October 6, 2005

US, Ortega face off again in Nicaragua

By Carol Giacomo, Diplomatic Correspondent

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (Reuters) - Fifteen years after it
stopped funding Contra rebels, the United States is back
throwing its weight around in Nicaragua, this time wielding
diplomatic and economic levers, not guns, to rescue democracy
in the divided Central American country.

Concerned that leftist Sandinistas and right-wing
opposition leaders are engaged in a "creeping coup," U.S.
Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick replaced the usual
diplomatic niceties this week with an unyielding and blunt

President Enrique Bolanos "is democratically elected and
for those who think they can remove him, my message is there
will be consequences in terms of their relations with the
United States and, unfortunately, for Nicaraguans, if democracy
is undermined," said Zoellick, on a two-day trip to Managua.

Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega and former President
Arnoldo Aleman, leader of the right-wing Liberal Party, forged
an unlikely alliance that now controls the judicial and
legislative branches of government.

The conflict has at times threatened to force Bolanos, a
U.S. ally, from office. U.S. officials worry that Ortega, who
lost three previous elections, will successfully manipulate the
system to win the next poll in November 2006.

That would broaden the Latin alliance of anti-American
states beyond Cuba and Venezuela, not long after the trend
seemed to be going the other way.

America has a long and controversial history of involvement
in Nicaragua and the latest U.S. intervention into the
country's polarized politics angered the opposition.

Until the administration of President George W. Bush's
father helped craft a 1989 peace plan that ended the region's
civil wars and ushered in elections, Washington funded Contra
rebels fighting Ortega's Soviet-backed Sandinista government.


"As Nicaraguans, as Central Americans and sons of Latin
America we protest to the world about the U.S. government's
unwarranted interference in the internal affairs of our
country," Aleman's party said in a statement.

But Zoellick dismissed such criticism. "The United States
is comfortable with trying to promote the democratic
aspirations of people around the world," he said.

In closed meetings and public statements, Zoellick warned
that Nicaragua could lose $175 million in U.S. funds, benefits
associated with the Central America Free Trade Agreement and
other assistance -- a potentially huge blow to one of the
region's poorest countries.

Moreover, increasing numbers of Nicaraguans will be barred
from the United States if they are involved in corruption and
associated with Ortega and Aleman.

Zoellick branded Aleman a "corrupt criminal" and when
attorney general Julio Centeno, an Aleman ally, complained
publicly that revocation of his U.S. visa violated his dignity,
Zoellick told Reuters and The New York Times, "He offended his
own dignity."

Zoellick also met privately with politicians seeking to
challenge Ortega and Aleman and encouraged them to work
together to promote alternatives to what he called
anti-democratic forces.

One potential candidate was one-time Sandinista loyalist
Herty Lewites, Managua's former mayor, who opposed the
Ortega-Aleman pact.

Zoellick said the meeting was a clear sign Washington
"could work with" Lewites, as it has with leftists in El
Salvador who abandoned violence and accepted the democratic
"rules of the game."

"I may not share the same policy views as they have but if
they are core believers in democracy then it's a contribution
to the system," Zoellick told Reuters and The New York Times.

Some critics argue a U.S. failure to adequately help
nurture Nicaraguan democratic institutions beyond elections has
contributed to the current political crisis.

Zoellick's trip indicates Nicaragua, at least, is now
getting high-level U.S. attention.

Despite the promised strong U.S. role, Nicaragua's future
will be decided ultimately by its people and "they have to
stand up and protect their own democracy," Zoellick said.