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Deja vu in Nicaragua? President Ortega and first lady wield 'dynastic' power

President Ortega and first lady Rosario Murillo have forged a level of control that political observers say holds echoes of the sort of family dynasty the Sandinista Front once took up arms to topple.

By Tim JohnsonMcClatchy / January 10, 2014

Nicaragua's first lady Rosario Murillo raises her husband's hand President Daniel Ortega as he holds up his presidential certificate from the Electoral Supreme Council as winner of the presidential elections in Managua, Nicaragua, Jan. 9, 2012.

Enric Marti/AP/File

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MANAGUA, Nicaragua

Nearly everywhere that Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega goes, first lady Rosario Murillo hovers at his side, bedecked in strands of necklaces, each finger bearing a ring or two, sometimes sporting multiple bangles and watches on her wrists.

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Ms. Murillo, a poet who seems lifted from the flower child era, is the colorful public face of her husband’s administration. She presides over Cabinet meetings and makes most of the government’s public pronouncements.

Nearly every weekday, she speaks soothingly on state television, explaining public projects, discussing weather, touting the achievements of her husband’s political party, the Sandinista Front, and even showing her esoteric side, encouraging Nicaraguans to embrace “Mother Earth” and to act kindly to one another.

Perhaps not since the days of Evita Peron in Argentina in the late 1940s and early 1950s has the spouse of a Latin American president played such a visible public role.

Murillo’s power seems equal to that of President Ortega, who’s been a major political figure in Nicaragua since 1979. The two together are forging a level of control that political observers say holds echoes of the sort of family dynasty that the Sandinista Front once took up arms to topple. While Ortega and Murillo work in tandem, Murillo handles much of day-to-day governing while Ortega deals with strategy. Some analysts guess at who holds more clout.

“Maybe he’s her indispensable left hand,” said Carlos Denton, president of CID Gallup Centroamerica, a regional polling firm. “Many Nicaraguans think she runs the government.”

Call any government official or any Sandinista Front deputy in the National Assembly, and he or she is unlikely to speak without Murillo’s OK, which is hard to get. Her office has no listed telephone number. She did not respond to email.

“She doesn’t let any Cabinet member talk. If there is a health problem, it is not the health minister who speaks. It is her,” said Oscar-Rene Vargas, a Swiss-trained sociologist who was a supporter of the Sandinista Front when it took power for the first time in 1979 after an armed revolution against the US-backed dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza.

The Sandinistas left power after losing an election in 1990, and Ortega failed in two later campaigns for the presidency. But he squeaked out a victory in 2006 and triumphed easily in 2011, with help from allies on the country’s Supreme Court, despite a constitutional ban on re-election.

In December, the National Assembly abolished term limits on presidents, paving the way for Ortega to be elected indefinitely – harkening back to the tactics that kept the Somoza family dynasty in power for 44 years.

Anastasio Somoza and his US-educated sons used the National Guard as their power base, treated Nicaragua as their ranch, and kept absolute control over the country. The United States supported their extended rule. Franklin D. Roosevelt allegedly said of Mr. Somoza in 1939 that he “may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.”

Ortega’s current move to permit indefinite re-election set off alarm bells in some sectors, most notably the episcopal conference of Roman Catholic prelates, which warned of “the perpetuation of a long-term absolute power.” The National Assembly will consider the matter again early this year.

Until then, however, the question for many here is whether Ortega would ever cede power to his wife. Those who have known the two say their relationship is complicated, and sometimes strained.

Murillo would be a stark contrast to Ortega, a man with simple tastes. His only known luxury is a set of silver Mercedes-Benz SUVs.

Murillo, who is 62 to Ortega’s 68, enjoys not only abundant jewelry but also an impressive wardrobe. The opposition La Prensa newspaper in 2012 reviewed 463 official photos of her over the previous three years and found that she wore 462 different outfits.

Her current list of titles starts with government spokeswoman. But she’s also Cabinet chief on all social issues and presides over the Councils of Citizen Power, ubiquitous neighborhood groups that channel food aid and other assistance.

In the 35 years that Ortega and Murillo have been a couple – they finally married in a Roman Catholic ceremony in 2005 – Ortega has gone through a metamorphosis, leaving behind the socialism of his revolutionary youth to become, by many accounts, one of Nicaragua’s richest men. The business elite, which once so detested Ortega that it rose up in the 1980s to join a US-backed insurgency against him, now sees him as a reliable ally in growing their wealth unimpeded.

Under Ortega, Nicaragua’s economy has grown briskly, outpaced only by Panama’s in Central America. Labor unrest has all but ended. Business owners are largely happy. Ortega’s assistance programs, providing zinc roofing and piglets to the poor with up to $500 million a year in off-the-books aid from Venezuela, have boosted the president’s popularity.

