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DanielOrtega, in full José DanielOrtega Saavedra, (born November 11, 1945, La Libertad, Nicaragua), Nicaraguan guerrilla leader, member of the Sandinista junta that took power in 1979, and the elected president of Nicaragua (1984–90, 2007– ).
Son of a veteran of the peasant army of César Augusto Sandino, Ortega moved with his family to Managua in the mid-1950s. He briefly attended the Central American University in Managua, then in 1963 he went underground and became a member of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). By 1967 he was in charge of the FSLN’s urban resistance campaign against the ruling Somoza family.
In the fall of 1967 Ortega was arrested for his part in a bank robbery and spent the next seven years in jail. He and a number of other Sandinista prisoners were released at the end of 1974 in exchange for high-level Somocista hostages. Ortega, with the other released prisoners, was exiled to Cuba, where he received several months of guerrilla training. After secretly returning to Nicaragua, Ortega played a major role in the conciliation of various FSLN factions and in the formation of alliances with business and political groups. This policy gradually turned the guerrilla campaign into a full-fledged civil war and led to the Sandinista victory in 1979.
One of the five members of the Sandinista junta, Ortega was named coordinator of the junta in 1981 and three years later was elected president of Nicaragua. He was defeated in his bid for reelection in 1990 by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the candidate of the National Opposition Union. Chamorro’s term expired in 1996. Ortega reemerged as the FSLN candidate for president in May 1996 but was defeated in the October election by conservative candidate Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo. Ortega was also the FSLN candidate for president in 2001, and although he was defeated, he captured 42 percent of the vote.
Ortega remained influential in Nicaraguan politics, and in 2006 he once again ran for president as the FSLN’s candidate. With strong support among Nicaragua’s poor, he secured a large enough plurality to defeat conservative candidate Eduardo Montealegre. Ortega took office in January 2007, and, during his first months as president, it seemed to many that he had carried out his inaugural promises of implementing programs to eliminate hunger and illiteracy among the country’s impoverished, of maintaining a free-trade agreement with the United States, and of creating more private-sector jobs. But, after his first year in office, Ortega’s critics questioned his motives when he began restricting news coverage, denying journalists access to government reports, and aligning himself with leftist Venezuelan Pres. Hugo Chávez.
Through the Chávez regime’s PetroCaribeinitiative, Nicaragua, like a number of other countries in the Caribbean region, received oil from Venezuela at discounted prices, which it then resold at market prices. Ortega’s government used much of the profits on additional social programs that helped reduce poverty. Indeed, according to one measure, general poverty in Nicaragua fell from about 42 percent of the population to about 30 percent during 2009–14. During the same period—largely as a result of Venezuela’s help, aid from international financial organizations, diversified maquiladora production, strong agricultural and mining exports, and rising cash remittances from abroad—the Nicaraguan economy began taking big steps in the right direction, with unemployment falling to about 7 percent, whereas GDP growth climbed to 6 percent in 2011 before falling to about 4 percent in 2015.
In July 2009, on the 30th anniversary of the FSLN revolution, Ortega announced his intention to amend the constitution so that the president could be reelected to a second, consecutive term. In October, in response to a petition from Ortega and more than 100 mayors, the Nicaraguan Supreme Court lifted the constitutional ban on consecutive reelection, allowing Ortega to run in the country’s 2011 presidential election. In the event, Ortega won reelection with some 60 percent of the vote, though there were allegations of election fraud. Meanwhile, the FSLN established a “supermajority” by winning 62 of 90 seats in the National Assembly, clearing the way for Sandinistas to advance their legislative agenda.
While Ortega remained popular with disadvantaged Nicaraguans, it was a different matter with the middle class, who became disenchanted with what they saw as his increasingly authoritarian rule and with the lack of transparency of his government. Critics of the Ortega regime were also quick to point out that some of the profits from Venezuelan oil money had been invested in private companies that were controlled by Ortega’s family and friends, whose conspicuous consumption, the opposition argued, looked a lot like that of the Somoza family. Ortega also remained a steadfast supporter of the Venezuelan government—headed by Nicolás Maduro since the death of Chávez—even after Venezuela’s economy plummeted into crisis in response to falling world oil prices. Despite these developments, the opposition remained fragmented, and the FSLN, using its supermajority, pushed through changes to the constitution that removed term limits on the presidency and increased the chief executive’s power to rule by decree. As a result, Ortega was able to run for a third term in November 2016 with his wife, Rosario Murillo, the government’s chief spokesperson, as his vice presidential running mate. In the event, Ortega won a commanding victory, capturing more than 72 percent of the vote, though the election was boycotted by many in the opposition and was not witnessed by international observers (who were uninvited by the government).—
Ortega’s accommodation of the business community since his return to office in 2007 had served to solidify his grasp on power. As the influence of Murillo in the new administration increased, she and Ortega began to be viewed by the public as copresidents. Their seemingly unassailable command of the political situation was threatened in April 2018, however, when widespread protest and rioting greeted the government’s imposition of social security reform that increased contributions by employers and workers while reducing benefits.
