Daniel Ortega Rides Again

With the left on the march in much of Latin America, it is no surprise that Nicaragua’s Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is trying to make a comeback. But Ortega is creating a state of emergency in his party as he tries to diminish the threat posed by Herty Lewites, the former mayor of Managua and the country’s most popular politician. With one demarche, Ortega dismissed the need for a party primary and designated himself as the Sandinistas’ nominee for next year’s presidential election.

What’s striking about Ortega’s move is that he is ready to risk so much political capital, not only expelling Lewites from the party but canceling his challenger’s permits to hold political rallies and forbidding him to use Sandinista party symbols. Yet, despite all this, Ortega has yet to diminish Lewites’s ability to rally the masses. Ortega’s display of raw power is thus merely a reminder of his autocratic ways.

This will be Ortega’s fifth run for the presidency, having lost his last three attempts. It plays handily into the Bush administration’s recall to office of veterans of the anti-Sandinista “Contra War” of the 1980’s, including Elliot Abrams, John Negroponte, Roger Noriega, Dan Fisk, and Otto Reich. In a reminder of that confrontation, Ortega accused his old enemies in the United States of drafting a plan to assassinate him. US Undersecretary of State for Latin America Roger Noriega responded by calling Ortega a “hoodlum.”

Ortega is wagering that attacking Bush will resonate with the Sandinistas and provoke them to close ranks, thereby stifling internal party dissent. But in an already polarized environment, an Ortega-Bush standoff is nothing more than a self-fulfilling prophecy.