Nicaragua likely to give Ortega another chance

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The leader of the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, is within reach of winning back the presidency in tomorrow's elections despite attempts by the United States to stop its old nemesis.

Mr Ortega's opponent, Enrique Bolaños from the centre-right Liberal Party, received an endorsement from Jeb Bush, Governor of Florida and the American President's brother, in a full-page advertisement that ran in national newspapers this week. "Daniel Ortega is an enemy of all that the United States represents," Jeb Bush asserted. "And he is also a friend of our enemies."

Mr Bolaños, 73, insists: "The evidence is in his own words. Ortega always touts his connections with the 'anti- imperialists'."

Oliver Garza, the American ambassador, handed out food parcels to hungry peasants while Mr Bolañossmiled magnanimously on stage – and Mr Ortega was pointedly uninvited to the event.

When Mr Ortega was doing well in the opinion polls last month, Washington warned of its "grave reservations" over Sandinista ties to countries it accused of supporting terrorism, such as Cuba and Libya. A blitz of blatantly negative campaigning, featuring Osama bin Laden as a would-be Sandinista supporter, has pushed the Liberals ahead for the first time by three percentage points in the latest Gallup poll – statistically insignificant but psychologically powerful.

The 12 per cent of Nicaraguan voters who were still uncommitted when campaigning closed will decide the winner.

Anxiety over a possible deterioration of Nicaragua's economic relations with America might turn the tide, and the Liberals have not hesitated to play up those fears. The impoverished country, reeling from a plunge in coffee prices, can ill afford cuts in American aid or investment. At $6.6bn (£4.5bn), Nicaragua's foreign debt is more than 10 times its annual export income of $600m. More than 70 per cent of Nicaragua's five million citizens live in poverty.

Mr Ortega, 56,has twice been defeated for the top position since leading the country between 1979 and 1990 after toppling the dictator Anastasio Somoza. But he takes pains to show that his Marxist past is behind him. Peace and love slogans stress his new evangelical Christian leanings, and he pledges to create a million jobs and to root out corruption.

Mr Ortega even promises to return confiscated property belonging to hundreds of American citizens if elected. Two decades ago, US-financed Contra forces fought Mr Ortega's Soviet-backed Sandinista government, convulsing this small Central American nation in a civil war that cost 30,000 lives.

Agustín Jarquín, Mr Ortega's running mate, announced: "We don't live in the past, and we have a firm commitment to the fight against terrorism."