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Around the Jewish World Sandinista Leader Ortega Returns to Power, Worrying Nicaragua’s Jews

November 10, 2006
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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.

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