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Nicaraguans in L.A. Gather for a President From Their Homeland

The reform-minded Enrique Bolanos receives warm welcome during a dinner speech.

August 24, 2003|Hector Becerra and Julie Tamaki | Times Staff Writer

Saying they were hoping for an end to decades of corruption and social injustice in their homeland, about 400 Nicaraguan Americans crowded into a downtown Los Angeles hotel ballroom Saturday night to hear the country's president, Enrique Bolanos.

"When we have someone like this president, who is struggling against this history of corruption, this is the response," Manuel Mena, editor of a Los Angeles-based Nicaraguan community newspaper, said as his countrymen streamed into the Radisson Wilshire Plaza Hotel.

This was Bolanos' first visit to California as president, and his visit generated excitement among the people who paid $35 apiece to hear his dinner speech.

"It's a joy that moves every fiber of your body," Myriam Paiz, 76, said of being able to hear the president of the country she left more than 40 years ago. The clerical worker at White Memorial Hospital in Boyle Heights attended the dinner speech with three of her adult children.

Among the dinner guests was Claudia Bermudez, 49, the daughter of Contra leader Enrique Bermudez, who was assassinated in 1991. Claudia Bermudez, who came to the U.S. as a child, described Nicaraguans' interest in government affairs this way:

"It's politics, baseball and boxing," Bermudez said.

Bolanos, who stopped in Los Angeles after attending a summit in Taipei, Taiwan, was inaugurated in January 2002. He swept into office with 56% of the vote, a 14-point margin over his opponent, former Sandinista revolutionary and President Daniel Ortega.

His campaign platform included fighting corruption -- efforts that led to the jailing of another former Nicaraguan president, Arnoldo Aleman, on charges that Aleman had stolen $100 million in public funds.

During a morning news conference at the Radisson Wilshire Plaza Hotel, Bolanos, who had served as Aleman's vice president, responded through an interpreter to comments Aleman had made about the money. In what Bolanos described as public letters, Aleman suggested some sort of quid pro quo for returning the funds.

Bolanos said negotiations and judicial rulings are unnecessary for Aleman to return the money, nor should Aleman expect to be released from jail in exchange for doing so. "In Nicaragua, there's no room for resolution so someone can be released from jail," he said.

Bolanos also defended the presence of roughly 100 Nicaraguan soldiers -- land mine sweepers and medical personnel -- in Iraq.

He noted the deployment had received congressional approval in his country and emphasized the humanitarian aid Nicaragua received from other countries after the 1972 Nicaraguan earthquake and Hurricane Mitch in 1998.

"Now Iraq needs help with mines," Bolanos said.

Among other issues on his mind during his visit was the possibility of identification cards, similar to the matricula cards the Mexican consulate wants to issue, for Nicaraguans living in the United States.

"There needs to be some kind of consular registry so that people have some identification, so that in case of an emergency, the consulate database could have information that will be useful in helping them," said Bolanos spokesman Joel Gutierrez.

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