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The US ambassador to Nicaragua has issued a vigorous warning to this small Central American country’s electors against supporting Daniel Ortega, the veteran leftwing Sandinista leader and the frontrunner in November’s presidential election.

In a frank interview with the FT, Paul Trivelli said Mr Ortega was “undemocratic” and would roll back much of the advances made in recent years. And, underlining the concern felt in Washington about the regional influence of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, the ambassador said he had no doubt that Venezuela was playing an important role in the election.

“It’s one thing to be truly democratic. It’s another thing to do what the Sandinistas really have done, which is to distort and manipulate democracy for partisan and personal benefit,” Mr Trivelli said. “The fact that [Mr Ortega] has been in charge of the Sandinista movement for 25 years or more gives you a clue about his democratic tendencies.”

The ambassador said that an Ortega victory – while vague on many issues, the 60-year-old former rebel leader has talked of increasing the role of the state and renegotiating Cafta, the trade agreement between the US and Central America – would force Washington to “re-evaluate” relations.

“He has made it pretty clear what kind of model he would put in place. And I think that under those conditions …[bilateral relations] would definitely be re-examined – and not only by the executive or the State Department or the White House but by the US Congress.”

The US has had a long and – in many cases – unfortunate history in Nicaragua. During the 1980s it earned international criticism for its illegal funding of the so-called Contra war against Mr Ortega’s democratically elected administration.

But Mr Trivelli insisted the US was simply trying to “bring back that balance a bit” in a political landscape in which the Sandinista party had helped “hijack” Nicaragua’s democratic institutions.

“If the electoral machinery worked well and if the political landscape were level, the US ambassador, any other country, would sit on the sidelines and say, ‘may the best man win’. In a country like Nicaragua that is obviously not the case.”

It is also no secret that the US is determined to prevent the spread of populist politics along the lines practised by Mr Chávez.

Mr Trivelli said he had no doubt that Venezuela under its radical leftwing president was playing a role in Nicaragua’s elections, and that it was using social programmes and a controversial oil deal with the country’s mayors’ association to influence the vote in favour of Mr Ortega, who leads his closest rival by about six points, according to a recent opinion poll.

Mr Trivelli defended the pro-market policies adopted under Nicaragua’s current centre-right president, Enrique Bolaños, and criticised the populist policies of Mr Chávez. “The model that has been chosen and the model that works is real democracy, market economies and security …The Venezuelan model is obviously different from that.”

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