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Last Updated: Friday, 3 November 2006, 13:30 GMT
Ortega race brings back the past
By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Managua

Daniel Ortega
Mr Ortega has changed his movement's colours to pink and turquoise
Here is a question - what have U2 and John Lennon songs got to do with Nicaragua?

U2 were partly inspired to write The Streets Have No Name after visiting the capital, Managua, where, indeed, the streets have no name.

And Lennon's song Give Peace a Chance can currently be heard on the country's streets as the campaign theme for Daniel Ortega, the old Cold War revolutionary who is trying to become president again.

While the streets here might not have names, Mr Ortega's supporters and opponents certainly have names for him.

Opinion split

To the faithful, he is still "el Comandante", a reference to his days leading his Sandinista movement against the Contra rebels in the vicious civil war of the 1980s.

To those not in his camp, well, the names are not so easily printable. Daniel Ortega splits opinion.

Eduardo Montealegre
Ortega hasn't changed... he still has the same friends like Castro, Gaddafi, Chavez and Bin Laden
Eduardo Montealegre
Believers, like Nora Ramirez, from one of the capitals poorest neighbourhoods, have no doubt.

"He led us well in the 1980s and he will do so again," she tells me inside the stifling breeze block structure she calls home.

With its corrugated iron roof you feel like you have stepped inside a gigantic oven. But it is an oven that sees precious little food.

"Daniel gave us milk, cheap schools and good hospitals," she says.

"But now everything is so expensive and we eat refried beans and rice."

'Dangerous friends

Nostalgia for the days of Daniel Ortega first stint in power is harder to come across over at the headquarters of one of his main rivals for the Presidency, Eduardo Montealegre.

Oliver North and Eden Pastora
Some say Oliver North (R) may have split the anti-Ortega vote
Sitting next to a photo of himself shaking the hand of the US former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, this conservative aspirant to the Nicaraguan leadership does not mince his words.

"Ortega hasn't changed," he says. "He still has the same friends like Castro, Gaddafi, Chavez and Bin Laden."

" Osama Bin Laden?" I ask.

"Yes," comes the unflinching reply. "Everyone knows it".

Described as a "capable technocrat", Mr Montealegre does not have the charisma of Mr Ortega.

But he believes his commitment to democratic values and honest government will prove popular in Sunday's election.

Up to 3.5 million people are eligible to vote.

According to most polls, Mr Ortega is in the lead.

US focus

He insists he has changed and is no longer the authoritarian many once claimed he was.

As if to prove it, the Sandinistas' red and black flag of the 1980s has been replaced by the pink and turquoise colours of a well-honed political makeover.

He still stands by his socialist principles.

The ones that, with Cuban help, raised literacy standards and lowered infant death rates when he was last in power. And he still talks of "savage capitalism".

But, he says, he now wants to attract foreign investors.

NICARAGUAN CANDIDATES
Daniel Ortega: Sandinista Front
Eduardo Montealgre: Liberal Alliance
Jose Rizo: Constitutionalist Liberal Party
Edmundo Jarquin Calderon: Sandinista Renewal Movement

Unconvinced by all of this are the Americans.

And why are the Americans important?

Well, they just are.

From the days they occupied Nicaragua in the 1930s to the years of secretly helping the Contra rebels in the 1980s, they cannot seem to keep take their minds off this tiny country with a population of just over five million people.

From being a source of slaves in the 19th Century, to being a proxy battleground against the Soviets in the Cold War, Nicaragua has transfixed American policy makers.

And this time round is no different.

Why? It is because they have fears of another addition to the left-leaning club of South American leaders in their extended back yard.

They already have a none-too-disguised loathing for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and a long-standing antipathy to Cuba's Fidel Castro.

What they do not want, is a newly paid-up member of the "let's-hate-America" band occupying the top seat in Managua.

Old enemies

The hard-to-resist meddling has brought a rap on the knuckles for the US ambassador here from the Organization for American States.

They ticked off Mr Chavez, too, for allegedly supplying cheap oil to sandinista-controlled municipalities in Nicaragua to ease the country's fuel shortages.

So who has become the principle agitator-in-chief for those opposed to Mr Ortega?

None other than Lieutenant-Colonel Oliver North, the public face of the Iran-Contra scandal in the days of Ronald Reagan's presidency.

"If Ortega wins," he said on a two-day visit here. "He will have key regional allies... who together could create problems aplenty for the US and its democratic Latin American allies."

"Today, Nicaragua looks like a case of back to the future," Mr North added.

But, even with those words, the hawkish cable-TV pundit, slightly spoiled the American mission to avert an Ortega victory.

Instead of backing Washington's favourite, Mr Montealegre, Mr North was widely perceived as promoting the campaign of a rival right-of-centre candidate, Jose Rizo.

Some fear that might split the vote against Mr Ortega and let him in.

It might all sound like harmless knockabout stuff, but this is serious politics.

It is less than 20 years since the civil war which claimed the lives of up to 50,000 people.

The streets here might not have names, but the dead, do.

And, in Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua's past is an ever-present theme for its voters.


VIDEO AND AUDIO NEWS
Daniel Ortega addresses supporters



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