President of Nicaragua
B orn Jose Daniel Ortega Saavedra, November 11, 1945, in La Libertad, Nicaragua; married Rosa-rio Murillo; children: five children, two stepchildren. Education: Attended the Central American University, Managua, Nicaragua, early 1960s.
Addresses: Office—Presidente, Casa de la Presiden-cia, Managua, Nicaragua. Web site—http://www.presidencia.gob.ni
G uerrilla leader, 1967-79; member of Nicaragua’s ruling military junta, 1979-84; coordinator of the junta, 1981-84; elected president of Nicaragua, 1984; lost reelection campaign, 1990; ran unsuccessfully for president, 1996 and 2001; elected president, 2006; sworn in as president, 2007.
D aniel Ortega, a key Latin American figure of the cold war, helped lead the 1979 Nicaraguan revolution and then governed his impoverished nation for eleven years. An ally of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and the Soviet Union, a nemesis of U.S. president Ronald Reagan, Ortega and his Sandinista party pursued a socialist economic program and frequently restricted their political opponents’ civil liberties. Under Ortega, the Sandinistas fought a long civil war that cost 50,000 lives against the Con-tras, a rebel group funded by the United States. Voted out of office in 1990, Ortega remained the leader of the Sandinista party and ran for president again three more times, finally winning in 2006. Promising a more moderate political course than in his past, including respect for the free market and civil liberties, Ortega took office in early 2007. He immediately forged closer ties with the socialist governments of Cuba and Venezuela, seeking economic aid.
Jose Daniel Ortega Saavedra was born in La Liber-tad, Nicaragua, on November 11, 1945. His father had fought in Cesar Augusto Sandino’s army of peasants against U.S. occupation in the 1920s, and his parents both opposed the rule of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, son of the dictator whose National Guard shot Sandino to death in 1934. Ortega and his family moved to the Nicara-guan capital, Managua, in the mid1950s. Ortega embraced his parents’ views and was first arrested for his political activity at age 15.
In 1963, after spending a few months in college, Ortega joined the Sandinista National Liberation Front, a guerrilla group named after Sandino. In 1967, he was named the leader of the Sandinistas’ urban guerrilla campaign. That same year, the National Guard arrested him for taking part in a bank robbery, and he spent the next seven years in jail. He was released in 1974 as part of a prisoner exchange.
After his release, Ortega traveled to Cuba, where he reportedly received several months of guerrilla training. When he returned to Nicaragua, he worked to unite the Sandinistas’ many factions and form alliances with business groups and political organizations also opposed to Somoza. The Sandinistas’ guerrilla campaign became a full-fledged civil war with a late 1977 battle against the National Guard and an attack on the National Palace in Managua in August of 1978. Ortega and his brother, Humberto, led a powerful Sandinista faction called the Insur-rectionists, and Ortega became a top Sandinista military commander.
Conservatives in the United States were suspicious of the Sandinistas because they took inspiration from the Cuban Revolution of 1959, which had led to a communist dictatorship. Ortega told Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post that he was not fighting for a Marxist revolution, but for a democratically elected government—a point that would be hotly disputed for years. “We are, and have always been, for one very calculated goal—the fall of the Somoza dictatorship,” Ortega said. “We want the installation of a popular, democratic government that responds to the people’s needs, that gives the people work, that gives land to the peasants, and health services.”
The Sandinistas defeated Somoza’s forces in July of 1979. Ortega was part of a five-member military junta that took over the country. The junta seized all of Somoza’s vast landholdings and ordered the National Guard and Congress dissolved. “When So-moza was the owner of this country, he gave us the crumbs that he wanted to,” Ortega told a rally of supporters in August, as quoted by Charles A. Krause of the Washington Post. “When he saw the imminence of his defeat, he took the economy with him in such a way that we found ourselves with an empty house but with a great spirit.” The metaphor ended up being ironic. Despite his status as a leader of a poor people’s revolt, Ortega seized a mansion in Managua owned by banker Jaime Morales and moved in.
That September, Ortega gave a speech at a meeting of nonaligned nations, or developing countries, in Cuba. He asserted that Nicaragua “wants to invest in tractors and plows instead of weapons” (according to Karen DeYoung of the Washington Post). Later that month, he and other members of the junta traveled to Washington, where U.S. president Jimmy Carter welcomed them and U.S. officials discussed aiding Nicaragua economically. The Carter administration hoped to encourage the Sand-inistas to choose a moderate political path, but American conservatives feared they would form a dictatorship and export revolution throughout Latin America, as Cuba had. Ortega dismissed such fears as a “provocation” meant “to provide a pretext for intervening in Nicaragua” (according to John M. Goshko of the Washington Post).
