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
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."
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