Anti-Semitism card played against Sandinista Nicaragua —already!

Boy, does this ever give us deja vu. Back in the ’80s, the State Department played an anti-Semitism card against Sandinista Nicaragua, just as as the right does today against Bolivarian Venezuela. Daniel Ortega hasn’t even taken office yet, and already the propaganda vultures are circling in. From the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, Nov. 9 (our commentary to follow):

Sandinista leader Ortega returns to power, worrying Nicaragua’s Jews
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica — – The return of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega after his victory in Nicaragua’s presidential election has the country’s tiny Jewish community on edge.

During Ortega’s last stint in power, as head of the left-wing revolutionary government from 1979-90, the entire Jewish community fled into exile while the Sandinistas built cozy relations with the PLO and other anti-Israel groups and allied themselves closely with Cuba.

Now, 16 years later, just as the community is on the verge of restoring itself to its pre-revolution levels, the Sandinistas appear to have narrowly won a new chance at heading this impoverished Central American nation.

“We have to accept the result and see how he’s going to act,” a disappointed Elena Pataky told JTA by telephone Tuesday. “We need to make sure that he doesn’t again make Nicaragua a sanctuary for drug
traffickers and terrorists.”

Final counts from Sunday’s election showed Ortega with 38 percent of the vote in the five-person race, ahead of chief rival Eduardo Montealegre, who won 29 percent. That was enough for Ortega to win on the first ballot under Nicaraguan law.

It marks Ortega’s first victory in four tries since he was rousted out of office in a 1990 landslide. The country’s anti-Sandinista right split this year, with some supporting Jorge Rizo – the handpicked successor of Arnoldo Aleman, a far-right former president currently under house arrest on corruption charges. Others, including Pataky and the United States, supported Montealegre, a former banker who was dogged by charges of insider trading involving bond issues and embargos by his bank.

An expected split on the left between Ortega and Sandinista dissidents never materialized after the Sandinistas’ preferred candidate, charismatic former Managua Mayor Herty Lewites, died of a heart attack in July. Lewites was the son of a Jewish immigrant who had helped supply the Sandinistas with arms when they were a guerrilla movement in the 1970s, but they slandered the father for his Jewish roots after he split from the group. Lewites’ replacement in the election, intellectual Agusto Jarquin, finished a distant fourth in Sunday’s vote.

Nicaragua’s Jews, never more than 100 strong, went into exile within two years after the Sandinistas overthrew the U.S.-backed Somoza dictatorship. The country was possibly without a single resident Jew for the remainder of the Sandinista era, when the synagogue was converted to a secular school – it’s now a funeral home – and a number of PLO members were given Nicaraguan passports.

The Sandinista regime had hostile relations with the United States, which funded the “Contra” rebels in a bloody civil war that marred the 1980s and help send the Nicaraguan economy into a tailspin that continues to stunt development to this day.

After losing power, the Sandinistas changed their position on Israel, at least publicly, accepting diplomatic relations and abandoning their backing for rhetoric denigrating Zionism as racism. However, Sandinista leaders like the party’s only surviving founder, Tomas Borge, continue to “deplore” Israeli policies in Gaza and the West Bank, and Ortega has expressed support for Iran’s government, which threatens to annihilate Israel.

In recent years, Israel and Nicaragua have developed cordial relations. Israeli aid workers provide assistance to farmers in the country, but Israel has yet to open an embassy there, with the embassy in neighboring Costa Rica handling Nicaraguan affairs. Embassy officials could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

Jews began returning to the country after Ortega lost the 1990 elections, although the community’s Torah remains in Costa Rica. In recent weeks the community has been preparing to build a new synagogue.

Those plans may be put on hold, Rafael Lipshitz, president of the Nicaraguan Jewish Association, told JTA. He said the group’s board will meet next week to discuss its future and that a community assembly will be held by early December to make a decision.

Lipshitz called the election results “worrying,” but added that he advocates a waiting period before any decisions are made on the synagogue project.

Pataky, who spent her exile in Miami and supported Montealegre in Sunday’s election, laughed at the idea of fleeing again. “The conditions of 1979 were totally different from today,” she said. “Like all of Nicaragua, I am observing with a keen interest.”

Ortega’s election marks a foreign policy setback for the Bush administration and a step forward for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who helped boost the Sandinistas’ chances in the final weeks of the campaign by sending the country a shipment of free urea for fertilizer to be distributed by the Sandinistas.

Ortega is to take office in January, though his ability to govern remains in doubt: The anti-Sandinista right is expected to hold a majority in the legislature, also elected Sunday.