Pensioners and students who took to the streets in protest were violently met by government-dispatched counterdemonstrators. The protest shifted from its initial narrow focus on the changes to social security to an angry critique of the Ortega-Murillo regime, with demonstrators chanting variations of “Ortega y Somoza son la misma cosa” (“Ortega and Somoza are the same thing”). As the conflict escalated over a period of several days and spread from Managua to other Nicaraguan cities, dozens of protesters were killed in clashes with police and counterdemonstrators. As the events unfolded, the government suppressed television coverage of them by independent outlets. To calm the volatile situation, Ortega quickly rescinded the changes to social security.
The Ortega-Murillo government’s response to the demonstrations was ferocious. While the military remained largely on the sidelines, unrestrained police and paramilitary forces brutally suppressed the demonstrators, arbitrarily detaining, attacking and allegedly torturing them. By the time the protests were quelled—giving way to what one UN official described as a “climate of widespread terror”—more than 300 Nicaraguans had been killed. Disturbed by the government’s violent crackdown on the protests, the Roman Catholic Church’s Nicaraguan hierarchy threw its support behind the protesters unequivocally—a development that, in a country where the church still wielded considerable influence, dealt a heavy blow to Ortega. With his hold on power seemingly threatened, Ortega pivoted and appealed to his traditional FSLN base, using his growing control of the media to reshape the narrative surrounding the uprising and presenting it as a failed coup that had been orchestrated by foreign actors. He persuaded his base that the uprising had been not only an assault on his family but on the legacy of the Sandinista revolution. The diverse opposition groups that had come together to threaten Ortega’s rule were left largely fragmented and fearful. According to some estimates, as many as 100,000 Nicaraguans fled the country in the uprising’s aftermath.
Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian exercise of power, grounded in secrecy and opacity, proved to be ill-suited to the challenges of combating the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 pandemic that swept the globe in 2020. As government after government throughout the world began taking dramatic measures to limit the spread of the virus, Ortega and Murillo downplayed the threat; refused to close schools, businesses, or the country’s borders; and imposed no preventive social-distancing or protective mask-wearing protocols. Indeed, they not only allowed large-scale gatherings to continue but also championed a mass parade called “Love in the Time of COVID-19.” Once again, Ortega manipulated the media to cast the government’s response as a resounding success. By June 2021, according to official statistics, fewer than 6,300 Nicaraguans had contracted the virus and fewer than 200 had died from COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. However, independent monitoring organizations painted a much different picture, in which the Nicaraguan health care system was overwhelmed by the pandemic. Left without personal protective equipment and adequate testing, doctors and nurses who came down with the virus but were asymptomatic passed it on to patients. According to one organization, the Citizen Observatory, by June 2021 the real toll of the pandemic in Nicaragua was suspected to have been more than 17,000 cumulative cases of the disease and more than 3,300 COVID-19-related fatalities.
In the last quarter of 2020 the legislature—dominated by Ortega loyalists—passed a number of laws that appeared to pave the way for the government to limit the freedom and fairness of the election process. Enacted in October, the so-called cybercrimes law made it illegal to disseminate “fake” news—that is, information that had not been authorized by the government. A law passed and promulgated in December prohibited “traitors” (broadly defined) from running for or holding public office. In June 2021 the Ortega government began using these laws and related accusations to justify the arrest of more than a dozen opposition figures, including four potential candidates for the upcoming November presidential election, most notably Cristiana Chamorro, the daughter of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. Among the others arrested were a pair of Ortega’s former revolutionary comrades in arms, Dora María Téllez and Hugo Torres. The actions brought widespread international criticism, including condemnation from the Organization of American States and sanctions from the U.S. government.