Leading article: Peace, reconciliation - and prosperity?

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The Independent Online

For those in Washington with long enough memories, it must feel like déjà vu. America famously expended a great deal of resources to get rid of the Nicaraguan revolutionary Daniel Ortega in the 1980s. Now, two decades later, the Nicaraguan people appear to have voted him back in to power. So the results of the Nicaraguan elections are, in one sense, a slap in the face for the United States. But what is Mr Ortega for Latin America beyond a Cold War throwback?

His first stint in power was certainly a dire chapter in Nicaragua's history. Dissent was repressed. Land was arbitrarily expropriated. By the time Mr Ortega was thrown out of office in 1990, the Nicaraguan economy was in ruins. But the context was hardly friendly. The US, fearing a Communist advance in its own "backyard", stoked a civil war by training and financing Contra rebels. And Washington's economic embargo wrecked the government's education and health programmes.

Has Mr Ortega changed? His supporters - the Sandinistas - seem to have behaved responsibly in this election. The opposition has alleged fraud at the ballot box. But international observers, including the former US President Jimmy Carter, are satisfied these elections were fair. And Mr Ortega has dropped the Marxist rhetoric. He now speaks of peace and reconciliation. His running mate is a former Contra rebel. Reassurances have been offered to international investors and Mr Ortega claims to want good relations with Washington.

Some have dismissed all this as a cynical attempt by Mr Ortega to distance himself from his sorry record. But if so, it has certainly not brought Mr Ortega any credit in Washington. The US backed his opponent and, in a familiar bullying manner, is hinting at a cut in investment and aid. And in any event it is hard to see Mr Ortega picking up the hard-left path of two decades ago. The political dynamics of the region have been very different since the fall of the USSR. Meanwhile, Washington is more concerned about the growing regional influence of the Venezuelan President, Hugo Chavez, who has sent cheap fuel to Sandinista-supporting regions and has promised support for the new government.

Yet more important than the struggle between Caracas and Washington is the question of whether Mr Ortega is good for Nicaragua. After Haiti, this is the poorest country in the Americas. And it remains divided. Mr Ortega has been endorsed by less than 40 per cent of the electorate, and benefited from a split on the right. The risk of a return to civil war cannot be dismissed. The only way Mr Ortega can truly demonstrate that he has changed is by governing this time around in the interests of all the Nicaraguan people.

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