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Nicaragua's choices

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IN NICARAGUA today, 15 years after the fall of the Sandinistas, remnants of the revolution coexist uneasily with attempts to modernize and democratize the country. One impediment to change is the wily Daniel Ortega, former president and longtime Sandinista leader, who is fending off a dynamic challenger to his domination of the party.

I was in Nicaragua late last month, 19 years after my last visit, to see how the country was doing under its 15-year-old, partially realized democracy. The statue of Augusto Sandino, namesake of the Sandinistas, still gazes over Managua, the capital. The tomb of Carlos Fonseca, a Sandinista founder martyred by the Somoza dictatorship in 1976, remains in a place of honor on the Plaza of the Republic, once the Plaza of the Revolution. But the plaza, where thousands regularly cheered the Sandinistas, has been partially replaced by a huge fountain to discourage similar displays today. The eternal flame in front of Fonseca's tomb has burned out.

Similarly, the idealism that fueled much of the Sandinista revolution has been replaced by cynicism and careerism fostered by Ortega and his followers. This decline manifested itself just a few weeks after Ortega was defeated by Violetta Chamorro in 1990, when the Sandinista-dominated Assembly passed the ''piñata" laws that legalized property expropriation. The party leadership got to keep the houses they had commandeered when they took power. Ortega now lives in a two-block walled compound carved out of the center of Managua that also houses party headquarters.

Ortega has survived allegations of sexual abuse by his stepdaughter in 1998, defeats for the presidency in 1996 and 2001, and the notorious ''el pacto" he reached in 2001 with the corrupt Arnoldo Aleman, who succeeded Chamorro as president and dominates the majority Liberal party. This bargain divvied up power between the Liberals and the Sandinistas in advance of Aleman's exit from office. Ortega has endured despite continuing hostility from the US government, which he reciprocates.

A rival candidate

Now Ortega faces his most formidable challenger, Herty Lewites, former mayor of Managua, who is far ahead in early opinion polls for Nicaragua's next presidential election in 2006. Lewites wants the Sandinistas to hold a primary to determine their candidate, as they have done in the past. The Sandinistas, supposedly representing the mass of the people, ought to be eager for the kind of voter enthusiasm that this contest would generate. But Ortega had Lewites expelled from the party on Feb. 26, and on March 5 at a routine meeting of the Sandinista Congress, he had himself nominated for president. Ortega fears democracy when it might diminish his power as the chieftain of the Sandinistas.

Lewites, in an interview before the unexpected nomination of Ortega, was looking forward to forcing a primary contest. ''The Nicaraguan people don't want to have a dictatorship in the party," he said. He declined to go into his platform in detail but suggested that as president he would try to help the poor without threatening rights to private property. Sandinista confiscations have raised questions about 30 percent of the property titles in the country, and these doubts have impeded economic growth.

Lewites also wants good relations with the United States. Ortega, in his speech accepting the nomination, asked his supporters in the party, which is known by its Spanish initials, FSLN: ''Would you accept that the FSLN presidential candidate stop criticizing the Yankees in order to win their blessing and that these good imperialistic people therefore be welcomed?" The crowd roared back 'No." If Ortega ever became president again, Nicaragua and the United States would become estranged.

A visitor to Managua today is constantly reminded of American influence. Stores no longer feature Bulgarian tableware and little else, as they did in the 1980s, when the Sandinista government tried to distance itself from the United States. At the Metrocentro shopping center, Radio Shack, Payless shoes, McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Subway compete for business with Latin American shops. US textile companies have built factories in special export zones.

Anti-American attitude

It's true that United States fought Sandino in the 1920s, propped up the Somozas from the 1930s to the '70s, and waged a covert war against the Sandinistas in the 1980s, but that does not change the realities of geography and economics. Nicaragua is a little over two hours by air from Miami, and the United States is by far Nicaragua's biggest trading partner. Ortega is so blinkered by anti-American attitudes that he refuses to accept this.

Nicaragua is drawing closer to the United States under the leadership of President Enrique Bolanos, Aleman's successor and fellow Liberal. Originally considered an Aleman crony, Bolanos has proven to be independent and honest. Foreign nations have rewarded him with $4 billion worth of debt forgiveness and annual aid totaling 30 percent of the $954 million national budget. The United States is considering new aid to Nicaragua -- $127 million in special economic development grants under the Millennium Challenge program.

Bolanos cannot succeed himself, and Aleman, who is under house arrest for corruption, nonetheless remains the dominant influence in the Liberal party. Eduardo Montealegre, an independent businessman in the Bolanos mold, says he wants to run, but Aleman may well rule him out in favor of a more compliant candidate.

In the 2006 election, Nicaraguans need an untainted alternative to the probusiness Liberals. The Sandinistas, with their popular tradition, ought to be the party that opens up its nominating process to allow the rank and file to decide the future. Lewites has scheduled a rally today in Masaya, 15 miles from Managua, hoping to stir public sentiment. Nicaraguans still have an opportunity to show that the Sandinista party stands for more than power grabs, property holdings, and anti-American screeds.

THOMAS GAGENNEXT: The CAFTA trade agreement

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