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The Meaning of Daniel Ortega's Rise

The Journal Editorial Report

Paul Gigot: This week on "The Journal Editorial Report," Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega is back in Nicaragua. But he's not the only leftist leader threatening American interests in Latin America. We'll take a special look at the return of extremism to the Western Hemisphere. Plus, a powerful Democrat calls for the return of the military draft. Is this a real solution or political posturing? Those topics, plus a special holiday weekend edition of our weekly "Hits and Misses," but first, these headlines.

Gigot: Welcome to "The Journal Editorial Report." I'm Paul Gigot. Nearly 30 years after he swept to power, Daniel Ortega is back in Nicaragua, having claimed almost 38% of the vote for president earlier this month.

Ortega the revolutionary was trained in Cuba during the 1970s and returned home to lead a violent campaign against the American-backed Somoza regime. In 1985, Ortega was elected president of Nicaragua. Ortega's Sandinista regime was opposed by the United States and is perhaps best known as the end-point for money raised by selling arms in the Iran-contra scandal of the 1980s. After a successful democratic uprising, Ortega was ousted from power in 1990 and has since run unsuccessfully for president twice.

But now, with the support of Hugo Chavez, Ortega is back, joining the ranks of other leftist leaders in Latin America, who are threatening American interests in our own backyard. Joining us now is Wall Street Journal columnist and editorial board member Mary O'Grady. Mary, welcome.

O'Grady: Thanks, Paul.

Gigot: You've covered Latin America for a while. And we've seen these waves of left-wing populism before. Why is it returning now?

O'Grady: Well, I think the main reason it's returning is because the reforms that were undertaken in the 1990s did not go far enough.

Gigot: The economic free-market reforms?

O'Grady: Yeah. And I think people didn't feel the benefits of those reforms enough. So when a new populist comes on stage offering the old kind of handouts from government, it's very attractive to people who didn't participate in the last round. And I think what's interesting is you see places like Mexico, where the reforms did make some progress, and you don't have that kind of a backlash. But in other places, where the reforms really didn't give much to people, they're looking for something else.

Gigot: Well, we've had Hugo Chavez in Venezuela; we have Evo Morales in Bolivia; and we have Ortega now coming back in Nicaragua. Is this wave going to stop there, or is it a bigger threat that might spread throughout the region?

O'Grady: Well, all those countries you just named are countries that did not do well under their reform programs. They did very poor reform programs. So I don't think it will spread to places like Mexico or El Salvador or even Chile. Those countries have done well under a more modern liberal economic program. I think where there is risk is perhaps in Ecuador now, where there is a runoff on Sunday. And I think that's about it. I don't think it is going to go much further than that.

Gigot: Ortega would not have won--he didn't win a majority as it is. He just won a plurality. But he would not have won if the center-right parties had not been divided. And now he's promising that he's changed, he's reformed, he's going to govern differently. What prospects do you put on that bet?

O'Grady: Well, you have to remember with Ortega that after 1979, when he defeated Somoza, he was never really a communist. He was really a caudillo, in the old sense. He took all the land. He grabbed it. They called it the big piñata.

Gigot: The big boss.

O'Grady: And that's really what he's interested in, running his businesses. The Sandinistas have a lot of businesses, and they're going to need capital from outside of the country. Nicaragua remains a very poor country, and there is some risk that he makes alliances with Hugo Chavez. But he also knows that he has to have good relations with the U.S. So I think he's going to be better behaved, but I don't expect him to be any kind of a liberal democratic leader.

Gigot: Now, the most important country in the region for us, obviously, is Mexico, right on our border. But they had a presidential election this year where the center-right candidate won. And Chavez was a big issue in that election and maybe helped the center-right candidate, Calderon, win. Is there a backlash in the region against this figure, Chavez, and his left-wing populism?

O'Grady: Yeah, actually, I think that Hugo Chavez has peaked in terms of his influence in the region. I think that not only in Mexico, but in Peru, you had a very strong pro-Chavez candidate running, and people voted against them. They came out in droves to defeat, in both cases, the pro-Chavez candidate.

