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4 December 2006

The comandante who promises divine light

Nicaragua - Daniel Ortega

By Ivan Briscoe

That veteran of Yanqui-baiting, Daniel Ortega, will regain Nicaragua’s presidential sash on 10 January under the approving gaze of Latin America’s new generation of left-wing leaders. And he may even be welcomed back by an embarrassed envoy from the north.

In early November, the prospect of any sort of cordial greeting from the US for Ortega seemed unthinkable. The embassy in Managua spelled out a doomsday scenario: “In the case of a hypothetical victory by Ortega, every policy of the US towards Nicaragua will be reviewed. Everything means everything,” said the press chief to Ambassador Paul Trivelli.

Dana Rohrabacher, a former speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, called for a ban on cash transfers from Nicaraguan immigrants in the US. “This is not intervention,” he explained, but warned that “totalitarian Sandinista” links with “Chávez, Fidel Castro and Islamic extremists” would induce “consequences”.

But Ortega clambered back to power. Days later the Democrats seized control of Congress, and suddenly the victorious comandante was deemed not so “pro-terrorist” after all. Rhetorical attack followed by oblivious goodwill has been witnessed in US policy elsewhere. While abandoning Venezuela and Cuba to their mischief, the US state department courts other populist leaders, detaching whom it can from regional power blocs and radical axes. Small wonder that the Bush administration’s Latin American policy is in the hands of possibly its greatest pragmatist, Thomas A Shannon.

The words of the old Sandinista anthem, “We fight against the Yanqui, enemy of humanity,” have been dropped and Ortega’s new campaign ditty seeks “work and peace”.

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But the offer of a Caracas-Havana alliance is still tempting. Chávez has what Ortega really needs. In recent months, Nicaragua’s oil-powered generators have shut down for hours each day. Chávez sends 100,000 barrels daily to Cuba. Which is why, on the election trail, when Ortega promised the coming of divine light – and his speeches were peppered with religious imagery – the subtext was that Chávez would find some oil to spare for Nicaraguans.