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Ortega's Sandinista baggage—A Commentary by Jonathan Finer '09

The following op-ed originally appeared in the November 12, 2006, edition of The Boston Globe.

Ortega's Sandinista baggage
By Jonathan Finer

SAN JUAN DEL SUR, Nicaragua
It's been a while since Americans paid much attention to this country, whose name evokes a war most have forgotten. But Nicaragua is back in the news, along with ominous warnings that its troubled past is prologue.

President-elect Daniel Ortega is the longtime head of the Sandinista Front, which was backed by the Soviet Union in the proxy war against the Contras in the 1980s. His close ties to Cuban leader Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez trouble US officials in Washington and Managua, where the embassy all but openly campaigned against Ortega.

At the end of his last stint as president, Ortega, who before last Sunday had lost three electoral bids since 1990, seized property worth hundreds of millions of dollars, much of it foreign owned.

But on the country's rapidly developing Pacific coast, there's another side of the story. Nicaragua, the hemisphere's second-poorest country, is changing in ways that will make it difficult, and self-destructive, for Ortega to turn back the clock, even if he wants to. Sunday's election came amid intense efforts to boost tourism and foreign investment, capitalizing on the same natural assets -- pristine beaches, soaring volcanoes -- that made Costa Rica a multibillion-dollar destination. With unemployment hovering above 15 percent, by some estimates, it may be Nicaragua's best hope.

San Juan Del Sur, a once-sleepy fishing town, has embraced the new model. The first real luxury hotel opened a few years ago on a manicured hillside. Its half-moon bay is a regular stop on the international cruise circuit. Already the beachfront main drag is lined with Internet cafes, pubs, and branch offices of large American real estate firms, including Century 21 and Coldwell Banker. Down the road from an Alamo Rent-a-Car, a Subway sandwich shop will open this month .

But the most surprising aspect of a town where foreign buyers have boosted property values fivefold in five years is its politics. This is hardcore Sandinista territory. In the weeks before the election, Ortega campaign posters and red-and-black banners hung from every lamppost.

"People say that if Ortega wins, their investments will be ruined here," said Mayor Eduardo Holmann, a few days before the election, his office walls plastered with architectural plans for new development sites and a downtown boardwalk. "That is really full of crap. My position is that we are Sandinistas, and we have developed this town more in two years than the rest of the country has in the last 20 years."

The transformation of San Juan Del Sur began in the mid-1990s, when American surfers arrived in search of undiscovered waves . A real estate boom followed, and the town of about 10,000 has seen its tax base explode and its budget grow from about $300,000 last year to more than $1.5 million for fiscal 2006. Other Nicaraguan destinations are slowly following suit, including Grenada, a charming colonial city set on vast lake, and the islands off the Atlantic coast, a growing attraction for scuba divers.

Holmann says he will use the windfall to begin upgrading decrepit infrastructure, including the strained water supply and crater-filled roads. The mayor has sided with foreign investors in a series of lawsuits brought by the beneficiaries of a decades-old Sandinista land-reform policy against the town's largest hotel, the main employer. He led 1,000 marchers through the narrow streets to hail the contributions of the resort.

Significant apprehension remains. Developers and construction workers said most large projects and land sales were put on hold in October, as anxious investors decided to wait and see how the new leader would govern.

Ortega says he's a changed man. A top bishop from the country's Catholic establishment, which was persecuted under the Sandinistas, officiated at his wedding last year. His running mate this year was a former Contra leader. After the vote, Ortega sought to reassure business leaders. "No one is going to allow the seizure of property, big or small," he said.

In the run-up to the election US officials threatened to curb foreign aid and bar remittance payments from Nicaraguan immigrants to the United States if Ortega got elected. But such fear-mongering and rash decisions may be a greater risk than anything the new president might do. "They are trying to scare everyone into thinking he will ruin Nicaragua," Holmann said. "Give him a chance."

Jonathan Finer, a reporter on leave from The Washington Post, is a student at Yale Law School.