Two decades after the United States backed a civil war against Nicaragua’s leftist Sandinista government, a top Sandinista official said Tuesday Washington is meddling again, leveling accusations against party leader Daniel Ortega to try to prevent him from returning to the presidency.
Tomas Borge, the former interior minister who is currently No. 2 in the Sandinista Party, said the United States is using a complaint about surface-to-air missiles left over from the war to try to derail a bid by Ortega to retake the presidency in elections next year.
“The United States is trying once again to meddle in Nicaragua’s internal affairs, because they are desperate and scared by a certain Sandinista victory in the upcoming elections,” Borge, the party’s vice-secretary, told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.
In fact, Ortega has lost three runs for the presidency since he stepped down after 1990 elections, and polls indicate his chances next year are slim at best. The Sandinistas — whose full name is the Sandinista National Liberation Front — would do well only if Ortega was replaced as nominee by his chief party rival, the polls indicate.
But the United States has stepped up its criticism of the Sandinistas in recent weeks, and on Monday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld indirectly blamed the party for blocking the Nicaraguan government’s efforts to destroy the leftover missiles, saying there were “some impediments.”
Privately, U.S. officials said the chief impediment was Ortega.
Washington announced Monday it would suspend about $2 million in military assistance to Nicaragua because the country had not followed through on a promise to destroy the missiles. The United States fears the old weapons could end up in the hands of terrorists.
Ortega has led Sandinista opposition to the missile destruction, allying with another opposition group to pass legislation preventing President Enrique Bolanos from destroying the weapons. They say bowing to U.S. pressure to destroy them would infringe on the country’s sovereignty. But even Bolanos’ administration has said Nicaragua needs to hold on to some of the missiles to maintain Central America’s balance of power.
The United States has warned during previous elections that an Ortega presidency would have serious consequences for Nicaragua.
Ortega — and the Sandinistas in general — have grown more moderate since their 1979 revolution. While they remain committed to a socialist government, they have conceded that their closed economic model and expropriations of private businesses were mistakes.
But Nicaraguan political analyst Emilio Alvarez Montalvan said the prospect of a Sandinista victory — which would likely mean continued opposition to the destruction of the missiles — would be unacceptable to the United States, because in Washington, “security issues take precedence over everything else.”
Borges said Washington’s criticisms amount to meddling in Nicaragua’s internal politics.
“The United States is trying to discredit us … with the ultimate goal of making us lose the elections,” he said. “But we are going to win.”
Polls indicate the only Sandinista candidate with a real chance at the presidency would be former Managua Mayor Herty Lewites, who was expelled from the party last month after he opposed Ortega’s nomination.
Top former Sandinista leaders have spoken out strongly in favor of Lewites, however, and at least 10,000 people hit the streets on March 14 in support of the former mayor. The event drew three times more Sandinistas than did a rally supporting Ortega the previous week.
Lewites has not issued a public opinion on the missile destruction.
He has denounced Ortega and his supporters for allying themselves with a former political enemy in order to take control of the country’s courts, legislature, treasury and election institutions. That enemy is ex-President Arnoldo Aleman, a member of the ruling Liberal Constitutionalist Party now serving a 20-year sentence on money-laundering and fraud convictions.
His prosecution came thanks to the efforts of Bolanos, a fellow Constitutionalist Party member who pledged an all-out attack on corruption when he took office in January 2002.
He has been reviled and attacked by liberal lawmakers and Sandinistas ever since. Opposition politicians passed legislation sharply limiting Bolanos’ powers and at one point even called for his resignation.
The United States has spoken out on numerous occasions in support of Bolanos and against efforts by the opposition-dominated Congress to limit his powers.