As the US administration continues to flex its military muscles in Central Asia, it hasnâ€™t been entirely distracted from events in its own backyard.
On November 4, presidential and National Assembly elections take place in Nicaragua. And the polls show that Sandinista (FSLN) head Daniel Ortega is clinging to a narrow lead in the presidential race.
Although Ortega is only some two percentage points ahead of Enrique BolaÃ±os, candidate of the ruling Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), the prospect of the Sandinistas regaining power in Nicaragua has got the US government a little worried. Or at least thatâ€™s what its words and actions suggest. Back in April, with George W. Bush ensconced in the White House, Oliver Garza, the US ambassador to Nicaragua, felt secure enough to reveal his true colours. He warned that a Sandinista victory could herald a return to the 1980s when â€œthere wasnâ€™t a free market, there was disrespect for human rights and the interests of the US were not recognisedâ€ (quoted in El Nuevo Diario).
And since this opening salvo, a stream of US politicians and senior officials has traipsed through the country, with the aim of weakening support for the left-wing FSLN. At the beginning of October, the State Department issued a fairly ominous statement following a meeting between Nicaraguan Foreign Minister Francisco Aguirre and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
It said that, while the US would â€œrespectâ€ the result of a free and fair election in Nicaragua, â€œâ€¦we continue to have grave reservations about the FSLNâ€™s history of trampling civil liberties, violating human rights, seizing peopleâ€™s property without compensation, destroying the economy, and ties to supporters of terrorism.â€ These accusations, of course, hark back to the years following the 1979 revolution, during which the FSLN attempted to transform Nicaragua into a socialist nation. Some of the partyâ€™s methods during that period may not be beyond criticism.
But when that criticism is issued by the State Department, it comes across as hollow and hypocritical. What about the US governmentâ€™s history of trampling civil liberties and violating human rights in Nicaragua through its support for the contras during the civil war of the 1980s?
Thirty thousand Nicaraguans died in that war, as the US attempted to wipe leftist politics from the slate of Central America (neither can we overlook the huge numbers of deaths and disappearances in El Salvador and Guatemala). But the FSLN did not strike back at the US with violence. Instead, it turned to the International Court of Justice, accusing the US of violating international humanitarian law, as well as a bi-lateral treaty.
The US government proceeded to boycott the case, but in 1986, the judges effectively found the US guilty of state terrorism. The response of the US government was to approve further funding for the war just two months later, and the fighting continued. The US has never paid reparations for damage to Nicaragua, as it was ordered to do by the court. This case goes some way towards explaining the opposition of the current US administration to the establishment of an international criminal court â€“ a position that does not square with its declaration of war on â€˜terrorismâ€™.
In effect, the US is accusing others while reserving the right to ignore its own culpability. Thus, it seems quite likely that if the FSLN does gain power in the forthcoming elections, the US propaganda machine will attempt to discredit Ortega for his long-time connections to so-called â€œrogue statesâ€ such as Libya.
In fact, since September 11, Nicaraguaâ€™s ruling PLC, which more or less enjoys the support of the US, has already made significant efforts to connect Ortega with â€˜terroristsâ€™ in the minds of voters. While President Arnoldo AlemÃ¡n has made do with veiled allusions, not least following a meeting of Central American presidents on the subject of terrorism, party activists have been less subtle.
Banners draped around Managua simply stated: â€œDaniel is our Talebanâ€. No matter, as the FSLN had already pointed out, that Osama bin Laden is thought to have supported the contras. The FSLN â€“ for obvious reasons â€“ has made efforts to smooth relations with the US government, sending its leadership on a visit to Washington in July. It has been trying to get the message across that itâ€™s no longer the same party that spearheaded the revolution, though its policies still aim to promote social justice.
In fact, it has (to the displeasure of some) become much more compromising towards the private sector, and is even offering business a role in selecting the president and board of the central bank. Of course, while the current government has been slated for corruption on a grand scale, the FSLN can hardly claim to be whiter than white in this respect.
But last year, it joined forces with Social Christian Unity, the party headed by Agustin JarquÃn, a former Comptroller General of the Republic. JarquÃn, now running alongside Ortega for the vice presidency, is widely respected for his efforts to fight the countryâ€™s widespread political corruption.
Still, before this alliance was formed, there was widespread criticism of the FSLNâ€™s deal with the PLC to seal an electoral pact that effectively neutralised any opposition to the two big parties.
Moreover, Ortega stands accused of sexually abusing his own stepdaughter. As with most political parties, voters are presented with a mixture of the good, the bad and the downright ugly.
But if the FSLN does gain power, it may well be because those voters are simply sick of the hideous mess their country is in right now. A recent drought and the ongoing fall in coffee prices are plunging more and more Nicaraguans into poverty. The security situation in parts of the country is deteriorating, and two respected local economists say the current administration will leave the country in a technical state of bankruptcy.
Recently, the IMF put Nicaraguaâ€™s debt relief programme on hold because of its failure to meet economic and structural adjustment targets. As with most countries in the South, Nicaragua is unable to insulate its economy from the influence of global financial markets and the demands of international lenders. The indirect impact of economic globalisation on domestic politics is bad enough â€“ but there is absolutely no excuse for US government interference in Nicaraguaâ€™s electoral affairs.
It must be left to the Nicaraguan people to decide which party they feel is best placed to cope with their countryâ€™s problems.
Unfortunately the evidence to date suggests that itâ€™s unlikely the US will stand quietly by in the event of an FSLN victory. Arturo Valdez, a journalist, teacher and FSLN activist living in Bluefields on Nicaraguaâ€™s Atlantic Coast, explained how he believes the US might respond:
â€œThey could impose some kind of blockadeâ€¦they have lots of tricks up their sleeves. But if they do something like that, they will be disrespecting what the Nicaraguan people say. If the Sandinistas are elected, that will be democracy. If the US doesnâ€™t respect that, itâ€™ll be going against what it preachesâ€¦ The situation could get tense â€“ it could bring blood back into this country.â€