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Upcoming Nicaraguan Presidential Elections

For Immediate Release: Wednesday 31, 2001


Upcoming Nicaraguan Presidential Elections

* An aging and beleaguered revolutionary movement confronts a familiar northern foe on November 4

* Washington flagrantly misuses the terrorism card as it brazenly intervenes in Nicaragua's upcoming presidential race as Powell's absentee role on Latin America continues

* State Department's Lino Gutierrez and U.S. Ambassador Oliver Garza quarterback the campaign of conservative candidate Enrique Bolaños, while the Bush Administration terror-baits the Sandinistas, marking the advent of "new cold war"-inspired "terrorism-driven" strategy toward Latin America

* Hard-line effort to derail campaign of Sandinista Daniel Ortega based on an outlandish State Department assumption, "that an iron communist triangle-Castro, Chavez and Ortega" would provide transit and access for terrorists

Round two in the State Department-FSLN brawl The Nicaraguan presidential campaign, culminating in the November 4 elections, is providing a definitive benchmark for how the Bush administration will treat one of this nation's most acrimonious diplomatic relationships in recent history. Until now it has displayed a shameless disrespect for Nicaraguan sovereignty as it quarterbacks, play by play, the outcome of the vote. In doing so, it also showcases Secretary of State Powell's uninspired role as a regional policy maker. Beginning in May, the State Department offered outright partisan support for the conservative Liberal Constitution Party (PLC) candidate Enrique Bolaños and expressed "grave reservations" over Daniel Ortega, candidate of the Frente Sandinista por Liberación Nacional (FSLN) and an archenemy of the first Bush administration. Stepping up its public criticism following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the State Department began to flagrantly misuse the terrorist card against the Sandinista party in an effort to damage Ortega's chance of victory as Washington reasserted its bullying role in Nicaragua affairs.

The State Department is repeating a tragic mistake, as it meddles in Nicaraguan internal affairs, representing an egregious violation of the sovereignty of a friendly nation, reminiscent of the excessive and obsessive pro-Contra stance of the Reagan/Bush administrations. It will face its greatest diplomatic test if Ortega triumphs in spite of all Washington-strewn obstacles. In that case, a crackdown on an Ortega administration could stain the initial positive relationship between the U.S. and Latin America, first fostered by President Bush's constructive diplomatic ties with Mexico's President Fox and later with the other leaders of the hemisphere at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec. Today, under the PLC's Arnoldo Alemán, Nicaragua has sunk to being one of the poorest and most corrupt nations in the hemisphere, with its social indicators scraping the bottom. Furthermore, El Pacto - a set of constitutional reforms that consolidated power sharing between the two parties and their present leaders, Ortega and Alemán - has been denounced by up to 70 percent of the population. As a result, thousands of Nicaraguans are alienated from a corrupt PLC and a seriously flawed electoral system. Ordinarily, such conditions would have all but guaranteed Ortega's electoral prospects, but not when one must contend with Washington's unquenchable opposition and its own derelictions.

Pre-September 11 State Department intervention The State Department initially worked to prevent an Ortega victory by consolidating the anti-Sandinista vote behind PLC candidate Enrique Bolaños. U.S. officials, led by Ambassador Oliver Garza, met with Conservative Party officials in July to discuss the November election. The purpose of this Bush administration initiative was to get that party to withdraw its presidential candidate in order to avoid splitting the anti-Sandinista vote. This led to the withdrawal of the Conservative Party's presidential candidate and triggered an outcry over Washington's meddling in Nicaragua. Yet U.S. officials, unaffected by growing concern over their involvement, still saw the race as being neck and neck and continued their anti-Sandinista efforts. At that point, Garza, begrudgingly, indicated that his government would respect the outcome of the elections, but underscored Washington's anti-Ortega bias by transmitting a clear warning to Nicaraguan voters that, in the event of a Sandinista victory, the Bush administration would only maintain friendly relations with Managua if the Sandinistas adhered to strict U.S. criteria.

Property reparations The major criterion for Washington maintaining good relations with the FSLN is the issue of private property, a matter that is closely linked to the legacy from the Reagan/Bush era and its pro-Contra cause. Specifically, this has to do with the status of some 800 pieces of private property seized from pro-Somoza exiles who fled to the U.S. during Sandinista rule, before they had become U.S. citizens. Today, the parcels are in the hands of individual Sandinistas or pro-Sandinista organizations, and many Nicaraguan-Americans are pressuring the State Department for their return. Although Ortega, in recent interviews, has attempted to assuage these concerns by vowing to respect private property rights, the State Department is not prepared to trust him. State Department hardliner Gutierrez was referring to Ortega during his June visit to Managua, when he observed, "If those who now call themselves democrats had meant it, by now they would have returned properties confiscated illegally to their rightful owners."

Garza, who later met with Ortega, explained that "I have given [to Ortega] a list of properties that they [the Sandinistas] have in their hands, and the Sandinista party is not ready to give back the properties, and if they do, they will do it in exchange of money; properties that in our criteria were stolen." In fact, Garza noted that although "we [the U.S.] would recognize a Sandinista government, there will be requirements in order to have good relations [between the U.S. and Nicaragua] and we return to the themes they have not given answers to." Some observers believe this type of U.S. diktat borders on direct intervention in the internal affairs of a sovereign country, as it portrays Ortega as an incapable leader, unable to facilitate a constructive dialogue with the hemisphere's hegemonic power because of his intransigency over the private property issue.