Ortega and the junta began efforts to reduce poverty in Nicaragua, including better education to promote literacy and new efforts to break up large parcels of land owned by a few families. In 1981, Ortega announced plans for government takeovers of privately owned farms the government considered unproductive. He also pledged to seize businesses whose owners were trying to illegally move money out of the country.
The Sandinistas allowed only limited political freedoms. Soon after taking power, the junta passed a media law that banned privately owned television stations and gave the government the power to fine newspapers and radio stations and order them to temporarily halt publishing or broadcasting. In 1981, after members of a business group published an open letter criticizing some statements by Ortega and Nicaragua’s growing alignment with the Soviet Union, the Sandinistas jailed them. The opposition newspaper La Prensa was sometimes censored and attacked by mobs on a few occasions, though it continued publication.
In November of 1980, Carter lost the U.S. presidential election to Ronald Reagan, who had criticized Carter for his willingness to reach out to the Sandinistas. The United States cut off most of its aid to Nicaragua in 1981, accusing the country of obtaining weapons from Cuba and expressing suspicion that its military buildup was part of an offensive, not defensive, strategy. Ortega, meanwhile, repeatedly warned Nicaraguans that the United States would invade. Instead, in 1982, the United States threw its support behind the Contras, a rebel group that included Somoza loyalists and began attacking Sandinista forces from bases in neighboring Honduras. The Sandinistas responded by declaring a state of emergency, censoring the news, and restricting political activity.
Ortega and the other junta members began making more radical statements in favor of socialism. In May of 1982, Ortega visited Moscow, where Soviet leaders greeted him warmly with a ceremonial ride into the city. He met with Soviet premier Leonid Brezhnev and asked for expanded economic assistance to Nicaragua and military aid.
In November of 1984, during the war with the Con-tras, the Sandinista government held national elections. Ortega ran for president. The conditions and results of the election were hotly disputed. Several opposition groups boycotted the vote, saying they could not compete effectively because the San-dinistas were restricting civil liberties, including press freedom. Pro-Sandinista mobs disrupted some opposition rallies, but the government eased its censorship of La Prensa and allowed limited radio and television time to opposition parties. Ortega and the Sandinistas won 67 percent of the vote and a majority in a new National Assembly. The Reagan administration, arguing that the elections were meaningless because the Sandinistas dominated Nicaraguan society, increased its support for the Contra rebels and imposed a trade embargo on Nicaragua. It lasted five years, hobbling the Nicaraguan economy.
The civil war cost more than 50,000 lives. It ended in the late 1980s, when the Sandinistas and Contras signed a peace agreement negotiated by Oscar Arias Sanchez, president of Costa Rica. The agreement included a promise of free elections, which were held in February of 1990.
Ortega ran for re-election as president on his record of fighting U.S. influence and instituting land reform and literacy programs. But voters were angry at the Sandinistas over very high food prices, farming laws that forced farmers to sell their crops at low government-set rates, and Cuban-style Sandini-sta block committees that often intruded in people’s private lives. In early 1990, just before the election, Ortega promised to free more than 1,000 political prisoners, including captured Contras. He also loosened the requirements for getting an exit visa to leave Nicaragua, one of only three governments in the Western Hemisphere that required its citizens to get permission to leave the country. The opposition argued that the moves were merely attempts to win votes.
In February, Ortega lost the election to Violeta Bar-rios de Chamorro of the National Opposition Union, attracting about 41 percent of the vote to her 55 percent. His concession speech promised a peaceful transition of power. It was one of the few times that a revolutionary government had ceded power in free elections. Ortega’s term ended in April of 1990.
After his defeat, Ortega remained the leader of the Sandinistas, who became the main opposition party in the National Assembly. In May of 1996, Ortega ran as the Sandinista candidate for president. He lost to Arnoldo Aleman Lacayo, head of the conservative Liberal Constitutional Party, formerly the dictator Somoza’s party.
