Handsome rewards have befallen Ortega's defenders, chief among them Roberto Rivas, the head of the electoral council, a supposedly independent body.
"Rivas has a mansion in Managua, a mansion in San Jose (Costa Rica). He's got a private plane, which he uses all the time to fly between Costa Rica and Nicaragua and elsewhere. He's got all these fancy and expensive cars . . . all of this allegedly on a salary of $4,000 a month," said Robert J. Callahan, who left Nicaragua in July for retirement after serving three years as the U.S. ambassador.
Callahan said Rivas had helped Ortega carry off fraudulent ballot counting in 2008 municipal elections that allowed dozens of his followers to fill city halls.
"If everything else goes wrong, he can depend on Rivas to steal the election," Callahan said.
While the European Union and the Organization of American States will field observers for Sunday's balloting, the Ortega government has refused to accredit two domestic civic groups. The Atlanta-based Carter Center decided against sending an observer team, deeming the obstacles simply too great.
"There are widespread concerns about the potential for irregularities and for fraud in these elections," Maureen Meyer of the Washington Office on Latin America, a social justice and democracy advocacy group, wrote in an election preview.
Most of the focus isn't on cheating in the presidential race, but in the voting for the 92 seats of the National Assembly. The Sandinista Front currently holds 38 seats, the largest bloc in the assembly. It needs to win 56 seats for a super majority that would allow Ortega to change the Constitution, enshrining presidential re-election.
Even if electoral problems arise, they're unlikely to get much attention in Washington or European capitals, which are preoccupied with global economic instability, upheaval in the Arab world and withdrawal from wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Ortega remains loyal to Chavez, and is a steadfast political ally of Iran, Russia and Libya — before strongman ruler Moammar Gadhafi's recent ouster and demise. Hundreds of Russian-built buses cruise Managua's streets.
But global tensions no longer send tremors through this earthquake-prone nation as they did in the 1980s, when Nicaragua became a proxy battlefield between U.S.-backed Contra rebels and Soviet- and Cuba-backed Sandinista soldiers. Now Nicaraguans face internal problems largely on their own. Even steadfast Scandinavian donors have slashed or withdrawn assistance.
"We have great news. We are orphans of empire. ... That's the reality," said Cruz, who's a professor at the INCAE Business School, which has branches in Managua and in Alajuela, Costa Rica.
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