The fight for democracy: The return of the Sandinista

More than 20 years after the US ousted Daniel Ortega's democratically elected Government, the left-wing Nicaraguan has emerged as a front-runner for the Presidency despite Bush's attempts to undermine his party. By Andrew Buncombe
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The Independent US

For the people of Nicaragua there must be a sense of déjà vu, coupled with a deep feeling of foreboding that they are again under the harsh spotlight of a Republican US administration.

More than 20 years after the US illegally intervened to brutally oust a democratically elected government, the US is again being accused of interfering in the Central American nation's domestic politics to ensure the victory of its preferred candidate. And again the US is controversially acting against the left-wing Sandinista party and its candidate, Daniel Ortega.

US intervention circa 2006 does not involve spending $300m (£157m) to support anti-government "Contra" forces, an intervention that led to a vicious war and the death of perhaps 30,000 people. This time, the US involvement entails making clear its preferences by having its ambassador denounce Mr Ortega as "anti-democratic", a "candidate from the past" and a "tiger who hasn't changed his stripes". There is also the veiled threat that the US may not wish to cooperate with a government headed by the Sandinistas, with one senior US official writing in a Nicaraguan newspaper last year that should Mr Ortega be elected, " Nicaragua would sink like a stone".

Some experts say the behaviour of the US in Nicaragua is just the latest episode in a region where the US has, for decades, sought to undermine governments it opposes ­ through peaceful means or otherwise ­ to secure one it believes it can do business with. They say a pattern can be ascertained linking Guatemala to Cuba through to Grenada, Nicaragua, and El Salvador and more recently to Haiti and Venezuela, where the US has used whatever means necessary to try to place right-wing, Washington-friendly governments in power. If anything, under the Bush administration the policy has gathered pace.

"US policy in Latin America under the Bush administration has been uniquely ideologically driven, far more than it was even under the Reagan administration," said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, a Washington-based think tank. "The latest thing is that US ambassadors in places such as Bolivia, El Salvador and Costa Rica all walk in and say, 'The US has made it clear is supports free and fair elections but if a non-US-friendly candidate wins we will cut off US aid'. They are quite open about it."

He added: "That is why [the Cuban leader, Fidel] Castro is so popular in Latin America, because he is defiant. That is why [Venezuela's elected President, Hugo] Chavez is so popular in Latin America, because he gives the finger to Washington. He makes obscene gestures both literally and metaphorically."

US policy in Nicaragua is being most clearly delivered by its ambassador in Managua, Paul Trivelli, who has spoken of his disapproval of Mr Ortega and his Sandinista party (FSLN) and instead indicated his support for Eduardo Montealegre, the candidate for the National Liberal Alliance (ALN). His outspokenness ­ in contrast to the more considered language used by diplomats ­ has stirred heated controversy in Nicaragua.

Mr Ortega, a former president who is heading the polls for November's election since the death of another candidate this summer , has told the Houston Chronicle: "Even in the worst of times during the Reagan administration, the US envoy was careful with his words. But the current ambassador acts like he is the governor of Nicaragua."

Mr Trivelli was confronted about his comments by Carlos Chamorro, a leading Nicaraguan television journalist and son of the former Nicaraguan president, Violeta Chamorro, the woman who beat the Sandinistas in the 1990 election. Mr Chamorro said no foreign diplomat had ever acted with such " belligerence" in the nation's domestic affairs.

"Why," Mr Chamorro asked the ambassador, "do you mention the names of the presidential candidates the US thinks well or badly of, making it appear that the US vetoes certain candidates?" Mr Trivelli replied: "Since [last] October we have been trying to speak in a more direct way so that people understand what our decision is. I think it is important that people have no doubts about what we think." When Mr Chamorro pointed to polls showing most Nicaraguans believed Mr Trivelli had overstepped the line, he replied: "I am not going to stop defending democracy. That is part of our policy and it will continue to be part of our policy... I believe that speaking is not intervening."

But Mr Trivelli's comments are such that several former US diplomats with experience in Central America have said he has stepped well beyond the usually understood diplomatic boundaries. In addition, this year the former US president Jimmy Carter, whose Carter Center will act as observers during the upcoming election, issued a statement saying: "The Carter Center vigorously opposes any intervention in the Nicaraguan electoral process."

Almost all the Nicaraguans we spoke to expressed concern about foreign governments endorsing, vetoing or financing specific candidates." Experts also say Mr Trivelli's comments carry a weight beyond the mere words used, given the US history in Nicaragua and its military intervention that the International Court of Justice found to be unlawful. Professor Karen Kampwirth, a Latin America expert at Knox College in Illinois who sits on an independent panel commissioned by a US-based Nicaragua support group which investigated US interference in Nicaragua, said the US carried much historical baggage.

"It's not like the [ambassador] of Zimbabwe expressing their preferred candidate. Zimbabwe does not have the history of interfering in Nicaragua," she said. "One of the Ortega billboards in Nicaragua was spray-painted and said 'We don't want another war'. What it was saying was if you vote for Ortega you are voting for a possible war with the US."

The US intervention in Central and Latin American often involves the use of funds to support favoured parties, directly or indirectly. Two years ago, The Independent reported how hundreds of thousands of dollars of US money was being dispatched to opposition groups seeking a no-confidence vote against Venezuela's leader, Hugo Chavez. Some of the money was channelled to figures and groups who were involved in the short-lived 2002 coup against Mr Chavez.

This week, documents obtained by the Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), revealed that US money is being dispatched to " pro-democracy" groups, apparently opposed to Mr Chavez and seeking to remove him in Venezuela's presidential contest in December.

Much of this US money is directed through the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), an organisation funded by the US Congress by $80m a year which disperses this to groups around the world purportedly "to strengthen democracy". Critics say the organisation routinely meddles in other countries' affairs, supporting groups that believe in free enterprise, minimal government intervention in the economy and opposition to any form of socialism.

The NED issues grants either directly or else through funding one of four core "grantees". One of these four, the International Republican Institute (IRI) was involved in helping organise opponents of Haiti's former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, the nation's democratically elected leader, who was forced from office in 2004. At one point, the IRI organised meetings for Mr Aristide's opponents in the neighbouring Dominican Republic. The NED also played a significant role in assisting the opponents of Ukraine's President, Viktor Yanukovych, in 2004's so-called "Orange Revolution".

Author Bill Berkowitz recently wrote on the online journal of the group Working for Change: "The NED... provides money, technical support, supplies, training programs, media know-how, public relations assistance and state-of-the-art equipment to select political groups, civic organisations, labour unions, dissident movements, student groups, book publishers, newspapers, and other media. Its aim is to destabilise progressive movements, particularly those with a socialist or democratic socialist bent."

The study in which Professor Kampwirth participated, which was commissioned by Nicaragua Network, found the US had spent $10m in Nicaragua to fund political education and civil society groups. Ivania Vega Rueda, a programme officer for the IRI in Nicaragua, told the report's authors that the IRI had been active in helping organise marches against the FSLN and another political party, the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC). She said the IRI had "created" the Movement for Nicaragua, which she said had organised marches against the two parties.

The US embassy failed to return calls seeking a comment. But Thomas Shannon, the US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, in an interview with the Houston Chronicle, defended US actions. Mr Shannon said: "We see ourselves as pushing the democratic process. It's about creating political systems that are open, transparent and inclusive."