WASHINGTON -- Oliver North and his associates were leaving Managua last Tuesday on a private plane after a dramatic surprise visit when they heard news they could scarcely comprehend. The U.S. State Department had just issued a "Public Announcement" that, in effect, warned Americans not to travel to Nicaragua because of the prospect for "violent demonstrations" and "sporadic acts of violence" leading up to the Nov. 5 presidential election there.
The North group had seen nothing in Nicaragua to justify a travel advisory, normally issued when life and limb of visiting Americans are at risk. U.S. and Nicaraguan security officials alike are dumbfounded, and the State Department did not explain it to me. That buttresses suspicion that the U.S. government wants to keep away meddling Americans like North, who seek to influence an election that now appears likely to return Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas to power after an absence of 16 years.
The seemingly unavoidable outcome of next Sunday's election is a Nicaraguan tragedy, losing at the ballot box what was won two decades ago by the blood of Contra fighters and the risk of Ronald Reagan's presidency. Because the anti-Sandinista vote is split, Ortega figures to return his Marxist-Leninist party -- now backed by Hugo Chavez's Venezuelan petro-dollars -- to the presidential palace. Apart from the misery to be inflicted on the Nicaraguan people, this reflects the deterioration of U.S. influence in the Western Hemisphere under the Bush administration.
Nicaraguan law permits the election of a president with as little as 35 percent of the vote if he is five percentage points ahead of his nearest competitor. That now seems probable with the anti-Sandinista vote divided between two major candidates: former Vice President Jose Rizo and banker Eduardo Montealegre. The former Contras blame this state of affairs on the Bush administration in general and, specifically, on the U.S. ambassador in Managua, Paul Trivelli.
The looming political fiasco in Nicaragua comes as no surprise. Adolfo Calero, a Washington-based Contra leader in the '80s, returned to the U.S. capital in April to issue a warning. He asserted that tacit U.S. support for Montealegre and opposition to Rizo was a horrendous political error and that the only hope to hold off the Sandinistas was support for Rizo. But official doors were closed to Calero. The occasion of Calero's visit was a reunion of Contra leaders, their former CIA handlers and Ollie North, who as a Marine lieutenant colonel ran the Nicaraguan account at the Reagan White House. The festivities were marred by fear and frustration over the coming election.