JEFFREY BROWN: Next to the coming election in the Central American nation of Nicaragua.
Daniel Ortega still dominates the politics there, three decades after his confrontation with the United States.
Ray Suarez reports from Managua.
RAY SUAREZ: It’s election time in Nicaragua. After almost 30 years of democracy, Nicaraguans are still passionate about their politics. Turnouts remain high, upwards of 90 percent.
Daniel Ortega is president of Nicaragua, again, and a familiar face from the final years of the Cold War. He came to power as a leader of the far-left Sandinista Revolution. He was Ronald Reagan’s Central American nemesis, fighting off a U.S.-backed army after taking power in 1979.
But after losing a bid for re-election in 1990, it took Ortega 16 years to win back the presidency in 2006. Now he’s using all the tools of incumbency to keep the job, even engineering a change in the constitution to allow a run for a third term.
That sparked violent backlash, put down by the president’s security forces. Opposition candidates, like Fabio Gadea, have rushed to characterize the constitutional change as Ortega’s betrayal of the revolution he led to overthrow Nicaragua’s longtime dictator, Anastasio Somoza.
FABIO GADEA, opposition candidate (through translator): The president has forgotten his own fight to bring down a dictatorship. He’s forgotten that when dictators close all the roads to democracy, the people can rise up. Ortega has forgotten, and now he is acting just like Somoza.
RAY SUAREZ: What the Sandinistas are doing in these final days before the polls open is flood the political space, use their superior resources to try to put in the voter’s mind that government services, whether it’s vaccines, subsidized food, donated clothing, even a street party, are all thanks to President Ortega and the Sandinista Party.
Ortega has shifted the resources of government into public services with political purposes, supplying food, clothes and free entertainment, like this huge amusement park. The Sandinista Front, FSLN, has closed schools and bussed hundreds of youth to major traffic circles to rally for Ortega.
Plenty of voters we spoke to credit Ortega with relieving some of the burdens that come from being the second poorest country in the hemisphere, trailing only Haiti.
WOMAN (through translator): In Nicaragua, we are extremely poor. I am poor. The re-election of Daniel Ortega could change that. I have faith in God and I have faith in Ortega.
RAY SUAREZ: Adriana (ph) says she will vote for the Sandinistas on Nov. 6.
I asked Nancy (ph), another market worker, if the FSLN has been good for women.
WOMAN (through translator): Yes, for women, it is better. Now, when we go to the health center, we are taken care of. When we are pregnant, we get special attention. I had a baby last year, and I was well taken care of.
CARLOS FERNANDO CHAMORRO, journalist: There’s no doubt that Ortega is a front-runner. All the polls are projecting him as a winner.
RAY SUAREZ: Veteran journalist Carlos Fernando Chamorro is from one of Nicaraguan’s leading political families. And he has been on both sides of the political divide. His mother, Violeta, was a member of the first government after the revolution, then joined the opposition, scoring a surprise victory when she challenged Daniel Ortega for the presidency in 1990.
Today, Chamorro hosts a nightly news program. He says President Ortega’s campaign has been bolstered by his relationship with another left-leaning Latin American leader, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. The ideological ties between the two leaders have brought enormous sums of money to Nicaragua.
CARLOS FERNANDO CHAMORRO: He’s highly dependent on Chavez’s cooperation. That means at least 7 percent of the GDP every year, $500 million, that they go beyond the national budget, and Ortega can use that money discretionally, either for government programs or to promote his own business group or to finance his own political campaigns.
RAY SUAREZ: Chamorro says Ortega is creating loyalty by delivering for the poor, using government coffers. The Ortega government distributes free and subsidized food. One out of four Nicaraguans don’t get enough to eat.
The busses, daily transportation for the Nicaraguan masses, include new Russian busses burning subsidized gasoline, which, like other aid, comes from Venezuela.
Arturo Cruz, former ambassador of Nicaragua to the United States under Ortega, says the leader has moved over the years from socialism to pragmatic populism.
ARTURO CRUZ JR., former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States: When you have a government that has access to the Venezuelan resources, and uses them with a certain margin of discretion, they can be very effective in doing multiple things which are small for you and me, but that are huge for most Nicaraguans.
BAYARDO ARCE, Ortega administration (through translator): If Venezuela had not given us a credit to buy oil, I don’t see how this country would have survived under any government.
RAY SUAREZ: Bayardo Arce was one of the military leaders of the Nicaraguan revolution, and today is the Ortega government’s top economic adviser.
BAYARDO ARCE (through translator): And the energy problem, which was our main headache as we tried to attract foreign investment, was resolved by Venezuela when it invested in generating plants, and the power outages came to an end.
RAY SUAREZ: The opposition is large and split eight ways. Pre-election polls put Gadea as the leading opposition, about 10 points behind Ortega.
Though Gadea is one of the most conservative politicians on the ballot, he’s won the endorsement of some of the left’s leading lights from the 1980s, including Ernesto Cardenal, the renowned poet and former Sandinista minister of culture.
Another old ally-turned-opponent of Ortega and the Sandinista Front is writer and women’s rights activist Sofia Montenegro.
Did you support the revolution in the 1970s and 1980s?
SOFIA MONTENEGRO, political activist: Yes, absolutely, but there is nothing left of the revolution in Daniel Ortega now. I mean, I think he has failed.
RAY SUAREZ: Montenegro has a long litany of complaints against the president, but chief among them, Ortega’s aggressive bid to court church support by imposing one of Latin America’s toughest abortion bans, even outlawing therapeutic abortions, when pregnancy threatens a woman’s life.
SOFIA MONTENEGRO: The decision of — to reposition himself as a Christian is funny, I mean, in the sense that it’s inauthentic and nobody buys it.
RAY SUAREZ: Last week, on the fifth anniversary of the law’s enactment, thousands of women gathered in protests on the streets of Managua, just 10 days before the election.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
RAY SUAREZ: Continuing religious appeals begun in his last campaign, Ortega invited the nation’s press to broadcast the award of the country’s highest civilian honor to a local priest.
He was joined by Miguel Obando y Bravo, who, 25 years ago, supported the Contras fighting with American help to bring down the Sandinista regime.
Arturo Cruz sees Ortega joining a long line of Latin American leaders putting personality and power over party.
ARTURO CRUZ JR.: And it’s not the FSLN. People now vote for Daniel Ortega. And — and now that amount of voters is increasing, in part because probably you cannot define him any longer ideologically. He’s much more of a traditional politician, closer to the Catholic Church. He believes more or less now in the — in the traditional symbols.
RAY SUAREZ: As part of that ideological shift, Ortega has actively courted U.S. and foreign business investments in Nicaragua. Cruz says, if he wins again, the Sandinista leader could now be in power for a long, long time. But others caution that Nicaraguans distrust pollsters, and the opposition may be stronger than anyone realizes.
Its politics shaped by revolution and civil war, tribal, dominated by a handful of famous families and outsized personalities, Nicaragua heads to the polls Sunday.
JEFFREY BROWN: Ray’s next report from Nicaragua will look at its efforts to combat pneumonia.