He led the revolution. Has he got feet of clay?

Fall of an icon: Allegations that Daniel Ortega raped his step- daughter have all but destroyed the image of Nicaragua's one-time hero
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The Independent Online
HE was a bookish, short-sighted, bespectacled version of Che Guevara, a young revolutionary whose only romantic touch was the red-and- black silk Sandinista bandana around his neck. The Sixties' style high- heeled boots were not a fashion statement, but simply to lift him up to something like average height.

But Daniel Ortega captured the hearts of the post-Guevara generation when he led the rag-tag men and women of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) into Managua in July 1979 after overthrowing dictator Anastasio Somoza in a guerrilla war that had soaked Nicaragua's streets in blood. As "co-ordinator" of the revolution, a man who had spent seven years in Somoza's jails, often tortured, no one batted an eyelid when the Sandinistas appointed him President of Nicaragua, a post he held until world pressure forced him to hold free elections in 1990.

As Sandinista leader, Ortega became the new symbol of revolution 20 years after Guevara and Fidel Castro had overthrown Cuba's dictator, Fulgencio Batista. And with Guevara long dead - killed in Bolivia in 1967 - and Castro deep frozen inside the Cold War - Ortega became the biggest thorn in the flesh of the United States, the focal point of Ronald Reagan's anti-communist paranoia.

His confiscation of property and land, including from American owners, did not add to his popularity in the United States.

Reagan called him a "tin-pot dictator". His successor, George Bush, called him "a skunk at a garden party". Genuinely fearing that the Sandinistas would spread their revolution north, up through Central America and Mexico, Reagan ordered border patrol guards in such cities as Brownsville, Texas, to be on extra alert.

More seriously, using the CIA, President Reagan encouraged and financed the remnants of dictator Somoza's feared National Guardsmen to form the "Contras" - short for "Counter-Revolutionaries" - a right-wing guerrilla group aimed at overthrowing the Sandinistas and restoring a government more amenable to the Reagan administration. Based across the Nicaraguan border in Honduras and Costa Rica, the Contras launched hit-and-run attacks, carried out massacres and engaged in combat with the Sandinistas, which left tens of thousands of Nicaraguans dead.

Like Castro, Ortega thrived on the Americans' hang-ups. He flirted openly with the Cuban leader and became chummy with Iraq's Saddam Hussein and Libya's Colonel Muammar Gaddafi. And like Castro, his image of pariah to yuppie America made him even more of a hero to socialist-minded youth and intellectuals around the world.

Young people flocked to Nicaragua to help pick coffee beans "for the revolution". Usually sandal-wearing backpackers with little money to spend on hotels with hot water, they became known as "the Sandalistas," revolutionary hippies.Even their Nicaraguan hosts mocked their body odours.

With the decline of the Soviet Union, and an increasingly isolated economy, faith in the Sandinistas faded throughout the Eighties. What had started as a "National Liberation Front" in the jungles of Costa Rica and underground in the slums of cities such as Managua and Leon, had become a disunited party, proven inept at managing the economy. Nicaraguans were increasingly critical of the ongoing war footing - though largely promoted by the CIA- backed Contras - and the conscription and budget needed to maintain an army seen only as a symbol of defiance against the US

But when Ortega, under worldwide pressure, finally held free elections in 1990, few doubted that his charisma would pull him through for a further six years. Probably because Nicaraguans had learnt to keep their opinions to themselves through years of dictatorship, as well as under the Sandinistas' no-nonsense internal security agents, the polls turned out to be all wrong. Conservative grandmother Violetta Chamorro won easily.

Ortega, now 52, has been opposition leader ever since, often disrupting public life by organising strikes and regularly threatening to take up arms again, a threat few, if any, Nicaraguans ever take seriously. In 1996 he lost again, this time to conservative Arnoldo Aleman, the current president, who had been jailed by the Sandinistas and seen his coffee farm confiscated.

That defeat came despite an American-style campaign and a complete change of image by the Sandinista leader.

Gone was the fiery anti-American rhetoric, replaced by calls for friendly relations. Gone were the horn-rimmed spectacles, replaced by contact lenses. Gone were the cowboy shirts with rolled-up sleeves, replaced by choirboy- like white collarless smocks. Gone was the old revolutionary Sandinista anthem with its exhortation to "fight the Yanqui, enemy of humanity", replaced by Beethoven's Ode to Joy.

Ortega even brought in former "Contra" guerrillas to his campaign, including the notorious Commander Mack, once photographed ordering one of his men to cut a peasant's throat, in an effort to win conservative votes. But all to no avail. Ortega lost again and, despite being re-elected Sandinista leader at the party's Congress last weekend, four days before his stepdaughter lodged criminal sexual abuse charges, few Nicaraguans believe he will be a presidential candidate next time round.

Even if the rape and sexual abuse charges do not stick, his stepdaughter's detailed allegations have undoubtedly hurt Mr Ortega's image at home and abroad. When she announced the charges on Wednesday Zoilamerica Narvaez, now 30, was heckled by a few hardline Sandinista women - shouting "crazy woman, degenerate!" but backed by other women chanting "Keep up the fight".

Many Nicaraguan women, including Sandinistas, say the party always had a macho bent, shown by the relatively few women given senior government positions, despite having served as foot soldiers in the guerrilla war and revolution. "Women were always manipulated under Sandinismo," Nicaraguan political analyst Moises Hassan, a former Sandinista, was recently quoted as saying. "It's a farce."