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Country Without Heroes

In the first delirious days after they chased the dictator Anastasio Somoza out of Nicaragua in 1979, Sandinista rebels ran the country from makeshift offices in the Intercontinental Hotel, one of the few large buildings that had survived the shattering earthquake seven years earlier. Today the hotel is owned by a Taiwanese business syndicate, and on a recent evening Daniel Ortega, who as the top Sandinista leader during the 1980s rose to world prominence by daring to defy the United States, rented the space around the swimming pool for a presidential campaign rally. He invited local businesspeople, hoping to persuade them that he is now their friend and deserves their support in the November election.

Ortega, who was voted out of power in 1990, badly wants to return, but he certainly will not succeed on the basis of his oratorical skills. Never an inspiring speaker, on this evening he gave a rambling monologue that seemed to reflect a confused mind or, some said, a sick body. He arrived two hours late and then, on the makeshift stage, mumbled and lost his train of thought. “In this globalized world, we need to strengthen the private sector,” he mused at one point. “Big businessmen, bankers, small businessmen, farmers, bankers. Also coffee producers. We went through a difficult time, but there were also great benefits. There was a sense of justice. The war ended twelve years ago. We’re all Nica-raguans, all part of this reality. In the complex time of the 1980s we managed to coexist. We didn’t abolish private property. Some people want to stigmatize the Sandinista Front. No, don’t do that, it’s not democratic. Globalization is unjust and unfair, but we will not forget the businessmen. Not forget the bankers, the private sector, the big businessmen, the farmers, the bankers. Also not the coffee producers.”

Today it is almost impossible to believe that wretched Nicaragua, an impoverished land where few people dream of more than a full plate of beans and rice, was once at the center of the world’s attention. Ortega and Ronald Reagan made it so. They were duelists in the cold war’s twilight battle, a battle that now seems not simply remote but also painfully absurd. Visiting Nicaragua today, one cannot help asking what that horrific war was about. How was it possible that this miserable place became the arena in which brothers fought each other so brutally?

During the war between the San-dinistas and Reagan’s contras, I used to show up at a government press center in Managua to hear President Ortega denounce his enemies as bloody criminals. Today the building that housed the press center has been returned to its former owner, Adolfo Calero, who during the 1980s was the top contra leader. I remember the day the Sandinista newspaper published photos of Calero and other contra commanders on its front page with the banner headline: “These Beasts Will Never Return!” Today Calero has not only returned and reclaimed his house, but he has hung a framed copy of that front-page on the wall of his living room as an ironic joke. What is more, he is now a member of Congress and chairman of its foreign relations committee.

Calero’s presence in Nicaragua is clear evidence that the titanic confrontation of the 1980s has ended. But although I welcomed that evidence, I also found our meeting hugely depressing. As Calero talked about how closely he works with his former Sandinista enemies, I wondered why the war, with its enormous human costs, was ever fought. When I asked him this question, he told me what many other Nicaraguans also say. They agree that their country did not suffer because its leaders were passionately committed to hostile ideologies, as it seemed at the time. The war, they now say, began as an old-fashioned Nicaraguan rivalry for power, but spun horribly out of control after it was swept up into the Soviet–American conflict.

Without that overlay, the war would never have happened,” Calero said. “The Sandinistas took up the banner of the moment, which was Marxism. We aligned ourselves with the West. They got money and guns from the Soviet Union, we got ours from the United States. But now what divided us has disappeared. The Sandinistas used to say there weren’t enough lamp posts in this country to hang us from. Now we drink rum together. What happened? The cold war ended. As long as the Soviets and the Americans were enemies, Nicara-guans kept fighting. But the day I read that Elliott Abrams was meeting with his Soviet counterpart, I called my people and told them, ‘It’s over. We’re going to have to make peace.’ So we did. It was that simple.”

Abrams is among several tainted veterans of the contra project who suddenly find themselves redeemed now that the White House is back in Republican hands. Officials in the Bush administration are reportedly considering him for a post on the National Security Council, whose members conveniently are not subject to Senate confirmation. Two other vigorous contra supporters are to join the Bush administration at even more senior levels. One is the Cuban-American ideologue Otto Reich, who ran a covert Reagan administration program aimed at influencing Americans to support the contras; he is to become assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, the job Abrams had during the Reagan years. The other is John Negroponte, who during the contra war was United States ambassador and, in effect, proconsul in Honduras, where most of the contras were secretly based. Negroponte is remembered in Honduras not only for his vigorous support of the contras but also for his tolerance of murderous human rights abuses committed by the Honduran army. He has been appointed United States ambassador to the United Nations. Both the Reich and Negroponte nominations require Senate confirmation.

