Nicaragua: The New Guy by Stephen Kinzer

Managua, Nicaragua -- Within hours after the left-wing indigenous leader Evo Morales was elected president of Bolivia last December, another outspoken critic of American power in the hemisphere, Daniel Ortega, sent him a message of “revolutionary jubilation.” As the head of Nicaragua's Sandinista government in the 1980s, Ortega led his country in a war against CIA-sponsored insurgents. Now, sensing the wind of the resurgent Latin American left at his back, he is running for president again.

If Ortega wins the November election, he will bring populist rule back to Central America for the first time since his previous presidency, which ended in 1990. But Ortega faces a serious challenge from within the Sandinista Party, and from a most unlikely figure -- Herty Lewites, the balding, 66-year-old son of a Jewish candy manufacturer who landed in Nicaragua in the 1920s after fleeing his homeland. If elected, Lewites would be a very different kind of Sandinista president from the ones Americans remember in the 1980s.

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For more than a decade, Nicaragua has been dominated by two old-style caudillos, Ortega and another former president, Arnoldo Aleman, of the Liberal Party. Both men now aspire to return to the presidency. Both, however, face extraordinary challenges from within their own ranks. The conflict within Sandinista ranks is especially bitter and could erupt in violence.

Ortega is no longer a popular figure in Nicaragua. In one recent poll, 69 percent of Nicaraguans said they would not vote for him under any circumstance. But he has a strong political base and has designed a political system that makes him a formidable candidate despite weaknesses that have led to his defeat in each of the last three presidential elections.

Through a series of political maneuvers, Ortega and Aleman have taken control of both the Supreme Court and the electoral council. Aleman hopes to use his power over these bodies to reverse his conviction on corruption charges and overturn the 20-year jail sentence that he was given in 2003. That would allow him to emerge from house arrest and run for president again. Ortega, who has already shown his power over the court system by arranging for pro-Sandinista judges to absolve him of charges that he sexually abused his stepdaughter for years, now wants to use that power to shape the November election result.

Lewites recently completed a highly successful term as mayor of Managua, during which he impressed many voters with his pragmatism and willingness to hire competent administrators regardless of their political background -- something highly unusual in Nicaragua. His folksy, can-do style has made him the country's most popular politician. He describes his ideology as “a new, open, modern, democratic Sandinismo.”

Lewites has sterling Sandinista credentials. He became a guerrilla while still a teenager. In the 1970s, he directed a gun-smuggling operation, bringing arms from the U.S. to Nicaragua in false-bottomed trucks. U.S. agents finally caught him, and he spent several months in a federal prison in California. After the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, he was named minister of tourism, and brought desperately needed hard currency into government coffers by opening a series of “dollar stores” where diplomats and other foreigners could buy imported goods that were otherwise unavailable in Nicaragua. Today, some of the leading comandantes who ran the Sandinista regime in the 1980s, including Henry Ruiz, Luis Carrion, and Victor Tirado, are supporting his campaign.

I visited Lewites at his home, where large, colorful paintings by artists from Nicaragua and other Latin American countries cover the walls. He told me that he “was, is, and will die a Sandinista,” but said the party “has been a dictatorship for the 25 years that Daniel Ortega has been secretary general.

“The new Sandinista movement is center-left, wants stable relations with the United States instead of confrontation, and good relations with all countries,” he said. “Don't confuse Sandinismo with Danielismo.”

Nicaragua is alive with rumors that Ortega will use his power to deny Lewites a place on the ballot. Such a drastic step would certainly create a backlash. Several foreign leaders who are friendly to Ortega have warned him that the world will not recognize the election unless all candidates are given a chance to run. Lewites, whose aides include veteran Sandinistas with rich experience in street politics, told me he would forcefully resist any effort to ban his candidacy.

“I will bring this country to a total standstill,” he vows. “I'm not for violence, but things can happen when crowds of angry people come together. If I'm cut out of the election, I'm not just going to sit back and take it.”

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As the Sandinista front splits, the same thing is happening within the country's other main party, the Liberals. Aleman's epic corruption and autocratic style have set off a rebellion in his own party. The challenger, Eduardo Montealegre, is a Harvard-educated banker from a well-known Nicaraguan family whose calls for economic development have struck a resonant chord among many Nicaraguans. He and Lewites have very different styles, but both have become popular for the same reason. They are rebels against a corrupt system that most Nicaraguans have come to detest.

A new civic group, the Movement for Nicaragua, has emerged to protest the strongman-style rule of the two former presidents. It has drawn tens of thousands of people to protest marches. They carry banners with slogans like “No to the Two-Headed Dictatorship of Ortega and Aleman” and, on a coffin shrouded in black, “We Are Burying the Past.”

