As Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega takes over as Nicaragua’s new president, some U.S. diplomats are privately blaming Iran-Contra figure Oliver North for unwittingly helping his longtime enemy split the anti-Sandinista vote and win last November’s election.

The bitter irony for some Bush administration officials is that North is a hero to many on the Right because, as a National Security Council aide in the 1980s, he spearheaded Ronald Reagan’s contra war seeking to oust Ortega and the leftist Sandinistas.

But now North is coming under criticism for making a last-minute trip to Nicaragua and throwing his weight behind a right-wing candidate who undercut another conservative favored by the U.S. Embassy.

Ortega prevailed in Nicaragua’s Nov. 5 election by winning a plurality of the vote (38 percent) while two conservative candidates – Eduardo Montealegre (28 percent) and Jose Rizo (27 percent) – divided up the anti-Sandinista vote.
 
The U.S. Embassy was behind Montealegre, a Harvard-educated economist and banker from the reformist Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance or ALN. But North was persuaded by former contra leader Adolfo Calero that Rizo, the candidate of the Liberal Constitutional Party or PLC, had the better shot to beat Ortega, according to sources familiar with the inside workings of Nicaragua’s politics.

Calero sold North on Rizo by citing a poll from a little-known company that put Rizo in second place behind Ortega and Montealegre trailing badly in third. However, other surveys from better-known polling companies indicated that Montealegre was the stronger conservative candidate.

Some U.S. diplomats considered the pro-Rizo poll to have been “bogus,” produced on behalf of PLC leader and ex-President Arnoldo Aleman, who was convicted in 2003 of embezzlement and money-laundering.

Calero, “the old contra hero (who many observers believe had sold out to the convicted Aleman in return for a PLC seat in the National Assembly), took this fake poll to a gullible Ollie,” said a report summarizing the U.S. Embassy’s concerns, which was forwarded to me by a well-placed American conservative.

After receiving the pro-Rizo poll results from Calero, North wrote articles in right-wing U.S. publications disparaging Montealegre as “Foggy Bottom’s anointed aspirant” and suggesting that Montealegre had no chance of winning.

“Then to compound the confusion, Ollie flew into Managua in a private jet in what amounted to a high-profile, high-publicity endorsement of Aleman’s hand-picked PLC candidate Jose Rizo,” said the report reflecting the Embassy’s views.

“This publicity stunt had the effect of thoroughly confusing the ‘undecided’ vote in Nicaragua about which side the U.S. was on. The PLC ran TV ads with the U.S. flag and Oliver North to further the confusion,” the report said, adding:

“As a result of Ollie’s interventions, the undecided anti-Ortega vote stay confused and never swing as a block to Montealegre which resulted in exactly what Ortega needed – a right-wing split almost exactly down the middle.”

Under Nicaraguan election law, because Ortega’s total topped 35 percent and no opponent was within five percentage points of him, he avoided a run-off election and completed his return to power 16 years after he lost the presidency to another U.S.-supported candidate, Violeta Chamorro.

Ortega’s Twisted Trail

Ortega, now 61, began his political career as a revolutionary leader battling the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. In 1979, Somoza fled and the Sandinistas took power, with Ortega emerging as the nation’s leader.

In those early days, the Sandinistas enjoyed broad popular support as they initiated social reforms, such as literacy programs and expanded medical care.

However, the Reagan administration viewed the Sandinista regime as a “Soviet beachhead” on the American mainland and authorized covert CIA assistance given to remnants of Somoza’s National Guard who organized a rebel force known as the contras.

As the CIA-backed contras stepped up attacks on Nicaraguan towns from bases in Honduras, the contras developed a reputation for brutality, corruption and ineffectiveness. In 1984, Congress cut off the CIA's contra funding. That same year, Ortega won an election that most international observers judged fair but which President Reagan denounced as a “sham.”

Rather than accept the Sandinista victory and the congressional contra cut-off, Reagan turned to an NSC aide, Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North, to keep the contra force together by arranging outside funding and weapons shipments.

In June 1985, while working for the Associated Press, I wrote the first article mentioning North’s secret contra-support operation. By June 1986, a follow-up story that I co-wrote with Brian Barger cited 24 sources describing North’s not-so-covert activities.

That story prompted the House Intelligence Committee under Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Indiana, to question North and his White House superiors in August 1986. When North and his bosses denied the AP story, Hamilton and other committee members, including then-Rep. Dick Cheney, R-Wyoming, agreed to drop the investigation.

But one of North’s supply planes was shot down inside Nicaragua in October 1986 and surviving crew member Eugene Hasenfus began describing the inner workings of the operation. The White House cover-up unraveled.

In November 1986, an internal White House investigation also discovered that North had diverted profits from secret arms sales to Iran to help finance the contras. As this Iran-Contra scandal exploded, Reagan fired North and the White House sought to put the blame on him and other “men of zeal.”

But North emerged in 1987 as the star of the congressional Iran-Contra hearings, a beloved figure to many conservatives. Though found guilty of criminal offenses stemming from the scandal, North had his convictions overturned by two right-wing judges on the federal appeals court in Washington – Laurence Silberman and David Sentelle.

North went on to a successful career as an author, talk-show host and Fox News correspondent.

Meanwhile, in the late 1980s, the Sandinista government continued to struggle against a tough U.S.-led economic embargo and the continuing violence from the contras who were again receiving financial aid from the U.S. government.

When Ortega stood for election in 1990, Washington supported his chief opponent, Violeta Chamorro. Besides funneling millions of dollars into Chamorro's campaign, George H.W. Bush’s administration made clear that the embargo and other pressures would end only if Nicaragua’s voters rejected the Sandinistas.

Exhausted by a decade of violence and worsening poverty, the voters did just that, acquiescing to American demands and electing Chamorro as president. Ortega accepted the election results and stepped down.

After Chamorro’s presidency ended, other conservative candidates managed to keep control of Nicaragua’s presidency, regularly defeating Ortega and the Sandinistas who could claim the support of only about one-third of the voters.

In 2006, however, Ortega exploited the divisions among Nicaragua’s rightists to regain Nicaragua’s presidency.

The report summarizing the concerns of some U.S. diplomats lamented that second-place candidate Montealegre didn’t get a larger share of the undecided vote, which might have forced Ortega into a run-off.

“Montealegre needed only three to four percentage points more to have prevented Ortega from winning in the first round,” the report said. “Ollie helped ensure he [Montealegre] did not get those points and that Ortega is president of Nicaragua.”

After an inaugural celebration on Jan. 10, 2007, the Sandinistas are back in charge, arguably with the helping hand of old nemesis Oliver North.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Secrecy & Privilege: Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq, can be ordered at secrecyandprivilege.com. It's also available at Amazon.com, as is his 1999 book, Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth.'

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