Although some in Washington have apparently not stopped fighting the contra war, in Nicaragua it is ancient history. Nicaraguans don’t want to hear about ideology or even political ideas anymore. Their country has returned to its traditional form of government, rule by autocratic party bosses. Many idealistic Sandinistas have left their party, and little remains of the utopian enthusiasm that once inspired their dream. If it were not for the dead, for the widows and orphans, for the mutilated veterans who push themselves through Managua’s pockmarked streets in creaky wheelchairs, it might seem as if the entire huge clash of the 1980s had never happened.

The last decade has not been kind to Latin America, but in many countries there is at least some kind of political process taking place. Mexico has turned to multiparty democracy, Venezuela is experimenting with populist militarism, Chile has elected a socialist president, and Guatemala is trying to reconstruct its society after decades of civil war. Each of these developments may turn out either well or badly, and many people are eagerly awaiting the outcome. But in Nicaragua, public life is stagnant. Two political parties, Sandinistas and Liberals, dominate the country. For a while the bosses of these two parties fought over the division of spoils, but last year they signed a political pact under which they share control over the principal government agencies no matter who wins an election. The pact also makes it all but impossible for smaller parties to compete for shares of power. As for the masses, they have sunk into deep poverty and even deeper disillusion.

This state of affairs is shocking to those who have followed the history of the Sandinista movement. The Sandinistas were originally a corps of young patriots who shed blood to bring what they thought would be a new dawn to their long-suffering country. When they took power in 1979 they had the support of nearly every Nicaraguan. Later, partly because their recklessness deeply divided their country but also because of the Reagan administration’s intransigence, they found themselves in a war that made them symbols of resistance to United States power in Central America. In Nica-ragua and around the world, the Sandinistas drew people to the barricades. Now, however, neither they nor anyone else in Nicaragua stands for much of anything.

Not everything has gone wrong in Nicaragua. Peace has taken hold, and there is no political repression. Free speech is so widely tolerated that street vendors sell portraits of both Che Guevara and Anastasio Somoza. The newspapers delight in uncovering public corruption; an opinion survey taken last year shows the press to be the country’s most trusted institution. And in a remarkable transformation, the army has evolved from being an arm of the Sandinista Front to a national force that does not seek to influence politics. These would be considerable achievements in any country. In Nicaragua, however, they are all but overwhelmed by an aching sense of lost possibilities.

After Violeta Chamorro defeated Ortega and the Sandinistas in the 1990 election, he and his comrades went on a spree, appropriating for themselves not just cars and houses but also farms, factories, and businesses that had been government property. In 1996 Ortega ran for president again, but partly because of public outrage over this larceny, he lost to Arnoldo Alemán of Somoza’s old Liberal Party, whose campaign was bankrolled by rightist Nicaraguan and Cuban exiles in Miami. For a time Ortega tried to position himself as Alemán’s enemy, but after a while the two men began to see how much they had in common. Both seek the power of a caudillo in a familiar Latin American way; both would like to dominate Nicaragua. Last year they decided to join forces.

Three government institutions have been a threat to both Ortega and Alemán: the Supreme Court, which has the power to condemn both of them for corruption and other crimes; the federal auditor’s office, which can make it harder for them to misuse public funds; and the electoral commission, which has blocked several efforts to manipulate recent elections. Last year’s pact undermined the power of all three bodies by a series of maneuvers that placed them under the effective control of the Sandinista and Liberal parties. The pact, which became law with the votes of Ortega’s and Alemán’s blocs in Congress, also granted members of Congress immunity from prosecution and made it almost impossible to prosecute a president. That means Alemán need no longer worry about being called to account for his enrichment in office, and Ortega is safe from charges that for years he sexually abused his stepdaughter. As an added bonus, the two men have agreed that both the outgoing president (Alemán) and the second-place finisher in the presidential election (probably Ortega, unless he wins) will automatically become members of Congress, thereby continuing to enjoy legal immunity. In a recent report, a US research group concluded:

The two leaders have submerged deep-seated personal and ideological animosities to collaborate in a pact that maintains democratic forms but diminishes democratic content in key institutions…. Ten years after the fall of the revolution, Nicaragua appears trapped in a vicious cycle. In this cycle, politics is dominated by caudillos who benefit from the public treasury while institutions fail to curb the impunity of the powerful.*

  1. *

    David R. Dye, with Jack Spence and George Vickers, Patchwork Democracy: Nicaraguan Politics Ten Years After the Fall (Hemisphere Initiatives, November 2000), pp. 35–40.

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