My experience with Daniel Ortega, who looks set to become the next president of Nicaragua, is limited to having watched a couple of baseball games in 1995 on a Managua field adjacent to the gated compound where he was said to live. But even that might be ever-so-slightly instructive about what is to come next.
You may remember that, a quarter century ago, Ronald Reagan publicly fretted that Ortega’s Sandinistas–who overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979–were a mere two days drive from Harlingen, Texas, and presumably just waiting to impose their Communist ideas upon the Lone Star state. That was silly, but so were the American and European leftists who idealized Ortega as a beloved man of the people. When Nicaraguans voted in 1990, he got whomped by Violeta Chamorro.
Since then Ortega hasn’t gotten significantly more popular, but he has learned to work the electoral system. As part of a political deal to keep current president Enrique Bolanos from being impeached, the Sandinistas got the voting rules changed so that 35% of the vote plus a five-point lead over the next-highest vote getter was enough to win the presidential election outright (it used to take 45% to avoid a runoff, and Ortega always lost in the runoff).
But back to those baseball games. They were the championship series of the Managua recreational league, a best-two-out-of-three affair that pitted the parliamentary press corps against what was then still called the Sandinista Popular Army (and was still run by Ortega’s brother Humberto).
The army team was made up of a bunch of scrawny teenagers from the countryside. In the first game they played in mismatched T-shirts and the trousers of their battle fatigues and were embarrassed by the pinstriped scribes, TV reporters, and cameramen. The crowd was very much on the journalists’ side, and berated the handful of army officers present for the sorry state of their team.
A week later, the army boys had uniforms (although several players were still shod in army boots, and none of their caps matched) and they won the first game of a double header. But they lost in the deciding game–on a spectacular pitching performance by a knuckleballing reporter who had been purged from his job on the political staff of the Sandinista-owned daily Barricada a few months before. The Sandinista army had been vanquished by the press, and was perfectly sporting about it.
So now Daniel Ortega is on the verge of running Nicaragua again. My baseball-informed guess is that he won’t do a very good job of it (it’s hard to pull off a Hugo Chavez act without Hugo’s oil), but that he will more or less abide by Nicaragua’s laws, will maintain Nicaragua’s membership in the Central American Free Trade Agreement, and will not invade Harlingen, Texas.