[Marxism] A Cold War Ghost Haunts Elections in Nicaragua (WSJ)

Walter Lippmann walterlx at earthlink.net
Thu Nov 2 23:02:40 MST 2006

(The Wall Street Journal makes no mention of the MRS candidates.)

November 3, 2006

A Cold War Ghost
Haunts Elections
In Nicaragua
As Sandinistas' Ortega Gains,
U.S. Diplomat Gets Tough;
A Cameo by Oliver North
November 3, 2006; Page A1

MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- When the U.S. ambassador here said of a presidential candidate that "if it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and swims like a duck, it probably is a duck," he ruffled a lot of feathers.

Since the comments earlier this year, the candidate, José Rizo, a white-haired coffee farmer, has been lampooned in the Nicaraguan media as a "pato," or duck, which is also Nicaraguan slang for homosexual. Ambassador Paul Trivelli's friends say the diplomat meant to imply only that Mr. Rizo, 62 years old, is a creature controlled by former Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán, who is under house arrest for embezzlement. But many here suspect the Spanish-speaking Mr. Trivelli knew the full meaning of the word.

"He called me a duck, and that means homosexual," says Mr. Rizo, who says he isn't gay -- and is angry he has to defend himself. Mr. Trivelli declined to be interviewed for this article, as did other U.S. Embassy officials.

The duck flap is illustrative of what Nicaraguans consider U.S. intrusion in this Sunday's presidential election, where former Sandinista comandante and president, Daniel Ortega, 61, whom Washington despises, is running well ahead of banker Eduardo Montealegre, 51, whom Washington favors. Mr. Rizo is running a distant third, but he is attracting U.S. attention in part because support for him would split the anti-Ortega vote -- and keeping Mr. Ortega out of office is extremely important to U.S. officials.

The current controversy carries echoes of the 1980s, when the U.S. sought to overthrow Mr. Ortega's Sandinista government, which had allied itself with the Soviet Union. The current Ortega campaign evokes strong emotions in the State Department as a reminder of that time. Even retired Lt. Col. Oliver North, a prominent figure in the Cold War battle against the Sandinistas, has become involved, criticizing the U.S. for shunning Mr. Rizo, who Col. North believes has the best chance of defeating Mr. Ortega.

Since arriving in Managua last year, Mr. Trivelli, 52, has become a familiar figure in the Nicaraguan media, where he often slams what he calls the country's antidemocratic forces -- Mr. Ortega's Sandinistas and Mr. Rizo's Liberal Constitutional Party, or PLC. The U.S. is battling corruption, he says, which is a threat to Nicaragua's democracy and especially virulent in the PLC. "We will never approve of a candidate, or a party that has as a candidate Arnoldo Alemán, his family, his cronies or someone designated by him," Mr. Trivelli said earlier this year on Nicaraguan television.

Last month, the Organization of American States, which is monitoring elections here, issued a statement that "lamented" outside interference in the election and criticized Ambassador Trivelli by name.

Even some of America's friends here think Mr. Trivelli has been heavy-handed. Carlos Briceño, a U.S. citizen who heads a television station in Managua, says he was telephoned by a deputy of Mr. Trivelli who said the election was a matter of U.S. national interest and suggested his news coverage should reflect that concern. "The U.S. has lost the parameters of what is permissible and what is totally unacceptable," Mr. Briceño says.

In response to such criticisms, a State Department spokesman said in a briefing yesterday, "We're not trying to shade opinion or to try to take a position. This is a democratic election."

Mr. Trivelli, a career foreign-service officer, headed the Central America desk at the State Department before being appointed ambassador last year. One European diplomat says the tall and bearded Mr. Trivelli is known for being withdrawn and somewhat brusque. While of Italian descent, says the diplomat, Mr. Trivelli "obviously didn't learn anything from Machiavelli."

The Americans aren't the only ones throwing their weight around. Venezuela's populist president, Hugo Chávez, has been supplying Sandinista mayors with cut-rate oil for public transportation and fertilizer to be sold to local farmers.

