MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Blazoned across giant billboards on the streets of Managua, larger-than-life images of President Daniel Ortega offer the promise of “more victories” in 2011 — a vague assurance illustrated by the aging revolutionary’s wistful, unfocused stare into the future.
The constitution prohibits the president from seeking re-election next year, but the ruling Sandinista party, which Ortega and his wife micromanage like a family business, has made it clear it intends to remain in power for a longtime.
Comandante Tomas Borge, the last living founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), boldly stated earlier this year that the FSLN will be around for another 100 years. He said giving up power, as the party did when they were voted out of office in 1990, was a mistake that should never be repeated.
“I told Daniel that this time around, no matter what the cost, the FSLN cannot allow the return of the right wing,” Borge said in comments to the press in Peru. “It would be like getting terminal cancer; we cannot allow a return to the past.”
Ironically, the FSLN’s idea of preventing a return to the past is to allow Ortega — the party’s only candidate for the past five presidential elections — to run again next year. Ortega, who has essentially been in continuous campaign mode since 1984, seems up to the challenge.
Amid blaring campaign music and thunderous chants of “Daniel! Daniel! Daniel!” Ortega took center stage in Managua’s Plaza de la Fe on Monday and waved to some 500,000 supporters gathered for the celebration, an annual event to commemorate the fall of the Somoza dynasty in 1979. Though the national holiday commemorates a popular revolution that overthrew a brutal dictatorship 31 years ago, the annual event has since become a campaign rally for Ortega and a celebration of his cult of personality.
“This is Daniel Ortega’s great show — his biggest show of the year. It’s almost become a religious event,” said former guerrilla leader and retired army general Hugo Torres, a Sandinista dissident who was a member of the revolutionary council of state in the 1980s. “Ortega is a messianic caudillo with fascist tendencies. He thinks he is illuminated and predestined to rule the country. He’s become crazy with power.”
Ortega showed some of that this week, claiming his return to power in 2007 was due to “the hand of God.” Others in his government have likened his presidency to “the project of Christ.”
Nicaragua’s majority opposition — including many former revolutionary leaders who have turned against their old comrade — claim Ortega is pushing the country toward a retro-tropical dictatorship with a God complex. They argue that Ortega’s persecution of political enemies, intolerance to criticism and manipulation of the electoral and judicial branches to consolidate power has pushed Nicaragua’s weak institutional democracy precariously close to the abyss.
“This is an abusive regime; it’s an abusive power that uses populist and opportunistic imagery,” said former guerrilla Henry Ruiz, who was one of the original nine Sandinista comandantes who led the revolutionary government in the 1980s. “Daniel says he is socialist, Christian and in solidarity — he isn’t any of those three.”
So instead of celebrating this week’s 31st anniversary of the revolution with Ortega in the plaza, many former Sandinista leaders stayed at home with mixed emotions.
“The majority of Sandinistas with revolutionary credentials are either dead or remain outside the circus that Ortega has made of the revolution, July 19 and FSLN,” said Sofia Montenegro, a former Sandinista militant who edited the official party newspaper in the 1980s.
Still, many former rank-and-file Sandinista combatants remain loyal to Ortega and the red-and-black FSLN flag they fought to defend. And in a party that comes from clandestine military background with a vertical command structure, most former combatants are not used to questioning the comandante’s orders — even if the battle is now electoral and the “enemy” is an opposition presidential hopeful.
“We are going to see their faces next year in the great electoral battle — that’s when we’ll see their faces, and it’s the people who will have to decide,” Ortega told the throng of supporters during Monday's rally.
Though the Sandinistas represent only 35 percent of Nicaragua’s population, the military discipline and ideological fanaticism make them the most tenacious political bloc in the country. So much so that an M&R Consultants poll released last week shows that if the 2011 presidential elections were held today, Ortega would win with 54 percent of the vote, thanks to a 100 percent Sandinista turnout and an abstention rate that could reach as high as 50 percent among the rest of the population, which has little faith in the country's election process.
For many ex-combatants who fought to defend the revolution against U.S.-funded contra invaders in the 1980s, defending Ortega’s continuity in power now is part of the same struggle that has shaped their lives.
“For us, the re-election of Daniel is necessary so that there will be continuity in his revolutionary project,” said former Sandinista combatant Santos Abaunza, a jovial man who turned out to the plaza wearing a Che Guevara T-shirt and a red-and-back Sandinista bandana. “I think Daniel needs at least another two terms in office (10 years) so that the revolutionary project will be firmly installed.”