Why you should care

The line between hero and villain is often blurry.

The humble son of a poor shoemaker, he would change his country forever. He led a movement with courage and conviction and managed to topple the terrible tyrant whose family oppressed the country for generations.

Stop reading now, and Daniel Ortega sounds like David against Goliath.

But today, the ex-Sandinista leader is almost a Goliath unto himself. Since Ortega’s election in 2006, the 69-year-old has amended Nicaragua’s constitution (so he can run for life), bestowed its army with legislative power (it’s easier to control than the opposition), placed family members in powerful posts and cozied up to the country’s powerful elite. Like a messiah, Ortega aims at deliverance: a canal that will cross the country and save the entire economy. Ecologists say it’s a disastrous idea, and the opposition says it aims at corruption, but Ortega has muffled them — in an echo of Anastasio Somoza, the dictator he overthrew.

To be sure, Ortega is not the bloodier kind of dictator. He remains a hero to the poor — almost half of all Nicaraguans — and “his social programs are helping poverty trend downwards,” maintains Karen Kampwirth, a professor of political science and a specialist in Nicaragua at Knox College. The economy is growing at a decent 4 percent and polls show 61 percent of Nicaraguans approve Ortega’s economic policies. “The perception is that Ortega and the Sandinistas are the only ones who care about the people,” says Kampwirth.

Rather, Ortega is a bit like Hugo Chávez, but with no oil money to throw around, or Fidel Castro, except that almost half of Nicaraguans are poor. And lately, Ortega has been softening his rhetoric, swapping the Marxist slogans for a new motto: “Christianity, Socialism and Solidarity.” It’s friendlier to the elites. Still, his revolutionary pedigree is beyond question. The man is a battle-hardened pragmatic who was imprisoned and tortured during the civil war (he later killed his torturer).

Ortega has made PR the family business, Berlusconi-style.

And yet — democracy. No doubt Ortega is hoarding power. Since his 2006 comeback, he has undermined the National Assembly and ruled by decree on everything from state budgets to foreign military bases. The army can now co-author legislation, and the the rich oligarchy, far from suffering from redistribution policies, has thrived. Ortega has even won the favor of the Catholic Church: To gain the support of the country’s religious leaders, he banned abortion.

A former soldier of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) waits for help after he was injured during clashes with the riot police in Managua May 31, 2012.

A former soldier of the Sandinista Popular Army waits for help after being injured during clashes with the riot police in Managua on May 31, 2012.

Source Diana Ulloa/Corbis

The president’s grip on the media has also tightened. Public servants are not allowed to speak to non-state-owned media — but hey, with Ortega making PR his family business, Berlusconi-style, they still have plenty of Ortega’s own family to go on the record with. His wife — a poet he met in prison — is the government’s spokeswoman, and oldest son Rafael manages the country’s largest radio station. Younger sons Daniel and Tino work for the Sandinista-owned Canal 4 (it broadcasts from Ortega’s backyard, literally), while his two youngest daughters work for Canal 13 — you guessed it: another pro-government TV channel. Should they not obey, journalists and human rights activists are harassed by the police.

Accusations of electoral fraud have enhanced Ortega’s caudillo image. In the 2008 local elections, allegations of fraud were so severe that the U.S. and EU froze aid to his government. The next red flag went up in 2009, when Ortega pushed to amend the constitution so that he could run for president indefinitely. The power grab lost him the trust of Sandinista loyalists, but he came out on top with more than 62 percent of the vote in his 2011 re-election. International observers pointed out widespread irregularities.

As it tends to do, the opposition argues totalitarianism is not far off: “He is bringing about a total collapse of the rule of law. Every branch of the state now obeys Ortega, and that includes the judicial,” says Eliseo Núñez, a representative of an opposition party, the Independent Liberal Party. But members are too busy with infighting to present a united front against the president. Núñez blames a lack of free elections. “We lose our raison d’être and we do exactly what he wants: bicker among ourselves,” says Núñez.

One weak spot for Ortega: the economy. Venezeula’s cheap oil and ample cash have helped underwrite it — and, according to WikiLeaks, Ortega’s campaigns too — but now the Venezuelan economy is teetering on a precipice of collapse. Never mind: Ortega’s fantastical canal will fix everything forever. The titanic, $50 billion work of Chinese engineering will connect the Pacific to the Atlantic and create a trade route to surpass Panama’s. Critics say the project is financially opaque, will require 20,000 people to be forcibly removed from their homes and will cause environmental catastrophe. But construction has already begun and Ortega has ordered police to repress demonstrators and detain their leaders.

So all bets are on Ortega winning in the 2016 election. International observers will probably question the result, but these days, chicanery in Nicaragua elicits little more than a few words of disapproval. Even Uncle Sam, who once loved meddling with Nicaraguan politics, doesn’t seem too concerned about Ortega’s dictatorial bent. Local support might drop as Venezuela’s economy struggles and the pharaonic canal project barrels ahead. But whether he’s a hero of the people or a nepotistic tyrant, Ortega seems on his way to being president for life, because he comforts the rich and gives hope to the poor and, as the Nicaraguan saying goes, “hunger with hope doesn’t feel like hunger.”

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