Mark Weisbrot, November 10, 2006

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Imagine Osama bin Laden visiting the United States ten or 15 years from now, telling Americans who to vote for if they want to avoid getting hurt. It would never happen, but in Nicaragua something very similar happened in the run-up to their election on November 5.

Former U.S. Lt. Col. Oliver North, who helped organize and raise funds for a terrorist organization that decimated Nicaragua in the 1980s, returned to that country's ground zero in late October to warn the citizens there against re-electing Daniel Ortega.

Ortega first came to power in a 1979 revolution led by the Sandinistas, which overthrew the brutal Washington-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. The Somoza family had ruled the country since U.S. Marines invaded and occupied Nicaragua from 1927-1933.

But the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency soon brought guns and money to the enforcers of the toppled dictatorship, Somoza's hated National Guard. Before long these re-named "contras" were killing health care workers, teachers, and elected officials - the CIA actually prepared a manual which advocated the assassination of the latter. The contras preferred attacking these "soft targets" rather than the national armed forces. In that sense they were very much a terrorist organization; they also used torture and rape as political weapons.

These atrocities brought the contras universal condemnation from humans rights groups such as Amnesty International and Americas Watch. The Sandinistas took the United States to the World Court for its terrorist actions--the same court where the US had won a judgment against Iran just a few years earlier, for the taking of American hostages. The court ruled in favor of Nicaragua, ordering reparations estimated at $17 billion.

The heinous nature of these crimes and the direct involvement of the Reagan Administration disgusted millions of Americans, even more so after Ortega was democratically elected in 1984. Led by activists in the religious community, some hundreds of thousands of US citizens organized against US funding for the contras and convinced Congress to cut it off. That's where Ollie North came in: on behalf of the Reagan Administration, he illegally sold arms to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the contras. This became the infamous "Iran-Contra" scandal of twenty years ago.

North was convicted of various felonies for his Iran-Contra crimes, but never served time because his conviction was overturned due to a technicality on appeal. In 1990 the Sandinistas were voted out of office by a public weary of war, with President George H.W. Bush making it clear that the violence would continue if the Sandinistas were re-elected.

Nicaragua's economy never recovered from the war and the U.S. embargo. Today it is the second poorest country in the hemisphere, with a per capita income less than it was in 1960.

Now Washington tried to capitalize on past terrorism, combined with present threats, to achieve the same result as in 1990. U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez warned that "relations with our country have been limited and damaged when the Sandinistas have been in power" and Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher warned of another economic embargo and the cutoff of vital remittances that Nicaraguans here send home to their families. The U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua Paul Trivelli has also breached protocol by openly warning that the United States would "reevaluate relations" with Nicaragua if Ortega wins, which he did.

U.S. officials' intervention went so far as to prompt a public rebuke from the Organization of American States, who asked them to stay out of the election. Meanwhile, millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars are funding "democracy promotion" activities in Nicaragua, which have previously been used to influence elections there. And TV commercials show footage of corpses from the 1980's war, a warning of what might happen if Nicaraguans vote the "wrong" way. Washington's intervention in this election remains - as it was in the 1980s - an international disgrace for the United States.

The electoral victory of Sandinista Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, despite threats and warnings from US officials, is another example -- perhaps the most extreme so far -- of plummeting US influence in Latin America. The election attracted over 18,000 observers and more than 1000 journalists, because of its historic and symbolic significance.

In all of the other recent Latin American elections in which the Bush Administration had a strong preference, it remained silent before the vote: Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Cost Rica, and Mexico. In the October 29 election in Brazil, when for a brief period of time after the first round it appeared that centrist PSDB candidate Geraldo Alckmin had a chance to defeat Lula, the Bush Administration showed no sign of preference. (President Bush did intervene in Mexico after the vote was in, calling to congratulate right-wing candidate Felipe Calderon four days after the election, even though Calderon had not been elected yet). They had learned their lesson from the 2002 election in Bolivia, where the U.S. ambassador denounced Evo Morales and thereby gave him a huge boost in the polls.

But Nicaragua is so poor and heavily indebted, and suffered so much violence from its 1984 vote for Ortega that U.S. officials apparently figured that threats could work. Of course, these are mostly empty threats: a cut off of remittances is extremely unlikely, as are other economic sanctions. This is not 1985, when President Reagan could state, as required by law for imposing a U.S. economic embargo, that Nicaragua posed "an unusual and extraordinary threat to the national security" of the United States, and sadly, be taken seriously. And if there are loan cutoffs, Nicaragua could now borrow from Venezuela, as Argentina, Bolivia, and other countries have done recently. The press has also made much of threats that foreign businesses would pull out of Nicaragua if Ortega won, but this is equally doubtful: these businesses are making money there and will continue to do so under an Ortega presidency. Let's wait and see.

Mark Weisbrot is Co-Director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, D.C. and President of Just Foreign Policy. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Michigan. He has written numerous research papers on international economic policy.

He writes a column on economic and policy issues that is distributed to over 550 newspapers by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services. His opinion pieces have appeared in the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe, and most major U.S. newspapers. He appears regularly on national and local television and radio programs.