Central America: Ortega and Ollie--Again

The Bush Administration is increasingly worried that ex-Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega--once the scourge of the Reagan White House--may prevail in the first round of Nicaragua's presidential election Nov. 5. But it wasn't happy when another Reagan-era figure flew to Managua to rally opposition to Ortega. In a speech to a group of old anti-Sandinista rebels, Iran-contra figure Oliver North compared an Ortega victory to the seizure of power by Mussolini and Hitler--and charged that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was behind Ortega. The visit blindsided officials in the U.S. Embassy, who demanded to know why North was stoking old passions. North said he was simply responding to an invitation from his old contra pals, who wanted to give him an award. "I only go where I'm invited," he said.

Bush officials are worried that Chávez is backing Ortega financially. The Venezuelan president has signed a deal to provide low-cost oil to Sandinista mayors as a way of boosting Ortega's campaign. The prospect of another leftist taking power in Latin America prompted Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez to warn that an Ortega triumph might endanger a free-trade treaty with the United States. But officials are wary of saying too much--or backing one of several rival candidates--lest they too be accused of meddling.