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Daniel Ortega

December 2009
Photo by Presidencia de la República del Ecuador

It’s an old story, too many times told. The classic versions were those of Napoleon Bonaparte and Joseph Stalin: revolutionary ideals shattered on the shoals of personal aggrandizement and paranoia; too close a tie between the fortunes of a particular leader and the fate of a revolutionary project. With Napoleon and Stalin it was the stuff of Shakespearean grand tragedy and resulted in the death of millions of victims. Thankfully, it’s a not a cast-iron law of history (as many on the cynical Right would have it): otherwise we wouldn’t have the Gandhis, Mandelas and Nyereres of the world. But it still goes on. Today it is a sadder, smaller, and entirely sillier set of mini-tragedies which are repeating themselves from Asmara to Harare.

Take Nicaragua’s re-elected (2006) revolutionary hero Daniel Ortega. You remember the brave and handsome young Sandinista leader from the early 1980s who stood up to Ronald Reagan and his lavishly funded Contras? Some 30,000 Nicaraguans gave their lives to defend an experiment in equitable development that had replaced the decrepit old Somoza dictatorship so favoured by US Cold Warriors.

Ortega, to his credit, sought election and endorsement by the Nicaraguan people, winning once (1985) and then losing (1990) and stepping down. Good time to leave the historical stage and let the Sandinista legacy and movement find its own trajectory, one might think. But power and privilege are addictive. First there was what Nicaraguans refer to as the Piñata, during which, in the last days of Sandinista power, a number of large estates seized by the Government were suddenly transformed into the private property of Sandinista officials, including Ortega. Out of power, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was gradually drained of its democratic character, with all structures of consultation and accountability eliminated.

According to former Sandinista guerrilla leader and Regional Affairs Minister Mónica Baltodano, ‘the National Directorate, the Sandinista Assemblies, congresses, consultative spaces… all this has disappeared and given way to a personal and matrimonial power structure and party organization’. Waves of dissatisfaction hit the Party as Ortega, his wife Rosario Murillo and their inner circle turned the FSLN into a vehicle of personal ambition. In 1996, recognized Sandinistas, including former Vice-President and FSLN parliamentary leader Sergio Ramírez, guerrilla commander and FSLN legislator Dora María Téllez, and renowned poet and priest Ernesto Cardenal, quit or were purged, forming a new political party, the Sandinista Renovation Movement.

Another mass defection occurred nine years later when Ortega expelled Managua mayor Herte Lewites for daring to challenge him as the FSLN’s Presidential candidate. Nor have the old comrades been left in peace. After criticizing Ortega while a guest at the inauguration of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo, Cardenal became the target of the President’s ire. The former Sandinista Minister of Culture, now 83 years old, found a dubious libel case against him dredged up three years after it had been dismissed for lack of substance. Intellectuals across Latin America defended the much-loved Cardenal, with the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano denouncing his prosecution as the work of ‘a deplorable regime’.

Ortega has also made his peace with the Nicaraguan establishment as he attempts to rebuild his political career. A good example of this is El Pacto – a deal between the FSLN and its longtime foe, the Constitutional Liberal Party of former President Arnoldo Alemán. This arrangement divided up power between the two parties. It lowered the percentage needed to win a presidential election in the first round from 45 per cent to 35 per cent, allowing Ortega to win the 2006 election. His running mate was a former anti-Sandinista Contra commander. Next, Ortega ‘got religion’, making friends with the Sandinistas’ arch-foe, the conservative Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. To prove the sincerity of his newly minted Catholic credentials, Ortega convinced the FSLN to endorse a strict anti-abortion law that makes it illegal to end even a life-threatening pregnancy. This move further alienated Ortega from Nicaragua’s women’s movement. They already had their doubts. Back in 1998, the Comandante was accused by his stepdaughter of sexual abuse. Zoilamérica Narváez claimed the abuse happened between the time she was 11 in 1979 until she turned 20. Both Ortega and his wife denied the charges, which never came to trial because of various legal manœuvrings. The charges can be seen in a 48-page summary on the internet* for those who have the stomach for it.

Nicaragua comes second to Haiti as the poorest country in the Americas – 45 per cent of the population survives on $2 a day or less. The Sandinistas’ continued electoral support is a sign of the people’s desperate hope for better days. Ortega’s electoral campaign promised a measure of economic justice, but so far the results have been skimpy. There have been reductions in educational and medical charges and some attempt to build up a co-operative agricultural sector. No small matter given the post-1990 history of governmental neglect of the poor. Ortega retains the rhetoric of the 1980s, inveighing against Yanqui imperialism while making deals with both domestic and international powerbrokers. He recently earned praise from the International Monetary Fund for restraining spending – they signed a deal that both parties regard as quite satisfactory.

Daniel Ortega Fact File
Daniel Ortega
President of Nicaragua
A founder of the Sandinista Movement; political survivor; revolutionary hero turned Caudillo (boss-type politician).
Sense of humour
The once-militant Marxist FSLN in its current governmental manifestation sent out a directive to all ministries to put up altars to the Virgin.
Low cunning
Ortega has set up a series of citizens’ councils to exercise ‘participatory democracy’. The head of these new ‘councils of citizens’ power’ is his wife, Rosario Murrillo.
‘The first year of the Ortega Government’, Mike Friedman, Monthly Review, 3 February 2009; ‘Nicaragua under the second coming of the Sandinistas’, Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 5 February 2009; Sergio Ramirez, ‘Nicaragua: through the abyss’, 3 September 2007; IPS; Eric Sabo, ‘Nicaragua’s Ortega Befriends Boxers, Contras as Support Wanes’, Bloomberg, 9 November 2008;;

This column was published in the December 2009 issue of New Internationalist. To read more, buy this issue or subscribe.

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This article was originally published in issue 428

New Internationalist Magazine issue 428
Issue 428

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