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Editorial: US ignoring trouble on its doorstep




When I covered the Nicaraguan revolution in 1979, I spent many days that summer after the fighting was over chatting casually with Daniel Ortega and the rest of the scruffy Sandinistas in the sunshine outside the iconic Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Managua.

These guys didn't look a lot like heroic Latin American "revolucionarios." The "jefe," Daniel, as he was called everywhere, had a big mustache and tried very hard to look presidential, but he always looked sleepy and about to doze off -- not at all like the Cuban-backed communist he said he was. But Washington thought the Sandinistas were the biggest thing since bananas, the big crop in Central America.

Lest you forget, the Reagan administration secretly created and supported an anti-Sandinista group called the "Contras," which roughly means "those who are against," in a charade that involved conspirators in the basement of the White House selling arms to Iran for money to fund the counter-revolutionaries, even presenting the Iranians with a cake, supposedly to whet their appetites. Those were the headlines every day in the early 1980s.

But all the dramatics burned out in a series of elections and alternate presidencies, until Daniel, who had been Nicaragua's president during the '80s, became president again in 2007. Since then, virtually nothing has been reported from Nicaragua.

But on April 19, and nearly every day since then, the quiet Nicaragua of President Daniel Ortega and his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo -- you may liken them to Argentine caudillo/President Juan Peron and HIS wife, Vice President and then President Evita Peron — has exploded. Protests have erupted on the streets, with riot police called "turbas" firing on the protesters, mainly students who should have been the major benefactors of the Sandinista communist/socialist regime, which gave them free education and other privileges.

Worst of all, one cannot be sure this unexpected outbreak of anti-government protest woke up Daniel, even though the papers are now calling him "a revolutionary who lost touch" and "the last of the towering figures of the Cuban Revolution" and (worse) the end of "the region's entrenched elites," meaning the once-revolutionaries. Like most stories in Central America, nobody comes out exactly smelling like a rose (or, perhaps better here, tasting like a good banana).

The U.S. has a bad history here, having assassinated the country's most heroic figure, Augusto Sandino, a revolutionary in the '30s who might have offered hope for the country. Then Washington put all its chips into the game with the Somozas, a land-owning family that played dirty, gave no way to the poor and whose last president, Anastasio Somoza, a laconic figure I also knew, finally walked out when the Sandinistas walked in, only to be assassinated on the street in exile in Paraguay.

The Sandinistas were, in the beginning, to be Fidel's big bet in Central America, and he poured a treasure of money and hope into them.

Still, in many ways, President Trump should be thanking Daniel and his cohorts. If you haven't noticed, in that threatening "caravan" of Central Americans assaulting our southern border (at least in The Donald's vision) no Nicaraguans are mentioned.

The Sandinista government is repressive enough to control emigration and to virtually eliminate the gangs that are taking over countries like Honduras, El Salvador and even Guatemala; not to speak of the drug cartels that reach right up the western coastline of Mexico to the U.S.

The Ortega government has presented itself as a typical communist/socialist Cuban-style state, but in fact, largely through necessity, it has had to allow a good deal of private property and investment. What the protesters are railing against, using a cutback on pension payments as the immediate reason, is in effect the natural repressive responses of an authoritarian or even totalitarian government whose time has finally come.

Only this time, there is nobody in the White House basement to get out that old "we can do anything we want in Central America" attitude and go get the Sandinistas. At least, I don't think there's anybody down there.

How can a responsible nation not think first about its neighbors? Why should we be infatuated with Fallujah and Peshawar and Raqqa, while ignoring San Pedro Sula and Managua and San Salvador? That, my friends, is what the Nicaraguan protests made me think of this week.

— Georgie Anne Geyer has been a foreign correspondent for more than 40 years.



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