At press time, with 91 percent of the vote tallied, former Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front claimed victory over his closest rival, U.S. favorite Eduardo Montealegre of the National Liberal Alliance, in the Nov. 5 presidential election. The official count showed Ortega with 38 percent of the vote compared to Montealegre’s 29 percent.

Nicaraguan law states that a candidate must have 35 percent of the vote and a lead of 5 percentage points to win the election outright and avoid a runoff. As early as Nov. 7, it was clear that Ortega was poised to become Nicaragua’s next president, 16 years after losing office. Monteleagre conceded the election that same day.

The Organization of American States (OAS) and Ethics and Transparency International, an independent electoral watchdog group, along with numerous other European and Latin American observers, commended the electoral process for its peacefulness, lawfulness and orderliness. Chief Nicaraguan election official Roberto Rivas noted, “We have promised the Nicaraguan people transparent elections, and that’s what we’ve done.”

However, the U.S. government, which has clearly signaled its opposition to a Sandinista return, attempted to present the election as “non-transparent” and fraught with “anomalies.” Together with Harvard-educated banker Montealegre, who said, “No one has won here — we are going to a second round,” the U.S. is trying to invalidate the proceedings or undermine the results through drawn-out legal battles.

Nicaragua has historically been a victim of U.S. imperial ambitions, from the neocolonialism of the Monroe Doctrine in the 19th century to the Bush administration’s “war on terror” and “free trade” agreements. It occupies a strategic position at the center of the hemisphere, extending out into the Caribbean Sea.

Notes Duncan Kennedy of the BBC, “From being a source of slaves in the 19th century, [to] the days they occupied Nicaragua in the 1930s, to the years of secretly helping the Contra rebels in the 1980s, they [the U.S.] cannot seem to take their minds off this tiny country.”

Weary of U.S. interference in Nicaragua’s affairs, interventions that have cost the country over 90,000 lives in the 20th century alone, Nicaraguans have turned out en masse to the ballot box, seeking change. Since the Sandinistas’ loss of power 16 years ago, the effects of what Ortega calls “savage capitalism” have been ominous.

With 80 percent of Nicaraguans living on less than $2 a day, this resource-rich land is now the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, after Haiti. The country’s greatest source of income is remittances sent from economic exiles forced abroad by a decade and a half of failed neoliberal policies.

Ortega, “El Comandante,” has been viewed both at home and abroad as a fighter for democracy and sovereignty in the face of the ravages of economic neoliberalism in Latin America. “He is the only one who looks out for the poor,” William Medina told reporters at a Managua polling station. “All the others are just for the rich.”

The Sandinista revolution of 1979, which Ortega helped lead, fought poverty and foreign dependency by redistributing property, fighting illiteracy, promoting gender equality and raising health standards for Nicaragua’s population, while fighting CIA-supported Contra terrorists in a civil war which severely damaged the economy and cost over 50,000 lives.

Those heroic days have not been forgotten. “He led us well in the 1980s and he will do so again,” noted Nora Ramirez of Managua. “Daniel gave us milk, cheap schools and good hospitals,” she said. “But now everything is so expensive and we eat refried beans and rice.”

It is clear that the election, which has experienced record voter turnout, is a referendum on “savage capitalism” and its failure in Nicaragua. Dispossessed in a resource-rich land, bloodied by foreign invasion and neocolonial dependency, Nicaraguans hope that with Ortega the country will enter a realm of new possibilities.