WASHINGTON, D.C. -- During the 1980 presidential campaign, Republicans pointed out that Jimmy Carter had "lost Nicaragua" to communism. The 1979 Sandinista "Revolution Without Frontiers" led by Daniel Ortega was just one of many foreign policy disasters during the Carter administration -- and Ronald Reagan assured Americans that such things wouldn't happen on his "watch." Unfortunately, Reagan is gone, and today Nicaragua looks like a case of "back to the future."
On Nov. 5 -- just two days before our own mid-term congressional elections -- the people of Nicaragua will cast ballots for a new president. Friends of democracy in Latin America have been stunned by new polls showing that Ortega -- the ardent Marxist who once ruled Managua with a Soviet-backed iron fist -- is again poised to take control of government, a decade and a half after U.S.-backed freedom fighters succeeded in ousting him from power. If he wins, Ortega will have key regional allies -- men who, by themselves, present no immediate threat to our security but who, together, could create problems aplenty for the United States and its democratic Latin American allies.
Ortega's backers in the region have learned to use the "democratic process" -- elections -- to their advantage. Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, awash in petrodollars and with the encouragement of Cuba's aging Stalinist dictator, Fidel Castro, is committed to spreading an anti-American "Bolivarian Revolution" throughout the southern hemisphere. Chavez protege, Bolivian President Evo Morales, was barely in office two months before he re-wrote the country's constitution -- giving himself authoritarian powers. And in Ecuador, leftist Rafael Correa is now the front-runner in the race for the Oct. 15 presidential elections. If elected, Correa has vowed to ''re-found'' the nation, on the pattern of Bolivia and Venezuela.
Like Adolf Hitler, the anti-American leftists in Latin America are using elections -- not revolutions or military coups -- to take and then solidify power. It's a tactic that seems to have escaped the striped-pants set in our State Department. Until this week's visit to the region by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, the State Department's response to the threatening leftward turn to our south -- and a Sandinista return to power -- has been both flat-footed and tone deaf.
The most recent polls show that if the election were held now, Ortega would garner 32 percent of the vote -- just three percent short of what he needs to claim a first-round victory. Jose Rizo, a former vice president and the PLC -- or Liberal Party candidate has 27 percent of the electorate and Foggy Bottom's anointed aspirant, Eduardo Montealegre, trails with 15 percent. The balance of the vote appears to be split between former Sandinistas Edmundo Jarquin (14 percent) and Eden Pastora with 2 percent.
Unfortunately, official U.S. policy in Nicaragua has been blind to the realities of Nicaraguan politics. The country has only two parties that matter -- the Sandinistas' FSLN and the PLC. Together, they command nearly 85 percent of the vote. Because of past scandals in the PLC -- with which Rizo has no connection -- U.S. diplomats in Managua have distanced themselves from his candidacy and promoted what they call "support for emerging forces." The result: a fractured democratic opposition to the Sandinistas.
Hopefully, the most recent polls -- and the earful Rumsfeld received this week about the insidious role being played by Chavez, Castro and their cronies -- will wake up Washington before it's too late. U.S. diplomats in Latin America in general -- and Nicaragua in particular -- act and speak as though everyone in the region thinks we're "ugly Americans." It's simply not true.
There are millions of our southern neighbors -- small "d" democrats, entrepreneurs and labor leaders -- who are counting on the United States to stand up for our own interests -- and the cause of liberty in their countries. Many of them -- like Presidents Alvaro Uribe in Colombia and Tony Saca in El Salvador have put their lives on the line to achieve and preserve democracy. They have watched with alarm as the will of the people was perverted by Chavez in Venezuela and distorted by Morales in Bolivia -- and they know the consequences for foreign investment, development and economic opportunity.
This sad outcome doesn't have to happen in Nicaragua -- but it will require an abrupt reality check at the State Department. The United States doesn't need to launch an "Uncle Sam says: Vote for Rizo" campaign -- but we must act now to level the playing field and help unite the anti-Sandinista opposition.
Our ambassador, Paul Trivelli, has to stop pressuring private sector leaders with potential reprisals for supporting the PLC. And when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice returns from her Mid-East trip -- she should head to Managua and meet with all the presidential candidates -- including the now shunned Rizo. Doing these things now might well prevent people asking next year: "Who lost Nicaragua?"