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Ortega returns to power in Nicaragua

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  • Ortega returns to power in Nicaragua

  • #2
    MANAGUA: As election officials finished the final vote tallies and his leading opponent conceded defeat, Daniel Ortega, the former Cold War nemesis of the United States, was assured of winning the presidency here and fulfilling his 16-year struggle to regain power.

    With 91 percent of the vote counted from Sunday's balloting, Ortega led five other candidates with 38 percent of the vote, while the second-place candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, a conservative, trailed with 29 percent, election officials said Tuesday night. The third-place candidate, José Rizo, received 26 percent.

    "With his triumph, he has taken on an enormous responsibility," Montealegre said as he stepped aside moments after the results were announced. "He has to govern democratically."

    Ortega, 60, maintains that both he and the country have changed since the 1980s, when he was a hard-line Marxist accepting Soviet aid and fighting a U.S.- backed insurgency. The Cold War is over, and Nicaragua's economy now depends heavily on exports to the United States and free markets.

    While he still rails against "savage capitalism" and the failure of free trade to alleviate poverty, he has become more pragmatic over the past decade and a half. Gone is the fiery Marxist rhetoric; it has been replaced with talk of reconciliation, peace and God. And he has traded his anti-American campaign songs for John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."

    He now says he accepts the need to respect property rights, civil liberties and free enterprise. He has also become openly religious, regularly attending church and often asking people at his rallies to pray. He even pushed through a bill to ban abortion recently, in part to attract Catholic support.

    Still, no one is sure how much of the change in Ortega's political outlook is real. Many business leaders and political analysts say the future of this impoverished country may hinge not just on whether Ortega's style has evolved, but whether Nicaragua's democracy is strong enough to keep a leftist president with an authoritarian past in check.

    "If he hasn't changed, he will have to change, because it's not the same Nicaragua in 2006 as the Nicaragua in which he came to power at the head of a revolutionary movement," said Carlos Tunnerman, a political analyst.

    The United States has made it clear that it does not like the prospect of its Cold War foe returning to power, especially in light of Ortega's close relationship with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Chávez helped Ortega by sending cheap fertilizer and fuel to Sandinista-led groups. He is also expected to help finance social programs in Nicaragua, which is second only to Haiti at the bottom of the poverty rankings in the Western Hemisphere.

    Despite Ortega's close relationship with Chávez, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the United States would respect the decision of the Nicaraguan people and see what policies the next government follows before making decisions about future relations. Bush administration officials had threatened before the vote to suspend aid if Ortega won.

    Former President Jimmy Carter monitored the polling and said the election was clean and fair. He said Ortega had given him assurances that he would respect property rights, civil liberties, free enterprise and the free trade agreement with the United States.

    "When he expresses his public commitment to honor trade agreements and civil liberties, I think it's best for I and others to give him the benefit of the doubt," Carter said.

    Business leaders said they were confident Ortega would not roll back the free-market reforms in the Nicaraguan government since 1990, when he agreed to hold an election to end the civil war and lost to Violeta Chamorro.

    Since then, the government has sold off more than 360 state-owned enterprises, liberalized its markets, privatized the banks and entered a free trade agreement with the United States and its neighbors.

    Erwin Kruger, president of the Superior Council of the Private Sector, a business group, said Ortega and his party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, had given assurances they would not dismantle the free-market economy. "We paid a high price for our freedom, and neither side wants to lose that."

    Ortega's ability to enact radical challenges is severely hampered by the National Assembly, which remains divided between four parties.

    To rule, he must reach agreements with the two conservative parties.

    What is more, the president's power has been curbed by constitutional changes in recent years, giving the assembly more say over cabinet positions.

    Even members of Ortega's party said he had not won a popular mandate to make radical changes, like the expropriation of private businesses or the redistribution of land, as he did in the late 1980s. "The important point is not what he wants to do, the important thing is what is feasible to do," said Alejandro Martínez Cuenca, an economist and member of the Sandinista party. "Nicaragua has changed tremendously. The mandate he has received does not give him the opportunity to do his will."

    New Nicaragua leader tries a softer approach


    • #3
      Some U.S. investors and retirees in the Central American nation fear president-elect Daniel Ortega, but others are more worried about how President Bush will respond to the stunning election victory:

      Managua -- It took North Carolina native Don McCandless 13 months, several work crews and some $600,000 to restore his crumbling two-story colonial home in Granada to its former stately self. McCandless spared no effort or outlay to get the details of his planned retirement home perfect, including the master-bathroom Jacuzzi, the satellite TVs, and the regal 18-seat dinning room with its ornate hand-painted ceiling and decorative tiled floors.

      But before McCandless had a chance to finish hanging all the paintings, Daniel Ortega of the leftist Sandinista Front was elected president on November 5, turning McCandless' retirement plans upside down. "I'm outta here; I'm gone," said the North Carolinian. "It wasn't supposed to happen like this; it's like someone rose from the dead."

      McCandless decided on election night to sell his dream home and leave the country, after the first vote returns showed Ortega poised for victory. Less than a week later, he had sold his home at a fire-sale price and left for Costa Rica.

      But McCandless' isn't the only reaction among the U.S. expatriates living in Nicaragua to the unlikely re-election of Washington's old Cold War nemesis. While some are cashing out and preparing to leave before Ortega takes office January 10, others are hoping the Sandinista return to power will drive away many of the growing herd of foreign profiteers here to make a quick buck on the country's post-war real-estate market.

      Most investors and expatriates, however, seem to be taking a more calculating wait-and-see approach with Ortega. Lori Estrada, head of the newly formed Nicaragua Association of Investors and Developers, sent out a letter informing her members: "Mr. Ortega stated that he is fully committed to promoting foreign investment and tourism, realizing that it was the future of the country's economic growth. We believe he is serious." The association is already planning to hold a congratulatory cocktail for Ortega in December.

