Latin America & Caribbean

Profile: Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, 31 October 2011
Image caption Daniel Ortega had to wait 16 years to return to power

Few political figures in Latin America divide opinion more strongly than Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.

To his supporters he is a heroic revolutionary who overthrew a brutal dictator and has since dedicated his life to improving conditions in one of the region's poorest countries.

To his critics - including many former allies - he is a corrupt and authoritarian ruler who has turned his back on his revolutionary ideals and come to resemble the dictator he deposed.

What is certain is that he has been the dominant political figure in Nicaragua for more than three decades.

Born in 1946 as the son of a shoemaker, Daniel Ortega was still a teenager when he joined the left-wing Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).

It was fighting to overthrow the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza, whose family had ruled Nicaragua since 1936.

In 1967 Mr Ortega was imprisoned for robbing a bank to raise funds for the revolution.

He spent seven years in jail and was severely tortured before being released along with other Sandinistas in exchange for hostages.


In 1979, following a bitter armed struggle in which 50,000 people were killed, President Somoza fled into exile and the Sandinistas took power, inheriting a country in ruins.

Mr Ortega became a member of the five person Junta of National Reconciliation, and in 1984 was elected president.

Most international observers recognised the vote as generally free and fair, despite opposition complaints.

But US President Ronald Reagan dismissed the election as a "sham" and stepped up his support for armed counter-revolutionary groups known as Contras.

This was the height of the Cold War, and Washington saw the Sandinistas as a front for Soviet and Cuban-style communism and a threat to US-backed governments throughout Central America.

The Sandinista government made important gains, particularly in health, education and land reform.


With his olive green guerrilla fatigues and passionate anti-US rhetoric, Mr Ortega became the new hero of left-wing groups around the world.

But the impact of the Contra war and US sanctions made economic reconstruction impossible.

Image caption As a young revolutionary Mr Ortega was an icon for the international left

In presidential elections in 1989, to the surprise of many observers, Mr Ortega was defeated by liberal opposition candidate Violeta Chamorro.

He accepted the result, but said the Sandinistas would continue to "rule from below" through its control of the army and mass organisations such as trade unions.

Further presidential election defeats in 1995 and 2001, combined with allegations of corruption and deep splits within the Sandinista movement, led many to dismiss him as a spent political force.

In 1998 his step-daughter Zoilamerica accused him of repeatedly raping her as a child.

Mr Ortega avoided trial by invoking his immunity as a member of congress, but his personal reputation was in ruins.


But with Latin America's political tide moving back towards the left, and with Nicaragua still plagued by poverty and corruption, in 2006 he made a dramatic comeback to win the presidency again.

The man who returned to power was much changed from the revolutionary of 16 years before.

In a campaign masterminded by his wife Rosario Murillo - a poet he met while in prison - the black and red Sandinista flags were largely replaced by pink campaign posters.

The military fatigues were exchanged for white shirt-sleeves and the Marxist slogans swapped for a vague commitment to "Christianity, Socialism and solidarity".

The US and EU froze aid to his government in 2008 after allegations of widespread fraud in local elections.

But massive loans and cheap oil from a new ally - Venezuela's left-wing President Hugo Chavez - have more than compensated for this, boosting economic growth.

In 2009 Nicaragua's Supreme Court and Supreme Electoral Council removed constitutional obstacles to him standing for another term in office - a move the opposition condemned as illegal.

Critics accuse Mr Ortega of running Nicaragua as a personal fiefdom, and of using Venezuelan money as a slush fund to buy support.

Many former Sandinistas accuse him of betraying his revolutionary ideals in a ruthless pursuit of power.

But he retains strong support among the poor in rural and urban Nicaragua, and was the clear favourite to win re-election.

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