Ortega returns to power in Nicaragua

MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Nicaragua’s former Marxist guerrilla leader Daniel Ortega bounced back to power with a presidential election victory that bolsters an increasingly assertive anti-U.S. bloc in Latin America.

Ortega had 38 percent support with votes tallied from more than 90 percent of polling stations, a lead of 9 points over his Washington-backed conservative rival Eduardo Montealegre, who quickly conceded defeat.

Ortega led a 1979 Sandinista revolution against dictator Anastasio Somoza and then fought U.S.-backed Contra rebels in a vicious civil war that killed 30,000 people and wrecked the economy before he was voted out of power 16 years ago.

His victory in a third comeback attempt was a huge boost for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who is trying to build a Latin American alliance of anti-U.S. leaders.

“Latin America is leaving forever its role as the backyard of the North American empire. Yankee go home! Gringo go home! This land is ours, this is our America!” said a delighted Chavez, whose closest allies are Cuban President Fidel Castro and Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Chavez backed Ortega’s campaign by sending cheap fertilizer and fuel to Sandinista-led groups. He is now expected to help finance social programs in Nicaragua, which trails only Haiti as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.

Some of Ortega’s followers hope Chavez, rich with petrodollars, will help Nicaragua stand up to Washington.

“Whatever Chavez sends us helps us a lot and it makes us less scared because we know we are not alone, we have his support,” said Miguel Mendoza, 45, who was orphaned at the age of 9 when his parents were killed by troops loyal to Somoza.


Ortega has dropped his Marxism of the Cold War era and now speaks mainly of God, peace and reconciliation.

He promises to work with business leaders and has backed a trade deal with the United States, but U.S. officials still do not trust him and worry about his friendship with Chavez.

Washington recently warned of a cut in investment and aid to Nicaragua if Ortega was returned to power, and some senior officials in President George W. Bush’s administration have a long history of opposition to the president-elect.

They include Elliott Abrams, who serves on the National Security Council and was a key figure in the Iran-Contra affair in the 1980s, when the U.S. government secretly sold arms to Iran to channel funds to the Nicaraguan Contra rebels.

Ortega knows well the cost of confronting Washington. The Contra war and a U.S. economic embargo in the 1980s wrecked the Sandinistas’ ambitious education and health programs.

Combined with his Marxist government’s mismanagement and heavy-handed repression of dissent, the U.S. campaign finally put Ortega out of power when voters elected the first of three straight Washington-backed presidents in 1990.

Ortega was helped back to power by divisions in the right, which had in previous elections united behind a single candidate to keep him out.

Still, he is a divisive figure despised by many who blame him for the bloodshed and chaos of the 1980s. Even some of those who voted for him this time are wary.

“I hope I didn’t make a mistake. I gave him my vote of faith. He has to govern and meet all his promises,” said Cecilia Rivas, a 25-year-old student.

“He knows the people are giving him another chance to do things better than last time. He knows he can’t make the same mistakes,” said Valeria Gadea, 20, whose uncle was killed in the civil war.