Daniel Ortega: Return of the Sandinista

He was a Nicaraguan hero, a symbol of resistance to the imperial might of America, a compadre of Castro, an icon of the Left. Now, nearly 30 years after he first swept to power, Daniel Ortega is back - poised to lead his country once more. Is he about to declare a new revolution? Phil Davison reports
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The Independent US

Short in stature and wearing horn-rimmed spectacles, Daniel Ortega looked more like Buddy Holly than Fidel Castro when he burst onto the world scene in the days after Nicaragua's 1979 revolution. Today, 27 years on, the man Ronald Reagan called "the little dictator" and considered America's greatest military threat, is no taller and quite a bit podgier. The AK-47 is rusting in the cupboard and the glasses have given way to contact lenses. But he appears to be back in business.

Ortega, 61 next Saturday, looks to have won outright in Sunday's presidential elections, obviating the need for a second round. But is he still a Marxist? Should the US be stepping up security along its southern border, as Reagan said it should when Ortega's Sandinistas cosied up to Cuba and Moscow during the Eighties?

Don't be ridiculous, says Ortega. "Jesus Christ is my hero now. In fact, he always was. He was a rebel and a revolutionary. He always sided with the poor and humble, never with the powerful." Ortega attends weekly Mass and has publicly asked for forgiveness for the excesses of his first Sandinista regime. His supporters obviously bought his new-found religion, some of them calling him "Our Saviour" after hearing of his apparent victory.

His campaign flag and theme tune, he insists, said it all. The old red-and-black flag and silk scarves of the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) were still on show, but alongside them were flags and banners in Ortega's new favoured colour - shocking pink - chosen by his wife and meant to symbolise the new Ortega's softer, gentler side.

The old FSLN anthem, which included the words "let us fight the yanqui, enemy of humanity", could still be heard during his campaign, but it played second fiddle to Ortega's latest theme tune - a Spanish version of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance", which calls for reconciliation and whose refrain is "We all want to live in peace". It also gave a Washington Post headline writer the chance to come up with "Daniel Ortega, from Lenin to Lennon".

The man known to his supporters only by his first name - or as "el Comandante" - has long since given up the camouflage fatigues in which he toured the world in the Eighties, replacing them with a white open-necked shirt, blue denims and high-heeled cowboy boots to give him an extra couple of inches in height. As with Fidel Castro, the olive military jeep has also long gone and the new President-apparent favours a silver Range Rover, a burgundy Mercedes 4WD or, for dramatic effect during his election campaign, a white horse.

But it has to be asked whether the changes are skin-deep, designed merely to aid Ortega's re-election 16 years after he and the Sandinistas were ousted by a disgusted populace in favour of white-haired grandmother Violeta Chamorro in 1990. "Ortega is a tiger that has not changed his stripes," says the US ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli.

So fearful were the ambassador's bosses in Washington of this particular tiger, and of another Sandinista government, that they campaigned openly against Ortega and in favour of rival candidate Eduardo Montealegre, a conservative, Harvard-educated banker. Given Nicaragua's strongly nationalist electorate, such blatant support from the yanquis was effectively the kiss of death for Sr Montealegre, as former US president Jimmy Carter, heading an election-observer team, pointed out.

A visit to Managua last month by Lt Col Oliver North, the man who organised and armed the anti-Sandinista Contra guerrillas throughout the Eighties with the obvious approval of Reagan, did more good than harm to Ortega's campaign, particularly after North compared the Sandinista candidate to Adolf Hitler. Roger Noriega, a former senior US envoy to Latin America, was slightly more subtle, referring to Ortega merely as "a hoodlum".

As part of his new image, Ortega had shrewdly chosen as his running mate a former Contra, Jaime Morales. The fact that Morales supported Ortega was seen as an important symbol of reconciliation, particularly since Ortega, in the early months of the Sandinista regime, had expropriated Morales's luxury home for his own use. Ortega continues to live in the six-bedroom house in Managua's El Carmen district, justifying this by saying that he paid $2,000 for it when he left office in 1990 even though it was estimated to be worth $1m, including its furniture and art collection.

After the end of the Contra war, and his return to Nicaragua, Morales fought a long legal battle to win his home back, but always in vain. He said Ortega had commandeered the house the day after the revolution, by which time Morales had fled the country. He only learned it had been confiscated when his wife returned to Managua, knocked on the door and was answered by Ortega's wife wearing Morales's daughter's bathrobe.

Now Morales has given up the claim: "I'm not obsessed. I'm not going to spend the rest of my life shouting, 'Give me that house back." He has said he has never visited Ortega in the house.

