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.
North went public in his syndicated column of Oct. 6. He contended that "official U.S. policy in Nicaragua has been blind to the realities of Nicaraguan politics." He said Ambassador Trivelli "has to stop pressuring private sector leaders with potential reprisals" for backing Rizo and his Liberal Party. North called on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to visit Managua and meet with all anti-Sandinista candidates -- including Rizo.
In Washington, North was ignored. He and his colleagues paid a hastily arranged visit to Managua Monday Oct. 23 and publicly pleaded with Nicaraguans to reject the Sandinistas. The apparent U.S. reaction was Tuesday's official U.S. government warning that implies Americans would do well to stay away from now until next April 18. By urging "American residents and visitors in Nicaragua " to be "vigilant," the U.S. government was telling the old Contras to keep hands off.
Dewey Claridge, the famous CIA Contra handler, put it bluntly in an e-mail to associates: "Just when you think the State Department's level of stupidity has reached bedrock and can go no further, it comes up with this nonsense, probably the [work] of Trivelli and his paranoia that Oliver North's visit to Managua to receive a testimonial and lay a wreath at the tomb of the fallen . . . is the Contra War II.
State Department spokesmen would not elaborate on the basis for the travel advisory, but the department's security personnel and Nicaraguan police privately said they saw no basis for any such warning. The real warning should be about the return of the Sandinistas, in league with Havana and Caracas, thanks to another failure in U.S. policy.