Nicaragua’s controversial ex-rebel Ortega starts third term

January 10, 2012

MANAGUA – Nicaraguan ex-rebel Daniel Ortega starts his third mandate as president Tuesday with a legislative super majority that has provoked fears of authoritarianism, joined by allies from Iran and Venezuela.

The 66-year-old Ortega, who has long since traded guerrilla garb for white tropical shirts and Christian messages of peace, was reelected with more than 62 percent of the vote in November.

A handful of presidents were attending his inauguration including key financial backer Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez as well as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is on a tour of Latin American allies amid growing tensions with the United States. 

Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla was absent Tuesday afternoon for the inauguration ceremony. Chinchilla is the only regional head of state that will not attend the event.

“We have said that there cannot be normalization in the relations with Nicaragua while the aggression and occupation of national territory persists,” said Roberto Gallardo, the spokesman for the presidential ministry told the daily La Nación. “Relations will return to normal when the violation of Costa Rican sovereignty ceases in the area of the Isla Calero.”

Chinchilla is expected to attend the inauguration ceremony of new Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina on Saturday in Guatemala City.

Ahmadinejad greeted his “revolutionary brother Ortega” on arriving in Nicaragua on Tuesday and said the two nations were “fighting to establish solidarity and justice.”

Supported and inspired by Cuba and the former Soviet Union, Ortega first governed at the height of the Cold War, suspending civil rights and taking on the US-financed and -armed “Contra” rebels.

Defeated in 1990 elections, Ortega returned to power in 2007 after 17 years of right-wing governments.

Though the former revolutionary has moderated his socialist rhetoric, he still riles the United States, even while respecting a bilateral free trade accord and receiving U.S. aid.

Many analysts believe Ortega’s relationship with Iran has so far produced little more than symbolism and rhetoric, while risking US ties.

But Ortega, 66, is riding a wave of popular support at home, where his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) now has a majority broad enough in the unicameral legislature to change the constitution.

His latest term saw economic growth despite the global crisis, though the country of almost six million remains the poorest in the Americas after Haiti.

Ortega counts on $500 million of annual aid from firebrand Venezuelan President Chavez to help fund popular social programs for the poor.

“A very important new period is starting” today, Chavez said as he arrived at Managua airport Tuesday.

Other guests at the inauguration ceremony in Revolution Square included Spain’s crown Prince Felipe and Cuban Vice President Ramiro Valdez.

Ortega is the first president to be reelected since the 1979 Sandinista revolution ended the more than 40-year dictatorship of the Somoza family.

The broad powers he won in the November 6 polls – in which the broken opposition denounced fraud and observers cited irregularities – caused concern among critics who accuse him of seeking to stay in power indefinitely.

Tensions already rose in the impoverished nation after the Supreme Court cleared the way for Ortega to seek a third term despite the fact that consecutive re-elections and third terms were supposedly banned.

“The president has all the power that no one in the history of Nicaragua has had in their hands,” writer Sergio Ramirez, who was vice president under Ortega during his first mandate in the 1980s, told La Prensa daily.

Ortega has promised he will make no “dramatic changes” and maintain ties with business and church leaders as well as workers.

Many former Sandinistas, as well as human rights and women’s groups outraged by strict anti-abortion laws, strongly oppose him.

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