As the 1990s ended, Ortega’s reputation suffered two serious blows. In 1998, Ortega’s stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, accused him of sexually abusing her during the entire time he was Nicaragua’s leader, starting when he was 34 and she was eleven. Ortega used his immunity as a member of the national legislature to avoid facing criminal charges related to the allegation. His wife, Rosario Murillo, Narvaez’s mother, defended her husband and viciously attacked her daughter for her accusations.
A year later, Ortega signed a controversial political pact with his political archrival, Aleman. It changed the election laws so that presidential candidates could win election with only 35 percent of the vote. The deal gave Ortega control of several government appointments and gave both men immunity from prosecution. To protest the pact and Ortega’s tight control over the party, several prominent Sandinis-tas left and formed their own party. Ortega ran for president again in 2001 and lost to Liberal Constitutional Party candidate Enrique Bolanos, but finished with a strong 42 percent of the vote. In 2005, when Sandinistas in the National Assembly attempted to impeach Bolanos, Ortega, responding to international pressure to preserve Nicaragua’s political stability, told the Sandinistas to stop the impeachment.
In the 2006 elections, Ortega ran for president once again. His political style had changed greatly since the 1980s, when he often traveled the country in a military jeep, wearing combat fatigues and sporting a machine gun. In 2006, he traveled in a silver Range Rover or a Mercedes SUV and campaigned in white button-down shirts and jeans, with a Nicaraguan flag around his shoulders. Ortega repeatedly promised to pursue political reconciliation. His campaign song was a Spanish hip-hop version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance,” with a chorus promising reconciliation and unity. For a running mate, he chose Morales, the ex-banker and Contra supporter whose mansion Ortega seized after the revolution. (A land swap had reportedly settled their long dispute over the mansion.)
Ortega said that he would respect civil liberties and the economic policies enacted in the 1990s and 2000s, such as a free-trade pact with the United States and the privatization of formerly state-owned businesses. He said he would work to attract foreign investment to deal with Nicaragua’s enduring poverty (four out of five Nicaraguans earn $2 a day or less). In the 1980s, Ortega had distanced himself from the Church and often fought with it. But by 2006, he had become a devout Roman Catholic who regularly attended mass, asked the Church to forgive past Sandinista excesses, and befriended Nicaragua’s Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who had opposed Ortega’s 1980s government.
Ortega won the five-way election with about 38 percent of the vote, ahead of Eduardo Montealegre, who was second with about 29 percent. He was sworn in as president in January of 2007. His inaugural ceremony was filled with the sort of populist rhetoric he had embraced in the past but avoided during the campaign. A recording of an angry Ortega speech from the 1980s played over loudspeakers, and Ortega appeared with two other leftist Latin American presidents, Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Evo Morales of Bolivia, who gave speeches supporting him. Ortega laid out his governing agenda in an extremely long speech. He promised to forge economic ties with other left-wing governments in South and Central America and pledged to provide electricity to impoverished areas of Nicaragua. “Our agenda is unfinished,” he said (as quoted by Max Blumenthal on TheNation.com). “When we left the illiteracy rate was 13 percent. Today it is 35 percent.”
The next day, Ortega, Chavez, Morales, and Cuban vice president Jose Ramon Machado Ventura signed a pact implementing Chavez’s economic cooperation project, which included $30 million in debt forgiveness and low-interest loans for Nicaragua, 100,000 barrels of low-cost oil, and more than two dozen new electric plants. In August, Ortega reached out to another developing nation estranged from the United States: Iran agreed to finance a $350 million port on Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, construct 10,000 new houses in the country, and help build a $120 million electrical plant. The power plants were meant to help alleviate an electrical crisis in Nicaragua, which suffered daily blackouts during much of 2007. Ortega also planned to ask the center-left leader of Brazil, Luis Inacio Lula de Silva, for help combating the power crisis.
Chicago Tribune, February 1, 1990, News section, p. 18; February 27, 1990, News section, p. 1.
Christian Science Monitor, September 15, 2005.
New York Times, November 12, 2006; February 24, 2007; August 6, 2007.
Washington Post, October 16, 1978, p. A2; July 22, 1979, p. A14; August 4, 1979, p. A15; September 7, 1979, p. A12; September 25, 1979, p. A6; June 3, 1981, p. A17; July 20, 1981, p. A21; November 25, 1981, p. A1; May 5, 1982, p. A18; November 6, 1984, p. A1; December 28, 1984, p. A1; February 27, 1990, p. A1; March 7, 1990, p. A31; October 9, 2006; October 29, 2006, p. B2.
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