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Sandinista Split
Tim Rogers
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Former Managua mayor hopes to garner enough support to stand as FSLN presidential candidate in 2006.

Just four months after a decisive electoral victory by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the presidential aspirations of party reformer Herty Lewites have split the former revolutionary movement in half —threatening to erase its advantage heading into the 2006 general elections.

The FSLN, which won a majority of the mayoral seats in the November municipal elections, is now facing its "most serious internal crisis ever," said political analyst Carlos Fernando Chamorro.

Lewites, the wildly popular former mayor of Managua, and a self-described "Sandinista Light," is seeking to run as the FSLN’s presidential candidate. His ambitions have been met with hostility from Sandinista party boss and perennial candidate, former president Daniel Ortega (1979-90), who in early March mobilized the party leadership to cancel the primaries, name Ortega candidate and "dishonorably discharge" Lewites from the FSLN.

Who is Lewites?

Lewites, a 65-year-old Jewish businessman and former rebel gunrunner who was briefly jailed in California in the 1970s for smuggling arms to the Sandinistas, rejects his expulsion from the party and is continuing full steam ahead against what he calls "the Danielista clan."

"There are two tendencies within the Sandinista party," Lewites said. "The first tendency is for implementing a dictatorship, and the second tendency is for democratizing the party and the country."

Despite claiming that he is not a capitalist, Lewites made millions of dollars from "dollar stores" that offered impossible-to-find products during the economic embargo of the 1980s, when he served as the Sandinista’s Minister of Tourism. After the revolutionary government was defeated in 1990 elections, Lewites served one term as a Sandinista congressman before temporarily retiring from politics and purchasing an Avis Rent-a-Car franchise and launching the "Hertylandia" amusement park in Managua.

He returned to the public sector in 2000 as Managua’s first-elected Sandinista mayor, where he enjoyed enormous popularity. Mayors in Nicaragua cannot serve consecutive terms.

Now Lewites hopes to ride the public opinion polls, which still give him a 60 percent approval rating, into the presidency.

Doing so, however, means going through Ortega and the Sandinista hardliners, who refer to Lewites as a "Judas" and a "traitor."

Lewites now has 24-hour police protection, following an alleged plot against his life by Ortega fanatics in early March.

Despite the risks to his personal safety, Lewites on March 13 held a massive rally in Masaya —a traditional Sandinista stronghold— and drew more than 10,000 party faithful, nearly three times the number of Sandinistas who showed up for a similar rally for Ortega the week before. Most of those in attendance were Sandinistas who voted for Ortega in the last three elections (1990, 1996, 2001), and are now predicting another embarrassing defeat if he is their candidate again next year.

The Lewites rally, which featured revolutionary icons such as singer/songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy, poet Rev. Ernesto Cardenal, former Sandinista directorate leader Víctor Hugo Tinoco, and revolutionary war heroes Luis Carrión and Henry "El Modesto" Ruiz. underscored the depths of the internal party division that threatens to irreparably undo the FSLN as a coherent and disciplined voter base.

"The two dictators"; Ortega and Alemán

Lewites’ campaign strategy is to organize the party bases to fight back against what he calls: "the two dictators" —Ortega and Liberal Party boss, former president Arnoldo Alemán (1996 - 2002), who control the country’s political system through a 1998 power-sharing arrangement known as the infamous "pacto."

During the rally, Lewites blasted Ortega for allegedly planning to release Alemán from jail on the eve of the Holy Week holiday. Lewites warned that Ortega was obliged to free Alemán as a provision of the pacto. Alemán’s release was to occur either through Ortega’s support for a Liberal Party-sponsored amnesty decree in Congress or though a judicial pardon issued by Sandinista-controlled courts, he said.

The following day, less than 24 hours after the rally, Ortega asked to meet with President Enrique Bolaños and announced publicly that there would be no amnesty for Alemán, currently serving a 20-year jail term on corruption charges. Political analyst Alejandro Serrano said Ortega’s apparent reneging on the agreement to free Alemán is evidence that Lewites’ criticisms are having an effect on the way Ortega conducts politics.

Two political options

Serrano said Lewites has two political options leading up to the November 2006 elections.

The first, he said,"is for Lewites to generate enough support in the party to hold a primary election, which would be very difficult."

The second, more realistic option, Serrano said, is for Lewites to continue standing as a Sandinista candidate until he has secured enough of the party base support to run on another ticket and bring the votes with him.

By running on a third-party ticket, Lewites could also win a lot of additional moderate and disaffected opposition voters who traditionally cast their ballot for whoever has the best chances of defeating Ortega.

According to a CID-Gallup poll released March 15, 26 percent of Nicaraguans have a favorable opinion of Ortega, while 55 percent do not.

Approximately one of three Nicaraguan voters is not aligned with any political party, and traditionally vote against Ortega.

"There are a lot of voters who would support Lewites if he were not on the Sandinista ticket," Serrano said.

Some are predicting that Lewites’ increasing popularity and continued erosive effect on the Sandinista Front could end in violence.

Former revolutionary hero Edén "Comandate Cero" Pastora has prophesized that "the bloodshed will reach the rivers," and one local TV channel recently reported that a local astrologer is forecasting death for Lewites.


Herty Lewites
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