MANAGUA – Since the 1980s, President Daniel Ortega kept Dionisio “Nicho” Marenco as one of his closest advisors, assigning him to important posts reserved only for his inner circle of allies and family members.
But in recent years, the outgoing mayor of Managua has seen his relationship with his former friend and rebel leader sour since Ortega returned to power in 2007. At the center of the fallout is first lady Rosario Murillo, with whom Marenco has reluctantly found himself in a bitter power struggle for more than a year.
When boxing hero Alexis Argüello stepped down from his post as vice-mayor of Managua–in late 2007 to launch his campaign for mayor, Marenco defied Murillo’s wishes by– appointing Felipe Orochena as his new vice mayor, over Murillo’s top pick, city councilman Edgardo Cuarezma.
The move stoked Murillo’s ire, and under pressure from the first lady two of Marenco’s closest allies in the city council resigned from office. Murillo reportedly called Marenco a “traitor” – a virtual “death sentence” in a revolutionary movement where traitors would face execution by fire, Marenco said.
“A lot has happened within the Front. We’re in a moment of reflection right now,” said Marenco, who on Jan. 15 finished his successful four-year term as mayor of the nation’s capital city.
Since Marenco’s power struggle with Murillo began in 2007, President Ortega’s popularity has plummeted in the polls and Marenco’s has surged.
An October 2008 CID-Gallup poll showed Marenco is the early favorite for President in 2010, even though he hasn’t announced his candidacy. His virtual front-runner status, however, poses a potential threat to the presidential couple’s reported attempts to remain in power beyond 2011.
Next week, Marenco will turn over the reins to Argüello, who was declared the winner by the Supreme Elections Council in a controversial election tally that the opposition still refuses to accept. What comes next for Ortega’s former aide and confidant remains uncertain, despite his repeated claims that he wishes to remain in politics and within the ranks of the Sandinista Front.
What does seem likely is that Ortega and Murillo will now have greater control over the municipal government of Managua for the next four years; in addition to having a new mayor who so far has displayed an almost subservient loyalty to the presidential couple, the Sandinista Front has also gained two city council seats in the capital – giving the party 12 of 19 seats.
Following the Nov. 9 elections, many city planners and specialists who served under Marenco started to resign in anticipation that Argüello, acting under Murillo’s orders, will punish them for their loyalty to Marenco and replace them with party loyalists, according to a city employee who asked to remain anonymous.
Directors of the city’s departments of environment and urbanism, public sanitation, engineering, and projects and systems are among those who have handed in their resignations in recent weeks, the source said.
And in the mayor’s seat, Marenco, one of the last mavericks within the Sandinista party, will be replaced by Argüello, a toe the line loyalist who calls Ortega his “commander” or “leader,” and Murillo his “boss.”
Over the past year, Marenco has opposed Ortega on a number of key issues such as how to handle the city’s trash crisis and the appropriateness of the president governing from his house and party headquarters rather than the official Casa Presidencial.
Marenco has even bucked the party line by calling for a recount after the allegations of fraud in the municipal elections.
Though Marenco says he thinks Argüello will be able to maintain his autonomy from the executive branch as mayor of Managua, even Argüello admits he’ll need Ortega’s support to get things done in the capital, and to get funding for his ambitious–plan for a $100 million renovation of the historic downtown area (NT, Oct. 10).
“Actually, I want to join the president. That’s the idea. The municipality doesn’t have the budget to meet the needs Managua has,” Argüello said recently.
The incoming mayor said that Ortega manages hundreds of millions of dollars in Venezuelan aid that could be put towards good causes in Managua.
Meanwhile, uncertainty over the transition continues to grow. Managua employees says no transition commission has been formed, as was done when Marenco took office. And until last week, Argüello hadn’t even been seen in the Managua since announcing his victory on Nov. 21.
The pugilist and recovering drug addict, who represented Nicaragua at the Beijing Olympics during his campaign, finally reappeared in Managua Jan. 7 to meet briefly with Marenco after having disappeared from public view – as he’s done in the past – for weeks on end.
Cuarezma and Armas
In the meantime Cuarezma, an outgoing city council member who was Murillo’s favorite to fill Argüello’s shoes as vice mayor of Managua in 2007, was named the Sandinista Front’s Political Secretary for Managua and has been putting pressure on opposition candidate Eduardo Montealegre to admit defeat.
“Montealegre’s attitude is lamentable,” Cuarezma said on a government web site. “Let’s hope these men will recognize their defeat.”
During and after the campaign, Cuarezma headed the new Sandinista Leadership Councils, which consisted of groups of Sandinista supporters and government workers who led demonstrations in the streets to “defend the vote.”
They also demonstrated in front of the Supreme Elections Council as it counted votes in November, demanding results.
“The reason that the people are mobilizing is to demand that the CSE give immediate results,” Cuarezma told state-run media during the elections.
Serving as Argüello’s spokesman during the campaign, Cuarezma would only grant requests to interview Argüello to journalists who agreed to only report Argüello’s perspective, and not that of his opponent’s.
Since the elections, Cuarezma has become a main spokesman for the Ortega government’s interests in Managua, along with councilman-elect and former Sandinista sportscaster Enrique Armas, who was known to complete Argüello’s sentences for him during the campaign.
While Armas will likely be named secretary of the Managua city council, Cuarezma has become one of the most frequentlyquoted Sandinistas in state-run media.
Both Cuarezma and Armas are expected to play major leadership roles in the administration of Managua under Mayor Argüello.
In the 1980s, Marenco worked in the Sandinista government’s Soviet-inspired public relations department, the Department of Agitation and Propaganda.
He then served as the Minister of Commerce and finally as the Planning Minister, all the while maintaining close ties to Ortega.
After the Sandinistas lost the 1990 elections, Marenco became the manager of the Sandinista TV channel 4, a station that is now run by the Ortega family.
Ironically, TV channel 4 spearheaded some of the Sandinistas’ most barbed attacks against Marenco last year when he refused to toe the party line. At one point the TV station published accusations from party leaders that Marenco was “socially insensitive and politically myopic.”
Argüello has said that though he remains good friends with Marenco, the outgoing mayor made a mistake by not remaining faithful to the party.
Marenco, for his part, says he’s not sure how he’ll reconcile his differences with his old party once he leaves office.
“There’s been a lot of problems. There is no solution in sight,” Marenco said.