Nicaragua's election influenced by Sept. 11
November 7, 2001
Daniel Ortega didn't lose the Nicaragua presidential election to Enrique Bolanos -- he lost it to Mohamed Atta.
Ortega's presidential ambitions were a casualty of Sept. 11. Ortega and the Sandinistas lost Nicaragua's Nov. 4 election to the Constitutionalist Liberal Party candidate, Bolanos.
Shortly after Sept. 11, a sign was hung above one of the main roads in Managua, Nicaragua's capital, presumably by Liberal Party supporters, that stated in bright pink letters, "Daniel, our Taliban."
The current war on terrorism is emerging as the new justification for ensuring U.S. interests in the Americas, much in the same way that the fight against communism and the war on drugs, have in the past defined U.S. policy.
Since Sept. 11, several U.S. government officials have explicitly stated that a Sandinista victory would support terrorists. John Keane, the acting deputy for the State Department's Western Hemisphere office, said, "We can't forget that (when the Sandinistas were in government) Nicaragua has been a refuge for violent political extremists of the Middle East, Europe and Latin America. And as we have said before, there is no middle ground between those who are against terrorism and those who harbor them."
Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated the same concern, saying he had "grave reservations" about the Sandinistas. Other American officials have stated that economic aid would dry up if Ortega wins.
I recently saw election coverage on Univision television, which played an ad by Bolanos attacking Ortega's alleged ties to terrorist leaders. The ad shows Ortega posing with Libyan dictator Col. Muammar Kadafi and then immediately cuts to an image of the World Trade Center under attack on Sept. 11. The ad's message couldn't be clearer: a vote for Ortega equals a vote for terrorism and would pit Nicaragua against the United States.
Most Nicaraguans don't want another tangle with Washington.
In 1979, after the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship, a bloody civil war ensued during the 1980s where the socialist Sandinistas fought against the U.S.-backed Contras. During this time, "some 50,000 people, a staggering 1 percent of the population, were dying in the U.S.-funded Contra war (as) Washington repeatedly promised that a post-Sandinista Nicaragua would flourish because of generous U.S. aid," wrote columnist Marc Cooper in the Los Angeles Times. "But once the Sandinistas were voted out of power, the United States abandoned Nicaragua."
Unfortunately, Nicaragua's continued economic struggles seem to have helped people forget about U.S. broken promises. A week before the elections, an editorial in the Nicaraguan newspaper, La Prensa, asked the national population, "Is it in the interest of Nicaragua to have Ortega as president?" The opinion piece resoundingly answered no, arguing the need to ensure strong relations with the United States, not only because it is the "primary defender of liberty and democracy in the world," but also because Nicaragua's "standard of living and possibilities of development" depend on that relationship.
Ortega did not lose the election solely because of U.S. pressure; he is hardly a personality without controversy. Plagued with accusations of corruption, charges of sexual abuse and megalomania, Ortega has been severely criticized not just by Liberal Party opponents but also by Sandinista sympathizers.
But heavy pressure from U.S. government officials, threats of withdrawing U.S. economic support and the ultimatum of "you are with the United States or you're with the terrorists" likely helped influence the elections.
And that's not good for the 80 percent of Nicaraguans who currently live in poverty. Bolanos -- one of the richest landowners in Nicaragua and a former key supporter of the Contras -- has promised to pursue free-market policies and strengthen the country's business sector, whereas the Sandinistas had promised to focus on the poor.
But in the chilly post-Sept. 11 climate, concerns for the indigent perished on the vine.
If you want to know what Sept. 11 means for Latin America, just ask Daniel Ortega.
Mariana Mora is a doctorate student in anthropology at University of Texas at Austin. She can be reached at email@example.com.