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.*

To better understand this remarkable pact, I turned to Emilio Álvarez, an optometrist and political veteran who is one of Nicaragua’s wise men. He is the only Nicaraguan widely enough respected to have been offered government posts by each of the four presidents the country has had during the last quarter-century: Somoza, Ortega, Chamorro, and Alemán. He stayed outside government until finally agreeing to become Alemán’s foreign minister, but quit that job after less than two years. Now eighty-two, he sees his country without illusions.

“The capacity for subterfuge that we have perfected here is something truly extraordinary,” Álvarez told me at the office from which he runs a small civic foundation. “We have erected a façade of democracy, which is what the world expects from us at this moment, but our political culture has not changed. The end of dictatorship has not brought an end to the authoritarian mentality. Every Nicaraguan complains about how we have fallen under the rule of two self-interested caudillos, but the deeper problem is that we’re still living by a set of values that come from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. I’m not against political pacts as such, because if you have opposition you need to deal with it. But this latest pact is just a division of spoils between the two leaders, Ortega and Alemán. Nothing at all is left for the citizens. We’ve gone from one-man rule to rule by an eagle with two heads. There is no opposition any more, except poverty.”


For most Nicaraguans, poverty is a formidable opponent. More than half of them live without electricity, and one third have no access to clean water. One quarter of the adult population is illiterate. Although Nicaragua is rich in land and resources, half its people earn less than $350 per year. In some villages there are no public services at all, not just no telephone or electric power but also no school or teacher, no clinic or health care worker, no police officer. People who move from such villages to Managua often live in squalid shanty towns that are breeding grounds for disease and violence. Malnutrition is a growing problem. Were it not for the hundreds of millions of dollars that emigrants send home to their families each year, mostly from Florida, some people might starve.

Appalling as these conditions are, they do not tell the whole story. Foreign investors shy away from Nicaragua, largely because of its well-deserved reputation for official corruption, and there is little domestic investment. As a result, many young people grow up knowing that they may never find a real job, a knowledge that contributes to a national sense of depression and lassitude.

Gustavo Parajón, a Nicaraguan physician and Baptist minister whom I met during the 1980s, has devoted his life to the service of his impoverished countrymen. Like many other people, he had great hopes when the Sandinistas came to power, but now he is overwhelmed by the social deterioration he sees around him. He also sees how fully this crisis is interwoven with the collapse of political morality.

“Times are very, very hard, worse than I’ve ever seen,” Dr. Parajón told me when I visited him at a social service center in Managua. “Unemployment is extremely high. Levels of poverty are awful. Many people have trouble finding enough to eat. People are utterly defeated. They beat their wives and children. They cross highways without looking, because they don’t see much difference between this life and death. Ethical values have been lost. People see how in politics, the two forces unite to control everything. They see that everything is about self-interest, about keeping power and privilege. They lose hope.”

And what, I wondered, about the doctor himself? Has he too lost hope? When I posed this question, he reflected for a few long moments, evidently trying to think of something positive to say. All he could come up with was: “We have to wait for a new generation.”

What makes this conclusion so painful is that when the Sandinistas swept into power in 1979, they were supposed to be the generation that would finally change Nicaragua. For all their many failures, theirs was the first regime in the country’s modern history that sought to address the needs of poor Nicaraguans. In opposition they might have pressed their campaign for social justice under law, but thanks largely to Ortega’s insistence on pursuing power, they have lost both their political passion and many of their best leaders. Most of the comandantes with whom Ortega ruled in the 1980s have abandoned him. Even his brother Humberto, the former Sandinista defense minister, has announced he will not vote for him in this year’s presidential election. The most prominent leftist intellectuals in the Sandinista movement have also quit, among them the country’s three leading literary figures: the poet Ernesto Cardenal, who was the Sandinistas’ minister of culture; the memoirist Gioconda Belli, once a powerfully persuasive spokeswoman for the revolutionary cause; and Sergio Ra-mírez, who was Ortega’s vice-president in the 1980s and the most effective member of his government.

