During a recent visit to Nicaragua, I found evidence of profound change and the signs of a very promising future. However, everything that Nicaraguans have accomplished in the last decade and the very future of their nation are "in play" in the November 2006 elections.
On a bright, hot April morning, I found myself sitting in the splendid new offices of President Enrique Bolaños, dominated by an impressive view of Lake Managua. When I first visited Nicaragua in 1984, I was told the lake was "dead" -- ruined by many years of industrial pollution.
The engineer Bolaños explained that with controls on toxic dumping, the application of neutralizing chemicals, and the introduction of healthy, natural algae, the grand lake that -- along with its volcanoes -- makes Managua such an awesome site will be restored in about 10 years. Gradually, the toxicity will be leached out by nature, as long as Nicaraguans make the right decisions and do no harm. As it is with the lake, it is with Nicaragua's politics.
First, let me give the embattled president Bolaños the credit he is due. The country's economy is growing by around four percent; the crushing international debt has been reduced dramatically; the government's coffers are bare, but its fiscal house is in order; and Nicaragua stands to benefit from increased U.S. trade and aid. Only years of steady growth and good government will extend economic opportunity and political poor to the very poorest citizens, who need it most.
I have been with Bolaños many times since his election, and conversations usually turn to his vision for Nicaragua's future. This gentleman -- who will turn 78 on May 13 -- is utterly obsessed with where Nicaragua will be 20 or 25 years from now. By contrast, his chief political rivals are locked in a fierce debate over whether the country was better off in the 1980's (Daniel Ortega and his unreconstructed Frente Sandinista) or the 1940's (Arnoldo Alemán's and his accomplices).
Thanks to those who struggled against the dictatorship of the Sandinistas, Nicaraguans have the right to settle that debate when they vote in November 5 elections to choose a new president and national assembly.
Daniel Ortega's patrón, Hugo Chavez, has done Nicaraguans a favor by reminding them that the Sandinistas and their compañeros see politics as "war." Nicaraguans must know that an FSLN victory means a return to social and political warfare. So, the only way Ortega can recover the presidency legitimately is if the democratic elements of the country (including well-intentioned Liberal voters) divide their strength among several candidates.
It is more than a bit amusing to watch my Arnoldista friends insisting vigorously that Liberal party candidate José Rizo is not a puppet of the former President Alemán, who stands convicted of gross corruption. Apparently, they cannot sort out even among themselves whether Alemán is an innocent, persecuted brother or a caudillo who is a part of their past. It is either cynicism or arrogance or both that leads the Arnoldistas to hope that Nicaraguans will be fooled into expecting Mr. Rizo -- who is too nice a fellow -- to be his own boss if elected president.
In fact, the historical Liberal movement has produced several genuinely democratic and capable leaders, notably experienced former government ministers Eduardo Montealgre and José Antonio Alvarado. Joined by Alvarado, the Nicaraguan Resistance and Conservative elements, Montealegre’s Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance can defeat the Sandinistas -- without making a pact with the corrupt clique that is holding back the Liberal Party. They could also deny the FSLN the 37 seats in the 92-member assembly that Ortega needs to block major measures and constitutional reforms. A Montealegre victory would not only mean a defeat for the corrupt and totalitarian toxins that poison Nicaragua's politics. It would promise sound and honest government and a modern vision for the country's future.
With Chavez pumping millions into the Sandinista coffers, it is essential that Nicaragua's democrats -- particularly its entrepreneurial sector, which has so much to lose -- give full and united backing behind a single candidate. There is too much in play for any Nicaraguan to try to split the difference or make accommodations.
The United States will do its part, although our government is sometimes criticized -- even by friends -- as being too vocal about advancing our agenda in Nicaragua. But we did not invent the admonition, "Thou shalt not steal," and we hardly need to remind Nicaraguans of the many sins of Sandinismo. Our role in this election year should be, no more and no less, to pledge to be a good partner and friend with any decent and democratic government in Nicaragua.
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