Will the United States Ever Leave Nicaragua Alone?

The Presidential Election of 2006

By Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz 

Even before the landslide election of evo morales as president of Bolivia at the end of 2005, and with left-leaning parties in power in Venezuela, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay, there have been hopes and fears, depending on the observer, of a possible left-wing sweep of Latin America. Given that Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Americas and has only three million people and negligible resources, few outside the region consider Nicaragua’s 2006 presidential election significant in the process.

However, with Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) running for president once again, the Bush administration has expressed concern about a possible return of the Sandinistas to the presidency, which they lost in the 1990 elections. This is not a new concern and not limited to the Bush administration. In October 1996, a few weeks before Nicaraguan elections, the Clinton administration’s State Department spokesman, Nicholas Burns, warned against electing Ortega saying, according to one report, that “Washington remembered Ortega’s past actions against the United States.” In 2001, the Bush administration used the September 11 attacks to oppose the return of the Sandinista “terrorists,” and is doing the same regarding Nicaragua’s upcoming November 2006 elections.

It is scarcely possible, indeed somewhat distorting, to discuss Nicaragua’s internal politics outside the context of its political history, in which the United States has loomed large since Nicaragua’s independence. From “gunboat diplomacy” to military interventions and occupations to establishing a U.S.-friendly dictatorship to organizing a war of terror against the Sandinista government to the 1990 elections that ousted the FSLN to promoting neoliberal economic policies to replace social programs, U.S. administrations have prevented Nicaragua from expressing basic national sovereignty.

The FSLN took power in Nicaragua in 1979, when its two-decade insurgency led to mass uprisings against the dictator Anastasio Somoza, who was the third in a succession of three Somoza family members to rule Nicaragua as dictators for nearly a half century, initially installed and supported throughout by U.S. administrations. Following the Sandinista triumph, the Reagan administration began in 1981 to form and finance former Somoza national guardsmen and members of the disposed oligarchy to overthrow the Sandinistas. Despite having to go on a military footing to resist the counter-revolution (Contra war), the Sandinistas held elections in 1984, which the Reagan administration condemned and which the U.S.-funded political parties boycotted. Daniel Ortega won the presidency on behalf of the FSLN, and the elections also created a multiparty National Assembly that completed a constitution which went into effect in 1987 and remains in operation today. The U.S.-sponsored war against the Sandinistas, causing tens of thousands of civilian casualties and destruction of the already underdeveloped economic infrastructure, raged on into the George H. W. Bush administration. Under pressure from the United States, the Nicaraguan national elections that were scheduled for November 1990 were moved up to February 1990, in exchange for the promise of demobilization of the Contras, a deal brokered in part by former President Jimmy Carter. The FSLN was not prepared for elections, but the Nicaraguan population was exhausted by war and economic austerity. The United States, through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), granted nearly $13 million specifically to opposition parties in the election, along with the tens of millions pumped into anti-FSLN organizing by NED and the CIA. Furthermore, in the December 1989 U.S. invasion of Panama and removal of its president, the U.S. military forces entered the residence of the Nicaraguan ambassador in Panama, a clear provocation and warning to the Nicaraguan people of what would transpire if the FSLN was reelected. Not surprisingly, the FSLN won only 40.8 percent of the vote and 39 seats in the 92-seat National Assembly, while the National Opposition Union (UNO), the U.S.-supported collection of parties headed by Violeta Chamorro, garnered 54.7 percent of the votes and 51 seats in the Assembly.

Despite the FSLN’s loss in the 1990 elections, it retained enough Assembly seats and strong civil society support to force all three presidents (Chamorro, Alemán, and Bolaños) up to 2006 to broker deals that increased the FSLN’s political power. In 1995, then President Arnoldo Alemán (PLC-Liberal Party) amended the constitution, granting the FSLN and other parties in Congress more decision-making power over nominees for the Supreme Court and the Electoral Council. The Sandinistas also have come to control the majority of municipalities throughout the country.

The Bush administration came to office in 2001 with a sizable bloc of former Reagan managers of the Contra war and has made clear its intention to prevent the FSLN from regaining power through the electoral system. During Bush’s first term of office, Otto Reich, followed by Roger Noriega, served as Assistant Secretary of State for Hemispheric Affairs. Reich had directed the Reagan administration’s Office of Public Diplomacy, a propaganda mechanism for planting negative stories about the Sandinistas and positive ones about the contras. During the Reagan administration, Roger Noriega administered aid to Central America from the Agency for International Development (USAID), providing supplies to the Contras. Eliot Abrams was in charge of human rights in Reagan’s State Department, and then in 1985 was appointed Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs. In that capacity, he persistently and viciously attacked the Sandinistas for human rights violations and characterized the Contras as “freedom fighters,” as President Reagan also called them. In the Bush administration, Abrams has moved on to a similar role on Middle East affairs in the National Security Council. But in 2005, Bush also appointed Abrams director of his new global democracy campaign, which he will surely use to batter an FSLN-led government if it succeeds in winning the presidential election.

Best known among the former Reagan appointees is John Negroponte, Bush’s Director of National Intelligence, also previously the administration’s Permanent Representative to the United Nations and the first Ambassador to Iraq. From 1981 to 1985, Negroponte, as the Reagan administration’s Ambassador to Honduras, constructed, oversaw, and micromanaged the Contra war against the Sandinistas. Some observers have linked the use of torture in Iraq, Guantánamo, and secret prisons around the world to the Reagan administration’s promotion of torture in Central America through the migration of such officials.