State Department - Sandinista Talks Despite the ominous public remarks made by Gutierrez, an ongoing series of off-the-record dialogues have taken place between the State Department and the Sandinistas, including meetings with Daniel Ortega in Managua and with other Sandinista representatives in Washington. According to Wes Carrington, deputy State Department spokesperson for the Latin America bureau, the meetings were requested by the Sandinistas and followed departmental policy of responding to a formal request, while essentially serving as an opportunity to "reiterate [U.S.] concerns" over the Sandinista's present agenda and their past actions. In the past, such meetings tended to be routinely postponed or canceled, and it could be inferred that these discussions represent a minor breakthrough in a diplomatic relationship previously plagued by fruitless decades of bitter confrontation.

Magda Enriquez-Beitler, Daniel Ortega's former special envoy in 1990 to the Non-Aligned movement, and currently one of the party's volunteer representatives in the U.S., expressed measured optimism after an August Washington meeting with State Department officials, when she accompanied Samuel Santos, the executive secretary of the Sandinista Party. She told COHA that at that meeting, "we killed a lot of clouds about the FSLN's future." Added Enriquez-Beitler, "We may not agree with the U.S. government on everything, but we have a common ground on basic issues such as democratic practices and peace," and "I'm confident nothing can damage relations between the FSLN and the U.S."

State Department press release terror-baits Sandinistas A State Department press release which received minimal publicity, was issued October 4 following a meeting between Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Francisco Aguirre and Secretary of State Colin Powell. It announced that the two leaders discussed the November elections and "Nicaragua's role in the international effort to combat terrorism." The release noted that the "United States will respect the result of a free and fair election that expresses the will of the Nicaraguan people."

Its next sentence, however, resorted to vintage Cold War agit-prop, and exhibited an extraordinary disregard of normal State Department protocol of professing non-partisanship in foreign elections in countries with which the U.S. maintains normal diplomatic relations: "We continue to have grave reservations about the FSLN's history of trampling civil liberties, violating human rights, seizing people's property without compensation, destroying the economy and ties to supporters of terrorism." The State Department's juxtaposition of two sharply contrasting comments raises serious questions whether in fact, the U.S. will respect the will of Nicaraguan voters if they happen to elect Daniel Ortega as president, or whether it itself exclusively as a Bolaños cheerleader.

FSLN "ties to supporters of terrorism" Charles Barclay, a State Department's spokesman for the Western Hemisphere, noted that the Sandinistas' alleged "ties to supporters of terrorism [are] a matter of record:... long-standing:... [and were] of concern in the 1980s and since the democratic change in 1990." This line of thinking introduces a particularly venomous strategy in the current context of Washington's worldwide anti-terrorism campaign. The State Department identified FSLN ties to the states of Iraq and Libya, as well as with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias Colombianas (FARC) and ETA, the Basque separatist group, as the basis of its terrorism concerns. Barclay characterized these relations as both "individual and institutional," and "highly inappropriate because of the nature of the other organizations."

Tom Carter, spokesman on Western Hemispheric affairs in the State Department's terrorism office, fleshed out some of the specific problems he foresees if Ortega triumphs on November 4. "If the Sandinistas come into power, we are worried about an iron communist triangle-Castro, Chavez and Ortega. We are not worried about them [the FSLN] actively doing terrorism," Carter stated. Nevertheless, he added, "Giving transit, assisting or having sympathies, [to terrorists] are problems" that would be of great concern if the Sandinistas win. Carter did not elaborate on the subject any further, but his fears that "an iron communist triangle" would present a major barrier to U.S. anti-terrorism effort, represents not only a worrisome flight from reality when contrasted with mainstream analyses of Ortega's current reinvention of himself as a Christian Marxist, but also demonstrates the State Department's flagrant misuse of the terrorism card.

Terrorism charges rebuffed by Sandinista representative Alluding to the August meeting at the State Department that she and a high Sandinista figure had met with U.S. officials, Enriquez-Beitler maintains that in light of that cordial exchange of views, she interprets the critical statements now being made as an attempt to dissuade voters from supporting the Sandinistas, but are not necessarily meant to seriously undermine the constructive inroads made over the past year. "After all this [the meetings] I can't think of this as official policy." In other words, while offended by Washington's terrorist spin, she does not see this as playing an operational role. In regards to the State Department's claim that the FSLN's ties to Iraq and Libya posed a threat to the integrity of the region's anti-terrorism campaigns, Enriquez-Beitler noted that the Alemán government currently has relations with Libya and Cuba, and that "a double standard" of partisan prejudice was at work. "Nicaragua is a sovereign country with relations.... so why should the FSLN follow a different approach?"

It also should be noted that almost every one of Washington's NATO allies has some form of ties to Libya and Iraq and every one of the Western Hemisphere nations, aside from the U.S., have diplomatic or consular relations with Cuba. The State Department's indefensible use of a shifting standard when it comes to terrorism, based on an entirely arbitrary ideological litmus test, in order to determine what groups and states one can or cannot have relations with, becomes a serious impediment to bolstering Nicaraguan democracy or encouraging open electoral practice in the country.

COHA Research Group, Michael Marx McCarthy, lead researcher

The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-profit, non-partisan, tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the Senate floor as being "One of our nation's most respected body of scholars and policy makers."

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