The American Legion Magazine
June 2007
By Alan W. Dowd

Preoccupied with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and nukes in Iran and North Korea, the United States has a new/old problem to worry about right in its own backyard: Communists and other far-left politicians are sweeping to power all across Latin America. Perhaps no one embodies this unexpected communist comeback better than Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega, who was returned to power last November. 

The former revolutionary has traded in his fatigues for a suit and tie, and he says he wants “to develop relations with the entire international community,” including closer ties with the United States. But more than a quarter-century of history is hard to overcome or overlook. 

Backwards to the Future
It’s an irony of history that President Coolidge actually sent US Marines to Nicaragua in the 1920s for the very same reason President Reagan armed Ortega’s foes in the 1980s—to combat communism.  

A Nicaraguan nationalist named Augusto Sandino would lead a resistance movement against Coolidge’s expeditionary force. After three years of evading American Marines and terrorizing Nicaraguan collaborators, Sandino’s legend grew into a movement with its own name—the Sandinistas.  

But Sandino may have actually hated America more than he loved his homeland: David Brooks, a Foreign Service officer with the US State Department, reminds us that the official seal of Sandino’s private army was a Nicaraguan rebel beheading a US Marine. It’s worth noting that Ortega calls Sandino his idol. 

The Marines never caught Sandino, but military strongman Anastasio Somoza’s troops did, killing him in 1934.  

The right-wing dictatorship of the Somozas would rule Nicaragua until 1979, when Ortega’s left-wing dictatorship took over. During their reign, the US-backed Somozas usurped some five-million square acres of Nicaraguan land and controlled all of the country’s major industries. Writing in The Fifty-Year Wound, historian Derek Leebaert observes that Washington’s Central America policy during the Cold War often came down to backing the bad against the worse. This certainly proved true in Nicaragua after Somoza. 

The Sandinista National Liberation Front, which Ortega rode and steered to power, was actually founded in Cuba in 1961.[1] As historian Paul Johnson notes, in Ortega’s Nicaragua “Cuba acquired the first satellite of its own.”  

Indeed, Ortega’s reign was marked by close collaboration with Cuba, the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact. From 1980-1990, Moscow propped up Ortega with $1 billion annually. Ortega used Soviet aid to build an army that was bigger than anything fielded by his neighbors and to export the revolution into other parts of Central America. Toward that end, Soviet helicopter gunships and heavy artillery began arriving in 1985, T-54 and T-55 tanks even earlier. 

As Leebaert writes, it wasn’t until the twentieth anniversary of their so-called revolution—devolution may be a more accurate term—that the Sandinistas finally admitted what they had denied all along: that they had indeed funneled Soviet money and weapons to El Salvador. Even PBS was forced to concede after Ortega’s ouster, “It is by now a matter of public record that Reagan’s assessment of the Sandinistas was largely correct, and the American public was in fact duped.” 

As the Heritage Foundation painstakingly reported at the time, Ortega also sought common cause with terrorist groups such as ETA and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which opened an embassy in Managua in the early 1980s. Ortega even sent Nicaraguan officials to Lebanon and Libya for terrorist training. It paid off: By 1985, Sandinista commandos were participating in kidnapping operations and terrorist attacks in Colombia and Costa Rica.[2] 

Not surprisingly, Ortega’s actions qualified Nicaragua for membership in what Reagan called “a confederation of terrorist states…run by the strangest collection of misfits, loony-tunes and squalid criminals since the advent of the Third Reich.”[3] Reagan would spend $3 billion to challenge Ortega inside Nicaragua and another $4 billion to fight the communist virus Ortega was trying to spread throughout the region. Leebaert reminds us that even the far less hawkish Jimmy Carter authorized CIA action against Ortega’s Nicaragua.  

Congress ultimately restricted US aid to the anti-communist forces in Central America—or “Contras,” as they came to be called. In response, as Leebaert details, administration officials raised funds from South Africa, Israel, Brunei, Saudi Arabia and Taiwan to keep arms and material flowing to the outgunned anti-communists. China even offered to send surface-to-air missiles to the Contras.  