In the mid-1990s Ramírez led a group of Sandinista dissidents in a failed attempt to wrest control of the party away from Ortega, and then launched a quixotic presidential campaign of his own. Now retired from politics, he devotes himself to his writing. When he speaks of the cause to which he gave much of his adult life, it is with the emotion of someone who has been betrayed by a lover.

“The Sandinista Front we joined was a spiritual movement more than a political party,” he told me when I visited him in Managua. “But as soon as it lost power, it surrendered its ethics. It refused to renew itself to keep up with changing circumstances. It has no ideals anymore, no organizing principle except Daniel Ortega’s will for power. He turns out to have a very traditional idea of his political role. He’s obsessed with returning to power, with power for its own sake. The Sandinista Front is now a very different party from the one that overthrew Somoza and produced the idea of Sandinista revolution. The mystique is dead, buried under piles of egotism and personal ambition. I thought we were going to change this country. Today what I feel, even more than anger and bitterness, is very deep anguish at the way things have turned out.”

Ramírez does not regret having served in the Sandinista government. When I asked him if the contra war could have been avoided, he recalled the moment in 1981 when he received Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Enders, who had come to Managua with an offer.

“You have to put yourself back in that moment to understand the emotions on both sides,” he said. “Enders came with a message. He told me: ‘Reagan thinks he can live with the Sandinistas as long as you confine your revolution within your own borders, promise not to help guerrillas in El Salvador or anywhere else, and cut your ties to the Soviets.’ If you ask me now, sitting in this room, what I think of that offer, I’d say it sounds like a pretty good deal. But at the time we refused even to discuss it. We saw it as a trap: the gringos would cut us off from our friends, isolate us, and then attack and destroy us. As for El Salvador, we considered support of that cause to be both a revolutionary duty and a strategic necessity. We thought war was inevitable and that we had to prepare for it. We had no confidence in the United States. There was a lack of maturity on both sides.”

During the war years, only one Sandinista leader other than Ramírez developed into a capable bureaucrat. He was Herty Lewites, the son of a Jew-ish candy manufacturer who emigrated from Poland in the 1920s. During the Sandinista insurrection his job was to smuggle weapons from California to Nicaragua in a camper with a false bottom; after a while he was caught and served nearly a year in an American prison. Later, as Nicaragua’s minister of tourism, he earned a reputation as one of the few Sandinista officials who could run a government organization efficiently.

Lewites was among the Sandinista dissidents who broke with Ortega in the 1990s, but last year he renewed relations with him and managed to win the Sandinista nomination for mayor of Managua. The campaign was hardly fair. Ortega and President Alemán arranged to have the city borders redrawn so that the popular Conservative candidate became ineligible to run, and Lewites managed to win against a weak Liberal candidate. At his victory celebration someone tried to thrust a Sandinista flag into his hand, but he refused to accept it.

“People are tired of ideology and confrontation,” he told me. “We bear a lot of blame for that. When we were in power we did a lot of things wrong. We took away people’s land, which is almost like taking their lives. We made pilgrimages to Moscow as if we were Muslims going to Mecca. We had no appreciation of the private sector. Worst of all, we couldn’t make a deal with the United States that might have avoided the war. Remember, these comandantes were thirty-one, thirty-two years old. There’s been a huge amount of growing up since then.”

When I asked Lewites how much his country suffered from the cold war confrontation between Washington and Moscow, he cried out: “åÁDemasiado, hombre! åÁDemasiado! åÁDemasiado!” Too much, too much, too much.

During the campaign for mayor Lewites attracted young people to his rallies, a sign that the Sandinistas are not relying only on warhorses like himself (he is sixty-one) but are also attracting new sympathizers. His political strategy is to combine apologies for past errors with earnest efforts to build non-ideological coalitions; it is a strategy that could prove successful for other Sandinista candidates. Those looking for signs of political hope talk of the possible emergence of a younger generation of Sandinistas or other idealists, chastened by history but inspired by the passion for social justice that once made the movement seem so appealing.