Gigot: What is going to happen in Mexico? We have the new president about to be inaugurated. Yet we have the losing candidate, a kind of populist left-winger, who's saying, Look, I didn't lose. It was a close election, and I'm not going to recognize this--the legitimacy of this election. Are we facing some kind of major showdown?

O'Grady: Well, Dec. 1 is going to be a big day, because that's the day that Felipe Calderon should be inaugurated president. And in the month of September, the Lopez Obrador people blocked the president--the current president, President Fox--from giving his State of the Union address in the Congress. Now Felipe Calderon has to go to the Congress in order to be inaugurated. And again, Lopez Obrador and his people are threatening to block that process. So the big showdown comes on Dec. 1.

Gigot: Could it be violent?

O'Grady: I suppose it could. I mean, in the past three months, what Vicente Fox has done is just back down every time Lopez Obrador has pushed him. And in this case, if Calderon decides that he's going to go there and he's going to get the presidential sash, that could be a confrontation.

Gigot: But Lopez Obrador, the left-wing candidate who lost, has been losing popularity in the polls among the broader Mexican public. Is that not the case?

O'Grady: That's true. But what he has left is a very extreme--extreme and very hardened group of followers, who are very adamant about the fact that they are not going to change. And I think you are seeing some of that also in the southern state of Oaxaca. They're not necessarily connected, but it's sort of the same view, which is that they're going to reject the democratic process and use violence in the street in order to protest the presidency of Felipe Calderon.

Gigot: All right. We're going to see how the Mexican middle class responds to this democratic legitimacy showdown. Thanks, Mary.

When we come back, what will the rise of Hugo Chavez and his allies in Latin America do for U.S. business interests south of the border? Plus, don't look now, but one prominent Democrat is calling for the return of the military draft. Our panel weighs in on those topics and our "Hits and Misses" of the week when "The Journal Editorial Report" continues.

Gigot: Welcome back. The rise of Daniel Ortega was seen as victory for Venezuelan leader and American antagonist Hugo Chavez. But how will this new leftist alliance in Latin America impact U.S. business and foreign policy? Joining the panel this week, Wall Street Journal columnist and deputy editor Dan Henninger, columnist and editorial board member Bret Stephens, and we continue with Mary O'Grady.

Bret, you heard Mary describe the backlash in the region against Chavez and his populist left-wing politics. How big a threat do you think Chavez still is to American interests?

Stephens: I think Chavez is an enormous threat, and not so much because of the influence he has with people like Morales and Ortega, but really on account of his international connections. Chavez has been making arms deals with the Russians. He is very close with the Iranians. He is exporting--he is building Kalashnikov factories in Venezuela and exporting them who knows where. There are purported ties with--possibly with Hezbollah and other very militant groups. So in that sense, Chavez forms a kind of American, or South American, side to a broader kind of axis of evil. That is very different from people like Ortega and Morales and maybe even Kirchner in Argentina, who are really much more regional actors.

Henninger: Well, what's the one reason any of these people would talk to Hugo Chavez? He produces $20 billion a year in oil revenue, right?

Gigot: Can he use that weapon against the United States, Dan?

Henninger: I think--

Gigot: Because we but a lot of Venezuelan oil.

Henninger: We use a lot of Venezuelan oil. But I think we worry about oil revenue with him for the same reason we would have worried about it with Saddam, which is to say, you can go out on the market and help yourself or others assemble the ingredients of chemical weapons, biological and nuclear weapons. That's the thing we worry about most. And money is what you buy that stuff with.

Gigot: Which is mostly the money that he gets from the oil sales. It's not what--he could cut us off if he wanted to do that?

O'Grady: That's absolutely true. I think we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that he is increasingly less popular in his own country, and that's one of the reasons why he's doing all these things internationally. And this is an old ploy of Latin dictators. And he--the election on Dec. 3 could seriously challenge him. I doubt that he will lose, but how much he wins by will make a big difference in how he's able to govern going forward.

Gigot: What about U.S. policy in the region? Is there anything that we could do, Mary, better than we have been doing to try to head off this left-wing populist mentor?

O'Grady: Well, I would like to see an expansion of trade in the region. And I think that President Bush has tried to do that, maybe not as aggressively as he could have. But the free trade agreement with Peru and the free trade agreement with Colombia are very important to counterbalancing Chavez. Because he wants to have his own sort of customs unions for South America, and he sees that as a geopolitical tool.

