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Ortega, Daniel: 1945—: Former Nicaragua President, Revolutionary

Daniel Ortega: 1945: Former Nicaragua president, revolutionary

Daniel Ortega joined the revolutionary Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista Liberación NationalFSLN) in 1963, dedicating himself to the overthrow of the oppressive Somoza dictatorship, which had been governing Nicaragua since the 1930s. After years of imprisonment and exile for his revolutionary activities, Ortega led the Sandinista revolution, which resulted in the collapse of the Somoza regime in 1979. Serving as president of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990, throughout the years of bloody conflict between the leftist Sandinistas and the U.S.-backed contra rebels, Ortega secured himself a position as both an international icon and an influential leader of the Sandinista movement and Nicaraguan politics.

Learned Rebellion at an Early Age

José Daniel Ortega Saavedra was born on November 11, 1945, in the small Nicaraguan mining community of La Libertad. He was the third son of Don Daniel Ortega, who worked as an accountant for a local mining company, and Lidia Saavedra Ortega. When the mine closed down, the family moved to Juigalpa, closer to Nicaragua's capital Managua, where his father began an import-export business and his mother opened a bakery. They had more children, two of which would also become Sandinista revolutionaries: Humberto (born 1948) and Camilo (born 1950). Camilo later died fighting in the revolution and Humberto became a top military strategist, appointed minister of defense by the revolutionary government in 1979.

Politically influenced by his parents, who had both been imprisoned under the Somoza dictatorship, Ortega became involved in politics at a young age. He attended private and Catholic schools, developing a deep devotion to his religion, but he received much of his education at home where his parents tried to thwart the widespread American influences stemming from the 24-year U.S. occupation of Nicaragua between 1909 and 1933. They shared stories of former Sandinista leader Augusto César Sandino (after whom the Sandinistas were named), who had resisted the U.S. occupation until his murder in 1934 when General Anastasio Somoza Garcia seized power in a military coup. In a 1997 interview with CNN, Ortega described his earliest motivations: "I had a Christian upbringing, so I would say that my main early influences were a combination of Christianity, which I saw as a spur to change, and Sandinism, represented by the resistance against the Yankee invasion."

At a Glance . . .

Born on November 11, 1945, in La Libertad, Nicaragua; son of Don Daniel and Lidia (maiden name, Saavedra) Ortega; married Rosario Murillo (a poet); seven children. Politics: Sandinista.

Career: Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista Liberación NationalFSLN), Federation of Secondary Students organizer, 1963-65, National Directorate leader, 1965-66, 1975-79, Internal Front leader, 1966-67, Juanta for the National Reconstruction Government leader, 1979-85; Nicaraguan president, 1985-90.

Memberships: Nicaraguan Patriotic Youth, 1956-60; Nicaraguan Revolutionary Youth, co-founder, 1960-61; El Estudiante, co-founder and editor, 1965.

Address: Office Frente Sandinista Liberación National, Costado oeste, Parque El Carmen, Managua, Nicaragua.

After the assassination of Anastasio Somoza Garcia in 1956, Luis Somoza Debayle assumed his father's presidency and Anastasio Somoza Debayle took over the national guard, launching a major reprisal campaign during which political opponents were tortured and imprisoned, the press was censored, and civil liberties were suspended. This eventually ignited the opposition movement. Ortega took part in a widespread student struggle against the regime while still in high school, participating in protests organized by the Nicaraguan Patriotic Youth (Juventud Patriótico NicaragüenseJPN), for which he was captured and tortured in 1960. He went on to establish the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Youth (Juventud Revolucionaria NicaragüenseJRN) with FSLN's Marxist founders Carlos Fonseca Amador and Tomás Borge Martínez. He was arrested again in 1961, but this did not deter him from continuing his revolutionary activities.

Rose to Position of Power

Ortega began studying law at Managua's Jesuit-run Universidad Centro-Americana, but he soon gave up his formal education to follow in Sandino's footsteps and become a full-time revolutionary. Without any civic channels through which they could achieve change, leaders of the Sandinista movement came to the conclusion that the only way to overthrow the Samoza dictatorship was through armed struggle. The success of the Cuban Revolution had a huge impact on the Nicaraguan revolutionaries, with Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos acting as their main role models. They were also spurred on by the wars in Algeria and Vietnam. Ortega joined the underground FSLN in 1963 and helped organize the Federation of Secondary Students (Federación de Estudiantil RevolucionarioFES). He was again arrested and tortured for his activities. He went on to co-found the official paper of the revolutionary student front, El Estudiante, and was named to the FSLN's top policy council Dirección Nacional by 1965.

