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More than 30 years ago, Daniel Ortega led a group of guerrillas to topple Nicaragua's Somoza dynasty. Now, President Ortega has achieved an imposing one-party rule, and some fear he's dragging the country bag to the dark days of dictatorship. With support from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, correspondent Tim Rogers led a seven-month investigation into how the Central American country could be repeating its troubled past.

Chavez sign nicaragua 2012 10 05
Young Nicaraguan Sandinistas hold a sign of support for Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez outside the cathedral in Leon, Nicaragua. (Tim Rogers/GlobalPost)

Could Nicaragua’s president survive without Venezuela’s Chavez?

President Daniel Ortega is a close ally of Hugo Chavez, and his Sandinista friends have profited from the Venezuelan strongman’s oil-funded club, ALBA.

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an Oct. 6 article entitled "Could Nicaragua's president survive a Chavez loss?"

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Few leaders have benefited more from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s largesse than his close Nicaraguan ally Daniel Ortega. Consequently, few watch Venezuela more closely.

President Ortega and his Sandinista party’s politburo, recipients of more than $2.2 billion in Venezuelan petrodollars since 2007, were confident their Venezuelan benefactor would win re-election in October. And Chavez delivered: He tacked on another six years to his 14-year tenure.

But that hasn’t dispelled doubts about the continued rule of the convalescing Venezuelan strongman. As Chavez’s mysterious cancer-treatment trips to Cuba resumed this week, beneficiaries like Ortega can only hope his flights to Havana are round-trip.

Bayardo Arce, President Ortega’s top economic adviser, says the Sandinistas will be grateful for Venezuelan largesse “as long as it lasts.”

But Arce, who was among the comandantes who led the revolutionary government of the 1980s, says the government is working to diversify its economic relations with China, Europe and the United States because “We have to anticipate that ALBA is not going to be permanent.”

By ALBA, he meant the Bolivarian Alliance for Our Americas (ALBA), a bloc of eight left-leaning Latin American countries underwritten by Chavez.

Since Ortega returned to power democratically in 2007, the wellspring of ALBA aid has provided the Sandinista government with an average of $500 million per year in loans, donations and oil credits. In 2011, Ortega’s ALBA allowance jumped to $609 million during his own re-election campaign.

ALBA still a mystery

Six years on, the inner workings of ALBA in Nicaragua remain a mystery to all but a select coterie. That’s because Ortega’s inner circle of family members and confidants has privatized Venezuelan aid through a web of businesses linked to a main holding company called “ALBANISA,” short for ALBA of Nicaragua, S.A.

“There is nothing transparent about any of this; they are operating completely on the fringes of government,” says opposition lawmaker Carlos Langrand, who has been studying ALBA based on the information provided to the congressional economic and budget commission.

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His predecessors have been equally perplexed. Francisco Aguirre, former president of the economic and budget commission, described ALBA as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” quoting Winston Churchill’s description of Russia in 1939.