      There are an estimated 3,000-plus Americans living in Nicaragua, though there are no reliable statistics because many are here on a tourist visa, or part time. A lot of U.S. expats came here via Costa Rica or another nearby foreign-retirement country, looking for a place where they could stay one step ahead of the real-estate boom. And property prices in colonial towns such as Granada, and in beach areas like San Juan del Sur — where some 50 development projects have popped up in the last five years — have grown by as much as 300% in three years.

      Ortega's election has thrown a wild card into the real-estate investment game. Some realtors claim property prices have already dipped 25% since he won the elections, but most expect the slide won't continue much beyond that. Of course, much depends on what happens next.

      Ortega insists he's come a long way from the firebrand Marxist he was in the 1980s, and his campaign was focused on peace and reconciliation. He spent his first days as president-elect meeting with business leaders, bankers and foreign investors, asking for cooperation in building a new economic model focused on eradicating poverty in a system based on rewarding the risk of private capital.

      Many investors seem willing to give Ortega the benefit of the doubt, not necessarily because they trust him, but because they are already here and it's easier to wait-and-see than to cut-and-run. "We believe that Mr. Ortega is serious about his commitment to promote foreign investment and tourism," said Pennsylvania native Mike Cobb, president of Gran Pacifica development, which promises to be the first Marriott beach resort in Nicaragua. Cobb says his project plans to "move ahead with all due speed" and "stick to the path we have established."

      Other investors are echoing Cobb's guarded optimism. A group of 18 key investors in San Juan del Sur, Nicaragua's most important beach town, have written a letter to Ortega urging the president-elect to hold a special meeting with them as a sign of his commitment to tourism and investment on the coast. The group warned that the tourism sector is "very volatile to political perceptions," and claimed that some investors have already started to withdraw their money from the country.

      But it's not only Ortega's plans that have Americans in Nicaragua worried. The Bush Administration worked hard to prevent Ortega from being elected, even threatening to cut aid to Nicaragua if he won the election, and some investors fear the consequences of any move by Washington to make life difficult for a Sandinista government. Says Chris Berry, owner of San Juan del Sur's landmark Pelican Eyes Piedras y Olas Resort, "Everyone here is more afraid of what the U.S. will do than they are of Ortega."

      A rude awakening for Americans in Nicaragua


      • #4
        US faces alliance of the left as Ortega sworn in


        Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista revolutionary who held power in Nicaragua through the 1980s and became a Cold War foe of the United States, completed his political comeback yesterday as he prepared to be sworn in as his country's new president after winning an election last November.

        Among several world leaders expected to attend the inauguration in the capital, Managua, was Hugo Chavez, who was himself sworn in for a new term as President of Venezuela yesterday after his decisive electoral win there last month.

        The Ortega ceremony was to be an uncomfortable reminder to the US of the recent return of leftist leaders to several Latin nations south of its borders, many of whom are likely to prove important allies of Mr Chavez, who has nurtured his popularity in part through anti-US rhetoric.

        Also in Managua was Evo Morales, the President of Bolivia, who has aligned himself with Mr Chavez and the regime of Cuba's ailing Fidel Castro. In a recent chilly gesture towards Washington, he ordered that all US citizens would henceforth need visas to enter Bolivia.

        Mr Chavez, meanwhile, used his swearing-in to declare he was committing his "entire life to the construction of Venezuelan socialism". Earlier this week, he rattled financial markets across Latin America with a pledge to nationalise key segments of his country's economy, including its electric and telecommunication's industries. He also asked the National Assembly to give him power to rule by decree.

        The Venezuelan leader has pledged to use its oil resources to help Mr Ortega fulfil his campaign promises to ease poverty in Nicaragua, ranked the second poorest country in South America, with 80 per cent of its population living on about £1 a day.

        Mr Ortega's Sandinista revolution seized power in 1979 and he ruled Nicaragua until losing elections in 1990. He presided over a gradually crumbling economy and fought a civil war against Contra rebels. Hoping to see Mr Ortega toppled, the Reagan administration funnelled cash to the Contras raised by the clandestine sale of arms to Iran - an illegal scheme that caused a domestic scandal in Washington.

        Mr Reagan's successor, George Bush Snr, described Mr Ortega as "this little man" while attending a central American summit in 1989 as well as an "unwanted animal at a garden party".

        Both sides seem to be at pains, however, to put the past behind them and stress there are constructive links between Washington and Managua. Nor is there much sign, meanwhile, that Mr Ortega will be inclined to follow Mr Chavez down a radically socialist path. Rather, he has vowed to respect private property rights in Nicaragua and take a cautious approach to economic policy.

        The US Health Secretary, Michael Leavitt, was to attend last night's inauguration. In an earlier meeting with Mr Ortega he said: "I want to make it very clear that our desire is to work with you". Officials added that Mr Ortega and Mr Bush had spoken with each other by telephone on Monday.

        Jaime Morales, a former Contra leader who reconciled with Mr Ortega and will serve as his vice-president, has also sought to allay fears about the new leader's intentions. "We will totally respect private property, entrepreneurial liberty and the market economy," he said.

        A member of the main opposition party appeared less confident, however. "May God light the path of the new president and his government... so they don't fall victim to totalitarian temptations or even think of setting back our democracy even a centimetre," warned Wilfredo Navarro.

        President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran was originally expected at the Ortega inauguration but officials said yesterday that, although he would not be present at the ceremony, he was expected to arrive on Saturday and become the first world leader to pay Mr Ortega an official visit.

        Independent Online Edition > Americas


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