Return of the Sandinista ; He Was a Nicaraguan Hero, a Symbol of Resistance to the Imperial Might of America, a Compadre of Castro, an Icon of the Left. ++ Now, Nearly 30 Years after He First Swept to Power, Daniel Ortega Is Back - Poised to Lead His Country Once More. Is He about to Declare a New Revolution? Phil Davison Reports

By Davison, Phil | The Independent (London, England), November 8, 2006 | Go to article overview
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Return of the Sandinista ; He Was a Nicaraguan Hero, a Symbol of Resistance to the Imperial Might of America, a Compadre of Castro, an Icon of the Left. ++ Now, Nearly 30 Years after He First Swept to Power, Daniel Ortega Is Back - Poised to Lead His Country Once More. Is He about to Declare a New Revolution? Phil Davison Reports


Davison, Phil, The Independent (London, England)


Short in stature and wearing horn-rimmed spectacles, Daniel Ortega looked more like Buddy Holly than Fidel Castro when he burst onto the world scene in the days after Nicaragua's 1979 revolution. Today, 27 years on, the man Ronald Reagan called "the little dictator" and considered America's greatest military threat, is no taller and quite a bit podgier. The AK-47 is rusting in the cupboard and the glasses have given way to contact lenses. But he appears to be back in business.

Ortega, 61 next Saturday, looks to have won outright in Sunday's presidential elections, obviating the need for a second round. But is he still a Marxist? Should the US be stepping up security along its southern border, as Reagan said it should when Ortega's Sandinistas cosied up to Cuba and Moscow during the Eighties?

Don't be ridiculous, says Ortega. "Jesus Christ is my hero now. In fact, he always was. He was a rebel and a revolutionary. He always sided with the poor and humble, never with the powerful." Ortega attends weekly Mass and has publicly asked for forgiveness for the excesses of his first Sandinista regime. His supporters obviously bought his newfound religion, some of them calling him "Our Saviour" after hearing of his apparent victory.

His campaign flag and theme tune, he insists, said it all. The old red-and-black flag and silk scarves of the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) were still on show, but alongside them were flags and banners in Ortega's new favoured colour - shocking pink - chosen by his wife and meant to symbolise the new Ortega's softer, gentler side.

The old FSLN anthem, which included the words "let us fight the yanqui, enemy of humanity", could still be heard during his campaign, but it played second fiddle to Ortega's latest theme tune - a Spanish version of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance", which calls for reconciliation and whose refrain is "We all want to live in peace". It also gave a Washington Post headline writer the chance to come up with "Daniel Ortega, from Lenin to Lennon".

The man known to his supporters only by his first name - or as " el Comandante" - has long since given up the camouflage fatigues in which he toured the world in the Eighties, replacing them with a white open-necked shirt, blue denims and high-heeled cowboy boots to give him an extra couple of inches in height. As with Fidel Castro, the olive military jeep has also long gone and the new President- apparent favours a silver Range Rover, a burgundy Mercedes 4WD or, for dramatic effect during his election campaign, a white horse.

But it has to be asked whether the changes are skin-deep, designed merely to aid Ortega's reelection 16 years after he and the Sandinistas were ousted by a disgusted populace in favour of white- haired grandmother Violeta Chamorro in 1990. "Ortega is a tiger that has not changed his stripes," says the US ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli.

So fearful were the ambassador's bosses in Washington of this particular tiger, and of another Sandinista government, that they campaigned openly against Ortega and in favour of rival candidate Eduardo Monte-alegre, a conservative, Harvard-educated banker. Given Nicaragua's strongly nationalist electorate, such blatant support from the yanquis was effectively the kiss of death for Sr Montealegre, as former US president Jimmy Carter, heading an election-observer team, pointed out.

A visit to Managua last month by Lt Col Oliver North, the man who organised and armed the anti-Sandinista Contra guerrillas throughout the Eighties with the obvious approval of Reagan, did more good than harm to Ortega's campaign, particularly after North compared the Sandinista candidate to Adolf Hitler. Roger Noriega, a former senior US envoy to Latin America, was slightly more subtle, referring to Ortega merely as "a hoodlum".

As part of his new image, Ortega had shrewdly chosen as his running mate a former Contra, Jaime Morales.

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Return of the Sandinista ; He Was a Nicaraguan Hero, a Symbol of Resistance to the Imperial Might of America, a Compadre of Castro, an Icon of the Left. ++ Now, Nearly 30 Years after He First Swept to Power, Daniel Ortega Is Back - Poised to Lead His Country Once More. Is He about to Declare a New Revolution? Phil Davison Reports
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