Ortega Saavedra, Humberto (1942–)

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Ortega Saavedra, Humberto (1942–)

Humberto Ortega Saavedra (b. September 1942), Nicaraguan leader and chief of the Sandinista Popular Army. Ortega, brother of Daniel Ortega, was born in the department of Chontales in central Nicaragua. He attended private Catholic schools and later taught catechism classes in Managua. He joined the radical student movement in the late 1950s and became the leader of the Nicaraguan Patriotic Youth organization in 1962. He joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front in 1965. After participating in the Sandinista defeat at Pancasán in 1967, Ortega fled to Cuba, where he remained for two years. He contributed to the refinement of the Sandinista strategy and objectives during this time. In December 1969, he was captured after trying to free Carlos Fonseca from a Costa Rican jail. He was handed over to the Nicaraguan National Guard and severely tortured. As a result, he partially lost the use of his right arm and some motor skills. He was freed in October 1970 after Sandinistas hijacked an airplane in Nicaragua.

Ortega became a prominent intellectual force in the revolutionary movement in the 1970s. He argued for a strategy of popular armed revolt throughout the country and worked closely with Carlos Fonseca. After Fonseca's death in 1976, Ortega emerged as the primary advocate of an urban-based insurrection. This plan was the basis for the "General Political-Military Platform of the Struggle of the Sandinista National Liberation Front," published in May 1977. The document coincided with the ascendancy of Ortega's Tercerista faction and efforts to recruit business, religious, and professional figures into the revolution. Tactical alliances with the middle and upper classes were critical factors in the Sandinistas' success during the civil war of 1978 and 1979. Ortega directly coordinated guerrilla attacks on the National Guard with business strikes and urban demonstrations until the July 1979 victory.

Ortega was named commander in chief of the Sandinista Popular Army in October 1979. He became minister of defense in January 1980, a post giving him control over the air force, air defense, navy, and Sandinista militia. He held the title Commander of the Revolution and was the only four-star general in the Nicaraguan military. He managed the military buildup and recruitment process during the war against the counterrevolutionary force. He established excellent relations with the officer corps and was popular among the soldiers.

After the Sandinistas' electoral defeat in February 1990, President Violeta Barrios De Chamorro named herself minister of defense but retained Ortega as head of the military; in return he promised not to participate in partisan politics while head of the armed forces. This decision was harshly criticized by the far right of the fourteen-party coalition that backed Chamorro's candidacy. Ortega supported Chamorro's desire to eliminate obligatory military service and to reduce the armed forces to one-third of their size at the height of the conflict with the Contras. In September 1991 Ortega officiated at the celebration of the twelfth anniversary of the Sandinista Popular Army, accompanied by President Chamorro and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo.

At the Sandinista Party congress in July 1991, Ortega gave a strong speech in support of the neoliberal economic stabilization plan for Nicaragua. He also reiterated his assurances that the army would remain behind the administration under any circumstances. The Sandinista Assembly unanimously reelected him to the National Directorate during the congress, but he refused to reassume the post he had held since 1975. On account of political pressure from opponents in the National Assembly and legal difficulties linking him to the murder of the son of a wealthy family, Ortega agreed to step down as army chief in late 1994.

See alsoNicaragua, Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) .


Humberto Ortega, Cincuenta años de lucha sandinista (1979).

Shirley Christian, Nicaragua: Revolution in the Family (1985).

Gabriele Invernizzi, Francis Pisarri, and Jesús Ceberio, Sandinistas: Entrevistas a Humberto Ortega Saavedra, Jaime Wheelock Román y Bayardo Arce Castaño (1986).

Dennis Gilbert, Sandinistas: The Party and the Revolution (1988).

Humberto Ortega, "El ejército jamás volverá a ser el brazo armado del partido sandinista," in Semanario 1, no. 32 (1991): 8-12.

Additional Bibliography

Ortega, Humberto. La epopeya de la insurreción. Nicaragua Siglo XX, pesamiento y acción, análisis histórico, narración inédita. Managua: Lea Grupo Editorial, 2004.

                                      Mark Everingham