This surreal environment opened the door to the Iran-Contra affair, in which officials on Reagan’s National Security Council orchestrated arms sales to Iran in order to fund the Contra rebels—a violation of US law—and gain the release of American hostages held in the Middle East.  

With Washington gripped by clashes between the Executive and Congress, Ortega did all the things we expect from communist dictators. Again, research conducted by the Heritage Foundation in the 1980s paints the grim picture:[4]

-Ortega’s government confiscated and redistributed private property.

-Just weeks after seizing power, Ortega’s party also seized newspapers, TV stations and radio stations.

-The Ortega regime smothered freedom of religion. By 1986, the Catholic Church’s newspaper and radio station were seized. Ortega also banned outdoor services.

-By 1988, Nicaraguan human-rights groups estimated that 8,200 political prisoners were rotting away in Ortega’s jails. Leebaert notes that Ortega’s secret police and army were ten times larger than anything Somoza wielded. Some 10,000 Cuban “advisors” offered assistance.

-At Ortega’s direction, the Sandinistas forcibly relocated the Miskito Indians. To this day, organizations such as Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights accuse the Sandinistas of genocide.

-Ortega cancelled promised elections and then held phony elections. In fact, in the election he claimed to win in 1985, fully two-thirds of precincts had only Sandinista party officials as observers.

Along the way, Ortega destroyed Nicaragua’s economy: Historian Patrick Brogan has noted that by 1987, the standard of living in Ortega’s Nicaragua had dropped by one-third; two days each week water was cut off to Managua; the inflation rate was reaching into quadruple digits. By 1988, it was 36,000 percent.  

When Ortega left office, defeated in a fair and free election, he transferred several large estates to himself and rewarded his Sandinista brethren with $2 billion of public assets.[5] One wonders if Ortega ever grasped the ironic parallel to the Somoza clan he helped oust. So much for the “people’s revolution.” 

Caracas Connection
Given such a record, it’s surprising that Nicaraguans would even tolerate an Ortega candidacy, let alone contemplate another Ortega presidency. To be fair, more than 60 percent of Nicaraguans voted against Ortega, who was elected with just 38 percent of the vote. In fact, his main rival, Eduardo Montealegre, won almost 30 percent of the vote. But thanks to Nicaragua’s election laws—and a fractured opposition—Ortega’s plurality was enough.  

The electoral success of Ortega and other far-left candidates elsewhere in Latin America invites a worrisome prospect. While it is not fair to view Latin America as a monolith, we cannot overlook the fact that Ecuador, Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Brazil, Uruguay, Argentina and, of course, Cuba are all governed by left-wing or outright Marxist leaders deeply committed to an anti-American creed. Mexico and Peru narrowly escaped in 2006.  

Thanks to the demise of the Soviet Union, as former Mexican foreign minister Jorge Castaneda has observed, these latter-day Marxists no longer have to worry about the “geopolitical stigma” that once curbed the rise of communist movements in this hemisphere. 

The nightmare scenario is for these governments to somehow link up and form an anti-American bloc in this hemisphere. We have already seen glimpses of the damage this could inflict on the United States diplomatically and geopolitically. Ortega, for instance, has argued that his victory “will raise the morale of Latin America,” adding, “we will spread the revolution.”[6] He now joins Castro, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and an assortment of thugs masquerading as Latin American heads of state in the UN’s anti-American cheering section.  

Chavez, it pays to recall, has accused the US of genocide and most famously compared President George W. Bush to the devil during a tirade at the United Nations. He also has alleged that 9/11 was “self-inflicted.” But it’s not only his words that raise concern in Washington and other capitals. His actions are just as worrisome: Chavez has purchased 100,000 AK-47 rifles and has sought 50 MiG-29 fighter-jets from Russia; acquired large transport planes from Spain; canceled Venezuela’s bilateral military exchange program with the United States; rallied a number of countries against the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA); and in 2005 suspended Venezuelan cooperation with the US Drug Enforcement Agency.[7] 

Chavez, who tried to seize power through a military coup in the early 1990s before his election in 1998, is emblematic of Latin America’s new/old breed of leftist strongmen. As political scientist Javier Corrales details in a scathing indictment of Chavez published in Foreign Policy magazine, Chavez has “found a way to make authoritarianism fashionable again.” After all, he has rewritten the constitution, abolished the Senate, reconfigured the Supreme Court, created a private army loyal not to the state but to him, and taken control of the National Electoral Council, which verifies election results. Not surprisingly, Chavez cruised to an easy reelection victory last December. He now promises to eliminate presidential term limits. 