This kind of sloppy and one-sided pseudo-journalism merely creates a boy-who-cried-wolf syndrome which is radically eroding concern with charges of anti-Semitism at all in left-wing cricles—needless to say, a very dangerous trend. If the “entire Jewish community” of Nicaragua went into exile, how funny that as late as 1986 (when the crisis imposed by the contra war and economic embargo was at its worst), the New York Times was reporting (April 20) that “Jews who left Nicaragua after the 1979 revolution disagree sharply with the handful who still live there over whether the victorious Sandinistas engaged in anti-Semitic acts and threats.”

Even funnier that one of the Sandinista Revolution’s official heroes was Israel Lewites, son of a Jewish immigrant from Poland who died in a famous attack on the Masaya barracks in October 1977 and, after the Sandinistas took power, had the central market in Managua named after him. His brother Herty Lewites became Sandinista minister of tourism, and, in the ’90s, mayor of Managua. Herty Lewites also represented the more principled wing of the Sandinistas which broke from Ortega’s increasingly opportunistic caudillismo to form the dissident Sandinista Renewal Movement, something JTA’s writer never makes clear in mentioning his presidential candidacy.

So the case for Sandinista anti-Semitism is nowhere near as clear-cut as JTA asks its readers to assume. Similarly, its pretty pathetic to uncritically accept that the FSLN turned Nicaragua into a harbor for “drug traffickers and terrorists” when the CIA turned to a private network of drug traffickers and terrorists in their campaign to oust the Sandinistas!

The author of this propaganda, Brian Harris, strikes us as the kind of “journalist” who lounges around his hotel in Costa Rica (note the dateline—not Nicaragua, a considerably less comfortable and tourist-friendly place) belting back daiquiris and reading the local press. Heaven forbid he should take the bus up the Panamerican Highway and hang out in Managua for a few days before he puts pen to paper on such weighty issues. Time to get a new guy for your Central America beat, JTA.

See our last posts on Central America and Nicaragua.

  1. Nicaraguan jews
    You forgot that two more jews were prominent in the Sandinista revolution: Comandante guerrilero Enrique Schmidt, who was killed by the contras, and Carlos Tunnermann, who was the minister of education.

    1. Accusations of anti-semitism against the Sandinistas
      I have to question other “facts” in the original article when the journalist messes up names and other statments about the MRS are inaccurate. It is not fair to call Herty the “Sandinistas’ preferred candidate” when he was the candidate for the MRS and not the Sandinistas when he died–yes, he was popular as the Sandinista mayor of Managua but was then expelled from the party and DANIEL ORTEGA and not he was its candidate. And the vice presidential candidate who replaced him as presidential candidate for the MRS was EDMUNDO Jarquin. The “Agusto Jarquin” the author mentions is obviously a deformation of AGUSTIN Jarquin, former Comptroller General of Nicaragua who was VP candidate with DANIEL ORTEGA in 2001.

      1. Many thanks
        …for providing more info, but I think Lewites still considered himself a Sandinista after breaking with the FSLN. The word “Sandinista” also appears in the name of his new party, the MRS.

    2. Accusations of anti-semitism against the Sandinistas
      I have to question other “facts” in the original article when the journalist messes up names and other statments about the MRS are inaccurate. It is not fair to call Herty the “Sandinistas’ preferred candidate” when he was the candidate for the MRS and not the Sandinistas when he died–yes, he was popular as the Sandinista mayor of Managua but was then expelled from the party and DANIEL ORTEGA and not he was its candidate. And the vice presidential candidate who replaced him as presidential candidate for the MRS was EDMUNDO Jarquin. The “Agusto Jarquin” the author mentions is obviously a deformation of AGUSTIN Jarquin, former Comptroller General of Nicaragua who was VP candidate with DANIEL ORTEGA in 2001.

  2. NYT: insectuous web of Nica power politics
    There’s more truth here than lefty gringo ’80s nostalgists might want to admit. Stephen Kinzer writes for the New York Times Nov 12:

    The Marxist Turned Caudillo: A Family Story

    AFTER seizing power in Nicaragua in 1979, Sandinista revolutionaries helped themselves to the riches their defeated enemies had left behind. One “comandante,” Daniel Ortega, cast his eyes upon a walled mansion in the center of Managua that was owned by a banker who had fled to Mexico. Without even the pretense of legal procedure, he confiscated the house and moved in. The owner, Jaime Morales, joined the counterrevolutionaries — the contras — and vowed to destroy the new regime by military force.

