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Daniel Ortega: From Revolutionary Fighter to Corrupt Dictator?

Great friendship: Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua, Hugo Chávez from Venezuela and Rafael Correa from Ecuador. Source: Flickr CC, Presidencia de la República del Ecuador.
Great friendship: Daniel Ortega from Nicaragua, Hugo Chávez from Venezuela and Rafael Correa from Ecuador. Source: Flickr CC, Presidencia de la República del Ecuador.

While Europe and the Middle East seem to be overshadowed by war and crisis, there are other parts of the world that are relatively calm and stable at the moment, like Nicaragua. This small country, located on the isthmus between North and South America, successfully freed itself from a four decade long dictatorship of the Somoza family. Since then, Nicaragua has been working towards democracy – or so it seems, despite the fact that president Daniel Ortega has been repeatedly accused of corruption.

Daniel Ortega has played a significant role in Nicaraguan politics since the 1979 revolution. During this revolution the militarized regime of the Somoza family was overthrown by the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). This movement was named after the national hero Augusto César Sandino, who led resistance against a US military occupation in the 1930s. After the 1979 revolution, Ortega became the representative of the Sandinistas in the five-member National Junta of Reconciliation. Soon, the Sandinistas dominated the junta and Ortega became the de facto ruler of Nicaragua after two members had left the junta. The first free elections were held in 1984. The FSLN, evolved from a political movement into a political party, and won the elections with almost two-thirds of the votes. Ortega, as party leader, became president for the first time. Despite losing the elections to the liberals in 1990, Ortega managed to regain his position as president in 2006 and 2011.

Interestingly enough, the Nicaraguan constitution prohibits two consecutive presidential legislative terms. Ortega, however, is serving his second term already, after Nicaragua’s Supreme Court has lifted this clause from the constitution. In addition to removing the one-term limit from the constitution, Ortega has also proposed the removal of another article that states that a presidential candidate needs a minimum of 35% of the votes to win an election. He instead suggests that the candidate with the most votes should win, as long as he has at least 5% of the votes.

After his re-election in 2006, Ortega no longer resembled the politician he had been in the 80’s. He changed the party’s slogan to “Christianity, Socialism and Solidarity” and a campaign replaced the black and red Sandinista flags with pink campaign posters. He converted to Catholicism and formed an alliance with the Catholic Church. In line with this, he outlawed abortions in 2006. Regardless of the motive for an abortion this procedure would lead to an approximately six-year-long prison sentence. Ortega also attempts to bring the national army under his control by appointing a relatively unimportant but loyal Secretary General as minister of defense. Moreover, all positions within the ministry are held by FSLN members.

This shift from the revolutionary ideals Ortega represented during his first presidency, along with his obvious effort to remain in power, combined with rumors of corruption, have led to a decline in support within Nicaragua and internationally. However, Ortega has managed to maintain relationships with strategically important friends, such as Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez and Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar. Ortega financed his election campaigns with money from Venezuelan oil and Colombian drugs. For instance, he disposed over 500 million dollars in 2008 and in 2010, Venezuelan money accounted for almost 8% of the Nicaraguan GDP. Money like this was used to develop a number of programs to decrease poverty, for example low-cost micro loans, heavily subsidizing public transport and financial support to the poorest to keep up with raising costs of living.

Ortega’s campaign poster. Source: Flickr CC, Sven Hansen.
Ortega’s campaign poster. Source: Flickr CC, Sven Hansen.

Has Daniel Ortega made the shift from revolutionary fighter to a corrupt dictator? Implementing further control over the Nicaraguan military and re-writing the constitution to ascertain more personal power would suggest so. Ironically, Daniel Ortega is increasingly acting more like the enemy he fought against in the 1970s – Dictator Somoza. Ortega positions himself as a leftist politician, although many of left-leaning Nicaraguans disagree with his politics. But since Ortega has carefully eliminated all left alternatives, they have no other option than keep voting for the FSLN. Now, after the death of Hugo Chávez, Ortega is on the lookout for new allies to finance his politics. Maybe the 40 billion dollar project for building the Nicaraguan Grand Canal connecting the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean, operated by a private Hong-Kong-based company, will push money into the Nicaraguan economy – and not in the pockets of a new authoritarian leader.

Christina Welpelo

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