“This is an apparatus that fixes your teeth,” Arturo Cruz, a former ambassador to the United States, said of Ortega’s Sandinista Front. “When you die, there is someone from the government . . . that will help you get buried.”

It’s also done well for Murillo, who oversees social programs, which directly benefit 140,000 families among Nicaragua’s 5 million citizens. Many of the poor, particularly women, associate her with the programs and feel gratitude.

“She really helps out women,” said Jeannette Lopez, a young mother of seven children in a poor Managua neighborhood near the Lenin Fonseca Hospital. Lopez recently received a free two-room, zinc-roofed home from the government.

“The house came in my name. It was a requirement. This is because men leave their wives and give them nothing,” Ms. Lopez said.

Aura Martinez, who oversees the citizens power council in the surrounding neighborhood, brushed aside questions about Murillo’s quirkiness, such as her propensity to accessorize or her recent ordering that 40 or so metal yellow “Trees of Life,” each some 40 feet tall, be installed at key intersections in the capital. The trees with their curlicue branches and bright lights give a glitzy Las Vegas neon feel to the capital.

“That’s just her thing. It’s her style to use lots of earrings and bracelets,” Ms. Martinez said.

“It’s kitsch,” said Sofia Montenegro, a former Sandinista who is now a women’s activist. “She’s changed all the national symbols.”

In addition to the towering artificial trees, Murillo has ordered “Hands of Fatima” – open palms with an all-seeing eye in the middle – painted in several party buildings and uses the ancient symbol of two serpents swallowing each other’s tails.

“Rosario has been known since she was young for having a bunch of eclectic New Age, shamanic and Christian beliefs,” Ms. Montenegro said. “This amalgam of beliefs has become official credo.”

Murillo had virtually no role during the 1979-1990 Sandinista regime. Her rise coincided with a sordid family scandal. In 1998, Murillo’s daughter from an earlier liaison, Zoilamerica Narvaez, accused Ortega, who adopted her in 1986, of molesting her since she was age 11.

Murillo sided with Ortega in the incest dispute, calling her own daughter mentally unstable and a political enemy.

“She repudiated her daughter and backed Daniel Ortega,” Montenegro said. “This support had a price: She demanded half the power.”

Even after Ms. Narvaez dropped a lawsuit over the matter, she claimed in May 2013 that state pressure against European donors had forced her nonprofit think tank into insolvency. A month later, immigration officials deported her Bolivian companion to Costa Rica, and she soon followed him there into exile.

An opposition legislator, Luis Callejas, said the Narvaez incident was emblematic of the Ortega government’s gritty determination to silence critics.

“What there is here is dictatorship. Make no mistake. They have power of all branches of state,” Callejas said. “The business owners are afraid that they’ll be pursued for tax reasons. The prevailing attitude is, ‘Don’t get involved in politics and you can go on.’”

Critics of Ortega said he has funneled some of the annual slush fund from Venezuela into investments in hotels, energy distribution, and banking.

Ortega and Murillo have nine shared children, between their own and those from other liaisons. Since Ortega returned to power in 2007, neither he nor Murillo has ever offered a news conference open to all media, choosing instead to speak through a website or trusted state news outlets they control.

“We’re repeating the same history as Somoza,” said Vargas, the sociologist. “Each one of his children has a business, and then you’ve got the spouses. So there are 40 to 50 Ortegas with businesses.”

“There’s a lot of concentration of power, and this is not good,” said Diego Vargas Montealegre, president of the board of the Nicaraguan-American Chamber of Commerce.

“There’s no institutional counterweight to them,” added Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a former editor of the Sandinista newspaper who now is a critic of the Ortega government. “I’m talking about the comptroller, the Supreme Court, the prosecutors, the National Assembly, all of it.”

Some see Murillo as biding her time, waiting for her day as leader, ready to replace Ortega should his health fail. Ortega is said to suffer from debilitating lupus or another illness that prevents him from going outside much during daylight hours.

“If she thinks she can win power against the will of Daniel, she’ll lose,” said Daniel Aguirre Solis, a retired legislator and newspaper editor who used to work with Murillo at La Prensa newspaper in the 1970s. The army remains loyal to Ortega, not Murillo, he added.

Even if Ortega cedes power to his wife some day, Mr. Aguirre said he thinks the economic situation could lead to the family’s eventual downfall, given poverty that remains stubbornly high at 45 percent.

“The Venezuelan money could disappear. Inflation could rise,” Aguirre said.

“This will end up badly,” said Callejas, the opposition lawmaker. “There will be social revolt. Ortega and Somoza are the same thing.”

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