Stephens: Yeah, and we don't help ourselves either with some of the subsidies to our own agricultural producers, which make South American exports to the United States much less competitive. That's a real issue with--

Gigot: Well, the Peru agreement that Mary mentioned, that's already signed, and it's before the Congress of the United States. And it looks like it may not actually even pass this Congress because a lot of Democrats now are saying they're not in favor of the agreement.

Henninger: You know, the Central American Free Trade Agreement passed by two votes. Almost every Democrat in the House opposed it. And the lead individual in the House was Sherrod Brown, who was just elected to the Senate from Ohio. I think you can forget about free trade in the Congress.

Gigot: If the Peru free trade agreement doesn't pass, what message would that send to Latin America?

O'Grady: We'll, it would be a very bad message, and it would strengthen, I think, Hugo Chavez's hand.But the other thing that's really very confusing about it is that we already have a trade preferences act with Colombia and Peru. And in that act, those countries get access to U.S. markets, but they don't have to reciprocate at all in giving access to U.S. producers. So it's really shooting ourselves in the foot.

Stephens: But the real betrayal here is to Latin American liberals or free-marketeers, if you will. Because basically, the program--the agenda of economic modernization and liberalization that they have run on, always implicitly has the suggestion that, elect them, they will have better relations with the United States, and there will be benefits from a better relationship with the United States. If the United States is going to throw up protectionist trade barriers, their chances of succeeding are simply going to decline, and it's natural that you're going to get more of the Ortegas and more of the Kirchners.

O'Grady: Yeah.

Gigot: So the Mexico--the victory in Mexico by Calderon, though, that was a very big deal, wasn't it? Because that--the rise of Lopez Obrador would have been a big blow to the modernization of the Mexican economy.

O'Grady: It was a big deal. And if you looked at how the voting came in, the top half of Mexico went strongly for Calderon--

Gigot: The most prosperous.

O'Grady: --which showed that people who participated in the benefits of the free trade agreement and the more opening of Mexico and the engagement with the U.S. want to go forward, want to engage more, and want to be part of the modern world.

Gigot: All right, Mary, thank you.

We'll be back after this short break. Coming up next, Congressman Charlie Rangel wants to bring back the military draft. Is this the long-awaited Democratic plan for Iraq? That and our "Hits and Misses" of the week when the "Journal Editorial Report" continues.

Gigot: Democrats won both houses of Congress earlier this month despite proposing no new course of action in Iraq. Now the first idea coming from a member of the Democratic leadership has been met with stern opposition from both parties,2 and military leaders. Democratic Congressman Charlie Rangel has proposed bringing back the military draft. Rangel says the conscription of Americans between the ages of 18 and 42 would make politicians think twice before sending American troops into battle.

Dan, a lot of Democrats, even, have dismissed Mr. Rangel's ideas. But is there a case for bringing back the draft?

Henninger: I don't think so, Paul. The fact that all these politicians oppose it, or it would make them think twice, is the reason they won't pass it. The Pentagon is adamantly opposed to it because they like the professional army they've got. Another solid reason for opposing is it would produce many more conscriptees than the military could possibly use. You would have to default to a system where you were drafting maybe one in 10 people, which produces real unfairness problems.

Now, having said that, I personally am not opposed to some sort of national service proposal. I think we are getting to the point where the average young person in this country thinks of his country in terms of stuff like the Chicago Bears or Coors Light, rather than actually serving their country. And there is an eminent Army sociologist named Charles Moskos, who has made a very interesting proposal, which is that you offer something like a 15-month short term of duty for college graduates in return for educational benefits. And they would not be the front-line troops. Those would be the real volunteers who would do this. These would be in support functions, like guard duty or peacekeeping. Or you could even have people serving in homeland security or in other national functions. I know there is a lot of big conservative opposition to things like this, but I really do think we have to find some way to engage people.

Gigot: There is this issue of democratic obligation, Bret, where all of the risks of--most of the risk, and certainly most of the sacrifices of this war on terror and the war in Iraq are being borne by the people who are in the military. Yes, they're volunteers. But this issue is how do you spread that sacrifice and that commitment across the broader society? And that's where, I think, the draft is something that people say maybe we should bring it back.