Outsiders may view the coming election as a way to measure the strength of leftist ideology in Central America, but Nicaraguans look forward to it for a very different reason. Many dare to hope that if both insurgent candidates defeat the entrenched powers, the system of strongman rule that has long plagued this country may be greatly weakened or even broken. “This coming year will be crucial in Nicaraguan history,” said Klaus Stadhagen, a businessman active in the Movement for Nicaragua. “It will determine whether the caudillo system lives or dies in this country.”

Leaders of the Movement for Nicaragua have plans to call a “mega-march” the moment a court removes either Lewites or Montealegre from the ballot. “If either of the two is prevented from running, our movement will take to the streets,” said one of its leaders, Carlos Tunnerman, who was the Sandinistas' ambassador to the United States in the 1980s. “Why have an election if you take away people's right to vote for the most popular candidates?”

The novelist Sergio Ramirez, who served as Ortega's vice president in the 1980s but has since broken with him, told me he expects President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela, and perhaps even Morales of Bolivia, to do whatever they can to help Ortega's presidential campaign. He also said he fears that if Ortega does not win, he may throw the country into chaos. “The biggest question facing Nicaragua is not whether Herty can win, but whether Daniel Ortega will agree to give up power peacefully,” Ramirez warns.

American officials are doing all they can to weaken the two strongmen. During a visit to Managua in October, deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick bluntly condemned the “corrupt pact” that binds them together. He called Aleman “a convicted political official who stole tens of millions, if not more,” and asserted that Ortega “has never accepted democracy.” A victory by either one, he suggested, would lead the United States to cut much of its aid to Nicaragua.

Nor does the United States look favorably on Lewites, who, although he may be the instrument that ends Ortega's political career, is nonetheless an unapologetic Sandinista. One American official told me that the State Department considers Lewites “an erratic personality” who is only “marginally better” than Ortega. No one in Nicaragua's political class doubts that Montealegre is Washington's preferred candidate.

Some Nicaraguans say that by inserting itself so forcefully into the current political campaign, the United States perpetuates the image that it considers Nicaragua a kind of protectorate. That, they warn, feeds anti-Americanism and plays into the Sandinistas' hands. “This insistence on pressuring us now is a mistake,” Luis Humberto Guzman, a former president of the Nicaraguan Congress, told me over lunch in Managua. “It's not in Nicaragua's interest, and it's not in the long-term interest of the United States.”

During the 1980s, Ronald Reagan, asserting that the Sandinista regime was a fundamental threat to the United States and to world peace, dispatched the cia to sponsor an insurrection against it. That insurrection took thousands of lives and devastated the country. Ultimately, the Sandinistas were deposed, although that happened in an election after the contra rebels had agreed to stop fighting. Very soon afterward, the United States completely lost interest in Nicaragua. This made painfully clear that the American goal here was simply to depose a regime, not to help a wretched country emerge from its misery.

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Today, Nicaragua competes with Haiti to lead Latin America in most things that are bad, from unemployment to infant mortality. Forty-five percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day. Over the past decade, several hundred thousand Nicaraguans have emigrated, mostly to the United States and Costa Rica, and without the money they send to relatives back home, the country might fall into complete economic collapse. According to the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), an astonishing 27 percent of Nicaraguans, a total of 1.4 million people, suffer from malnutrition. According to the FAO representative in Nicaragua, Loy Van Crowder, this is a fundamental cause of the country's underdevelopment.

“Hungry people don't work,” Van Crowder asserts. “Hungry people have more health problems. We know that hungry children don't learn. This means that for this country to advance economically, there has to be investment in programs that feed people.”

Although the United States is again focused on Nicaragua, its principal interest is the same as it was 20 years ago: defeating Daniel Ortega. If Ortega loses the presidential election, America will almost certainly shift its focus elsewhere. No powerful figure in Washington has suggested that the United States might instead make a long-term commitment to stopping Nicaragua's slide from poverty into dangerous instability.

The most formidable leader Nicaragua ever had, José Santos Zelaya, was overthrown in an American-backed rebellion in 1909 after he challenged the power of American banks, mining companies, and lumber concerns. That sparked a rebellion that could be suppressed only by the United States Marines. The Marines occupied Nicaragua for most of the next 20 years. After they left, the United States remained the dominant force in Nicaragua, providing crucial support to the Somoza family's 40-year dictatorship. The Somozas fell in 1979, overthrown by the Sandinista Front, which the United States spent much of the 1980s trying to crush.

Yet despite the fact that Americans are, in considerable measure, responsible for Nicaragua's generations of misery, they have never tried seriously to help resolve the country's deep-seated problems. If they had maintained a constructive focus on this country and allowed it to develop without interference, it might have become prosperous, truly democratic, and a stabilizing force in Central America. Instead it is just the opposite.

Stephen Kinzer covered Central America for The New York Times in the 1980s. His new book is Overthrow: America's Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq (Times Books).