Just hours before outgoing U.S. President Barack Obama's emotional farewell address in Chicago, another head of state was taking center stage down in steamy Central America to let just the opposite be known: He's still very much here, with no plans to leave power anytime soon.
Daniel Ortega, the long-serving leader of Nicaragua, first came to power through a 1979 revolution that overthrew the U.S.-backed Somoza family dictatorship. He headed the country's junta government (1979-1985) before serving as president until 1990. Two more terms followed, starting in 2007, and on Tuesday, Ortega was sworn in for yet another five-year period, the Nicaraguan daily El Nuevo Diario reported.
"The businessmen and a segment of the country were scared of our return because of the seizures, the war, the chaos, but we have shown that it's not like that," he declared.
Joining Ortega in the ceremony was his wife and now vice-president, Rosario Murillo, who has served for years as an unofficial co-captain in the regime. So, for the first time, Murillo has a healthy dose of formal power to go along with the considerable de facto authority she'd already wielded. As vice-president, she is first in the line of succession should health or other unforeseen circumstances prevent Ortega, 71, from serving out his term.
Notable among those present at the swearing-in event was fellow Latin American leftist diehard Nicolás Maduro, the embattled president of Venezuela and an important economic and political ally of the Ortega regime. Maduro, the hand-picked successor of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez, was elected to a six-year term starting in 2013, but is now fighting for his political survival. On Monday, opposition lawmakers approved a measure declaring that Maduro "abandoned his post" and demanding that early elections be held to replace him.
Before boarding a plane Tuesday on his way to Nicaragua, Maduro fired back at his critics, accusing opposition legislators of trying to provoke a coup. "As president, I call on the authorities of state not to ignore these violations of the constitution and disrespect for the rule of law," Venezuela's El Universal reported him as saying.
Maduro's delicate hold on the presidency contrasts with the vice-like grip that Ortega and Murillo have on Nicaragua. The ruling couple begins their new term having amassed an extraordinary amount of power against a divided and outmaneuvered opposition that is now virtually nonexistent. Ortega's party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), has a commanding majority in the legislature; controls nearly all of the country's municipalities; and holds sway over the military and police. It also has a demonstrated influence over the Supreme Court and Supreme Electoral Council, or CSE. The two bodies played a key role in helping Ortega bypass term-limit rules that were supposed to have prevented him from staying on as president beyond January 2012.
Against a field of largely unknown and hastily organized challengers, the Ortega-Murillo ticket, as expected, won the Nov. 6 election easily, with 71.5% of the vote, according to the CSE. Opponents refuse to recognize the results, calling the elections "farcical" and fraudulent.
"This time they carried out the perfect fraud," political analyst José Antonio Peraza told the Managua-based news magazine Envío. "There was no competition because there was no opposition. There were no monitors, so no complaints. There were no visible disruptions on Election Day, no incidents in the voting booths... Everything was perfect."
Critics can complain about Ortega all they want, but for now at least, they're powerless to stop him. And yet the Nicaraguan strongman may have some troubles in store, including those linked to their pals down in Venezuela. The oil-rich nation has reportedly pumped billions of dollars into Nicaragua since Ortega returned to power in 2007, which means Maduro's current woes may soon also be a burden that Ortega will have to bear.