Nearly twenty-six years after they rode a revolution to power, and sixteen years after they were defeated in an election, the political party that American Republicans love to hate is back. Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista party of Nicaragua looks to have won a commanding enough victory in Sunday's elections to win the Presidency outright, without need of a second round run off vote.
There's quite a bit of history behind this election, and perhaps before a new smear campaign is begun against the Sandinista leader, a quick overview is in order from someone who didn't think of the Contras as kin to the American Founding Fathers.
In the late 1970s a popular revolution in Nicaragua overthrew the reign of the Somoza family. De facto rulers of the country since the turn of the century, either directly as president or the power behind the throne, the Somozas had protected the interests of the elite and American business at the expense of the majority of the population.
The 1979 uprising led by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Leberación Nacional in Spanish or more familiarly known by its initials FSLN) was aimed at improving the lot of the majority who lived in poverty through an aggressive program of land reform, nationalization of industry, education, and improved health care. Major private landowners – mainly American and British – who used prime agricultural land for ranching instead of food growing were forced to surrender their land for redistribution to the people who had been their former tenant farmers.
After years of seeing American backed governments, like El Salvadore and Chile, in Central and South America oppress and kill their own people, the revolution in Nicaragua became a rallying point for people looking to affect change in the Western Hemisphere. Aid workers from around the world, but primarily the United States and Canada, came to the country to help what they saw as building hope.
They helped villages set up agricultural systems that we would take for granted, like irrigation, figure out how to maintain the Russian tractors (the United States had imposed a trade embargo in 1985 under Reagan so they were forced to turn to anyone who would sell them equipment) they were using, built school houses, and educated teachers in the skills needed to teach young people.
Now I'm not going to idealize them, they were still a single-party government in most ways until the 1990 election which saw their defeat, but with the assistance of Cuba and other South American countries they managed to increase the literacy rate to 50% from single figures, and eliminate polio and other diseases that plague the poor.
Part of the reason for their inability to hold elections was the Reagan administration's creation and funding of the armed terrorists called the Contras, which placed the country on permanent war footing for most of the 1980s. When the United States Congress refused to fund the Contras, Oliver North, an American Marine officer serving with the National Security Council, supposedly set up an arrangement to sell arms illegally to the Iranian government in order to raise money to fund the Contras without anyone else in the Reagan administration having knowing about it. (Talking to a Reagan staff member about it in 1987 he laughingly said, "Yeah, everybody knew about it from the secretary pool up – how the hell are you not going to know about an arms deal worth that much money – where do you think he got the weapons from – a pawn shop? But of course none of us knew a thing officially.")
From bases in bordering countries with American-friendly leadership, the Contras would stage attacks against unprotected villages using helicopter gunships piloted by "retired" C.I.A. agents and mortar rounds to kill people working in the fields and blow up housing, hospitals, and schools.
Friends who were there helping to build schoolhouses in the late '80s tell of coming under fire on an almost daily basis from small arms and mortar rounds. Whether on purpose of accidentally, it seemed that any work they had accomplished the previous day would be destroyed during the attacks. Once a good mortar crew finds the range they can hit the same area day after day without too much trouble, and there just wasn't anywhere else that the school could have been built.
The village was so isolated and near to the border that it took two weeks before a platoon of soldiers from the Nicaraguan army could get there to chase the Contras away. One friend said they were finally able to finish the schoolhouse while the platoon was there, but he has no idea if it survived after the volunteers and the platoon left.
As the civilian casualty toll mounted and the Americans showed no signs of stopping their terrorist campaign against the people of Nicaragua, then-President Daniel Ortega entered into negotiations with non-Contra opposition parties to arrange open elections. In 1990, with the promise of restored American aid and the end to terrorist attacks a non-Contra, non-Sandinista President was elected.
But throughout their time in opposition the Sandinistas have remained a viable political party, always getting at least 35% of the popular vote in federal elections. This year it looks like their time has come again. As in other countries in South and Central America over the past year or so have done, it looks as if Nicaragua is prepared to try a left of centre government.
With more then 60% of the votes counted in the first round of Presidential elections former president Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista candidate, has over 38% of the vote, more then enough to not only win the first round, but guarantee an outright win without the need of runoff elections in January.
Sixteen years after his defeat in the polls, Ortega will take power if this lead, as is expected, holds. One of the reasons for his success is the more moderate face he has shown than in previous years. The fact that his running mate is an ex-Contra leader has given people hope that this government will finally be able to unify the country by setting an example of reconciliation at the top.
While the current American administration, through their embassy in Nicaragua, has made some noise about "voter irregularities," the independent Nicaraguan Civic Group for Ethics and Transparency were responsible for releasing the earliest results showing Ortega's substantial lead at the behest of those running against him. There are over 18,000 international observers monitoring these elections, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter.
While it's obvious that Mr. Ortega will not be as friendly towards the current U.S. administration as his chief rival, a banker, it's too early for people to get hysterical and be painting him with the same brush as Hugo Chavez, the leader of Venezuela. Even in the days of the revolution he was a reluctant ally of Russia and far less of a Marxist revolutionary than he was made out to be. Considering his running mate is Jaime Morales, former spokesperson for the Contras, the chances of a Red Flag hanging from the flagpole are relatively low.
The reality that the current and future American administrations must come to grips with is that Central and South Americans no longer want to be part of American Manifest Destiny. For over a hundred years, and longer in some countries, the United States has held undue influence over the internal matters of the sovereign nations of the countries to the South of them.
It's time for the United States to stop forcing countries to put the interests of the United States ahead of their own. If they want to win friends and influence people they should remember what they did in Europe after World War II and create a type of Marshall Plan to assist the nations of South America to develop their own economies that offer jobs and health care to their employees.
Or at least give them the opportunity to do so without raising insurmountable barriers in front of them in the form of embargoes and sanctions. America is looked upon by the poor and the downtrodden of these countries as the enemy because they see them as the friend of the people who have kept them in poverty and ignorance for a hundred years or more. If these people choose to vote for a party that promises an end to that, can you blame them?
Communism is not about to take over the world any time soon, if it ever was, so don't you think it's time to stop worrying about "The Red Menace"? Learn how to live in peaceful co-existence with your neighbours and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. South and Central America are never going to go back to being the personal fiefdoms of the United States and its business community. One way or another they are going to be more and more resistant to that idea.
This doesn't have to a confrontational situation though, but the choice is yours. Use the election of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas in Nicaragua as a first step in that new direction. You never know, you could find friends in the most unlikely of places.