San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Daniel Ortega Stole the Headlines in 2006

On Feb. 27, 1990, two days after being voted out of office, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega delivered a concession speech entitled “The Revolution Cannot be Stopped,” in which he promised: “There will come a day when we return to govern from the top, (but for now) the Sandinista National Liberation Front, with the people of Nicaragua, will continue to govern from below.”

Sixteen years later, on Nov. 5, 2006, the resilient and savvy former comandante managed to buck the pollsters and political pundits and kept good on his promise by winning the presidential elections after three consecutive defeats in two different centuries.

Ortega, Nicaragua’s leading newsmaker of the year, will take office Jan. 10 and get a unique second chance to rewrite his chapter in the history books.

With a disciplined base of supporters and a slight infusion of young voters,Ortega won 38% of the ballots in this year’s vote, which is about his historical average over the last four elections.

Only this time, with a divided right, the support of former foe Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando, and a reformed Electoral Code that lowered the requirement for a first-round win, Ortega was able to sail to victory with a nine-point advantage over his closest challenger, Eduardo Montealegre, a U.S.-backed former banker.

In the weeks following his election,Ortega quickly reached out to bankers, investors and foreign governments to assure everyone that times have changed and so too has the Sandinista Front.

Ortega, who picked a former Contra as his running mate and campaigned on a message of reconciliation, says he wants to govern with everyone, private sector included, to build a more inclusive Nicaragua that works to eradicate poverty.

His now-famous quote to a group of investors Nov. 9: “We know we are not going to eradicate poverty by eradicating capital, eradicating investors or those who have money,” has become a talking point among investors, and come to symbolize the new era of Sandinismo.

Ortega has promised that his government will continue with macroeconomic policies and the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA), and work to renegotiate the economic assistance program with the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

His assurances have helped investor confidence. Though some have packed up their bags and left, most have decided to stay and work with the new government.

Bank deposits have remained relatively stable, indicating no serious capital flight following Ortega’s victory.

The Sandinista President-elect, a 61-year-old heart attack survivor, has also reached out to neighboring governments in Central America, traveling from one country to the next unannounced, to the enormous frustration of the Nicaraguan press.

Ortega’s most high-profile meeting since the elections occurred Nov. 28 with Thomas Shannon, the U.S. State Department’s Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, who came to Managua to initiate contact between the U.S. government and its former Cold War nemesis.

Shannon qualified the meeting as “fruitful” and said the United States looks forward to building a working relationship with Ortega.

Nicaragua audibly sighed in relief. By year’s end, there were still two important groups that Ortega had not yet reached out to: the right-wing media and Sandinista dissidents.

Dany and the Press

Nicaragua’s leading national daily, La Prensa, is not a fan of Ortega. And the feeling is mutual.

La Prensa, a conservative daily newspaper that backs business and is openly critical of the Sandinistas, became increasingly hysterical in its coverage of Ortega during the home stretch of the campaign.

As if in a time warp, the paper would consistently lead with front-page stories about atrocities committed by Ortega and the Sandinista government in the 1980s, as if they were occurring again now. The coverage became so one-sided that it allegedly led to some dissention within the newsroom, where some of the editorial staff and photographers identify themselves as Sandinista.

La Prensa, however, has reason to be leery of an Ortega return to power. The paper was heavily censured by the Sandinista government in the 1980s, and eventually closed its office for several years.

Despite promising no more censorship, the Ortega of today has not warmed much to the leading national daily.

In one moment of frustration last year, Ortega lashed out at La Prensa, calling it “diabolical.”

Since winning the election, Ortega now seems to be squeezing La Prensa and some other opposition media through an omission of information. Many reporters are already complaining that they are not told about Ortega’s scheduled appearances, and that access to party information has become increasingly difficult.

Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, the Sandinistas’ communications director, held an informal meet-and-greet with the national press in early December, but didn’t invite La Prensa or Channel 2 TV, which has a media pact with the leading daily.

Sandinista Dissidents

Another reconciliation Ortega has pending is with former Sandinista dissidents who left to form the splinter Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which finished fourth in the elections.