Ortega was put in charge of the FSLN's urban guerrilla wing, the Internal Front, in 1966. During this time, Anastasio Somoza Debayle was elected president and remained as director of the National Guard, giving him absolute political and military control over Nicaragua. As corruption and political repression increased, opposition to the regime grew, igniting a spiraling cycle of response and counter-response that threatened to destroy the country's economy and society. Ortega's first assignment was to rob a branch of Bank of America, an effort to secure funds to arm the revolution. The group was also responsible for the 1967 assassination of Gonzalo Lacayo, an alleged National Guard torturer. It wasn't long before the Samoza's National Guard captured Ortega, and he was imprisoned at the El Modelo jail on the outskirts of Managua. Political prisoners were treated with appalling cruelty, deprived of food and often forced to stand all day. This likely had a permanent effect on Ortega's personality, which has been described as "lonely, solitary, mistrustful, and hard" by his former deputy Sergio Ramirez. Searching for an outlet during his incarceration, he began to write poetry and caught the eye of fellow poet Rosario Murillo, who visited him frequently in jail and later became his wife.

When Sandinista commandos kidnapped Somoza's lackeys and foreign diplomats in 1974, Ortega was released, after seven years in prison, and exiled to Cuba as part of a hostage exchange. While there, Ortega affirmed the similarities between Cuba and Nicaragua, likening the Samoza regime to the Batista regime, both of which were backed by the United States. "I really felt transported to a country that was challenging imperialism, that was putting forward an alternative to capitalism," he told CNN in a 1997 interview for their "Cold War" documentary series. "I mean, it was challenging world capitalism and also the heavy weight of international imperialism. And one came face to face with these very spiritual, moral people who had a great fighting spirit." Inspired by this desire for social change, he returned to Nicaragua four years later to fight in the war against the government, leading one of the three FSLN guerilla groups.

Led Sandinistas to Victory

With weapons being smuggled into Nicaragua from Cuba, the FSLN was able to take up an armed struggle which led to the resignation of Samoza in July of 1979. Ortega was one of the leading commanders of the forces that ousted Samoza and soon became the head of the ruling junta for the Government of National Reconstruction. He went to Washington and the United Nations that same year in an attempt to neutralize a confrontation with the United States. "[We took power] with great enthusiasm and a great desire to transform the country, but also with the worry that we would have to confront the United States, something which we regarded as inevitable," Ortega explained to CNN. "It's not that we fell into a kind of geopolitical fatalism with regard to the United States, but historically speaking the United States has been interfering in our country since the last century, and so we said 'The Yankees will inevitably interfere. If we try to become independent, the United States will intervene.'" While visiting with President Carter, Ortega requested economic aid and material support to build up a new army. However, the United States perceived Nicaragua's communist ties a threat and took an opposing position to the Sandinista government. So Ortega turned to Algeria and the Soviet Union for support.

In November of 1984 the Sandinistas were victorious in the country's first democratic national elections, and Ortega became Nicaragua's president with 60 percent of the vote. Opponents charged that the Sandinistas had manipulated conditions during the election campaign in such a way that, although clean at first sight, the vote was actually rather tainted. The U.S. government of Ronald Reagan shared the opposition's criticisms and further intensified U.S. support for the Contra rebelsa coalition of dissatisfied peasants, former Sandinista allies, and Somozistas. Nicaragua's civil war had become a cold war standoff, with the Marxist-Leninist vanguard supporting the Sandinista government and the United States supporting the Contra rebels, who unleashed armed guerillas across the countryside. The result was a cruel and costly civil war.

