Ortega Saavedra, Daniel (1945–)

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Ortega Saavedra, Daniel (1945–)

Daniel Ortega Saavedra is the principal leader of the Sandinista Front of National Liberation (FSLN), was president of Nicaragua from 1985 to 1990 and was reelected as president in 2006. Ortega was born in La Libertad in the department of Chontales. His father was an accountant for a mining firm and fought with Augusto César Sandino's army in the 1920s. His parents were arrested by Anastasio Somoza García in the 1940s. Ortega attended private church schools in Managua and met Jaime Wheelock at the Christian Brothers Pedagogic Institute. He studied briefly for the priesthood in El Salvador, under the direction of the Nicaraguan bishop Miguel Obando y Bravo. However, Ortega soon returned to Nicaragua and increased his activities in the Nicaraguan Patriotic Youth organization in the early 1960s. For a short time he attended law school at the University of Central America, where he focused on organizing student protests.

Ortega made contact with the Sandinista leadership and joined the guerrilla ranks in 1963. He was arrested for trying to seize a National Guard post and for bombing vehicles at the U.S. embassy. In 1964 Ortega was detained in Guatemala for illegal political activity and turned over to the Nicaraguan government. He was severely tortured; this led to his involvement in the assassination of a National Guard officer in October 1967. The following month he was charged with bank robbery and sentenced to eight years in prison. While in jail he studied law, history, and geography. He also wrote poems, one of which was titled "I Never Saw Managua When the Miniskirt Was in Style." A Sandinista raid on the Christmas party of a wealthy landowner freed Ortega in a prisoner-hostage exchange in December 1974. He joined the Sandinista National Directorate in 1975, and helped his brother Humberto develop the Tercerista insurrectionist strategy that was successful against the National Guard in the late 1970s. He rarely made statements for attribution before the victory, and allowed Humberto to speak for the Terceristas. He was part of the reunified guerrilla leadership that directed the final offensive from March to July 1979.

After the fall of the Somoza regime, Ortega became a member of the Governing Junta of National Reconstruction. He emerged as the principal representative of the junta and the Sandinistas, and traveled frequently in Latin America, Europe, and Asia as Nicaragua's chief diplomat. Following the resignation of two non-Sandinista members of the junta in April 1980, Ortega became a dominant political figure of the revolution. He was selected as the Sandinista presidential candidate for the November 1984 election, which he won by a landslide with 67 percent of the popular vote after the main opposition candidate pulled out of the race in protest of alleged press restrictions and intimidation.

Ortega assumed the presidency in January 1985 for a six-year term. One of his first acts was to centralize economic planning in the Executive Committee of the President. The foremost tasks of his government were creating a new constitution and defending the country from counterrevolutionary threats. Ortega divided his time between the constitutional debate, national economic planning, and international diplomacy. He gained the reputation of a pragmatist with a knack for political gamesmanship. His good relationship with the Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev (b. 1931) brought economic and military aid to Nicaragua from the Soviet Union at the height of the war with the Contras, the armed opponents of the Sandinista government.

The Contras formed in 1980 and 1981 around two dozen national guard officers of the ousted Somoza regime. As the civil war intensified, the United States Central Intelligence Agency assisted in the expansion of the Contra leadership to disaffected moderate supporters of the revolution and the broadening of its popular base among peasants and indigenous peoples of the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua. Ortega frequently traveled to Eastern Europe to consult with heads of state and secure support for Nicaragua against the United States. Moreover, he played a key role in the negotiation of the Central American peace plan that was initiated by Costa Rican president Oscar Arias in February 1987.

Toward the end of his term, Ortega implemented an economic austerity plan intended to control hyperinflation, encourage greater productivity, and reduce public spending. At the same time, Ortega opened lines of communication with the internal opposition and business community. Much of his political behavior in the late 1980s was in anticipation of the presidential election of February 1990. Ortega had to confront the military threat of the Contra force and the electoral challenge of a fourteen-party opposition coalition, the Nicaraguan Opposition Union (UNO). Once again, Ortega headed the Sandinista ticket. A large part of the female population and many peasants and young males rejected Ortega in favor of UNO candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. In the wake of defeat, Ortega promised supporters that his party would "govern from below," and that the Sandinista revolution would continue.

Ortega retained his place on the Sandinista National Directorate and his title "Commander of the Revolution." At the first party congress in July 1991 he was elected general secretary by a unanimous vote. This was the first time the Sandinistas had chosen a party secretary to oversee day-to-day activities. At the meeting Ortega delivered a three-hour speech that recognized the mistakes of the Sandinista revolutionary government but called on the members to defend their right to rebellion. In September 1991 he replaced Sergio Ramírez Mercado as leader of the Sandinista deputies in the National Assembly. This was attributed to Ortega's role as head of the party and his more aggressive political style. He has traveled widely as a self-proclaimed emissary of peace, most notably during the Iraqi occupation of Kuwait in late 1990.

Ortega maintained his authority in the FSLN, but alienated several elements of the party base in rural areas and among intellectuals and professionals. He ran unsuccessfully for the presidency as the Sandinista candidate in 1996 and 2001. In 1999 the FSLN reached an agreement with the government of Arnoldo Alemán and the Constitutionalist Liberal Party to reduce the minimum percentage of the national vote required by the constitution to win the presidency from 45 percent to 35 percent.

As the November 2006 presidential election approached, Ortega declared publicly that he was no longer a revolutionary and changed the banner colors displayed in his campaign from the distinctive Sandinista red and black. He courted conservative Catholic voters with his support of a national law banning abortion under any circumstances. He also selected Jaime Morales Carazo as his vice presidential running mate in a move to gain the confidence of the business sector. Morales Carazo is a prominent business figure whose property was confiscated by the FSLN in the 1980s, including his house in Managua in which Ortega continues to live. On November 5, 2006, Ortega won just under 38 percent of the national vote, carrying him to the presidency for a five-year term. The FSLN won 37 of 91 legislative seats, and pluralities or majorities in 12 of 19 departments.

See alsoBarrios de Chamorro, Violeta; Nicaragua; Nicaragua, Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).


"Carter destaca integridad de elecciones." La Prensa (Managua), November 7, 2006. Available from http://www.laprensa.com.ni/archivo/2006/noviembre/17/elecciones/noticias/154838.shtml.

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García Márquez, Gabriel, ed. Los Sandinistas. Bogotá, Colombia: Editorial veja Negra, 1979.

Gilbert, Dennis. Sandinistas: The Party and the Revolution. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1988.

Selser, Gabriela. "Defender nuestro derecho a la rebelión." Barricada, July 1, 1991.

United States Department of State, Bureau of Public Affairs. Nicaraguan Biographies: A Resource Book. Washington, DC: Author, 1988.

Vargas, Vargas, Oscár René. Adónde va Nicaragua? Managua, Nicaragua: Ediciones Nicarao, 1991.

                                    Mark Everingham