For the moment, though, the Sandinista Front belongs to Ortega. He can still win the presidency in the November election, but he faces considerable obstacles. Many Nicaraguans blame him for the war and the economic collapse of the 1980s. Others resent his intense, unprincipled ambition. No case against him, however, is more dangerous to his prospects than the charge made by his stepdaughter Zoilamerica: that he seduced her when she was barely fifteen and maintained an abusive sexual relationship with her for much of the decade he was in power. In popular slang Ortega is now universally known as moclín, a crude word for a rapist who takes special pleasure in children. Not simply because of the gravity of his stepdaughter’s charges but also because he has used his power to avoid prosecution, he is detested by many Nicaraguan women, including feminists who were once militant Sandinistas.

I had lunch with one of the most articulate of those feminists, Sofia Montenegro, and was not surprised to find that she too has lost her Sandinista faith. She only showed emotion, however, when the subject of Ortega’s sexual past came up.

“This shows better than anything that has ever happened how completely this country is in the control of a patriarchal system,” she said. “The entire male political leadership closed ranks around Ortega, from the press to the politicians to the Catholic bishops. They totally ignored what happened, completely washed their hands of it. I just came from a meeting with women from all over the country, and they’re absolutely outraged at how Ortega has gotten away with this. We’re not going to stand by quietly in this campaign. Maybe we’ll have to cover the country with posters that say: ‘No Rapist as President.'”

Ortega’s opponent in the November election will be Enrique Bolaños, a sharp-tongued landowner who until recently served as Arnoldo Alemán’s vice-president. Bolaños has the reputation of being personally honorable, but his cool, aloof style does not seem well suited to a political culture used to fiery speeches and extravagant, baroque gestures. He is widely viewed as a front man for Alemán, who apparently hopes to become president of Congress and continue ruling the country from there. Political cartoonists depict Bolaños as Alemán’s lapdog, puppet, or wind-up toy. He is seventy-three years old in a country where two thirds of the population is under twenty-five. People call him bola de años, which means something like “pile of years.”

Ortega cannot win the presidency in a two-candidate race, because a clear majority of Nicaraguans will vote for anyone who runs against him. His only hope for victory in November has been to bring a third candidate into the race, and he has managed to do so. The third candidate will be Noel Vidaurre of the Conservative Party, who collected the necessary signatures with not-so-covert help from Sandinistas. Vidaurre ran in 1996 and took just 3 percent of the vote. He will probably finish last this time, but if his cru-sade against corruption and the odious pact pulls many votes away from Bolaños, he could throw the election to Ortega.

Many citizens who want to vote will not be able to do so, among them thousands in the mountain and Atlantic coast regions where the war was most intense; they have not been given the required identity cards, partly because political bosses are uncertain of their loyalty. Others, preoccupied with the daily struggle for survival, will abstain and barely notice or care who wins.

As Ortega and Alemán line up allies and form coalitions, both have a single strong argument. They can tell every Nicaraguan who wants to run for office or receive political favors that he or she has just two, or at the most three, choices: Sandinistas, Liberals, and maybe Conservatives. The only way to be assured of a place after the votes are counted in November is to cut a deal with Ortega or Alemán.

During my stay in Managua I talked with Luis Humberto Guzmán, a publisher and sometime literary critic who is one of the country’s most thoughtful politicians. I had been surprised when Daniel Ortega introduced him as a supporter during his speech beside the Intercontinental pool, and I asked him why he had thrown his lot with Ortega. “If I want to keep my seat in Congress and stay active in politics, I have to choose Sandinistas or Liberals,” he replied. “That’s the way it is now. The pact makes them the only game in town.”

In the 1980s and 1990s, Guzmán belonged to one of a handful of small political parties dedicated to democracy and reconciliation. Those parties will have a hard time surviving on their own now, so Guzmán chose between the two big ones. Some of his former colleagues in Congress have refused to make that unpalatable choice. One, Luis Sánchez, quit politics and is now a newspaper editor and columnist. Like most Nicaraguans, he tries not to think of how the audacious dreams of twenty years ago have evaporated.

“We do everything halfway in this country,” Sánchez told me when we met. “The Somoza regime was a half-dictatorship, then we had half a revolution, a kind of half-war and half a counterrevolution. What we have now is at best half-democracy. I could live with it all if we could just get to be at least halfway prosperous, but there’s no prospect of that. What a waste it’s all been.”

This Issue

July 19, 2001