The Bandanna Is Back: Daniel Ortega Was a Giant Thorn in the Side of George W. Bush's Father. Now the Former Sandinista Leader Is Favored to Become Nicaragua's Next President

Article excerpt

The air shakes with the rhythm of campaign jingles, the explosion of fireworks and cries of "Daniel! Daniel!" There he is, perched on the bed of a pickup, winding through the potholed streets, waving to the crowd as it swells around him. He wears his trademark red and black bandanna, which his old nemesis George Bush Sr. once poked fun at. By the time the procession reaches the plaza, it is a wild river of men on bicycles, halter-topped girls jumping up for a glimpse and mothers holding out their newborn babies for him to kiss. Truck-borne loudspeakers blast out this prediction: "The future president of Nicaragua--Daniel Ortega!"

A decade or so ago, there were few icons more powerful in the proxy struggles of the cold war. And few American enemies who were more demonized than Ortega. The Sandinista rebels led by the then boyish Ortega toppled the brutal Somoza dictatorship in 1979. But when they set up a Marxist state, seizing farms and businesses (including U.S. property), they found themselves locked in a bitter war against the U.S.-sponsored contra rebels for most of the next decade. In the 11 years since elections knocked Ortega out of power and, it seemed, into the dustbin of history, Latin America has undergone enormous change. Democratically elected regimes have replaced authoritarian ones. The language of free trade has taken the place of revolutionary rants against imperialism. And yet there was 55-year-old Ortega in July, riding through the streets of the town of Chinandega, celebrating the 22d anniversary of his revolution, leading the polls to win back the presidency this November. He told the crowd: "The people governing the country have tried to kill the conscience the revolution gave the poor."

Back in 1988, when Ortega wore military fatigues to a regional summit on democracy, the elder President Bush excoriated him as "an animal at a garden party." Now Bush's son has reason to fear that Ortega will soon be haunting his own administration. The issue today is markets, not geopolitics. George W. Bush has vowed to turn Latin America into a giant free-trade zone. But Ortega and other resurgent socialists in the region could get in the way by stirring up anti-globalization sentiment among the poor masses. While economic liberalization has brought growth and investment to Latin America, it has done little to alleviate poverty. Half of all Nicaraguans survive on less than $1 a day. Ortega has cut shrewd political deals to raise his party's stature, and widespread disgust with corruption in the current regime has also helped his campaign. Economic inequality is his key theme--as well as that of other old leftists. Hugo Chavez continues to thrive in Venezuela. Alan Garcia nearly won the recent election in Peru. Luiz Inacio (Lula) da Silva is leading the polls in Brazil. And former guerrillas in El Salvador could also be returned to power.

Completing the sense of deja vu, three of Ortega's former U.S. antagonists are back in the headlines, too. John Negroponte, who was ambassador to Honduras in the '80s and a strong critic of the Sandinistas, is now Bush's nominee for U.N. ambassador; Elliott Abrams, the head of Latin American affairs in Ronald Reagan's State Department, is a senior National Security Council staffer, and Otto Reich, who headed the now defunct Office of Public Diplomacy, which spread propaganda to generate public support for contra aid, is up for assistant secretary of State for Western Hemisphere affairs. …