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Next Sunday's critical
election in Nicaragua



Jonathan Power
TFF Associate since 1991

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November 1, 2006

LONDON - Can one imagine when (and if) Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his ex-revolutionary Sandinistas are swept back into office in next Sunday’s general election the late U.S. president, Ronald Reagan, saying calmly from his grave, “Here we go again”, and then, after a thoughtful pause, “So what?”

It was Mr Reagan, after all, who said of the Sandinista regime, “If we ignore it will spread and become a mortal threat to the entire New World”. The Sandinistas were “just two days drive from Harlingen, Texas” and, as Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, added,“Defending the mainland ranks above all other priorities.”

Rhetoric like this cost Central America- there were also left/right civil wars in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras- hundreds of thousands of lives and left villages and towns decimated. They were unnecessary wars and the U.S. had no business supporting a small, unyielding, land-owning class against a small minority of the underdogs who dared to use violence against them.

The history books have revealed what many of us covering the wars suspected at the time, that the reports of Soviet or Cuban support for the rebellions were misleading or exaggerated. In the early days Cuba lent a hand with basic arms supplies. But Moscow rebuffed all attempts to get it involved.

Similarly, the guerrillas were depicted by Washington as terrorists incarnate; the army and the “Contras” (conservative irregulars and death squads sometimes funded and trained by the U.S.) were protected from scrutiny and their operations vigorously defended. But as we now know from a UN investigation in Guatemala, in part financed by the Clinton Administration, only 3% of the deaths were caused by the rebels and 97% by the government forces. So revealing was the UN report of the role played by the CIA in the Guatemalan war that President Bill Clinton went to Guatemala and said, “For the United States it is important that I state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence units which engaged in violence and wide-scale repression was wrong.” This led the Washington Post to editorialise, “We Americans need our own truth commission.”

But seven years after Clinton’s mea culpa on behalf of the U.S. we have two men who held high positions in the Reagan Administration and were deeply involved in the murkier side of this clandestine war fighting holding important posts today- Elliot Abrams is deputy National Security Advisor in the White House and John Negroponte is the director of National Intelligence.

In Nicaragua as the election campaign proceeds the U.S. has not been reticent about throwing its weight around. While we can only surmise what is going on in the background, in the foreground the U.S. ambassador, Paul Trivelli, has publicly intervened in the electoral debate on the side of Ortega’s opponents.

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It’s 16 years since President Daniel Ortega, the guerrillas’ former commander in chief, decided to stop the fighting, call an election, and then lost in a landslide. Since then Nicaragua has been a democracy, albeit with a heavy dose of corruption that has helped insure that Nicaragua remains the poorest country in Central America and, after Haiti, the second poorest in the hemisphere. El Salvador, in contrast, which suffered an even bloodier civil war, has done well, partly by cosying up to Washington.

If Ortega does win on Sunday Washington has some tough decisions to make. It can choose to work to undermine him, which will not be difficult given the precariousness of the economy. Withholding aid and discouraging private investment will be sufficient to give him a hard time. Or it can decide to let bygones be bygones and deal with him in the expectation that he is the reformed character he presents himself as. It also means not just reducing trade barriers to Nicaraguan textiles, shoes, vegetables and flowers, actively encouraging private investors but also reversing Washington’s hostility towards land reform, which was always a central plank of the Sandinistas. It has to be tolerated, even encouraged, because without it the rural areas can never move forward, either economically or politically.

Ironically, all this was said in a report of a commission chaired by former Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, more than 15 years ago. No one took real notice. By the time the Sandinistas had given up the bullet in favor of the ballot the U.S. had lost interest.

Inconsequential and small though the Central American backyard may be, but America’s backyard it will always be. Every 30 years or so, over a century and a half a cycle of uprising, repression and American intervention occurs. Now that all seems quiet in Central America and old local enmities are being subsumed into electoral politics it is time for Big Brother in Washington to give the locals, good and bad, some breathing space.


Copyright © 2006 By JONATHAN POWER


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


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