Ortega Amnesia

By Jackson Diehl (THE WASHINGTON POST, 20/10/08):

This is a column about a country that has scarcely been mentioned in the presidential campaign, that has disappeared from the American press and that has essentially been forgotten by Washington — which is the oddest part of the story. After all, two decades ago Nicaragua and its president, Daniel Ortega, inspired fierce passions here: Democrats and Republicans spent most of a decade bitterly debating whether to fund an armed opposition movement against his Sandinista regime, and senior Reagan administration officials broke the law in order to do so.

Ortega hasn’t changed much. Back as Nicaraguan president since 2006, he is denouncing the U.S. “empire,” succoring Colombian terrorists and cultivating alliances with Iran and Russia, which recently pledged to supply his army with fresh weapons. Two opposition political parties have been outlawed; gangs from the Sandinista Party are assaulting opposition gatherings. This month, Ortega launched a crackdown against nongovernmental organizations devoted to media freedom, women’s rights and poverty reduction. Police raided the offices of a press foundation headed by Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a journalist whose mother defeated Ortega when Nicaragua adopted democracy in 1990.

Having overcome his lack of public support through corrupt manipulation of the legislature and courts, Ortega is now dismantling what remains of that democracy. According to a statement in support of Chamorro that circulated last week, Ortega’s “long-term project to arbitrarily centralize power” has “increasingly taken on the character of a family dictatorship.” It added: “We call on the international community to denounce these acts that so clearly demonstrate Ortega’s dictatorial designs for Nicaragua.”

Here’s the interesting thing about that statement: It was drawn up and signed by a group of prominent left-wing Latin American writers and intellectuals, such as the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano and the Chilean poet Ariel Dorfman. Meanwhile, the Bush administration’s State Department had nothing to say.

This is part of a strange pattern. Over the past several months, Ortega has been repudiated by seven of the eight other Sandinista leaders of the ’80s and by most of their erstwhile fellow-travelers. Noam Chomsky, Bianca Jagger and Tom Hayden have all denounced Ortega’s anti-democratic moves. European governments, including Germany and Britain, have moved to suspend hundreds of millions of dollars in aid.

The State Department has been silent. A bland statement in September urged that upcoming local elections be fair; it said nothing about the attacks on the opposition. The Millennium Challenge Corp. continues a five-year, $175 million aid program, even though the preservation of democratic institutions is one of its core requirements. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has repeatedly needled Vladimir Putin about the fact that the only country to follow Russia’s lead and recognize two Russian-occupied Georgian provinces is Ortega’s Nicaragua — but she’s said nothing about what is happening in Nicaragua itself.

It’s not hard to understand why the left is so angry at its former hero. Although Ortega still proclaims himself a socialist and has joined the regional alliance of Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez, he regained power through an alliance with a corrupt former right-wing president and the Catholic Church — and promptly supported a new law banning abortion. That was the last straw for supporters of women’s rights, who have never forgotten Ortega’s stepdaughter’s allegation that he sexually abused her. Then last summer Ortega picked a fight with the revered leftist poet Ernesto Cardenal, prompting more than 60 intellectuals to release a letter “to protest the lack of transparency, the authoritarian style, the unscrupulous behavior and the lack of ethics that Daniel Ortega has shown since his return to power.”

Why has the Bush administration appeared less perturbed? Well, the lefties point out, Ortega’s hatred for the empire hasn’t stopped him from exporting duty-free textiles to the United States under the Central America Free Trade Agreement; or from signing a three-year agreement with the International Monetary Fund; or from welcoming $330 million in foreign investment into his country last year, much of it from the United States. Though he is using millions in aid from Chávez to build an ominous network of “Citizens Power Councils” around Nicaragua, Ortega hasn’t broken with the “Washington consensus” on trade and investment.

In fact, say U.S. officials, the trade and aid programs are helping to develop one of the hemisphere’s poorest countries. Cutting them off, they argue, would only play into Ortega’s hands. Nicaragua doesn’t pose any particular threat to the United States. And the lambasting the caudillo is getting from his former comrades is probably more effective than anything the United States could say.

Fair enough, except that suggests the Bush administration doesn’t really mind if Ortega reestablishes a dictatorship that prompted a previous Republican administration to mine harbors, fund a rebel army and persist even in contempt of Congress. What was it, exactly, that was so dangerous then — and why doesn’t it matter now?