Chavez also controls the country’s oil consortium, with some $84 billion in revenue (and climbing). And he has no problem using that revenue to his advantage: In November 2006, just a month ahead of the presidential election, he effectively bribed thousands of government employees by distributing $3 billion in oil profits in the form of Christmas bonuses. 

An oil-rich Venezuela can do—and has done—far more harm to the US economy than Castro ever could. Oil accounts for 90 percent of Venezuela’s US-bound exports. Although Chavez has never cut off shipments, he has at times threatened to do so, which sends the global petroleum market into chaos and US consumers into sticker shock at the pump. There could be more than bluster and bravado here: The Congressional Research Service has reported concerns inside Washington that Chavez might try to supplant his US market with China. Given that Venezuela pumps an average of 1.5 million barrels of oil per day for the US—or about 11 percent of net oil imports—the results would be devastating for the US economy.   

Ortega has directly benefited from his oil-rich crony in Caracas. In fact, prior to the vote in Nicaragua, Chavez shipped an estimated 400,000 barrels of oil to Nicaragua in care of Ortega, who then used it to help sway the election. We can expect more (and worse) of such mischief and manipulation from these two brothers of the revolution.  

In addition, the economic and human costs of the flow of drugs from Latin America are sure to rise, given the policies of Chavez and his partner in Bolivia, Evo Morales, who has effectively quit the drug war by promising to decriminalize coca production. Chavez has reportedly poured tens of millions into Bolivia to prop up Morales and promote the sort of economic and political changes that are transforming Venezuela into an elected dictatorship. 

Finally and predictably, this red relapse exposes the US southern flank to a range of new security challenges. Beijing is using both its checkbook and its socialist credentials to gain unprecedented access into Latin America. A Financial Times analysis found that almost half of China’s direct foreign investment is flowing to Latin America. From 2004-2005, for example, China doubled the volume of bilateral trade and investment with Venezuela. It has promised to spend billions to improve infrastructure in Argentina, Brazil and Chile.[8]

In a 2006 interview with USAToday, Jose Ruiz of the US Southern Command conceded that Beijing “has approached every country in our area of responsibility” and has even exchanged senior military officials and provided aid or training to Ecuador, Jamaica, Bolivia, Cuba, Chile and Venezuela.[9] 

In response to this drift into the red, Washington recently resumed military training operations with 11 Latin American and Caribbean countries. According to Ruiz, the US had lost influence in the vital region after a ban was placed on certain training partnerships in 2002.  

Red Carpet
However, the threats are not limited to reruns from Cold War I or previews of Cold War II. For example: 

-The State Department concluded in 2006 that Venezuela had “virtually ceased its cooperation in the global war on terror,” adding that Chavez was tolerating terrorists on his territory and seeking closer relations with Iran.[10] In fact, Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Venezuela in late 2006.

-In January 2004, concerns about Islamic terrorists based in Central America grounded flights inbound from Mexico City. Later that year, as CBS News reported, the Honduran government announced that al Qaeda was trying to recruit Hondurans for embassy attacks. The threat was serious enough for Honduras to declare a “national terror alert” that summer. In addition, US officials believe terror-cell leader Adnan el Shukrijumah, who was spotted in Honduras in 2004, met with leaders of an El Salvadoran gang that specializes in smuggling illegals into the United States.[11]

-Ever since September 11, Washington has been concerned about the lawless borderlands of Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay, where Hezbollah and al-Qaeda terrorists are known to breed. 

In short, al Qaeda and other jihadists are attempting to gain a toehold in Latin America—or perhaps better said, a launching pad.  

