With 16,000 armed security troops on stand-by to prevent election violence, Nicaraguans went to the polls yesterday in a presidential election that may drastically alter the strategic balance of power in the hemisphere.
Washington fears a victory by Daniel Ortega, the former Sandinista revolutionary, over Enrique Bolanos, a wealthy businessman whose sugar plantations Mr Ortega once confiscated.
The State Department said it feared the emergence of an "iron Communist triangle" in Latin America, comprising Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela, whose President, Hugo Chavez, is a close friend of Fidel Castro.
Voters as young as 16 can cast ballots, though they are too young to remember the eight-year civil war with the Contras, backed by America under Ronald Reagan, that left 30,000 Nicaraguans dead, or the Sandinistas' socialist policies, which wrecked the economy.
Many of the advisers in President George Bush's administration are the same men who mined Nicaragua's harbour and slapped a punishing embargo on the country because of Sandinista links to Moscow and Havana.
Nicaragua's 2.8 million voters are closely divided. Mr Bolanos is the current vice-president in the centre-right Liberal administration, but has been accused of failing to curb massive corruption. Mr Ortega still appeals mostly to the poor.
If Nicaraguans choose Mr Ortega, America may cut foreign aid programmes and investments, a serious threat to a country where more than 80 per cent live in poverty and unemployment tops 50 per cent.
Cutbacks in the coffee industry and tourism, compounded by food shortages due to drought followed by floods, have devastated the rural poor. Millions struggle to survive on the equivalent of 70p a day and are malnourished. Mr Ortega, 55, and Mr Bolanos, 73, both promise to create new jobs.
Mr Ortega, who ruled Nicaragua for 11 years after toppling the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza in 1979, has reinvented himself. Shedding his army fatigues and anti-American rhetoric to secure alliances with other parties, he has portrayed himself as a peacenik, appealing to Jesus Christ in nearly every speech.
Moves by his stepdaughter to revive child abuse charges against him have not greatly dented his support. To curry favour with the United States, Mr Ortega said he would appoint Antonio Lacayo, a pragmatist who served under president Violeta Chamorro, as his foreign minister. Two other cabinet posts would go to prominent figures who were jailed by the Sandinistas in the 1980s, he said. Mr Ortega also pledged to work against terrorism.
American officials have cited "grave reservations" about a 21st-century comeback by the Sandinistas. Washington claims they have links to supporters of terrorism such as Libya and Cuba. Its overtly partisan meddling included an endorsement for the free-marketeer Bolanos from the American President's brother, Jeb Bush, the Governor of Florida. "Daniel Ortega is an enemy of all that the United States represents," he said in an advertisement.
President Arnaldo Aleman warned that he would declare a state of emergency if disturbances broke out. Mr Ortega promised that his Sandinistas would honour the election results and alleged that the Liberals may attempt to annul the vote, if it went against them, by calling in the army.
Former US president Jimmy Carter, who is observing the elections, told reporters that it was "not acceptable" to declare a state of emergency if there was merely a close vote.
Mr Carter, who also monitored the 1990 and 1996 elections, which Mr Ortega lost, said he expected the election to be fair. "I have noticed the strong opinions expressed in Washington about this election's outcome," he said. "I personally disapprove of statements or actions of another country that might influence the votes of people of another sovereign nation."Reuse content