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Nicaragua's newest tycoon? 'Socialist' president Daniel Ortega.

Daniel Ortega's opaque business dealings, linked to Venezuela President Hugo Chávez, are blurring the lines between party, state, and first family, say critics.

By Tim RogersCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / October 14, 2009

Managua, Nicaragua

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega doesn't talk like most successful businessmen. The former revolutionary leader is much more likely to rail against the evils of "savage capitalism" than he is to discuss his multi-million dollar business ventures.

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Yet despite his rhetorical stance against the "failed imperialist model," Mr. Ortega and his inner circle of Sandinista confidants are quickly and quietly becoming the new masters of the impoverished country's economy.

Since returning to the presidency in 2007 – 17 years after being voted out of office at the end of the Sandinista revolution in 1990 – Ortega has created a network of private businesses that operate under the auspices of the Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), an opaque cooperation agreement of leftist countries bankrolled primarily by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.

Ortega's "ALBA businesses" – known by an alphabet soup of acronyms, including ALBANISA, ALBALINISA, and ALBACARUNA – have cornered Nicaragua's petroleum import and distribution markets, become the country's leading energy supplier and cattle exporter, turned profits on the sale of donated Russian buses, and purchased a hotel in downtown Managua, among other lucrative investment moves.

While government secrecy has cast a long shadow over the business operations, the light that gets through reveals profits registering in the hundreds of millions of dollars, despite the economy's slip into recession.

In 2008, Nicaragua's Central Bank reported that Venezuela gave Nicaragua $457 million in aid, all of which was managed privately by Ortega's ALBA holdings, with no third-party oversight. ALBANISA, a joint Venezuelan-Nicaraguan oil company linked to Ortega, recently signed a 15-year energy contract expected to net the company upwards of $500 million, depending on price fluctuations. And last year's oil imports earned the ALBA group an additional $280 million in revenue, according to calculations by opposition leader and former Inter-American Development Bank analyst Edmundo Jarquín.

"Maybe Ortega isn't the richest man in the country, but he is making more than anyone else in Nicaragua," Mr. Jarquín said.

Blurring the line between state and first family?

Critics say President Ortega and the Sandinista Front have created a web of businesses operations that have blurred the distinction between party, state, and first family. For example, Ortega's personal confidant Francisco López is the treasurer of the Sandinista Front, as well as the president of the government-run Petronic petroleum company, the vice-president of the private-run ALBANISA, the president of ALALINISA, and the administration's representative to power-distributor Unión Fenosa, of which the Sandinista government recently purchased 16 percent. At this point, critics say, it's impossible to know whose interests he or his businesses represent.