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.
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"Wherever there is confusion or a conflict of interests between the state and the government, and the ruling party and the first family, the situation becomes corrupted," said former Attorney General Alberto Novoa, who spearheaded the anti-corruption campaign against former President Arnoldo Alemán, accused of bilking the country of $100 million during his turn in government. "The separation of state and party is an unfinished task in Nicaragua."Skip to next paragraph
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Untangling the web of business interests has been a difficult task.
Moises Martínez, an award-winning investigative journalist for the leading daily La Prensa, says the government secrecy of Nicaragua's "Cuban-inspired model" has made his two-year investigation of Ortega's ALBA business dealings "like trying to dig a tunnel with a hand shovel."
Despite being denied access to government sources and companies such as ALBANISA, journalists have uncovered a web of almost a dozen ALBA business holdings, which Martinez claims has made Ortega and his family one of the most important economic players in the country, on par with Nicaraguan business tycoon Carlos Pellas. "The difference," Martinez says; "is that it took the Pellas family 80 years to accumulate their wealth. Ortega has done it in two years."
Yet unlike most nouveau riche, Ortega and his Sandinista confidants – who first rose to economic power in 1990 during a $1.5 billion land grab known as the "piñata" – still identify as the poor and downtrodden. In fact, Ortega, who has had no other job in his life other than president, claims a net worth of only $200,000, according to his last declaration in 2006.
But Ortega failed to report any property or "piñata" holdings, including his personal compound, which he confiscated in the 1980s and is estimated to be worth around $1 million.
The Sandinista leadership is decidedly tight-lipped on the subject of its business dealings. Ortega's wife, Rosario Murillo, spokeswoman for the government, the president and the Sandinista Front, did not respond to the Christian Science Monitor's requests for an interview. And presidential adviser and economist Orlando Núñez also failed to return requests for comment.
President Ortega's brother, however, says the Sandinistas' new capitalist clout and economic rise to power is nothing to be ashamed of.
"If there is a free market, there needs to be a system in which people are free to get rich, so the poor can stop being poor, so the poor can become middle class and the middle class can become business owners and be better off," says retired Gen. Humberto Ortega, adding that the Sandinista revolution broke the economic stranglehold of a small ruling class and allowed the Sandinistas to become "new actors" in today's modern free-market economy, which he defends.
People shouldn't pay too much attention to the Sandinista government's anti-capitalist rhetoric, says General Ortega, because "one thing is discourse for the political clients, and another thing is what the reality shows you are doing."