Now, Nicaraguans are reeling from allegations that, from around the time of the revolution, comandante Ortega, who is still leader of the Sandinista party, sexually abused his then 11-year-old stepdaughter.
In one of the biggest news stories to hit the country since the revolution, the girl, Zoilamerica Ortega, 30, went public this week with something that had been rumoured in Nicaragua for years: that the comandante, now a 50-year-old father-of-eight, had had sexual relations with her.
"Ever since I was 11, I was sexually abused in a repeated manner for many years by someone who, despite his position as father of the family, abused his power, planted fears and uncertainties in me from the time I was a little girl and affected the emotional development of my childhood and adolescence," she said in a letter to the media.
Nicaraguans listened in stunned silence as it was carried repeatedly on radio and television stations. "To overcome the effects of this prolonged aggression, with all the harassment, threats, pressures and blackmail that came with it, has not been easy."
Mr Ortega and his longtime partner, Rosario Murillo, the girl's mother, later appeared in front of news media to make brief statements. His eyes red, the Sandinista leader, now in opposition, did not deny the allegation, saying only that "it causes us pain and sadness". Rosario Murillo, a leading poet and former revolutionary, did deny it, however, saying the accusation was "a total falsehood".
"We are shocked, we are wounded, we are hurt," Ms Murillo added, standing beside Mr Ortega. "This is a man of irreproachable moral quality. Why would she want to destroy this symbol of values and commitment? We have no rancour or resentment, we want to respond only with love. We want to keep this a family matter."
Zoilamerica said she was dropping the name Ortega "for ethical reasons" and would use her biological father's surname, Narvaez. Jorge Narvaez, long dead, was married to Ms Murillo when they were teenagers.
Nicaraguans debated whether the allegations, or at least their timing, were part of a political conspiracy.
Mr Ortega's leadership of the Sandinista party is in question and his stepdaughter, also a Sandinista, is vice-president of a committee charged with reforming the party.