Herty Lewites

Nicaraguan presidential candidate
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Herty Lewites Rodríguez, politician: born Jinotepe, Nicaragua 24 December 1939; Tourism Minister 1979-90; Mayor of Managua 2001-05; married Carmen García (two sons); died Managua 2 July 2006.

The death of Herty Lewites, a candidate in Nicaragua's forthcoming presidential election, is a serious setback to Washington's hopes for the region. US policy-makers regarded Lewites, a democratic socialist in the mould of Chile's Michelle Bachelet or Brazil's Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as the contender most likely to block the return of Daniel Ortega, of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), who was president from 1979 to 1990, and, as a close ally of Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez, remains the Americans' worst nightmare in Central America.

Lewites was a Sandinista himself until early last year, when he was expelled from the party for daring to challenge Ortega for the FSLN's presidential nomination. Along with a number of fellow veterans of the guerrilla war against the Somoza family dictatorship in the 1970s, he founded the breakaway Movement to Rescue Sandinismo (MRS), and bid for the support of disillusioned Sandinista voters, who still had left-wing nationalist sympathies but had long since tired of Ortega's authoritarian ways and ruthless determination to regain power, even if it meant making alliances with former political enemies. The MRS subsequently merged with the Sandinista Renewal Movement, founded in the mid-1990s by Ortega's former vice-president, Sergio Ramírez, to form the Herty 2006 Alliance.

Herty Lewites had made his political reputation as FSLN mayor of the capital, Managua, between 2001 and 2005. He proved a competent manager and notable conciliator, in a country of ferocious political antagonisms. His popularity led him to believe that he had the right to challenge Ortega, who still ruled the Sandinista party with an iron fist, despite repeated failures at the ballot box.

But Ortega had no intention of letting go, and engineered Lewites's expulsion from the FSLN in February last year, after denouncing him as an "agent of US imperialism". Lewites regarded such rhetoric as outmoded, and argued for a non-confrontational relationship with the United States, where hundreds of thousands of Nicaraguans live and work, many of them as illegal immigrants.

US attempts to persuade Lewites to join forces with a centre-right candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, in a "Stop Ortega" alliance failed, but, if Lewites had survived, the two men would probably have combined to defeat Ortega in the inevitable run-off election. Now prospects are much more uncertain, and Ortega leads in the opinion polls. Nicaragua's current president, Enrique Bolaños, is strongly pro-American, and the "loss" of Nicaragua, through an Ortega victory, would be seen in Washington as a disaster.

Herty Lewites was born in Jinotepe in 1939, the son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland, Israel Sol Lewites, and a Nicaraguan mother, Ana María Rodríguez, who brought Herty up as a Catholic. He joined the underground resistance to the Somoza dynasty in 1958, while he was working in his father's chocolate factory in Jinotepe. He subsequently spent long spells in exile, first in Brazil and later in Mexico, before becoming a member of the clandestine FSLN in 1969.

He was given the job of setting up solidarity committees in the US, where he was arrested in 1973 while trying to buy arms to send back to the rebels in Nicaragua. He spent a year and a half in prison, before moving to Mexico, then Cuba and Venezuela. He returned to Nicaragua before the final victory of the FSLN guerrillas led by Ortega over President Anastasio Somoza, working as a liaison officer with the foreign press and a logistics commander.

Ortega appointed Lewites tourism minister, and he was part of the FSLN regime that defied the US-backed "Contra" rebels throughout the 1980s. In 1990, when Ortega was defeated by a right-wing presidential candidate, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, Lewites was elected to the National Assembly for the FSLN. But by the mid-1990s he had become estranged from Ortega, and founded an independent movement to back an unsuccessful attempt to become Mayor of Managua in 1996.

By 2000 he was back in the FSLN fold, and finally won the mayorship of the capital. He was expelled from the Front soon after his term ended in January 2005.

Colin Harding