But in the absence of a post-cold-war sponsor, Nicaragua’s opposition is struggling to coordinate an electoral offensive against Mr. Ortega, whose approval ratings rose to 45 percent last month with the help of his Venezuelan-financed response to flooding that killed scores of people and forced thousands to flee their homes.
Mr. Ortega’s critics contend that he is disregarding the Constitution and turning his role as the largest Central American beneficiary of Venezuela’s leftist president, Hugo Chávez, into political capital for next year’s vote in November.
“Chávez is propping up Ortega’s dictatorship,” said Fabio Gadea, a presidential contender who led a contra radio station from exile in Costa Rica in the 1980s. He argued that the United States had “lost vigor” in its own backyard and done little, beyond cutting $62 million in aid, to stave off Mr. Ortega’s advances.
“Times have changed,” Mr. Gadea added. “The ones who must defend democracy are us, the Nicaraguans.”
Convinced that the election will not be fair, another former contra has gone further, taking up arms in the mountains near the Honduran border.
“The government keeps violating the Constitution as much as it wants,” José Garmendia, also known as Comandante Yahob, recently told a local newspaper. Though his financial backing is limited to meager donations from a mayor in the north, Mr. Garmendia said he would hunker down until support grew, arguing that “only a rebellion can save us from the abuses of Daniel Ortega.”
Nicaragua has spent the past two decades trying to heal from the civil war that tore the country apart and left 35,000 people dead. Mr. Ortega, elected in 2006 with a former contra as his running mate, has distributed roofing materials, pensions and property titles to families of contras who turned in weapons as part of a 1987 peace accord.
While a reprise of the contra war is unlikely, Mr. Ortega’s re-election push is reopening old wounds and, critics contend, sending Nicaraguan democracy into a tailspin. Some opponents vow to boycott next year’s vote unless Mr. Ortega allows for an overhaul of the electoral council that oversaw a 2008 mayoral election in which fraud allegations set off weeks of violence.
The political tension deepened when Mr. Ortega hinted that he would run for president again, despite a constitutional ban against consecutive terms or holding office more than twice.
“The right to re-election should be for all,” he told supporters last year on the 30th anniversary of the Sandinista revolution. “And the people should decide whom to award and whom to punish.”
Lacking the votes in Congress to amend the Constitution, Mr. Ortega turned to the Supreme Court. Six judges from the governing Sandinista party ruled that the constitutional ban did not apply to Mr. Ortega, but the ruling immediately caused an uproar because it was made when no opposition judges were present.
Opponents in Congress dug in, refusing to vote on replacements for important posts, including Supreme Court judges and electoral magistrates. Mr. Ortega parried, issuing a decree in January that extended the officials’ terms.
Two Sandinista Supreme Court judges put the decree to the test in April, refusing to hand in their gavels and leading a boisterous group of Sandinista supporters into the court. In a forceful takeover, the shouting crowd scared off opposition judges, who have since boycotted sessions.
Mr. Ortega then had the Constitution reprinted in September to include an old — and, some argue, expired — clause that sanctioned the extensions. Sandinista judges have also replaced the Supreme Court president with one of their own, rounding out Mr. Ortega’s control of the court.
Mr. Ortega frequently says there is a plot to overthrow him, especially since his ally, President Manuel Zelaya of Honduras, was ousted last year in a coup. Mr. Ortega said that by allowing a post-coup government in Honduras, the United States has encouraged plotters against leftist Latin American governments, including Mr. Garmendia, whom he called a “delinquent in the mountains.”
“There isn’t the least possibility of a coup because of the nature of our armed forces,” Mr. Ortega said in a recent address, flanked by leaders of the military and the police. “The army and police were born with the revolution and formed by it.”
Meanwhile, opposition candidates are competing to show that the United States is supporting them, despite Washington’s reluctance to engage in politics in the country that produced the Iran-contra affair. The American ambassador here, Robert J. Callahan, has cut back on public critiques of the political situation after Ortega supporters chased him from a university fair last year by hurling fireworks and attacked the embassy with rocks.
Nonetheless, a spokesman for Arnoldo Alemán, a former president whose 20-year sentence on corruption charges was overturned last year, recently claimed that the United States was backing his new bid for office, while Mr. Gadea said an invitation to a recent dinner with embassy officials was an American stamp of approval on his campaign.
“The U.S. supports my candidacy,” Mr. Gadea said in a recent interview at the home of an embassy official. “My discourse is in line with liberal thought and moral values that form the concept of American politics.”
Ambassador Callahan said the United States had not taken sides in the election. He announced Friday that Nicaragua was again eligible for an American aid program canceled in 2008 on electoral concerns.
The two candidates could keep the opposition divided. Though he and Mr. Alemán happen to be in-laws, Mr. Gadea broke from Mr. Alemán’s Liberal Constitutionalist Party to distance himself from Mr. Alemán, who was ranked among the world’s most corrupt leaders in 2004 by Transparency International.
Mr. Ortega, who was president in the 1980s but lost an election in 1990 as Soviet support waned, has received at least $1.4 billion from Mr. Chávez in oil, aid and investment to fuel his fight against poverty and illiteracy, figures from the central bank show.
The money has expanded Mr. Ortega’s political base and given him more of a stake in the economy through a network of companies that blur the lines between his Sandinista party, the state and the private sector, said Francisco Lainez, who founded Nicaragua’s central bank.
“The people felt a great change with Daniel’s presidency,” said a senior Sandinista official, Nelson Artola. “We’re looking after that change, protecting it.”
Mr. Artola’s work as director of the government’s reconciliation plan and poverty relief fund has helped appease former contras. He also leads the Sandinistas’ carrot-and-stick approach to building political support for Mr. Ortega’s re-election, distributing Venezuelan aid and government funds to mayors who publicly back Mr. Ortega. Less compliant mayors have been ousted, with the police dragging one from his office in June after an eight-day standoff.
Mr. Gadea said he would refuse to include any Sandinistas in his government if elected. Vice President Jaime Morales Carazo said in an interview that the re-election of Mr. Ortega could lead to dictatorship or conflict, adding that he would step down if Mr. Ortega won again. Mr. Morales, a former negotiator for the contra rebels, joined Mr. Ortega’s 2006 campaign to create a reconciliation government.
“All calculations pointed in his favor then,” Mr. Morales said. “Now there’s even more certainty Ortega will win.”
This is interesting. I'm iffy on Ortega, but I really fucking hate the Contras. And any thought of US intervention in Latin America makes me go D: D: D: D: D: so...