Nicaragua's Ortega-Murillo power couple toppled a dynasty – only to form another
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Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, a former Marxist guerrilla leader, changed his political stripes and is now clinging to power alongside his wife and vice president, Rosario Murillo. But the people are growing impatient amid continuing unrest.
The Ortega dynasty dominates the power elite and leaves little room for opposition in today's Nicaragua. Likened to a real-life “House of Cards”, it controls the country’s presidency, congress, military, police and the courts.
For Ortega, it has been a long journey from his working-class roots to the pinnacle of power. In the 1980s, Ortega was a Marxist guerrilla fighter leading his Sandinista movement in their fight against the capitalist, US-backed Contra rebels. Three decades later, Ortega presides over an administration that pays fiery lip service to the “people’s revolution” – complete with giant, illuminated cutouts of allies such as Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez.
But Ortega is not a working-class street fighter anymore.
Hundreds of miles away from the capital Managua, in the country’s northern Esteli region, Ortega is wooing major US and Chinese companies, offering them tax-exempt investment opportunities in free-trade zones that boast low labour costs and easy access to the US market.
‘Commander Daniel, Commander Rosario are worried about you’
The revolution’s capitalist embrace was not visible at a public health drive in an impoverished area of Managua earlier this year, when a FRANCE 24 team met a health official peddling free tests to residents. Standing near a bus emblazoned with the ubiquitous images of Ortega and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, the health official was screaming above the din of revolutionary songs blasting from speakers.
“HIV tests! Check your blood pressure!” he cried. “Come, free consultations because Commander Daniel and Commander Rosario are worried about you and want to make sure you have all your check-ups.”
It’s a world away from the Monimbo neighbourhood of the western Nicaraguan city of Masaya, where a FRANCE 24 team last month found doctors and nurses treating protesters wounded by police bullets in makeshift tents. Anti-Ortega demonstrators were too terrified to take the injured to government hospitals, where many opposition supporters have been picked up by the authorities.
The government this week launched an operation to seize control of opposition strongholds in Masaya amid international calls to end the deadly violence in the impoverished Central American nation.
Journalists have been unable to enter opposition strongholds such as Monimbo, where they have been shot at by pro-government gunmen. But weeks ago, when a FRANCE 24 team reported from the area, the humanitarian situation was dire, with a local Roman Catholic priest delivering fish – donated by a supporter who had evaded government checkpoints – to residents.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In and out of the presidency
Nearly 30 years ago, Ortega – as a member of a five-person Junta of National Reconstruction – came to power on July 19, 1979, after the overthrow of the wealthy Somoza dynasty, which had reigned supreme over Nicaragua with US support since 1937. As the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) – or Sandinistas, as they were popularly known – Ortega was hailed as a revolutionary hero and a powerhouse in the junta.
Following the resignations of two junta members, Ortega gradually turned into the face of the Sandinista movement, a perception that was reinforced after his victory in the 1984 elections.
After three presidential election victories, he was defeated in 1990 and spent the next 17 years in the opposition. He returned to the presidency in the 2006 election.
An ideological shift
But when he returned to power, the one-time admirer of revolutionary Ché Guevara had experienced a metamorphosis. The new, older Ortega had abandoned his Marxist ideals for more pragmatic policies.
This involved a balancing act, with Ortega attempting to woo the business community and reassure international lenders and institutions such as the IMF while swearing allegiance to Venezuelan strongman Hugo Chavez, whose petro-dollars and aid disbursements funded the Nicaraguan government's social programmes.
But while most leaders of developing countries formerly in the non-aligned or Soviet bloc were making similar ideological adjustments, Ortega’s path was taking an alarmingly authoritarian turn.
In 2012 for instance, despite a constitutional ban, he pressured the Nicaraguan Supreme Court – composed mostly of Sandinistas – to authorise his bid for a second consecutive presidential term.
‘Comrade’ to some, ‘witch’ to others
The rebranding of Ortega from Marxist revolutionary to a pragmatic leader was achieved with the help of his longtime partner, Rosario Murillo, who he finally married in 2005.
The church ceremony during an election campaign year marked the birth of a new Ortega image, carefully managed by Murillo, an eccentric poetess whose oeuvre is mainly comprised of erotic poetry.
Murillo, 67, who is the mother of six of Ortega’s eight children, stood by her man and sided against her daughter Zoilamerica when she accused her stepfather of sexually molesting her from the age of 11 and raping her after she turned 15.
As the Nicaraguan press began revealing details of the allegations, including the prosecution charge sheet, Ortega’s political career appeared doomed, with the former guerilla leader facing crowds waving placards reading, “Rapist Daniel” in some of the poorer neighbourhoods of Managua.
Murillo, however, maintained that her daughter was mentally unstable and the case was thrown out by the Supreme Court in 2001 due to the expiration of the statute of limitations.
The controversial first lady of Nicaragua likes to be called “Comrade Rosario” but in many parts of the country she is less flatteringly dubbed “La Chamuca”, meaning witch or she-devil.
In an interview with AFP, Gioconda Belli, a writer turned government opponent, claimed that both Ortega and Murillo were "Machiavellian in the sense that, for them, the end justifies the means".
Ortega had the constitution amended in 2014 so he could run for a new presidential term in 2016 and make his wife the vice president.
By the end of the contested presidential election, the couple's authoritarian turn was complete. The Ortega dynasty gradually assumed control of the police, army, judiciary and media. Most of the Ortega children occupy important positions in politics, economics and the media.
For a man who overthrew a wealthy dynasty, allegedly to usher in an egalitarian society, the transformation has been absolute.
As security forces have been crushing opposition demonstrations over the past three months, Murillo has described the violence as "a period of darkness" caused by "malignant" forces. In his rare public comments, Ortega speaks of "peace", "love" and "god", reinforcing the image of a man disconnected from everyday life.
While international condemnation of the violence has mounted, the presidential couple has become increasingly isolated in their heavily guarded residence in Managua.