jobs just in its apparel and textile industry. The reasons include problems regarding infrastructure, the judiciary, and the spreading international crisis -- but also in no small measure the Danielistas' bloviations; Ortega's own economic adviser, Bayardo Arce, was quoted in the Times as saying, "the government is not innocent."

So what lies ahead? The Danielistas may be getting more mouthy and thuggish, but observers like Birns still feel that for the time being they'll respect the results of elections, including the upcoming mayoral races November 9. Others are less optimistic; Nica Times editor Tim Rogers observes that "the Supreme Electoral has very little credibility; it's seen as an instrument that belongs to Ortega. Meanwhile, the U.S. embassy just released a statement expressing doubt about the mayoral contests, which an October 22 Universidad Centroamericana poll put Ortega's Sandinistas behind in eight of the country's 17 top municipalities, including Managua, Granada, and the booming Pacific resort San Juan del Sur. The reason? The regime has refused to accredit international observers; meanwhile the opposition is doing what it can to boost turnout, to make electoral theft tougher (sound familiar?). As for the next national polls, due in 2012, word is that Danny, Rosie, and the gang are hankering to change the constitution to allow them to stay in power indefinitely. It feels increasingly less like they'll make the same mistake they made in 1990: of abiding by the will of the voters and hopping off the gravy train (it's true that election wasn't without controverysy; COHA and others maintain it was essentially bought by Washington, but it was certified reasonably free and fair by most international observers including the Carter Center).

What the United States needs to do under the Obama administration is, first off, pay more attention and engage not just with Nicaragua but to Latin America in general. Beyond Mexico (obviously important because of immigration) and Cuba (blind obsession with the failed pseudo-embargo), Washington's attitude has been one of neglect, both benign and malign. That of course has allowed a host of evils to flourish, from drug trafficking and gangs to poverty and corruption that leads to the rise of demagogues like Chávez and Ortega. Stating the obvious, Nicaragua's president earlier this year called the next U.S. president's campaign "revolutionary," but, says Rogers, "I think Ortega secretly wants Obama to lose, because he doesn't want a leftist U.S. president -- it would screw up his anti-yanqui ranting." And judging from his Latin American policy speech this past summer as well as other pronouncements, Barack Obama is highly unlikely to return the compliment. The key challenge, though, is to walk the walk, even in a world full of seemingly more pressing challenges. Central America has exploded in the past -- and its convulsions distorted U.S. foreign policy and even ended up subverting our own Constitution. If the worldwide recession keeps spreading and times grow more desperate, there's nothing to say it can't happen again.