WASHINGTON - Nicaragua's presidential election today will be a benchmark for Washington's war against terrorism, and an alarming one.
It's been a decade since then-President George H.W. Bush celebrated the electoral defeat of the Sandinistas (FSLN) after a U.S.-masterminded war that ripped Nicaragua apart. Now his son, aided by many of his father's confederates, appears equally committed to politically manipulating the Central American nation.
By flagrantly misusing its terrorist card against the Sandinistas, the Bush administration is setting an ominous precedent that could strain relations in its backyard.
One of the poorest and most corrupt nations in the hemisphere, Nicaragua hit its low point with a power-sharing deal between the ruling Liberal Constitution Party (PLC) and the opposition FSLN and their respective leaders, Arnoldo AlemM-an and Daniel Ortega. Tens of thousands of Nicaraguans were alienated from the electoral process.
The long-surviving leader of the Sandinistas, Mr. Ortega has reinvented himself by softening his former Marxist-leaning ideology with a hint of Christianity and an interest in opening the Nicaraguan economy to a "humane" free-market approach.
Despite purging his FSLN foes and deflecting charges of sexual assault by his adopted stepdaughter, the indefatigable Mr. Ortega is a serious contender to recapture the presidency.
Running neck-and-neck against him is PLC candidate Enrique BolaM-qos, Mr. AlemM-an's vice-president. He proudly calls himself a "contra" and is capitalizing on a close relationship with U.S. officials.
The State Department backs Mr. BolaM-qos, expressing "grave reservations" about the Sandinista agenda. It stepped up its criticism of the Sandinistas after Sept. 11, stressing its ties to Cuba, Iraq, Libya and Colombia's guerillas. Soon after, for the first time, Mr. BolaM-qos surged ahead of Mr. Ortega in the polls.
The terrorist mudslinging marks a new low for the BolaM-qos campaign. One TV ad presents Osama bin Laden and his cohorts with a background voice declaring, "If they could vote in Nicaragua, they would vote for Daniel Ortega." The State Department's abuse of the terrorist card is apparently proving infectious.
If Washington is convinced that an Ortega victory presents a bona fide security threat, it should explicitly detail what it refers to as "institutional and individual" terrorist ties. If the threat really exists, why did the State Department, for the first time in a decade, establish a discrete liaison with Sandinista representatives (including Mr. Ortega).
Aside from a purely reflexive instinct inherited from the 1980s, a major reason for Washington's anti-Sandinista stand is pressure applied chiefly by affluent Miami-based Nicaraguan-Americans over the status of about 800 pieces of private property seized under FSLN rule. The properties are now held by Sandinista individuals or organizations.
In addition to insinuating that an Ortega victory could threaten Nicaragua's ties to the United States, the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, Oliver Garza, displayed unprofessional partisanship that included joining Mr. BolaM-qos on the campaign trail. The show of U.S. favoritism marked outright meddling, if not an egregious violation of Nicaraguan sovereignty.
The crux of the debate is simple: What range of latitude does Nicaragua, a country locked into the U.S. sphere of influence, deserve in selecting its own government and following its own policies?
Nicaraguans demand that the United States cease its tampering, conduct its diplomacy without threatening to cut off aid and offer adequate compensation for its destructive role in the contra war. Further, the United States should end its version of democracy in which voters have the right to vote so as long as they choose the American candidate.
Michael Marx McCarthy is a research associate at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs.