Ortega comeback sets up Cold War re-run with Bush

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The Independent US

The Cold War may have been over for a decade. But a re-run could be shaping up in one of its nastiest former backyards.

That could be the case if the Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, one-time Marxist and bete noire of an earlier Republican administration in Washington, wins November's presidential election in Nicaragua.

Mr Ortega, who lost power in 1990, has tried and failed in one comeback attempt four years ago, when he was comfortably defeated by the outgoing President, Arnoldo Aleman.

This time, though, the Nicaraguan economy is in tatters. Coffee prices, accounting for a third of foreign exchange earnings, have collapsed, while a severe drought has wreaked havoc with other agricultural production. A discredited Mr Aleman is not standing this time, and polls suggest Mr Ortega has an even chance of winning. If he does, he would almost certainly find himself on a collision path with Washington, once more in Republican hands under George Bush, just as during the US-backed Contra rebellion that tore Nicaragua apart in the 1980s.

Already, as the campaign enters its final two months, a familiar tale of American meddling is starting to surface.

From the outset, Washington never hid the fact that its desired outcome was victory for the Liberal Party candidate, Enrique Bolanos, Vice-President and Mr Aleman's chosen successor. But a third candidate, Noel Vidaurre, of the Conservative party, was in the race and draining votes from Mr Bolanos and threatening to hand the dreaded Ortega victory.

So, the story goes, Washington leant heavily on Mr Vidaurre to withdraw and in July he duly did, whereupon Mr Bolanos edged back ahead in the polls. At the same time, US officials, publicly and privately, set about undermining Mr Ortega, warning that foreign investment would dry up if he prevailed, and muttering darkly about assets confiscated by the Sandinistas shortly after they came to power in 1979.

"If those who now call themselves democrats really meant it," a senior State Department official said during a visit to Managua in June, "by now they would have returned illegally confiscated property to their rightful owners."

Much of this property belongs to wealthy Nicaraguans who fled to America after the revolution that overthrew the former dictator Anastasio Somoza, and then became US citizens and an enduringly powerful lobby against Mr Ortega.

But the dispute over property, similar in many respects to the issue that continues to blight prospects of a return to normalcy of American relations with its eternal bugbear Cuba, is only one throwback to an unhappy and none-too-distant political past.

Mr Ortega insists he is a changed man since the collapse of Communism. "It's a different world now, we are not living in the past and I wouldn't do the same things now," he said this week. But for many of his old foes in Washington, the soothing words mask the same driven socialist convictions of two decades ago.