    Despite hundreds of millions of dollars in American aid, the contra war failed. But so, in the end, did the Sandinistas. In 1990, Nicaraguan voters rejected Mr. Ortega. After a period of seclusion, he re-emerged with a new identity — the old-style “caudillo” who uses ideology when it suits him but is dedicated mainly to the pursuit of power.

    Last week, Mr. Ortega’s transformation was crowned with triumph when, on his third try, he won the Nicaraguan presidency in a free election.

    His vice president is none other than Mr. Morales, who moved back to Nicaragua after the civil war ended, reached a “private arrangement” with his old nemesis (reportedly involving a land swap), and gave up his claim to his old house.

    During the 1980s, Mr. Ortega denounced the contras as “beasts” and vowed to fight them unto death. No one in Nicaragua, however, was surprised when he chose a former contra as his running mate.

    Mr. Ortega is, after all, a crusader for good government who has allied himself with the country’s most corrupt figures; an advocate of the poor who has become very rich through a series of mysterious business deals; and a leftist ideologue who has proven ready to embrace any cause — most recently a total ban on abortion — that will bring him political advantage.

    Nicaragua is a small country of 5.6 million people. Every member of the political class knows every other member, and in many cases they have complex personal and familial ties. To outsiders, the country seems bitterly divided by politics. Political disputes, however, often mask feuds within families and clans. Outsiders may interpret Mr. Ortega’s abandonment of nearly everything he once seemed to believe as an act of spectacular cynicism. To Nicaraguans, it is just the latest example of how leaders of their quarrelsome nation are, in the end, prone to forgive each other and find new ways to share the spoils.

    That is not the only aspect of Nicaraguan political life that has remained constant despite the huge changes that have reshaped the country over the last quarter-century. Nicaraguans, like people in some other Latin American lands, are still ready to support populist leaders who rule through the force of personality rather than through institutions. They remain suspicious of the United States, which has repeatedly intervened in Nicaragua over the last century. And they are as fascinated as ever with family melodramas that play out on a national stage.

    For much of Nicaraguan history, the spiciest of these dramas involved the Chamorro and Somoza clans. Now the Ortegas have joined the show.

    The president-elect’s brother, Humberto, who was the Sandinista defense minister in the 1980s and who has since made a fortune in business, refused to endorse his brother’s candidacy. Daniel Ortega’s stepdaughter has accused him of sexually abusing her starting when she was 11 years old and he was 34. His wife, Rosario Murillo, remains unswervingly loyal. She ran this year’s political campaign, in which her husband granted no interviews and participated in no debates, and she is expected to play a key role in his government. Some are already comparing her to Dinorah Sampson, who during the 1970s was the mistress of President Anastasio Somoza Debayle and a sinister power behind his throne.

    “In the 1980s, Ortega ruled as part of a collective Sandinista leadership,” said Carlos Fernando Chamorro, who was editor then of the official Sandinista newspaper while his mother, brother and sister ran the embattled opposition paper. “Now it’s much more about personal and family power. That’s new for Ortega, but for Nicaragua it’s an old pattern.”

    Some officials in Washington seem ready to confront Mr. Ortega again. They warn that he is about to become the Central American surrogate for President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, the newest figure on Washington’s enemies list. Yet many Nicaraguans, including some former contras, want the Americans to give Mr. Ortega a second chance.

    “When the Sandinistas came to power, they came in dirty uniforms, with no experience other than giving orders,” said Adolfo Calero, who during the 1980s headed the largest contra faction. “They were barbarians at the banquet. Now they’re older. They have families, and many of them have very strong economic interests. I expect a totally different attitude. My hope is that power won’t seduce them, as it did last time, but make them more responsible.”

    In his years out of office, Mr. Ortega became a master of backroom compromise. Soon after beginning his recent campaign, he signed a statement promising to support private enterprise and the Central American Free Trade Agreement. In the coming weeks, he is expected to ask business leaders to recommend candidates for top posts.

    But as Mr. Ortega won over former enemies in Nicaragua, many old allies, including most of the comandantes with whom he ruled in the 1980s, broke with him because they could not abide his egocentric style and undisguised lust for power.

    “Over the long run, he is going to want to consolidate his power in ways that would go beyond one presidential term,” predicted one of these defectors, Sergio Ramírez, a novelist who was Mr. Ortega’s vice president during the 1980s. “His basic impulse is authoritarian, and his friendships with Chávez and Fidel Castro reinforce that.”