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Observers Warn of U.S. Manipulation in Nicaragua

Voters in Nicaragua go to the polls Sunday, but observers and candidates are increasingly anxious about U.S. involvement in the election. Republican senators and the U.S. ambassador have been threatening reprisals against the nation if it elects former Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega.

U.S. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez has warned that a Daniel Ortega victory could endanger a free-trade agreement with the United States -- and scare off foreign investors.

And Rep. Dan Burton (R-IN), who heads a subcommittee on hemispheric relations, recently visited Nicaragua and said that U.S. aid would be cut off if Ortega was elected.


The American ambassador in Managua, Paul Trivelli, has actively encouraged conservative opponents of Ortega to unify under a single candidate, the better to defeat him.

Even Oliver North -- the former White House aide at the heart of the Iran-Contra scandal -- was in Managua this week, full of dire predictions.

And this week, Republican representatives to Congress said they will seek to have one of the most important elements to Nicaragua's economy blocked if Ortega wins.

An ad put out by Ortega supporters has been playing over and over on Nicaraguan radio for the past two days.

"The United States is keeping up its war against Daniel Ortega," the ad says in Spanish."The Yanquis have just announced that if Daniel wins, they will block remittances to Nicaragua, like they have blockaded Cuba for years."


There is no doubt that the United States has again become a political player in the country of 5 million.

Jaime Aparicio heads the Carter Center in Nicaragua.

"It is very clear that from our point of view," Aparicio says, "we don't think that is healthy for the Nicaraguan democracy, that other countries, or other people, interfere in their own business. We really think that this is a business that has to be decided by Nicaraguan people."

The Organization of American States and other groups have also decried what they have described as meddling.

Jaime Morales is Ortega's vice-presidential candidate, a former Contra who fought against him in the civil war in the 1980s who has now joined him in a campaign launched under the banner of reconciliation.

He says he believes that the current U.S. administration, and members of the U.S. Congress, are stuck in the past, refighting the war.

"They have not evolved and they still think that the same factors exist here, those of 30 years ago," Morales says, speaking Spanish. "Those are attitudes that are pretty backward, and they are held by ultra-conservatives that are still in very high positions in the U.S. power structures."

Maureen Meyer, the Washington Office on Latin America's associate for the Nicaragua region, says the United States is not just fighting old enemies. There's a new one, too, she says: Hugo Chavez, Venezuela's president.

"Nicaragua is one of those key countries right now," Meyer says, "that actually has the possibility of perhaps having a left leader in power that would support Chavez, and not as being as supportive to the United States government."

Chavez, who has openly supported Ortega's candidacy, has offered millions of barrels of oil on favorable terms to mayors that are part of the Sandinista alliance.

And as much as the United States might be a boogeyman to the left in Nicaragua, Chavez is hated by the right -- and opponents of Ortega have brought him into the equation, too, citing his influence as a reason not to vote for Ortega.

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