While Ortega and Morales spoke of reconciliation, critics said their alliance was cynical politicking. Morales denied this, telling the Miami Herald: "I think Ortega has matured, learned from his mistakes, and has sincerity and a desire ... to have true reconciliation." Morales said that his own desire for improved relations with Washington would not conflict with Ortega's policies, despite the latter's anti-American rhetoric. "Times have changed," Morales, now vice-president apparent, said.

The long war with the Contras, who received almost limitless support from the US, was a black era for Nicaragua, costing 30,000 lives and setting brother against brother. With the added effect of a US economic blockade, Sandinista rule came to an end in 1990.

It was Jimmy Carter who was in the White House when the 33-year-old Ortega and his FSLN compañeros ousted Anastasio Somoza in July 1979 after bloody fighting against the dictator's US-trained National Guard. Ortega was hardly the most romantic or photogenic of the new five-member junta, but his communication skills pushed him to the forefront and he effectively became leader of the country.

Given Somoza's cruel dictatorship, Ortega and the Sandinistas became something of a cause célèbre to liberals worldwide, who supported their battle against Reagan and the Contras at the same time as they were campaigning for the release of Nelson Mandela. Thousands of students and hippies, including many from the UK, flocked to Nicaragua to "help the revolution" by picking coffee beans or simply hanging out drinking rum in Managua. As a correspondent in Central America at the time, I recall dubbing them the Sandalistas.

Revolution had been in Ortega's genes. His mother and father had both opposed Somoza, the former serving time in jail after her love letters were considered subversive. His brother died in the early years of the revolution, and Daniel Ortega joined the newly formed underground FSLN when he was still a teenager. His first "test" was to rob a Bank of America branch in Managua, to prove his loyalty and get some cash for weapons. Brandishing an automatic rifle, he passed the loyalty test but was caught and spent seven years in the cynically named el Modelo (the Model) jail outside the capital, often in solitary confinement, and forced to stand during daylight hours.

Friends said his spell in prison hardened him into the man who for a decade took everything the US could throw at him and survived - not to mention the man who eventually ruled much like a dictator himself, suppressing freedom of the press and jailing opponents.

After the revolution, Ortega visited Carter in Washington, purportedly to allay US fears of "another Cuba" and of the spread of Marxism through Central America. Carter was amenable to reconciliation but the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan, who became obsessed with overthrowing Ortega and the Sandinistas, led to a decade of conflict between Washington and Managua, pushing Ortega closer to Havana and Moscow.

"President Reagan, remember that Rambo exists only in the movies," Ortega famously told the United Nations General Assembly, to rousing applause from supportive delegates.

Helped by the popularity of his wife, fellow-FSLN revolutionary and poet Rosario Murillo, often described as "the power behind the throne", Ortega was confirmed as President in a 1984 election and he remained in power until his shock defeat in 1990. Certain he would win easily, Ortega had invited countless international observers to oversee the elections and had no recourse when his female rival, a Catholic from an aristocratic family, emerged the victor.

Before last weekend's election, Ortega had campaigned twice for president, in 1996 and 2001, losing on both occasions, partly because of his lingering reputation as el Piñatin, or the Piñata Man.

In Latin America, the piñata is a package full of toys or other goodies hung from a ceiling at children's parties. The children hammer at the package until the toys fall out. Ortega won the nickname during his presidency after he randomly expropriated luxury estates and properties and handed them over to Sandinista supporters.

His 2001 election flop could also be blamed on the scandal that had erupted in 1998 when his grown-up step-daughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, herself a Sandinista militant, stunned the nation by announcing that he had started abusing her when she was 11 and eventually raped her while still a child. Ortega angrily denied the claim, saying it was a US-inspired ploy by his political opponents.

He was indicted, and confronted with protest placards labelling him "rapist" when he toured the country. His political career appeared over, but his influence led to the case being quashed. His step-daughter was humiliated, and even her own mother, Rosario Murillo, labelled her a "slut". The scandal appeared to have been forgotten this time around as villagers chanted "Daniel, Daniel" wherever he toured.

Also apparently forgotten was his notorious 1999 pact with former president and former political enemy Arnold Aleman, later jailed for 20 years for embezzlement. The pact effectively gave Ortega and the Sandinistas control of parliament, the Supreme Court and even the electoral commission, which raised fears of ballot-rigging. But Jimmy Carter said after voting was complete that the election had been as clean as any he had seen.

Assuming Ortega's victory is confirmed, he will owe much to the death earlier this year of his former Sandinista comrade Herty Lewites. Lewites, a former tourism minister and mayor of Managua who had broken with Ortega in recent years, had been leading the polls in the presidential election when he died of a heart attack in July.

