Nicaragua’s shrewd power couple
Nicaragua’s first couple, President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, easily lead the field ahead of elections on Sunday that look likely to extend their rule over one of the poorest countries in the Americas.
Ortega, a former rebel who first took power after a Marxist revolution in the 1970s and returned as head of state since 2007, is known as “el comandante” (the commander) for his strong-fisted rule that has cleared away any serious rivals.
Murillo, extravagant, with a penchant for poetry and art, is no less redoubtable in her current role as the government’s chief spokeswoman and - many believe - the eminence grise behind her husband.
Known as “Companera Rosario” (Comrade Rosario), she would be elevated to the post of vice president in the probable event of an election victory. Ortega, who turns 71 on November 11, first seized control after his Sandinista guerrillas ousted the Somoza dynasty that had held power over Nicaragua with increasing autocracy from the 1930s to 1979.
Now, his critics accuse him of wanting to again turn Nicaragua politics into a family affair.
After his rebels triumphed in the country’s bloody revolution, Ortega headed up the leftwing Sandinista government with the support of Cuba and the Soviet Union, and was elected president in 1985. But, with the economy in ruins, Ortega lost re-election in 1990.
With his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party in opposition, he spent the following 17 years “ruling from below” - fomenting violent protests and negotiating reforms with the government - while losing the next two re-election bids.
In the 2006 elections, he finally managed his comeback, benefiting from the death of a popular rival, former Managua mayor Herty Lewites, just months before the polls.
Back in the presidential palace, Ortega maneuvered to gradually take control over all state bodies, the police and the army and to sideline potential opponents. Backed by the deep oil funds of Venezuela, under his ideological ally Hugo Chavez, he started social programs for the poor, who now continue to support him unconditionally. But he was also careful to nurture ties with the country’s powerful business families, holding out promises of stability.
While Ortega has cut back on his public appearances in the past couple of years, his “loyal companion” and wife, Rosario Murillo, with whom he has nine children, two of them adopted, has taken the limelight. “She is a very intelligent, original woman who has a commanding voice” and who has carved out her own space in the political sphere, Eden Pastora, another ex-rebel told AFP.