Daniel Ortega, the head of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), took the presidency in the Nicaraguan general elections last Sunday. This is Ortega’s second consecutive and third overall term as the president, but his party, better known as the Sandinistas, has been in and out of power for much longer.
The Sandinistas controlled Nicaragua through the 1980s following their 1979 ouster of the dictator Anastasio Somoza. The decade was, however, entirely characterized by US support for the Contras, a brutal counter-revolutionary insurgent group originally composed of the leftovers of Somoza’s National Guard.
These are the Contras of the infamous Iran-Contra Affair, but President Reagan’s support of them began earlier in the decade in 1981. Ortega established himself as a revolutionary darling during the coup and in the fight against the Contras, and that status persisted after the FSLN’s defeat in the 1990 general elections. The coup itself was at least partly the result of US threats to continue its support of the insurgency in the event of another Sandinista victory.
Despite its professed Marxism, the FSLN largely limited itself to social reforms and relatively mild economic leveling during the 1980s, avoiding the trope of Communist oppression and holding elections that were largely regarded as free and fair. The situation on the ground has changed significantly in the FSLN’s return to the presidency.
During these and the last set of presidential elections, the FSLN and Ortega together have affected the ouster of the majority of international observers, and Nicaraguan voters have reported widespread intimidation during the election process. Ortega’s return under any electoral conditions is itself somewhat controversial. Until this election cycle, the Nicaraguan constitution limited the president to two terms.
Ortega orchestrated a questionable decision by the Nicaraguan Supreme Court in order to make himself eligible for a third term, and some believe he may be on the hunt for a perpetual presidency. Because this is in not just Latin but also Central America, there has been discussion, largely limited to opinion articles or editorials, on whether and to what degree the US ought to exert some kind of influence to bring Ortega and Nicaragua back to the electoral straight and narrow.
The sober answer is that the US should do absolutely nothing except support the return of outside election observers. The memory of the Reagan years is strong in Nicaragua and the rest of Central America. Nothing would galvanize support for Ortega (or resentment for the US) quicker than an attempt to meddle in Nicaraguan domestic politics.
If there is any recent historical analogy to loosely draw upon, it is that of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela. US support for the 2002 coup d’état did nothing (leaving aside its 48 successful hours) but expand and harden Chavez’ support at home and in-region and legitimize any and all anti-US rhetoric he had made or would make.
Moreover, the US track record for regime change in Latin America is as dismal as anywhere else. Coups in Guatemala, Chile and Brazil did nothing but harm the peoples of those states, and attempted coups, like the aforementioned Venezuelan and Nicaraguan ones, or the Bay of Pigs in Cuba, have done nothing but harm U.S. political and economic interests.
Jon Coumes is an editorial assistant of the Georgetown Journal Online and a junior in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.