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Daniel Ortega's Staying Power

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now 20 years ago, Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua were at the center of U.S. foreign policy concerns.

President RONALD REAGAN: I know that no one in Congress wants to see Nicaragua become a Soviet military base. My friends, I must tell you in all seriousness, Nicaragua is becoming a Soviet base every day that we debate and debate and debate and do nothing.

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INSKEEP: President Ronald Reagan warned Americans that the left wing Sandinistas were a mere two-day's march from the border of Texas. His administration overtly, and later covertly, gave financial and military support to the anti-Sandinista forces known as Contras.

NPR's Tom Gjelten spent much of the '80s in Central America covering Daniel Ortega and the wars in Nicaragua and neighboring El Salvador. Tom, good morning.

TOM GJELTEN: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Why was Ortega such a concern?

GJELTEN: Well, as you heard what President Reagan said, there was this idea in the United States that Nicaragua was going to become a Soviet military base, and this was part of that long ago thing we called the Cold War. Remember that? We were in a global struggle against communism.

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That was the political background, and Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, you know, looked a lot like Fidel Castro. They wore camouflage uniforms and carried guns and talked about Cuba being an inspiration.

Then there was this other thing called the Reagan Doctrine. President Reagan was committed at that time to fighting communism in those places where there were local forces who were willing and able to do the actual fighting on the ground, kind of proxy armies. Those were the countries where the United States was really focused.

That would be Afghanistan, where you had mujahideen fighting the Soviets, and in Angola where you had Jonas Savimbi's rebels fighting the Angola government, and in Nicaragua you had this Contra army that was willing to fight the Sandinistas. So that was one the places where the United States decided to make a stand.

INSKEEP: Do you see parallels between the global struggle against communism, as you called it, and the global war on terror now?

GJELTEN: Well, it certainly was a parallel in terms of priority that it had within U.S. foreign policy. I mean that was the guiding principle of U.S. foreign policy then, just as opposing terrorism is now. But I think the most important thing to emphasize is how different that war was from what we see today.

That was - the wars in Central America were not ethnic conflicts. The two sides in each case came from the same society, even the same social group. Some cases even the same family. You had families split with one brother fighting on the Sandinista side, the other on the Contra side.

So it wasn't in any sense an ethnic or a religious war. These were wars that were often brutal, and a lot of civilians did get killed, but it was fundamentally an economic conflict in each of these countries. It was - the issue was how to distribute wealth, who got the land. It was a haves versus have-not conflict. So in that sense very different conflicts from what we see today.

INSKEEP: Well, is there some way then that this administration just picked up where the Reagan administration left off?

GJELTEN: Well, what's strange, Steve, is that the United States won that first round. Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas lost. The Sandinistas agreed to hold elections in part because they were so convinced that they were going to win. And quite to their astonishment, they lost and the opposition did come to power.

But what happened then - and I'm afraid, Steve, this is something that we have seen happen elsewhere - the United States basically just declared victory and walked away from Central America without doing all that much to resolve the underlying issues, which was the lack of equitable economic development, the absence of democratic institutions, the problems of corruption. None of those problems got resolved, which is why the United States should not be entirely surprised that it's back here dealing with some of the same characters it was dealing with 20 years ago.

INSKEEP: Tom, thanks very much. That's NPR's Tom Gjelten. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.