Ortega sheds rebel past, dons pastels

Former Nicaraguan revolutionary is neck and neck with his top rival in Sunday's poll.

He's six hours late. But no one seems to notice.

Tens of thousands have crammed into the central plaza this evening, chanting, singing, and dancing. The wooden stage is occupied by perky cheerleaders in yellow skirts, and is festooned with banana fronds and the American flag.

When one of the most controversial politicians in Nicaraguan history finally steps onto the stage runway (wearing a mauve shirt), women shriek and swoon.

Ricky Martin, he's not. But don't tell that to Daniel Ortega's supporters.

A revolutionary-turned-president, Mr. Ortega ruled this small Central American nation from the Sandinista revolution victory in 1979 until he was voted out of power in 1990.

After more than two decades of political life and with the presidential elections only two days away, Ortega is closer than ever to making one of the most unlikely political comebacks of all time.

"The Sandinistas sparked a revolution that brought democracy and elections to this country, and that is why the Sandinistas deserve a second chance," Ortega says in an brief interview, moments before a young woman interrupts to ask him to autograph her pants.

Locked in a virtual tie with Enrique Bolaños, the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) candidate and one-time vice president under current President Arnoldo Alemán, Ortega may just get that second chance.

But if Ortega is an idol and a hero for some, he is reviled by about just as many others. After the Sandinista-led revolution toppled the Somoza family dictatorship in 1979, the United States backed the Contra rebels in their attempt to overthrow the Soviet-backed Marxist Sandinistas.

The result: years of war that claimed thousands of lives, and a US embargo that brought the nation scarcity, rationing, and endless lines. "If Ortega wins, we will just return to the past. I am sure of it. I was forced to serve in the Army when Ortega ruled the last time, and I don't want my son and younger brothers to have to experience what I did," says Hans Guevara, an attendee at a PLC rally.

After failing to regain the presidency in 1996, Ortega has campaigned to persuade Nicaraguans that he is more flower child than rebel. The red and black revolutionary colors are replaced by pastels. Pink banners with yellow flowers proclaim "love will grow" and "love is stronger than hate." The touchy-feely, 1960s-style campaign is part of a message: an Ortega return will not be a return to war. He vows not to reinstate mandatory military service. He has united 11 smaller parties, including former political foes, onto his ticket under the National Convergence movement.

He has publicly apologized for past mistakes and made overtures to investors and the US government. The presence of Old Glory flying at his political rallies has become a constant.

And some Nicaraguans like it.

"I was a member of the resistance that fought against the Sandinistas, and today I am with Daniel. He has changed, but he is still the leader of Nicaragua's poor," says Elit Garcia, a participant at a Sandinista rally.

The fact that Ortega's past hasn't shortened his political shelf life puzzles some here. In 1998, his adopted stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, accused him of abusing her sexually since she was a child. Ortega denies the charge. As a congressmen, Ortega has immunity, so the case was never pursued in Nicaragua's courts. But many expected the accusations alone would end his political career.

"This guy is like Teflon," says Jorge Bolaños, candidate Enrique Bolaños's son and campaign adviser. "Nothing sticks to him, not human rights violations, not corruption, not even accusations of raping his daughter."

Analysts cite a number of reasons for Ortega's longevity. Not the least of which is his indelible image as the defender of the poor. His populist discourse and emphasis on social programs resonate well in a nation now suffering from record-low coffee prices, and where 70 percent of the population lives in poverty.

"'It's the economy, stupid' is a saying that would apply in Nicaragua," says George Vickers, at the Washington Office on Latin America. "The economic situation is a disaster for most people in Nicaragua, and President Alemán is so visibly corrupt that the fact that Bolaños is seen as his handpicked choice is hurting him badly," he says.

But analysts also cite Ortega's tenacious hold on his political clientele through personal favors and iron-clad grip on his party, as ensuring his perpetual position as the Sandinista candidate. More troublesome for some, however, is the issue of the so-called pact that Ortega made with his archenemy: Alemán, the current president. Through a series of changes in laws, the two made it more difficult for parties other than their own to participate in the elections. This forced bipartisanship, analysts say, has helped the Sandinistas consolidate their leadership over a splintered opposition. But it has also hijacked any hope for true political change.

Ortega "wants to prove he can do a good job ruling in a time of peace," says Manuel Orozco at the Washington-based Inter-American Dialogue. "That desire is not wrong, but the means he has used to get there are very undemocratic. And this proves that he is more obsessed with being president than the social agenda Nicaraguans want to see."

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