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Flush With Chávez Petro-Dollars, Nicaragua’s Ortega Eyes Controversial Third Term

Economic growth and discretionary funds funneled from Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez have helped position Nicaragua leader Daniel Ortega as the frontrunner for Sunday’s presidential election. Critics say Ortega is defying term limits and building a corrupt

An Ortega campaign rally earlier this year (jorgemejia)
An Ortega campaign rally earlier this year (jorgemejia)
Jean-Michel Caroit

MANAGUA -- Covered in jewels and wrapped in brightly-colored fabrics, Rosario Murillo seems like some grand priestess at a religious ceremony. "Thanks to God and to our president, Commander Daniel, the Nicaraguan family lives in peace, with ever more Christianity, socialism and solidarity," says Murillo.

Sitting next to her is a serene Daniel Ortega, Murillo's husband and the president of the country. Next to him is Miguel Obando, the 85-year-old Cardinal who, three decades ago – during the early days of the Sandinista revolution – was an adversary of Ortega. The Church leader now faithfully supports the president.

Polls have Ortega as the favorite leading into this Sunday's presidential election – despite the fact that the Constitution prohibits Nicaraguan leaders from serving consecutive terms. It also limits at two the number of times a president can serve. Ortega, who first held the presidency from 1985 to 1990, should technically be barred from serving again. He was able to force his way onto the ballot thanks to his control over both the Supreme Court and Electoral Tribunal.

On this day, Ortega – accompanied by his wife and with the blessing of "Cardinal Miguel" – issues land titles to more than 10,500 poor families in Managua, Nicaragua's capital city. There's little doubt that gestures of this kind have helped keep Ortega ahead in the polls. What's not entirely clear is where the president finds the funds to pay for such programs.

"Popular support for Daniel Ortega has grown thanks to patronist programs that are financed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who provides $500 million per year, equivalent to 7% of the country's GDP," says journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro, the son of former President Violeta Chamorro, who beat Ortega in the 1990 election.

Chamorro adds that a portion of those funds are not accounted for in the national budget. He accuses the Ortega family of using the Chávez cash to finance private businesses, political campaigns and "numerous acts of corruption."

A growing family business

A private holding company, Albanisa, which is controlled by people in President Ortega's inner circle, invest part of the Venezuelan aid money in growing companies, and in tourism and agriculture ventures. "It's completely opaque and uncontrolled," Chamorro says.

Thanks to Venezuelan petro-dollars, the Ortega-Murillo clan has been able to get its hands on three television stations, including Canal 8, for which it paid $9.7 million. These stations, run by Ortega's sons, have been a hugely valuable asset during the campaign. All three have been running – over and over – a spot accusing Edmundo Jarquin, an opposition vice presidential candidate, of favoring abortion. Many of the channels' news items show President Ortega rushing to the aid of victims of last month's floods.

Word on the street is that the Ortega family, which lives in a vast complex of houses guarded by police armed with AK-47s, has become one of the richest in Nicaragua. Chamorro says it's difficult to verify since Ortega – who presents himself as living only for the country's poor – uses various aliases to hide his holdings.

"It's the family that has the most economic power," says writer Sergio Ramirez, who served as Ortega's vice president from 1985 to 1990.

Arturo Cruz, a professor at the INCAE business school in Managua, offers a positive take on the last several years of "Ortegism," which he describes as "responsible populism." Cruz, a former ambassador to the United States, says Ortega has "successfully managed to reconcile International Monetary Fund macroeconomic stability programs with Venezuelan-financed social programs aimed at addressing the immediate needs of the population."

Many in Nicaragua's business sector agree. "The government listens to the private sector. Growth is solid and we have a fluid dialogue with President Ortega," says José Adan Aguerri, president of COSEP, an association of business leaders.

Others, however, question just how sustainable Nicaragua's recent economic upturn really is. "Growth alone isn't enough to reduce poverty," says Mario Arana, the executive director of think tank called the Funides Foundation. "Informal employment is on the rise, as is corruption. On top of that, Ortega wants to follow Chávez's model to hold on to power."

Read more from Le Monde in French

Photo - jorgemejia

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A Refuge From China's Rat Race: The Young People Flocking To Buddhist Monasteries

Unemployment, stress in the workplace, economic difficulties: more and more young Chinese graduates are flocking to monasteries to find "another school of life."

Photograph of a girl praying at a temple during Chinese Lunar New Year. She is burning incense.

Feb 20, 2015 - Huaibei, China - Chinese worshippers pray at a temple during the Lunar New Yeat

Frédéric Schaeffer

JIAXING — It's already dawn at Xianghai Temple when Lin, 26, goes to the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas for the 5:30 a.m. prayer.

Still half-asleep, the young woman joins the monks in chanting mantras and reciting sacred texts for an hour. Kneeling, she bows three times to Vairocana, also known as the Great Sun Buddha, who dominates the 42-meter-high hall representing the cosmos.

Before grabbing a vegetarian breakfast in the adjacent refectory, monks and devotees chant around the hall to the sound of drums and gongs.

"I resigned last October from the e-commerce company where I had been working for the past two years in Nanjing, and joined the temple in January, where I am now a volunteer in residence," explains the young woman, soberly dressed in black pants and a cream linen jacket.

Located in the city of Jiaxing, over a hundred kilometers from Shanghai, in eastern China, the Xianghai temple is home to some 20 permanent volunteers.

Unlike Lin, most of them only stay for a couple days or a few weeks. But for Lin, who spends most of her free time studying Buddhist texts in the temple library, the change in her life has been radical. "I used to do the same job every day, sometimes until very late at night, writing all kinds of reports for my boss. I was exhausted physically and mentally. I felt my life had no meaning," she says.

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