When Lewites announced his candidacy, Ortega promptly organised his expulsion from the FSLN, forcing him to run independently. When it became clear that Lewites's popularity was growing, Ortega ensured that he could not get permits for political rallies, barred him from using Sandinista flags or symbols, and even claimed that his rival was corrupt. (After Lewites's sudden death, however, Ortega praised his old comrade as a fine patriot.)

Before he died, Lewites said Nicaragua should not kowtow to the US, but neither should it be obsessed with Washington. "I think we should be respectful, but firm, with Washington. I think we must maintain good relations. Nicaragua and the United States need each other."

So will Ortega once again become a thorn in the side of the United States? George W Bush is certainly the ideal personality for a new confrontation, but he surely has enough on his hands without worrying about a little Central American nation, the poorest in the western hemisphere after starving Haiti.

"George W Bush is the Reagan of our times," Ortega yelled to supporters during his campaign. "The yanquis no longer rule Nicaragua. The US no longer rules Latin America!" That, of course, was a reference to the shift to the left in several Latin American nations over the past few years, notably with indigenous President Evo Morales in Bolivia and populist Hugo Chavez in oil-rich Venezuela, adding to Washington's ongoing conflict with Fidel Castro's Cuba. Chavez was one of Ortega's most outspoken supporters during the Nicaraguan campaign, backing up his words with a deal for cheap oil.

Chavez is expected to help Ortega finance social programmes in his nation of 5.6 million people, where many peasants live on less than a dollar a day, in crumbling shacks with no facilities, and have no access to medical treatment or education. At least one million children of school age do not attend because they cannot afford fees, uniforms or materials, and are forced to work to help their families earn an income.

Hence the cries yesterday of "Daniel's victory is a victory for the poor". Many peasants who voted for him after he toured the country handing out cash and medicines said they now felt they would have a voice in the Congress, the presidential palace and the government ministries.

"The triumph of the Sandinistas will raise the morale of all of Latin America," Ortega said during the campaign. "Other countries will say, 'Look, that little country got away with it, therefore so can we!' We will spread the revolution. There is an alternative to surrendering to the American empire."

Despite the inevitable nationalistic campaign rhetoric, and comments from Bush officials insisting "once a Communist, always a Communist" and that an Ortega regime would be denied US aid or foreign investment, diplomats familiar with Central America believe Daniel Ortega has cast off more than his horn-rimmed glasses. Carlos Chamorro, a journalist and son of former president Violeta Chamorro, agrees.

"He has grown up. He's become a pragmatist. The problem may not be with him, but on the American side. Washington is still living in the past. The new right who run Bush's Latin American policy are all leftovers from the Eighties. They still behave like we are in the middle of the Cold War. And every time Washington attacks Ortega, his supporters close ranks."

With the Cold War long over, not only Ortega's supporters but all Nicaraguans hope that George W Bush will refrain from attacking their apparent new president, even with words. The two men are, after all, both the same age, and both now, apparently, God-fearing patriots. And they both wear cowboy boots. Perhaps they might just get along.

A nation steeped in blood and mayhem

* 1937 General Somoza elected President, the start of a 44-year dictatorship ruled by the Somoza family.

* 1956 Marxist poet Rigoberto Lopez Perez sneaks into a party attended by General Somoza and shoots him in the chest. Perez is immediately gunned down but Somoza dies from his wounds two days later. His son Luis Somoza succeeds him.

* 1961 Using Sandino's 1930s guerrilla war as their inspiration, a group of broadly socialist revolutionaries set up the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) to combat Somoza.

* 1967 Luis Somoza dies and is succeeded as President by his brother, Anastasio Somoza.

* 1979 Lead by Ortega, Sandanistas topple the Somoza government in a popular revolution.

* 1982 US-backed, ring-wing Contra rebels begin a military campaign to oust the Sandanista government. Both sides commit numerous atrocities in a civil war that claims 60,000 lives.

* 1986 Nicaragua takes the US to the International Court of Justice. ICJ orders the US to pay $12bn in reparations for violating Nicaragua's sovereignty. US refuses to pay and withdraws from the ICJ.

* 1988 Peace deal signed with the Contras.

* 1990 As the economy spirals out of control, FSLN loses the elections to US-backed National Opposition Union.

* 1996 FSLN, still led by Daniel Ortega, loses elections for a second time.

* 2001 Daniel Ortega loses another presidential election, this time to Enrique Bolaños, who remains President to this day.

* 2002 Sandinistas re-elect Ortega as leader despite suffering three consecutive defeats since 1990.

* 2003 In a trial that grips a nation, former president Arnoldo Alemán is given 20-year jail sentence for financial fraud and embezzlement.

* 2005 Street protests erupt following widespread discontent at rising fuel and food prices.

* November 2006 More than a generation after he first swept to power, Daniel Ortega stands on the brink of a becoming the country's President once more. Jerome Taylor