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Ortega, Again
The Left's dear comandante comes back in Nicaragua.


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EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece appears in the July 18th, 2005, issue of National Review.

Twenty years ago this summer, Washington’s hottest debate centered on the Contras’ war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua–and how to keep the nations of Central America from falling into the hands of Marxist terrorists or right-wing death squads. It was the equivalent of today’s Iraq debate. The eventual victory of freedom in Nicaragua came at a cost of tens of thousands of lives–and it is now in jeopardy.

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The hard Left in Latin America has learned its lessons: It is no longer trying to gain power by force, because it fears (with just cause) the unmatched power of the United States and the willingness of recent Republican presidents to use it in the defense of freedom; it is therefore resorting to political warfare to regain power, and one of its battlefields is again Nicaragua.

In many ways the fight 20 years ago was simpler. On one side, the Sandinistas–armed, organized, trained, and supported by the USSR, Cuba, and an assortment of international terrorist groups–were determined to impose a Communist dictatorship. On the other side, the armed Contras and the unarmed Nicaraguan resistance–supported by the U.S.–were trying to prevent Nicaragua from falling into the totalitarian abyss. Today’s battle is more complicated: Two bad actors of the 1980s, Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán, are trying to wrest power from the duly elected president, Enrique Bolaños. Alemán and Bolaños were anti-Sandinistas, but that is where the similarity ends. After a successful run as mayor of Managua, the then-popular Alemán became president in the mid-1990s and proceeded to treat the country as his personal fief and bank, as the Somoza family had done before him–stealing food from the mouths of a population that years of war and Sandinista misrule had turned into the poorest in the region.

Suddenly Alemán resembled more the kleptomaniac, autocratic Ortega than the democrat he had claimed to be. Since his election, Alemán had stolen so much money that he needed protection. Who better to provide it than Ortega, who controlled the Sandinista congressmen and most of the judicial branch? One might well ask how a despicable party boss like Ortega can control a nation’s judiciary. The answer lies in the agreement signed late on the night the Sandinistas–unexpectedly–lost the 1990 election. Ortega’s first reaction to his defeat was to refuse to accept the verdict of the people and to threaten to remain in power by force. But the presence of many international observers prevented such an obvious self-coup. So, to relinquish the presidency, Ortega demanded a disproportionate number of congressional seats and retention of the judges the Sandinistas had installed during their eleven years of rule. The vast majority of the judges now answered to Ortega. . . .

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