Given the way Ortega rolled out the red carpet for terrorist leaders and organizations in the 1980s, his return to power should give us pause in this new age of terror. After all, Ortega remains intimately tied to the Castro regime, which remains on the US terrorist list.  

Plus, it pays to recall that in 2003, on the eve of the Iraq war, Ortega wrote an open letter to Saddam Hussein offering the moral support of his country. Writing from Cuba, he heaped scorn on the US for “a continuation of the politics of death” and offered the Butcher of Baghdad “solidarity from the people of Nicaragua, defenders and lovers of peace.”[12]  

Tricky Policy
Some argue that free trade and economic engagement are the cure to Latin America’s Marxist relapse, but it is precisely globalization and free trade that have spurred the rise of these leftist leaders. Indeed, in a decade-plus marked by Washington’s push for NAFTA, CAFTA and the FTAA, the US has arguably been more engaged in a positive way in Latin America than any time in history.  

But the result has been a backlash against free trade, capitalism and “neo-liberalism,” to borrow the parlance of the latter-day Marxists now in charge across Latin America. Ortega himself promises an end to “savage capitalism.” Morales has called the FTAA “a policy of genocide.”[13] 

In other words, Washington’s Latin American policy will be tricky for some time to come. Ortega, Chavez and the other new/old revolutionaries will make sure of that.

Sidebar: The Rise, Fall and Rise of Daniel Ortega 

1979                The Somoza regime falls; Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front takes power

1980                First attacks by anti-Sandinista forces known as the Contras; in the decade of the 1980s, an estimated 50,000 people would be killed in the Nicaraguan civil war

1984                Ortega elected president in elections boycotted by opposition parties

1988                US Congress cuts off aid to the Contras

1990                Ortega loses in free elections, rewards himself and his party cronies with $2 billion worth of Nicaraguan estates and property

1996                Ortega loses a second election bid

1998                Ortega’s stepdaughter accuses him of serial sexual abuse

2001                Ortega loses a third election bid

2006                Thanks to a fractured opposition and assistance from Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Ortega wins election with less than 40 percent of the vote; Washington promises “to develop a respectful relationship” with Nicaragua; Ortega calls for closer ties with the United States


[1] David Brooks, “Nicaraguan Anti-Americanism,” Understanding Anti-Americanism, Paul Hollander, Ed., 2004.

[2] Timothy Ashby, “Nicaragua’s Terrorist Connection,” Heritage Foundation, March 14, 1986.

[3] Paul Johnson, Modern Times, p.752.

[4] W. Bruce Weinrod, “Thirty Myths about Nicaragua,” Heritage Foundation, March 11, 1986; Jorge Salaverry, “AGrim Reality Behind the Sandinista Promises,” Heritage Foundations, September 13, 1988.

[5] Patrick Brogan, World Conflicts, p.516.

[6] Danna Harman, “Remember Daniel Ortega? He’s Back,” Christian Science Monitor, September 15, 2005.

[7] See Mark Sullivan, “Venezuela: Political Conditions and US Policy,” CRS Report for Congress, January 17, 2006.

[8] SeeHumphrey Hawksley, “China’s new Latin American revolution,” Financial Times, April 4, 2006; The Economist, “Magic or realism,” December 29, 2004.

[9] Barbara Slavin, “US will train Latin American militaries,” USAToday, November 10, 2006.

[10] Mark Sullivan, et.al,, “Latin America and the Caribbean: Issues for the 109th Congress,” CRS Report for Congress, September 13, 2006.

[11]Associated Press, “Feds eye al-Qaeda south of the border,” August 22, 2004; “Qaeda eyeing Honduras?” CBS News, December 14, 2004; “Al Qaeda threat led to flight cancellations,” ABC News, January 2, 2004; Jerry Seper, “Al Qaeda seeks tie to local gangs,” The Washington Times, September 28, 2004.

[12] Quoted in Brooks.

[13] Michael Radu, “A Matter of Identity: The Anti-Americanism of Latin American Intellectuals,”  Understanding Anti-Americanism, Paul Hollander, Ed., 2004.