Daniel Ortega. Photo: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador. flickrFROM REVOLUTIONARY IDEALIST TO CUNNING CAPITALIST  

In November of last year, Daniel Ortega was re-elected President of Nicaragua for a third term in office.  With a landslide victory, Ortega expanded his powerful grip on Latin America’s poorest country. Ortega began his political career over thirty years ago as a leftist revolutionary helping to overthrow the brutal Somoza dictatorship. However, his current regime has now more in common with the dictators of Nicaragua’s dark past than he would like to admit.

Daniel Ortega was once the hero of aspiring revolutionaries, left-leaning students and anti-American supporters worldwide. Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Ortega was a symbol of victory over tyranny. His Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) took part in a brutal guerrilla war against the US-backed Somoza dictatorship, fighting for democracy and a more equal society. After overthrowing Somoza in 1979, the FSLN then took on the might of the US. The CIA began financing the Contras, an anti-Sandinista paramilitary group. Despite the Sandinistas winning democratic elections in 1984, fighting continued until 1989. During this time, Ortega was seen as an anti-imperialist revolutionary and was adored by huge numbers around the world. However, since then, the world’s love affair with Ortega has soured.

Ortega first held the position of president from 1985 until 1990 but had to wait sixteen long years until he was finally re-elected for a second term in office.  Since his re-election in 2006, Ortega’s regime has trampled on Nicaragua’s democratic institutions. After his landslide victory of late 2011, Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) now controls all four branches of government: the executive, electoral authority, judiciary and national assembly. The democratic bodies the Sandinistas fought so bitterly for have now merely became Ortega’s personal rubber-stamp institutions. The fact that Ortega is now serving an unconstitutional third term as president perfectly demonstrates the control he currently possesses over his country. 

In order to prevent a repeat of dictatorial rule in Nicaragua, the Nicaraguan constitution prohibits consecutive presidential terms while it also limits a president to only two terms of office. After holding the office of president from 1985 until 1990 and again from 2006 until 2011, Ortega should not have been able to run for office when his second term came to an end last year. However for Ortega, this was not going to bring an end to his grip on power. Ortega managed to successfully lift the ban in 2009 with the help of his supporters in the Supreme Court who decided that the ban violated his right to equal treatment. Ortega’s grip over Nicaragua continued.

Palacio Nacional de Cultura, Managua. Photo: svengaarn.flickrOrtega has not only changed the laws of Nicaragua to remain in power but he has also changed his ideologies. In a short number of years, Ortega has evolved from a socialist idealist to an anti-abortion, pragmatic capitalist. Since coming to power for a second term in 2006, he has adapted policies which would have been simply unthinkable to him a number of years ago. Ortega has transformed into one of the most cunning political operators throughout not only Latin America but also the world. Much of Ortega’s and the FSLN’s recent success can be attributed to their close Latin America ally Venezuela and more specifically Ortega’s personal friend, Hugo Chavez. 

Since 2007, Venezuela has been funding the FSLN with $500 million every year as part of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Alliance for the Americas, a bloc of leftist leaders designed to counter US influence in Latin America. In 2010 alone, Venezuela’s contribution of $511m in oil discounts and direct aid accounted for 7.6 per cent of Nicaraguan GDP. This money has been assisting Nicaragua in its mini economic miracle of recent years. Despite 57% of the population living in poverty, Nicaragua’s economy is one of the fastest growing in Latin America. Ortega’s current policy of few taxes, low-wage manufacturing and primary commodity exports have all contributed in transforming Nicaragua’s economy.

As well as boosting the national economy, Ortega’s new capitalist policies, such as low taxes, have also helped in appeasing the Nicaraguan elite. He has won approval from various international institutions such as the IMF for his control over the Nicaraguan economy. Ortega has also won the support of the hugely influential Catholic Church by outlawing all abortions, even when a woman’s life is in danger.  In winning the support of the business, political, religious and Western elite, Ortega has been able to consolidate his power. However, Ortega has lost a lot of supporters with these new polices.  Numerous social groups that were once the backbone of the FSLN, such as the large women’s movement, have become disillusioned with the still socialist-in-name FSLN. They see Ortega as a traitor, a man that sold his soul in order to remain in power.

The Daniel Ortega of 2012 is no longer the revolutionary Daniel Ortega of the 1970s and ‘80s. He has become obsessed with power and is no longer a man bounded by his old socialist ideologies. Ortega today is a pragmatic and cunning politician who may remain in power well after his third term ends in over four years time. After fighting for nearly two decades against one man rule in Nicaragua, it is now Ortega’s current regime that shares many similar characteristics of the Nicaragua of the past.

BRIAN BOLGER