BOGOTÁ — It is paradoxical, to say the least, that the former guerrilla chief who fought to topple a dictatorship in Nicaragua should now become a bit of a dictator himself. Critics are saying that Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega is gradually taking control of, well, everything in the country — much like the Somozas, members of the patrician family that ran Nicaragua practically as a fiefdom in the 1960s and 70s.
It seems there is a new dynasty in town, the Ortegas. Recently President Ortega announced that his running mate as vice-president in elections this November would be the first lady, Rosario Murillo. And while this violates the constitution, it will likely be legalized by the Supreme Court, which the president easily manipulates according to his every whim.
With a calculated strategy, in a country without the separation of powers, authorities have effectively removed any juridical and physical obstacles that might hinder the president, his wife and their children from settling firmly into power.
In early June, the Supreme Court sacked the leader of the opposition Independent Liberal Party (PLI), Eduardo Montealegre, as its legal head. In doing so, it also voided the party's chosen candidate for president, Luis Callejas, who dropped out of the race. The court then appointed Pedro Reyes, an obscure figure known principally for his close ties to Ortega, as the PLI's new leader; his first move in that role was to realign PLI's 28 parliamentarians with the government. They resisted, so Reyes asked the Electoral Court to sack them, which it did on July 29.
Thus the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the president's party, appears to be the only one fielding a presidential candidate, and the only one with parliamentary representation.
Fidel Castro supporting election of Daniel Ortega in Managua, Nicaragua, in January 1985. Photo: Scott Mc Kiernan/ZUMA
The next step was for Ortega to put his wife forward for the vice-presidency, making her his putative successor. She had already been his right-hand woman, the country's chief minister or cabinet head, acting foreign minister and chief of protocol, and has just written a new history of Nicaragua. Nothing moves in Nicaragua without her consent.
Furthering this nepotism is the couple's oldest son, a presidential adviser on investments who negotiated a deal with a Chinese magnate to construct the country's controversial interoceanic canal. Another son is said to manage the ample funds received in aid from Venezuela, estimated to have surpassed $3.5 billion since 2007, while yet another son controls most of the media with his mother. To round out this tight-knit circle there are a lot of close collaborators and former guerrilla fighters in the new "Ortegan" oligarchy, which has amassed a fortune for itself.
Daniel Ortega Saavedra was president in the 1980s, lost the presidential elections in 1990 and then moved heaven and earth to return to the post. He made peace with the former Archbishop of Managua, Cardinal Obando y Bravo, a fierce opponent of his. The same with his archenemy Arnoldo Alemán, a corrupt right-wing politician and president from 1997 to 2002.
In 2007, Ortega became president once again, and he has tightened his grip on power ever since, becoming Nicaragua's strongman through elections many have qualified as fraudulent. None of this is at odds, apparently, with the Sandinista slogan "Nicaragua: Free, Blessed, Christian and Caring."
Certainly, the country has become one of the most stable in Central America, with minimal levels of violence compared to its neighbors. It is a country where business leaders have agreed not to meddle in politics as long as the government leaves them to their own devices. Yet most of the country's impoverished citizens live on handouts from various state agencies run by Ortega, his wife, the party nomenklatura and the so-called Base and Neighborhood Committees. Meanwhile, Ortega's eldest son is organizing a Puccini festival to kick-start his début as a tenor.
All this helps to explain why people with integrity — such as former vice-president Sergio Ramírez, journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro and other veteran militants of the Sandinista Front — decided years ago to split from their party and Ortega.
In the words of one former Sandinista commander, Dora María Téllez, "All Ortega has done since 2007 has been to accumulate power, all the power there is. The mistake is to think Ortega will stop. He has no limits ... In Nicaragua, dictatorships are not born of the military, but of families."
Events are proving her right.