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November 15, 2006
It's hard to say what to make of the return of Daniel Ortega to Nicaragua. He says he's business friendly. He says he's found Jesus. But most signs in his election point to the reemergence of the old Marxist Sandinista autocrat he was in the 1980s. It's bad news for our hemisphere. But it's unlikely to be a trend.
The year 2006 will go down in history as the great political crossroads for Latin America. Some 18 major elections have occurred or are in progress. They have largely been seen as a collective barometer of the region's supposed swing to the anti—American left. On the whole, that hasn't happened. Until Nicaragua's election, only one of these elections (technically, December 2005) really yielded a big win for the Hugo—Chavez anti—U.S. left in the Americas: backward, dirt—poor Bolivia.Every other election since then has been a victory for center—right, or center—left candidates, with the single exception of President Alvaro Uribe of Colombia, who is unapologetically on the right and won Colombia's election in May by a huge margin.
That points to a certain inauthenticity to Ortega's comeback, because it does not follow the trend. What then does one make of the victory of Daniel Ortega? How is it that Ortega, who is surrounded by mostly center—right leaders in his Central American region, could make a comeback?
In reality, he didn't. Vote—wise, he did about as well as other leftwing candidates in other elections did around the region, all of whom drew in 30% to 40% of the popular vote. But unlike them, his bar for victory was much lower than those of the other candidates. That's because Ortega has been battering democracy "from below" for the last two decades.
Over the years, he worked with corrupt rightwing allies who were trying to save their skins from corruption charges. They worked out a deal where the next president could be elected by as little as 40% of the vote, provided that his next—highest rival took in at least five percentage points less. Knowing that the Nicaraguan free—market opposition (known as Liberals there) was badly fragmented, he came up with a tailored—to—himself formula to ensure his own victory.
So his victory is not like those of the other victories of the other presidents through the Latin American region. It's a much weaker victory, with 60% of Nicaraguans voting against him. In a curious peculiarity, he did manage to get much of the youth vote, people who did not remember his atrocious run as dictator in the 1980s, but whose only political experience was in the disappointing politicians who followed him afterward. The Ortega victory celebrations showed photos of large numbers of pretty Nicaraguan girls coming out to cheer. Still, 40% is no majority and there he is, pretending he's a popular with his population as the other presidents are with theirs. What it means is that there's no megatrend and his own political movement is unlikely to spread. Central American voters are looking to other kinds of candidates these days.
Is he an autocrat? That electoral manipulation is a good sign of it right there.
But there are other signs, too. He's triggered a split within his own Sandinista party over the question of whether the party should become more liberal—democratic and whether Ortega's own huge influence within the party should diminish. He squelched that battle and won. As a result, a large faction split off, bitter at his rigidity and calling him the same old dictator. Within his own party then, Ortega continues to show autocratic proclivities.
There's also a third sign: Latin America's elections have brought about three retread presidents who once ruled their countries in the past. Besides Ortega, one is President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, and the other is President Alan Garcia of Peru.
Arias, a Nobel peace—prize laureate, who was always well—regarded, had little to apologize for. But Garcia, a formerly crazy leftist leader who was Ronald Reagan's second—biggest headache in the hemisphere after Ortega, has the instructive case. Garcia, before he won the election in Peru, was profoundly contrite for his past behavior as president and vowed to never make the same mistakes he made before. He condemned himself profusely and would not even allow the excuse of youthfulness to justify his disastrous leftwing presidency in 1980s Peru. He extolled free markets and explained why he believed in them, using all the Hayekian arguments. He listened to great thinkers on the free market, like Carlos Alberto Montaner, author of a book about Latin American leftwing idiocy, taking the lessons to heart. He won the support of small business and vowed to leave Peru richer than he found it. And he repeatedly blasted Hugo Chavez, as only someone who knows the mind of Chavez could do. Because two decades ago, he himself was Hugo Chavez.
Ortega, depite running a far more heinous regime than Garcia ever did, expressed no such contriteness. He ran on a vague platform of love—love—love and 'give peace a chance,' waved pink campaign flags, and travelled around the country with a man carrying a big black bag full of goodies from which to distribute to secure votes. He never apologized for his atrocious dictatorship. All he says is that his new presidency will be different from the last one. Frankly, this is not believable.
The last thing that makes his insistence that he's changed his spots hard to believe is his enduring friendships with Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez. He says he wants good relations with the U.S., but makes no distance between himself and his anti—American friends, all of whom just happen to be his closest friends.
So his claims of being a new democrat, although possible, are dubious. It's unlikely that the new Ortega presidency will be accompanied by anything more than cosmetic changes regarding a new market approach. That seems to be the consensus of Nicaraguans, who are pulling their money out of the country based on his election. Local investors are always the most reliable indicators of what's coming down the pike.
It's unlikely to be easy for Ortega, either. He doesn't have the vast mandate of popular support that, say, Evo Morales, might have. He doesn't have neighbors who see the world as he does. He does have Hugo Chavez to give him support, but that support is growing increasingly unreliable as Venezuela slides toward its own economic crisis and even a potential electoral defeat for Chavez. There is very little organic political soil for Ortega—ism to flourish in. That's why I think that while Ortega's comeback is bad news for Nicaragua, it's unlikely to move beyond his own inner circle. If he really reforms any at all, it will be because global forces and regional political forces have overwhelmed his capacity to make a new tyranny.
A.M. Mora y Leon 11 15 06