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Democracy? Sure, just as long as the right guy wins

The Bush administration has been fond of proclaiming, "Democracy is on the march." And so it is. Not in Iraq or Afghanistan, alas. Democracy in those broken countries is on life-support. Other nations look more promising.

Take the United States. Democracy-deprived for the last six years - what with a neoimperial White House ignoring the parts of the Constitution Dick Cheney doesn't like - the midterm elections prove we haven't entirely lost our touch. And in Latin America, democracy isn't so much on the march as salsa dancing down the avenida.

Problem is, our government doesn't always like the fruits of all this democracy. Evo Morales, the new president of Bolivia, has nationalized his country's natural gas fields and plans to do the same with its mining industry. Michelle Bachelet, the new president of Chile, was tortured in the '70s by the Pinochet dictatorship the United States helped install. These leftists aren't the kind of corporation-loving banana republicans Washington prefers. Worst of all, Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader whose Marxist guerrilleros were, according to Ronald Reagan, "only two days' drive from Brownsville, Texas," has just become president of Nicaragua.

Naturally, we tried to stop his election. The U.S. ambassador in Managua openly supported Ortega's right-wing rival, ex-banker Eduardo Montealegre. Otto Reich, an adviser to George W. Bush (until he got caught egging on the 2004 Venezuelan coup-plotters, that is), also stumped for Montealegre. Other 1980s retreads, such as the felonious Oliver North, supported the even more reactionary Jose Rizo. North's endorsement did Rizo no favors. Neither did his association with former President Arnoldo Aleman, convicted of embezzling $100-million from the Nicaraguan treasury. Rizo came in third.

North took Ortega's victory hard. After all, Ortega was a Commie. North lamented, "It's very painful in a very personal way. I spent a good deal of my career trying to achieve a democratic outcome down there."

Not to mention spending a good deal of taxpayer dollars. Until North and his Iran-Contra co-conspirators got caught, they tossed several hundred million in illegal weapons money to the Contras trying to overthrow the elected Sandinista government.

But here's the cream of the jest: Daniel Ortega has more in common with George W. Bush than he does with Fidel Castro. Ortega, once what Americans would call a "Godless Communist," has become a devout Christian. He's antiabortion. He's a family man. Ortega and the mother of his six children, poet Rosario Murillo, were recently married in church, and by a former pro-Contra bishop, too.

These days Ortega is more about tourist paradise than workers' paradise. Thanks largely to American destabilization in the Contra war, the economy is godawful. Ortega vows to bring in foreign investment and make Nicaragua the new Costa Rica. Encouraged by local Sandinista mayors, fancy hotels are going up on Nicaragua's coasts. Ortega's even ditched the red and black Sandinista flag in favor of South Beach pastels.

A cynic might suggest that Ortega would do or say anything to gain power. He manipulated the rules so he could get elected with less than a majority of the vote. Still, Ortega won. America needs to get over it. Indeed, America probably helped him win by cheerleading for the opposition. Ortega is friends with Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. But he's not about to call George Bush the devil. The Sandinistas are more likely to call and ask for a business deal.

Unfortunately, Washington shows no sign of accepting the will of the Nicaraguan people. A cynical person might also point to the presidential waiver, quietly issued just a few days ago, allowing the United States to resume Latin American military training. During the Cold War, our School of the Americas, conveniently located at Fort Benning, Ga., helped train death squads operating in Honduras, Panama, El Salvador and other nations we feared might turn Soviet satellite. SOA graduates burned villages, suppressed dissent, raped and murdered. The SOA has been renamed, but there's no reason to think the results will be any different. We refuse to act on our own "democratic" rhetoric; we refuse to learn from history.

Diane Roberts, a former Times editorial writer, teaches English and writing at Florida State University.

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