The Bush administration has evoked the “War on Terrorism” in pressuring Nicaragua to destroy more than a thousand missiles (SAM-7) remaining from the Sandinista era. Ginger Thompson, writing in the April 5, 2005, issue of the New York Times, reported that Washington buzzed with strong, although vaguely substantiated warnings about Al Qaeda recruiting operatives in Latin America; about a new axis of evil forming across the Western Hemisphere, from Venezuela through Nicaragua to Cuba; about a destabilization, or a backslide away from democratic principles south of the border; about Daniel Ortega serving as a tool to Fidel Castro of Cuba and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.

In April 2005 the Bush administration suspended more than $2 million in military aid to Nicaragua, and Donald Rumsfeld paid a visit. Most observers see the action as a way to pressure Nicaraguan politicians and voters to prevent Daniel Ortega, head of the FSLN, from becoming president. The same Times article reported that a diplomat accompanying Rumsfeld said that the administration was concerned about the Sandinistas coming to power and controlling the missiles. A State Department official told the Times: “There’s no doubt about it, Daniel Ortega is still the pivotal actor in Nicaraguan politics… So if you are hearing that the United States is worried about missiles, and about who might come to power in 2006, there is basis for that.” Dana Harman, reporting in the September 15, 2005 issue of the Christian Science Monitor, wrote that “Roger Noriega, the Bush administration’s outgoing top envoy to Latin America (who has called Ortega a “hoodlum”), told the Managua newspaper La Prensa last month that if the Sandinistas returned to power, Nicaragua would ‘sink like a stone and reach depths such as those of Cuba.’”

The outcome of the November 2006 elections depends in part on the FSLN’s internal politics, which revolves around the role of Daniel Ortega. In 1994, many FSLN leaders and rank and file, led by former Vice-President Sergio Ramírez (1985-90), unable to dislodge Daniel Ortega from the FSLN leadership, left the FSLN to form the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). In 1998, Ortega's stepdaughter, Zoilamérica Narváez, accused him of years of sexual abuse during her childhood, discrediting him among many in the FSLN, and affecting the whole party. Ortega refused to deal with the issue, shielding himself with his immunity from prosecution. Then, Ortega alienated many more in his party in 1999, when he made an agreement (pacto) with President Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2001). It is assumed that a part of the secret agreement included guarantees that Ortega would not be stripped of his immunity. The two parties, the Liberal Constitutional Party and the Sandinista National Liberation Front, created electoral laws that virtually precluded the rise of a third party, and they divided key posts between the two parties.

The Secretary-General of the Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry during the Sandinista era, Alejandro Bendaña, wrote in the July/August 2005 issue of NACLA Report on the Americas that Ortega remains untrustworthy to Washington, despite his continuous good behavior interspersed with occasional anti-U.S. rhetoric. Bendaña, like many other former Sandinistas, supports Herty Lewites, the popular former mayor of Nicaragua, in his efforts to open up the FSLN to nominations other than Ortega.

In August 2005, the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), now headed by former Sandinista commander and Minister Dora María Téllez, pulled out of an alliance made in 2001 with the FSLN offering Lewites the leadership and presidential candidacy of MRS. What happens within the FSLN and with Lewites's challenge may either split the FSLN again, weakening it, or topple Ortega's leadership, which could move the FSLN farther left.

In any case, the Bush administration will oppose the FSLN or any semblance of it. Eduardo Montealegre of the Conservative Party appears to be favored by the administration over the Arnoldo Alemán-controlled Liberal Party. The current president, Enrique Bolaños, as the candidate for the Liberal Party, won the 2001 election over Daniel Ortega, but subsequently broke with the Liberal Party to form his own party, Alliance for the Republic (APRE), and went on to prosecute former President Alemán. Bolaños then campaigned for the prosecution of Alemán on various corruption charges, leading to his indictment and 20-year prison sentence. However, Bolaños and his party are weak, the president under threats of impeachment. Arnoldo Alemán is still leader of the Liberal Party and has declared his candidacy, but his legal problems persist, and he is largely discredited.

Unreasonable as it may appear, the Bush administration follows in a long line of U.S. administrations in being seemingly obsessed with controlling Nicaragua. Critic Toni Solo has commented about the current administration: “If the peoples of small countries like Nicaragua fail to submit to U.S. rule, international investors will quickly begin to ask what that fact implies for confidence in the dollar, already weak, as a strategic reserve currency.”

Perhaps that has always been the reason for persistent U.S. interventions in Nicaraguan affairs. Perhaps it’s true that “the United States will never leave Nicaragua alone,” a comment attributed to the filibuster William Walker, a U.S. citizen who invaded Nicaragua with a private army in 1853 and later proclaimed himself president. However, as the majority of Latin American states reclaim their independence from a century and a half of United States control, it may no longer be politically feasible for the United States to intervene in Nicaragua’s political processes.

Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz is a historian and professor emeritus in the Department of Ethnic Studies at California State University East Bay. Her most recent book, Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, was published in 2005.

See also: Nicaragua, Elections