Many respected former leaders of the Sandinista Front are no longer with Ortega, and have become some of his leading critics in recent years.

The MRS, formed in 1995 by a group of dissident Sandinista intellectuals, originally had high expectations for the 2006 elections and its candidate, Herty Lewites.

Lewites, the popular former Mayor of Managua and the Sandinista’s Minister of Tourism in the 1980s, tried to challenge Ortega for the Sandinista Front’s 2006 candidacy two years ago, and was promptly expelled from the party in March 2005. So was fellow rabble rouser Victor Hugo Tinoco, who became Lewites’ campaign chief under the flag of the MRS.

Campaigning against politics as usual, Lewites ran a straight-talking campaign that landed him at the top of the CID-Gallup polls by the end of last year.

He took that momentum into 2006 and battled neck-and-neck for the first half of the year with Montealgre.Ortega at that time was polling third. Then tragedy struck Lewites and the MRS.

On July 2, Lewites suffered a fatal heart attack, and the party was left without its captain.

The MRS quickly promoted vice-presidential candidate, Edmundo “Mundo” Jarquín, to the ranks of presidential candidate, and brought onboard popular revolutionary folk singer Carlos Mejía Godoy as running mate.

The dissident party tried to rally around the image of its fallen front man, and even turn Lewites into a symbol of martyr.

But the MRS campaign never fully recovered. Instead, many Sandinistas who sympathized with the MRS and Lewites closed ranks around Ortega, using what is known in Nicaragua as the “voto util,” or the vote that counts.

MRS candidate Jarquín finished with only 6% of the vote, whereas Lewites had been polling at 22% a year earlier.

Divided Right

On the other side of the political divide, the Liberals are now left to pick up the pieces and move forward after being divided and conquered in the November general elections.

Montealegre, who split from the ruling Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) to form the upstart Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), will head up his party’s legislative bloc next year in the National Assembly. As the number two vote-getter in the presidential election,Montealegre automatically won a seat in congress.

Montealegre’s challenge will be steep. He will have to work with Ortega’s Sandinistas and Arnoldo Alemán’s PLC, both of which will hold more seats than his ALN.

Former PLC presidential candidate José Rizo, who finished third with 26% of the vote, has already called for a unification of the Liberal party following the election. Similar calls for unity were made before the election, but the problem has always been that the two sides cannot agree which party should lead the unification movement.

The PLC has always maintained that it is the only party with the history and the structure to counter the discipline of the Sandinista Front. Montealegre, meanwhile, insists that his party will not join forces with any political movement headed by former President Alemán, who is serving 20 years in jail for corruption. The United States’ backing of Montealegre during the campaign only served to further confuse and divide the right.

Now, in addition to trying to establish a working alliance with his rival parties, Montealegre might also find himself dodging bullets next year, if the Sandinistas and PLC continue forward with the congressional investigation into the $500 million banking fraud known as the CENIs scandal.

Dubbed “the biggest fraud in Nicaragua’s history,” the scandal involves a series of Negotiable Investment Certificates (or CENIs) that were issued by the Central Bank to cover the collapse of the private banks during the end of the Alemán government in 2000-2001. The certificates were reportedly issued at a high interest rate for total amounts that allegedly exceeded the collapsed banks’ portfolios.

Montealegre was called before a congressional commission two months before the elections to argue his innocence. The case, however, remains unresolved.

Looking Ahead

Though the challenges facing Ortega will be great next year, most claim the Sandinista leader is off on the right foot in many regards.

Since winning the election, he has shown that the promise of reconciliation appears to be more than just campaign lip service. Ortega has already gone out of his way to reach out to groups that mistrust him or outright don’t like him.

The early fruits of his effots have been stability and guarded optimism that Nicaragua is on the brink of taking another major step toward becoming an institutionalized democracy.

In an country where irony is king, the fear of an Ortega government since winning the elections seems to be less than it was 10 months ago, when the prospect of a Sandinista return to power seemed an unlikely possibility.


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