Stephens: Well, I mean, one of the arguments that people like Charlie Rangel make, and of course John Kerry famously made in his "botched joke" of a few weeks ago, is that it is not just the military that's bearing the sacrifice, but supposedly disproportionately the poor, the undereducated, minorities and so on. And, in fact, the Heritage Foundation did a study of just that, looking at the composition of the military. And their findings are really quite significant.

What they find is, for instance, the general population of the United States is 75% white, and the military is 73% white. They find that the median household incomes were--for military household incomes is $30,000 and up, which hardly suggests poverty-line. In fact, there are more people in the $100,000--who come from incomes with $100,000-plus, than $10,000-minus.

Gigot: So you're worried about--so every--

Stephens: But the point is--the point is that the suggestion that the military is unrepresentative, that it is predominantly poor or minority or undereducated is simply wrong. It is a representative sample of the United States.

Gigot: But what about this argument that the burdens have to be shared more broadly? Is there something to that? Because, I mean Dan makes the point about the commitment from the rest of society being engaged in this--in this larger struggle we're in.

Stephens: Well, but that's--I mean, maybe that's a moral argument, but there's also an argument about being able to carry out our wars effectively. And I think we've known for the past 30 years that in a military that is as technologically sophisticated as this one, it would be very difficult to reinstitute the draft in any way--in a way that didn't lessen the efficacy of our armed forces. And at the end, I think the strong moral argument against the draft is that you want the best military you possibly can have. We're not living in a world of a kind of Rousseauian world of the civic ethic. We aren't a Minuteman society anymore, and I don't think the founders envisioned us as a Minuteman society.

Gigot: And it is true that every officer, every general who comes in to see us, when we ask them about the draft--and we do every time--they all say, No, we do not want it back because it would diminish the quality of the armed forces. All right, Bret, thanks.

We have to take one more break. When we come back, our "Hits and Misses" of the week.

Gigot: Winners and losers, picks and pans, "Hits and Misses," it's our way of calling attention to the best and the worst of the week. To get into the spirit of the holiday season this week, we are selecting things that some prominent individuals hope will not end up in their Christmas stockings.

Item one, Al Gore isn't dreaming of the same thing as Bing Crosby--Dan?

Henninger: Yeah, the one thing Al Gore does not want is a white Christmas. I mean, these are the global warmers who have been telling us that Greenland is melting, and in the future we'll be celebrating Christmas like Australia--96 degrees in Bermuda shorts. So what Al's not looking for is sleigh bells ringing and Frosty the Snowman and a winter wonderland and Santa being pulled across snow-covered roofs by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Now, I'm not going to go so far as to suggest that Al Gore himself would make a great Santa. But I am going to say I'm wishing the senator a very happy holiday season, albeit one covered with snow.

Gigot: All right, Dan. Next, perhaps Steven Spielberg should watch some of his own films. Bret?

Stephens: Yeah, the director should not wish to get a compilation video of some of his goriest moments in any of his holiday stockings. He was recently giving an interview in which he called for responsible television and was decrying the blood and gore on shows like "CSI." Well, it's funny. I've seen a few Spielberg movies. And I can hardly remember a bloodier episode in any film I've ever seen than the first 20 minutes of "Saving Private Ryan," or some of the clips from his recent movie "Munich," or the movie--or the movie "Schindler's List." But speaking of children's movies, who can forget the scene from "Raiders of the Lost Ark" where the Nazi agent grabs the red-hot medallion and burns his hand? Pretty gory, Steven.

Gigot: All right, thanks, Bret. Finally, Fidel Castro should hope somebody doesn't come down his chimney this holiday season--Mary?

O'Grady: Fidel Castro has to be hoping he won't get another visit to his bedside from Hugo Chavez. It's bad enough to be terminally ill, but to have this bloviating, tedious Venezuelan by his bedside is probably reminding him too much of where he's going next.

Gigot: OK. All right, thanks, Mary.

That's it for this week's edition of "The Journal Editorial Report." Thanks to Dan Henninger, Bret Stephens and Mary O'Grady. I'm Paul Gigot. Thanks to all of you for watching, and we hope to see you right here next week.

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