Mr. Rizo, who like many affluent Nicaraguans travels frequently to the U.S. for family and business matters, said recently that he has encountered visa problems at Mr. Trivelli's embassy. When his 10-year U.S. visa expired this summer, Mr. Rizo says he got only a three-month visa, after a tough grilling at the embassy. That visa has already expired and he must apply for a new one.

The U.S. Embassy also has lifted the visas of more than two dozen prominent figures in Mr. Rizo's PLC party, most of them judges, alleging in most cases that they are corrupt. The visa issue has been decried by the PLC as politically motivated. In Managua circles and the press, the visaless officials are called "los desvisados" -- the ones whose visas were lifted.

A State Department spokesman says the government is barred by law from commenting on individual cases, but that the U.S. doesn't revoke visas for political reasons.

The U.S. has opposed the PLC since Mr. Alemán, a 300-pound political boss known as "El Gordo," or "the Fat Man," cut a deal in 1999 with Mr. Ortega, the head of the Sandinista opposition. As part of the "pacto," the two parties rewrote election laws so that a presidential candidate could avoid a run-off and win with just 35% of the vote, rather than 45% as before. That was a boon for Mr. Ortega, who is anathema to a large part of the electorate in this dirt-poor country of 5.5 million.

In the most recent polls, Mr. Ortega has about 33% of the vote, compared with 25% for Mr. Montealegre and 17% for Mr. Rizo.

The U.S. has a turbulent history with Nicaragua, which it has treated as a kind of protectorate. In 1909, the U.S. sent gunboats to Nicaragua, forcing the resignation of President José Santos Zelaya, who had executed two Americans. U.S. Marines occupied the country for most of the next 24 years. But the Marines were unable to quell a revolt by nationalist Gen. Augusto Sandino and left the country in 1933. The U.S. turned power over to an ally, Gen. Anastasio Somoza, whose family ruled until the Sandinista triumph in 1979 put Mr. Ortega in power.

Nicaragua became a Cold War battleground when the Sandinistas allied themselves with the Soviet Union. The U.S. engaged in a proxy war, backing Contra rebels in the 1980s. Mr. Ortega left power peacefully in 1990 when he lost an election, but Cold War ghosts continue to haunt Managua and Washington. Some Bush national security officials got their start during the Contra wars, which may help explain why the U.S. is determined to stop their nemesis, Mr. Ortega. "Daniel Ortega sets them off," says Michael Shifter, an analyst at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington, D.C., think tank. "He sets the reptilian part of their brains to work."

Mr. Ortega has run for president three times since his 1990 loss, but this is the first election in which he has a real chance to win, thanks to the new 35% rule. These days, Mr. Ortega runs as the candidate of reconciliation. He picked as a running mate a former Contra leader, Jaime Morales, whose mansion Mr. Ortega had once confiscated, and chose as a campaign song John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."

One of Mr. Rizo's few prominent U.S. allies is Col. North, who as a Reagan White House official sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the Contras -- which provoked a scandal in Washington. In his syndicated column, Col. North, who is also a television host for Fox News, last month slammed the U.S. for distancing itself from Mr. Rizo. He later flew to Managua, where he made an appearance with Mr. Rizo at a breakfast. Mr. Rizo's campaign also ran a television spot using a still shot of Mr. North, with the White House in the background.

Mr. Trivelli wasn't amused, saying the ad wrongly suggested the U.S. was backing Mr. Rizo. Such propaganda by the PLC is "paja," he told reporters, using a word that means "bogus," but has a second slang meaning of "masturbation." The ensuing controversy over yet another linguistic faux pas was the talk of Managua.

The city's mayor Dionisio Marenco, a top aide to Mr. Ortega, jokes that Mr. Trivelli is acting as Mr. Ortega's campaign manager. "I hope he keeps saying stuff," says Mr. Marenco.

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