Ortega’s populism battles against long memories

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On a hilltop in central Managua, a primary school teacher guides children around exhibits from Nicaragua’s 1979 revolution: two rusting tanks seized by leftwing Sandinista rebels from the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.

The Sandinista government that followed is already a distant memory for her and, by the time Daniel Ortega, its leader, lost power in 1990, none of the children had even been born.

But in spite of the faded memories and the children’s apparent lack of interest – they soon break rank to play tag around a towering steel figure of Augusto César Sandino, the early 20th-century revolutionary and Sandinista party’s hero – the prospect of Mr Ortega’s return to power has suddenly become real again.

That is a concern for the US. Mr Ortega’s leftwing politics and anti-US rhetoric have always gone down badly with Washington, which during the 1980s illegally financed rightwing Contra paramilitary groups to destabilise Mr Ortega’s elected government.

Back then, US interest was motivated by the determination to stop a Soviet-backed leftwing revolution from spreading. Today, as the November 5 election draws closer, those cold war threats have been replaced by another: the spread of radical, populist politics promoted by Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s vehemently anti-US president.

Awash with petrodollars, Mr Chávez has begun to exert growing influence in the region, and the US is worried that an Ortega victory in Nicaragua could turn the impoverished country into a foothold for the “Bolivarian” revolution.

“What would happen [in the event of an Ortega victory] would be the introduction of a Chávez model here on the isthmus,” Paul Trivelli, the US ambassador to Managua, told the FT.

Walking around central Managua it is easy to see how much Mr Chávez’s populist politics might appeal. Outside the ash-grey cathedral, irreparably damaged in the devastating 1972 earthquake and bullet-riddled in the 1979 revolution, barefoot boys scavenge for coins.

In the poverty-stricken suburbs, residents in clapboard housing lie semi-stupefied by the heat on reclaimed car seats. The smell of burning refuse from the city dump fills the soporific air, and residents complain of power cuts lasting up to 10 hours a day.

Market-friendly economic policies under Enrique Bolaños, the centre-right president, have delivered respectable-looking macro-economic indicators: according to the International Monetary Fund, growth this year will be 3.7 per cent, rising to 4.3 next year, for example.

But Adolfo Acevedo, an economist, argues that about 78 per cent of Nicaragua’s 5.2m inhabitants still live on less than a dollar a day, while education standards are chronically low. “The government has met all its economic targets but the people are still suffering,” he says.

Against that backdrop, Mr Chávez has given the impoverished population a glimpse of what his generous social policies can achieve. “Operation Miracle”, a project sponsored by Venezuela and Cuba to offer free eye surgery, has restored the vision of hundreds of Nicaraguans.

Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA), the state oil company, has just signed a generous oil agreement with Nicaragua’s mayors’ association, and Mr Chávez recently invited Mr Ortega on to his weekly Aló Presidente television programme.

“Daniel, I am not going to say that I want you to win because they will only tell me that I’m sticking my nose into Nicaragua’s internal affairs,” said the Venezuelan leader. “But I want you to win.”

On the campaign trail, Mr Ortega, now a 60-year-old veteran campaigner who has run in – and lost – the last three presidential elections, has advocated a “mixed” economic model and talked of renegotiating Central America’s recent trade deal with the US.

Even so, Michael Shifter of Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think-tank, says that much of the US concern is overdone.

“An Ortega victory won’t be great for regional dynamics but Nicaragua is not that important,” he says. “The US reaction is way out of proportion.”

Washington has pinned its hopes overwhelmingly – and vociferously – on two things: uniting a divided right, and the instinctive rejection many Nicaraguans still feel for Mr Ortega.

The first continues to prove difficult. The US has so far failed to broker an alliance between Eduardo Monte­alegre, a young business-friendly candidate for the centre-right Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), and José Rico, the candidate for the rightwing Constitutionalist Liberal party (PLC).

The second factor is less problematic. While many Nicaraguans – about 20 per cent, according to some polls – remain undecided, previous elections have shown that most of those tend to turn against Mr Ortega at the last minute.

Ana María Montenegro, a grandmother and owner of a an open-air restaurant in Managua, is sure the veteran leftwinger will not return to power.

“When people vote, they start to remember what his government was like,” she says.

“They remember military service, the queues to buy food, the misery we lived through.”

If the US government is intent on stopping Mr Ortega – and preventing Mr Chávez from gaining a foothold in the region – it will be hoping that Nicaraguans have long memories.

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