Arguably it was the five-year-long U.S. trade embargo that succeeded in strangling the Nicaraguan economy and undermining the Sandinistas, bringing the nation scarcity, rationing, and endless lines which the Nicaraguan people would associate with Ortega's rule for decades to come. Within a few years, though, U.S. support for the Contras was shaken by the Iran scandal, during which it emerged that Oliver North was a lynchpin in a CIA scheme to sell weapons to Iran illegally, using the proceeds to fund the Contra activities. But it didn't undo the damage done by years of civil war and the U.S. embargo. Desperate for legitimacy, Ortega was compelled to accept a peace plan and elections negotiated by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias Sánchez, launched in February of 1987. The FSLN and the Contras signed a ceasefire agreement in March of 1988.

Relinquished Presidency to Chamorro

In the February 1990 elections under the Arias agreement, with international monitors in place, Ortega and the FSLN lost overwhelmingly to the UNO (Union of National Opposition), a right-centrist coalition led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, whose husband, Pedro Chamorro, was assassinated by the Samoza regime in 1978 for voicing dissent against the Somoza dictatorship. Ortega relinquished the presidency the following April, blaming the U.S. attack on Panama for his defeat. "It wasn't a completely free election because there was open interference from the United States, from President Bush, in the form of financial and political support to our opponents, as well as threats that the blockade would not be lifted and all the rest of it if UNO didn't win. The decisive moment was the invasion of Panama," he explained to CNN.

Since losing the 1990 election, Ortega has remained an influential leader in the Sandinista movement and Nicaraguan politics, remodeling himself a more democratic leader with the intention of meeting capitalism halfway. The FSLN has remained his personal tool, using strikes and the army to indirectly influence the politics of Nicaragua. However, the FSLN leadership has become more corrupt and undisciplined with time and Ortega's subsequent bids for office have all ended in defeat. His platform remained similar to his old modeldefending socialist ideals and fighting for a just and free worldbut in line with the new reality. Still, he lost an election bid in 1996, with 39 percent of the vote to Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo's 49 percent.

Ortega faced a personal defeat in 1998 when his adopted stepdaughter Zoilamerica Navaez, a militant Sandinista, accused him of sexually abusing her from 1978, when she was eleven, until her marriage in 1990. Ortega and his wife vehemently dismissed the accusation and supporters branded the incident a CIA plot. The incident threatened to destroy his political career. When he toured the barrios, Ortega required an assembly of guards to divide angry loyalists from protesters brandishing placards that read: "Ortega Violador" or "Ortega Rapist." However, he was never prosecuted and the case was dismissed in 2003, when the Nicaraguan Supreme Court upheld a judge's verdict that Navaez had waited too long to pursue the allegations.

Lost Third Bid for Presidency

Many predicted that the scandal would be his downfall, finally accomplishing what Somoza, Reagan, and the Contras never could. But he bounced back when the corruption of the conservative Alemán government enabled him to take up his cause once again, directing his campaign at the angry and dejected of Nicaragua, the world's poorest Spanish-speaking country. Ortega showed a significant lead the summer before his third election bid in 2001. However, he conceded defeat with 42 percent of the vote to Enrique Bolaños's 56 percent. His third loss could be attributed to a number of factors, including allegations of corruption made against him in relation to the last days of his government in the 1980s, the accusation made by his step-daughter, and U.S. interference in the election campaign, including critical statements made about him by the State Department which linked him to terrorism and highlighted his ties to both the Libyan leader, Moammar Gaddafi, and Cuban President Fidel Castro.

Ortega's critics have given him his due for supporting the electoral process in his effort to reclaim the presidency. "Although he's obsessed with his quest for power, he's committed to doing it democratically," former FSLN Minister of Housing Miguel Vigil told National Catholic Report. "More than any other elected politician we've had in this country, Daniel has a democratic spirit at heart." But after three consecutive losses, it may be time for another leader to take on the cause and for the FSLN to democratize internally and overhaul its image and agenda. However, they believe that Ortega's support will be essential in facilitating these goals.



Economist, October 25, 2001.

Houston Chronicle, April 16, 2003.

Monterey County Herald, March 30, 2003.

National Catholic Report, November 16, 2001.

Newsweek, March 23, 1998.

Observer (London), September 2, 2001.

Time Magazine, October 14, 1996; March 23, 1998.

Washington Post, November 6, 2001.

World & I, March 1, 2003.


"Daniel Ortega interview for Cold War documentary series," CNN, (June 12, 2003).

Kelly M. Martinez

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