EL JICARAL, NICARAGUA
Little seems to have changed in this small rural village in the past two decades: women are down by the river doing their washing, cattle are roaming among the cacti, cowboys are drinking beer at the canteen, and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is in the town square, holding forth on the evils of capitalism and the United States.
"The US no longer rules Latin America!" Mr. Ortega thunders into the dark night. "The Yankees no longer rule Nicaragua!" The small crowd of farmers hoist their black and red Sandinista flags high and chant: "Daniel, Daniel!"
Fifteen years after unexpectedly being voted out of power, and with two unsuccessful runs for the presidency since, the iconic head of the Marxist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) is back on the campaign trail. Ortega, a name many US officials had hoped to consign to the history books, has a fighting chance of returning to power.
Just staying in the running has looked doubtful for Ortega at times. His credibility has taken a beating since he signed a self-serving pact in 1999 with political rival and former President Arnoldo Aleman, now serving a 20-year sentence for embezzlement; his grown-up stepdaughter accused him in 1998 of abusing and raping her for years; and his former comrade-in-arms Herty Lewites is now running against him, mounting the first serious challenge to his leadership from within the Sandinista ranks.
But despite it all, Ortega says he is confident the November 2006 elections will put him back in the presidential palace. Even his critics say divisions within the ruling party, coupled with Ortega's grip on the electoral machine, make his resurrection possible. "Conditions are ripe for triumph," says Ortega in a late-night interview in Managua. "We will win, and we will wield great power here."
Washington, which backed the contra rebels in a civil war against Ortega's government of the 1980s until he lost the 1990 election, is none too pleased with the prospect. After toppling the Somoza family dictatorship in 1979, Ortega's Soviet-backed Sandinistas sparked widespread US intervention in Central America to counter what Washington saw as a communist threat in the region.
Roger Noriega, the Bush administration's outgoing top envoy to Latin America (who has called Ortega a "hoodlum"), told the Managua newspaper La Prensa last month that if the Sandinistas returned to power, Nicaragua would "sink like a stone and reach depths such as those of Cuba."
Ortega's democratic credentials "are very doubtful," sniffed US Ambassador Paul Trivelli, taking up his new post in the country this week.
"The triumph of the Sandinistas will raise the morale of Latin America," says Ortega, tapping into the Bush administration's worst fears of a growing left-leaning, populist, anti-American movement on the continent, led by Cuba's Fidel Castro and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez. "Other countries will say - 'look, that small country got away with it - so can we!' We will spread the revolution." There is an alternative, he whispers, his voice hoarse from weeks of rallies, "to succumbing to the American Empire."
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a former editor of the Sandinista newspaper Barricada, says too much US interference in the lead up to the election could actually help Ortega. The problem with Washington, he argues, is that they are stuck in the past. "The new right running Latin America policy are all leftovers from the '80s, who still behave like we are in the middle of the cold war," he says. "Every time Washington attacks Ortega, his supporters close ranks."
Otto Reich, a chief architect of President Ronald Reagan's policy against the Sandinistas and today a private consultant, shoots back: "Ortega is a communist, or whatever he calls himself," says Mr. Reich, in a phone interview from Washington. "If he wins, there will be no foreign investment and no US aid." Washington might see the world through '80s glasses, he concedes, but Ortega "...is stuck in the '60s and is acting like a Bolshevik."
Talking to Ortega, or hearing him on the campaign trail, is indeed more history lesson than interview, more nostalgia for the past than concrete plans for the future.
"[President] Bush is the Reagan of these times," Ortega tells a crowd gathered in the scorching sun of Santa Rosa del Pinon, a village in the mountains north of Leon - and immediately segues into tales of days gone by. "Yankee Reagan forbade peace," he rails. "He wanted to bring death and destruction to the region."
Adults cheer, children step forth to receive free FSLN bandannas, and old rebel anthems blare from the loudspeakers. Ortega's wife, revolutionary poet Rosario Murillo, thrusts her thin arms into the air, her bejeweled fingers clenched together in a tight fist.
Everywhere Ortega goes, people circle around him, hugging, kissing - and handing him handwritten notes. Most begin in the same way: "Please, Commandante ..." A young girl in El Jicaral has no school books. An old lady in Masaya needs arthritis medicine. A mother of five in Santa Rosa del Pinon wants shoes for her children - and a new house.
The notes get passed along to a burly man with a gold watch and thick mustache named Chico Lopez, or to Julio Paladino. Mr. Lopez is Ortega's financial officer in charge of "disbursements," Mr. Paladino, a handsome man with a big black bag, is the Sandinista leader's doctor, in charge of prescriptions. Some requests are handled on the spot - 300 cordoba ($17) for clothes here, 200 ($11) for medicine there. Larger requests - for scholarships, say, or operations - are dealt with later, back at headquarters in Managua.
Nicaragua remains one of the poorest countries in an impoverished region. The money disbursed, says Lopez, is all from donations. "We are the only ones who consistently help the people," says Paladino as he checks someone's distended stomach behind the stage. "This is what Daniel is about and that is why he is loved."
And yet for all these pronouncements, and US anxiety, analysts here say Ortega's political future is far from assured.
A poll done this month by B&A, a regional company based in Costa Rica, shows Ortega, with 20 percent of the vote, lagging behind both Eduardo Montealgre, a right-center candidate with 23 percent of the vote, and Mr. Lewites, with 35 percent.
Lewites, the former mayor of Managua, was expelled from the Sandinista Party when he announced his intention to run for president. Ortega canceled his challenger's permits to hold political rallies, forbade him to use Sandinista Party symbols, and accused him of corruption.
Central America, unlike South America, is actually moving away from left-wing anti-Americanism, says Victor Borge, director of B&A. Upcoming elections in El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Honduras are all expected to be won by moderates, he says. "If Ortega manages to come to power in 2006," he adds, "...it would indeed symbolically be a big deal and might motivate other leftists. But that does not seem in tune with the mood in the region."
Lewites calls the new mood "lite left," and it is one he subscribes to. Lewites says he does not share Ortega's singleminded obsession with the US - but neither is he running to Washington for validation. "I think we should maintain good relations with the US. We need each other," he says. "I will be respectful, but firm."
If elections are fairly run, says Lewites, he is confident of victory. But will they be fair? "Of course not," he responds. Thanks to his pact with [former president] Aleman, Ortega all but controls the parliament, the supreme court, and the electoral commission, he adds.
Ortega, too, says is worried about cheating in the elections - but a different kind. "Elections in Nicaragua are not normal elections - they are a confrontation between the US and the Sandinista front," he says, concluding the interview and heading into a midnight meeting. "The US will do anything to decimate us," he says. "But we are here."
1961: Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) founded.
1979: President Anastasio Somoza Debayle overthrown.
1980: FSLN government led by Daniel Ortega nationalizes lands held by the Somoza family.
1982: US-sponsored attacks by Honduras-based contra rebels begin; state of emergency declared.
1984: Mr. Ortega elected president in elections boycotted by opposition.
1987-88: FLSN signs cease-fire pact. Later, holds talks with contra rebels.
1990: US-backed center-right National Opposition Union defeats FSLN in elections; Violeta Chamorro becomes president.
1996: Ortega loses presidential bid.
2001: Liberal party candidate Enrique Bolaños beats Ortega for president.
2002: Opposition Sandinista Party re-elects Ortega as its leader despite his three consecutive defeats since 1990.
2005, September: After pressure from neighboring countries, the US, and the Organization of American States (OAS) to avert a political crisis in Nicaragua, Ortega tells Sandinista lawmakers to drop efforts to have President Bolaños impeached.
Sources: BBC, AP, Reuters.