Conflict & Justice

A New Somoza in Nicaragua

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega easily won a 3rd term in Sunday's election, garnering more than twice as many votes as his nearest opponent.

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However, Ortega was on the ballot in defiance of a constitutional ban on the re-election of sitting presidents. In fact, his refusal to step down has critics comparing Ortega to the Somoza dictatorship, which ruled Nicaragua for 43 years.

As a guerrilla leader, Ortega helped topple the Somoza regime in 1979 and his Sandinista government confiscated all of the Somoza's land and businesses.

But one member of the Somoza dynasty has since returned to Nicaragua in a quest to rehabilitate his family's name.

Alvaro Somoza takes me on a tour of what was once the presidential palace, where he grew up.

"This is where I took accordion lessons as a kid," he said.

Somoza is the son of Luis Somoza, the second of three Somoza dictators who ruled Nicaragua between 1936 and 1979.

By all accounts Luis Somoza was the best of the three Somoza rulers.

"My father started the social security system in this country," Alvaro said. "The minimum wage was established by my father; the labor code, the right to syndicate. I could go on and on and on and on."

But Luis Somoza died of a heart attack in 1967 and his younger brother, Anastasio, who was commander of the country's military, took over. Anastasio Somoza's corruption, massive wealth and violent crackdowns on the opposition helped fuel the Sandinista revolution.

Shortly before his uncle was overthrown, Alvaro Somoza, who was then 27, fled Managua aboard his Cessna airplane.

"I managed to get to the airport with an overnight bag for three or four days, hoping that the shooting would be over," he said. "I got in my 1-85 and flew to El Salvador, and I never came back. The shooting never stopped."

Alvaro Somoza resettled in Florida where he sold luxury cars and started one of the state's largest landscape nurseries.

After the Sandinistas were voted out of office in 1990, he became the first Somoza to return to Nicaragua. By then, the Sandinistas had torn down the statue to his father. They also rechristened hospitals and schools built by the Somozas with revolutionary names. Luis Somoza's former mansion now houses the defense ministry, and it was renamed after a Sandinista guerrilla leader.

According to the guard at the gate, "This was part of the Somoza dynasty and when they were defeated, many things had to be changed, including the names of buildings and anything else that smelled of Somoza."

The Somoza name remains so controversial that Alvaro has had no luck in persuading the government to return a confiscated cement company and other businesses and properties that he says were legitimately acquired by his family.

Still, Alvaro Somoza, who is now 59 and makes a living running fruit farms in Nicaragua, is well received by many older people who remember his father.

Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, but in the 1960s when Luis Somoza ruled the country, Nicaragua boasted one of the fastest growing economy in Latin America.

"I knew Alvaro's father," said Alberto Quiroz, a 64-year-old security guard. "He would sit down and talk to average people. He was an excellent president, one of the best."

Hoping to trade in on that nostalgia, Alvaro Somoza has jumped into politics. He was campaign manager for presidential candidate Enrique Quiñones, who finished far behind Ortega in Sunday's election. Alvaro Somoza is also considering running for mayor of Managua, or even president, in 2016.

As for whether his name would be a liability, Somoza said he thinks it would help.

"People in Nicaragua are clearly aware that they were taken for a ride in 1979, a communist ride that promised everything and delivered little or nothing."

But economist Mario Flores, who worked in both the Somoza and Sandinista governments, said Alvaro would face long odds because Nicaraguan history books focus on the corruption and human rights violations of the Somoza family dictatorship.

Ironically, Alvaro Somoza now sees many similarities between his Uncle Anastasio, known as "Tacho," who was overthrown by the Sandinistas, and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, who used dubious legal maneuvers so he could run for a third term in Sunday's presidential election.

"Though my family did a lot of good things, they made a lot of mistakes," Somoza said. "Not only that, but I go further to tell the current politicians: 'Don't make those same mistakes yourself.' The last one, I'm telling President Ortega on a regular basis: 'What is it that you don't realize. Continuity is not something these people want. Didn't you understand what happened to Uncle Tacho?'"

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