April 5, 2006

In Nicaragua, former US Cold War enemy eyes power

By Alistair Scrutton

LEON, Nicaragua (Reuters) - After years of setbacks, many Nicaraguans from Leon, the cradle of the 1979 Sandinista revolution, believe their aging former guerrilla leaders could soon return to power in elections that could also prove a diplomatic nightmare for Washington.

"We need a change. It's been bad, bad, bad," said 60-year-old war Sandinista war veteran Daniel Sauro, referring to 16 years of pro-Washington governments that took power after Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega's electoral defeat in 1990.

Sauro lives in a city where colonial churches and dilapidated houses are still splattered with aging bullet holes from 1970s street battles between leftist rebels and the army.

"We need to give Ortega another chance to show he can govern in times of peace," Sauro said. Like many Nicaraguans, he complains about crime, corruption and low wages and looks back with nostalgia to the heady revolutionary days of 1979.

The graying Ortega -- a Cold War U.S. foe and loser of the last three elections -- is now a favorite to win a vote that could cement an emerging shift to the left in Latin America.

Leon was one of the first cities that leftist rebels occupied in the 1979 uprising and loyalty has stayed strong -- the town has always elected a Sandinista mayor despite a swing against the movement in much of Nicaragua.

But now national support for the Sandinistas, who in the 1980s led a Soviet- and Cuban-backed government that battled U.S.-funded Contra rebels, is returning to Nicaragua before presidential elections in November, pollsters say.

Many voters are tired of pro-Washington governments that have failed to raise living standards in one of the Western Hemisphere's poorest nations.

Years of market reforms have added economic stability -- inflation, for example, has fallen. But per capita income is just $700 and over 70 percent of its 5 million people live in poverty.

Many Nicaraguans fear a new U.S. free trade deal will just add to the flashy shopping malls selling imported luxuries from toys to surfboards that dot the capital. Governments have still not restored Managua from a 1972 earthquake. Slums and empty shells of buildings lie yards from the presidential palace.

"The only thing that has advanced in this country is corruption," said Mario Valdivia, who ekes out a living by cleaning car windows and begging on Managua's streets.


Ortega has said he welcomes U.S. investment and tourism. But the Bush administration has criticized him, and former rightist President Arnoldo Aleman, of orchestrating a "creeping coup" against President Enrique Bolanos, a U.S. ally whose government has investigated graft during Aleman's rule.

It will likely be a close election. Polls show Ortega faces strong competition from pro-business candidate Eduardo Montealegre and Sandinista dissident Herty Lewites -- himself surrounded by former guerrillas disaffected with Ortega.

Ortega lost some support amid the pact with Aleman -- under house arrest after being convicted of massive corruption -- and allegations, thrown out of court, that he molested a stepdaughter.

But the corruption investigations split Nicaragua's right-wing parties, helping Ortega's chances of returning.

The Sandinistas are a Nicaraguan institution. They hold sway over courts and much of Congress. And a move to the left in Latin America -- neighboring powerhouse Mexico could elect a leftist in July -- could have a coattail effect for Sandinistas.

"Something has changed. The people are hungrier and poorer and governments have shown they're incapable for helping the poor," said Luis Romero, a Sandinista leader in Leon. "There is a growing sense of moral solidarity from Latin America that you should never underestimate," he added.

Ortega could also benefit from an electoral system that means a candidate can win with as little as 35 percent of the vote.

"Ortega has the benefits of the electoral system, hard-core Sandinista support and the issue of poverty and unemployment," said Sergio Santamaria, a political analyst in Managua.

One candidate who could beat him, according to polls is Montealegre, a former New York banker. But he has no doubt who the main threat is -- he compares Ortega to Osama bin Laden.

"Ortega is the main opposition. This election is about breaking Ortega and the Sandinistas' hold on Nicaragua," Montealegre, who backs pro-market reforms, told Reuters.

Washington has made it clear that if a leftist is going to win in Nicaragua, it would prefer Lewites to Ortega. Last year, U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick went to the lengths of meeting with Sandinista dissident Lewites.

The other factor working against Ortega is the young generation. Many young Nicaraguans do not even remember the revolution and the controversy it sparked -- a factor that could add to the uncertainty of the election's outcome.

"My parents were Sandinistas and they have always tried to teach me about those days after the revolution of free education and basic supplies of food for everybody," said 23-year-old pharmaceutical student Virginia Somarriba, who was born three years after the 1979 revolution.

"But I don't think Ortega is a good person. I don't trust politicians. I won't vote until there is a fresh face in Nicaragua," she added in a bare living room in downtown Leon. Her father remained sitting in an adjoining room, silent.

(Additional reporting by Ivan Castro in Managua)