In a book he wrote about his visit to Nicaragua in 1986, acclaimed Iranian author Salman Rushdie said President Daniel Ortega “would never be a natural orator.”
But, Rushdie added, “according to the old hands I asked, he had become much, much better at public speaking than he used to be.
I thought he spoke simply and well, if a little stilted when he waxed rhetorical.”
Rushdie wasn’t the first or last person to examine the oratory skills of Ortega, who returned to the presidency last year after 16 years out of office.
Observers of Ortega’s oratory style say only one thing is for certain when the president has the microphone: it’s going to be a while.
Ortega has proved that his strength in public speaking may not be clarity, organization, or effectiveness, but no one can question his stamina. Despite being 62 years old and a survivor of a heart attack, Ortega has no problem standing at a podium for more than two hours and talking.
The former guerrilla leader has been widely criticized for delivering speeches that are “confrontational” toward the international community, and for becoming vitriolic towards his opponents, whom he has recently called “rabid dogs” and “neo-Somocistas,” among other names.
Ortega’s long, often confrontational speeches have analysts wondering whether the president has speech writers, or whether anything he says is scripted at all.
“He believes he has a guaranteed audience that’s obligated to listen,” said political analyst Julio Icaza, who served as Nicaragua’s envoy to the UN during Ortega’s first administration (1979-1990). “At the root of that [presumption], it seems, is a lack of respect for the people who come to listen to him. It’s a despotic gesture of power.”
Perhaps the most ridiculed speech of late was Ortega’s windy State of the Nation address earlier this month, which critics say was everything but a report on the nation’s state of affairs (NT, Jan. 11).
Instead of delivering a clear message, Icaza said, Ortega launched into a two-hour rant that bounced from a variety of topics, such as the “dangers” of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, his thoughts about greeddriven capitalism, and insults of opposition legislators who didn’t show up to his speech because they are “afraid.”
When asked by swarming press what he thought of Ortega’s speech afterwards, U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli rolled his eyes and said it was “very long.” The national press made jokes the next day about how diplomats and legislators seemed to be sleeping during the speech; the daily El Nuevo Diario ran a series of headshots of Sandinista lawmakers who had fallen asleep during the speech.
Though Ortega did create a new Cabinet position for his wife – “Presidency Minister,” or chief of staff – and repeatedly quoted his favorite line from Pope John Paul II criticizing “savage capitalism,” Ortega didn’t make any reference to the contents of the phonebook-sized 2007 annual report that sat in front of him, leaving something to be desired of the speech, Icaza noted.
“It didn’t seem to me like an annual report. It was a disorganized speech,” said Icaza, a law professor at American University. “He wasn’t prepared. Nicaraguans want to understand what he wants to do with his country. He could try to do it with precision, coherence, and clearly transmit a message to the audience.”
Icaza said Ortega’s rant also raised some questions about the president’s “psychological temperament.”
Private psychiatrist Gioconda Cajina, who has made waves in the past by questioning the mental state of another Nicaraguan president, said Ortega’s lengthy speeches suggest that he’s reaching out for acceptance.
“When someone talks that much, it seems like he’s making a great effort to convince everyone,” she said of Ortega, who won the 2006 election with just 38% of the vote.
Cajina, who lost her job as a state medical psychiatrist in 2001 when she publicly opined on how excessive power seemed to have affected the mental condition of then- President Arnoldo Alemán, said excessive power is still a reality for the president of Nicaragua – a country that spent most of the last century under a dictatorship.
Today, even under a democratic model of government, “There are still alliances that allow the excess of power to continue,” she said, referring to Ortega’s pact with Alemán.
She said Nicaragua still has a “follow-theleader mentality,” which reflects the strong personalities of Nicaragua’s leaders – or caudillos, as they’re known here – and may explain how the political system lends itself to demagogic discourse.
Not all observers are so critical, however. Marketing Professor Gerardo Recalde, of the Universidad Autonoma, said Ortega is a clear speaker, though he may not go by the book.
“He says what he’s interested in,” Recalde said, adding that many attacks on Ortega’s speech-making are politically motivated.
He conceded, however, that Ortega’s speeches tend toward long-windedness. “Perhaps they should be a little bit shorter, because people get bored,” he said.
The former guerrilla’s rhetoric flared again last week, when he joined visiting Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in an anti-U.S. fume. During the hours-long discourse, Chávez – perhaps one of the few presidents in the world with larger lungs than Ortega’s – compared Americans to vampires, dubbed U.S. President George W. Bush the “Planet’s Number One Terrorist,” and accused U.S. officials of setting up bases in the Colombian jungle and plotting to kill him.
Ortega chimed in, criticizing the U.S. government for “beating the war drums.”
Ortega’s loose lips have caught attention not only at home but also abroad, when he and Chávez led a tag-team verbal assault against the King of Spain last November during the Ibero-American summit in Chile, prompting the monarch to famously tell Chávez to “shut up” and then walk out on Ortega.
Several weeks before the incident in Chile, Ortega set his sights on Uncle Sam and blasted the United States as history’s “biggest and most impressive dictatorship” at a speech before the UN General Assembly in New York (NT, Oct. 26, 2007).
The two speeches led a majority in the National Assembly to pass an act reprimanding Ortega’s speeches as “confrontational” and asked the president to apologize to the King of Spain, which he didn’t.
Still, Ortega also seems to realize that his words sometimes get him in trouble. In a candid moment in a meeting with opposition legislators last November, Ortega said, “Foreign investment is arriving even though they worry about my discourse.”
Then he chuckled and gave a shrug of resignation, “It’s my discourse.”