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Sandinista revolution marks 30th anniversary

Daniel Ortega leads Nicaragua again, but he has many critics.

MANAGUA, Nicaragua—On the eve of the 30th anniversary of the day the Sandinistas swept into power, a silver-haired revolutionary contemplated what he perceived to be Nicaragua’s greatest achievements, and mistakes, after the uprising.

A revered guerrilla hero, Eden Pastora, also known as “Comandante Cero,” executed the August 1978 siege of the Palacio Nacional that thrust the Sandinista struggle onto the world stage, and eventually led to the toppling of the dynastic dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza the following July.

A black and white photograph of a young Pastora, with a rifle raised in one hand, hangs on the wall behind his office desk, memorializing the day he stormed the Palacio. But for Pastora, the fight began years before that moment, he says, thinking back to 1945 when National Guardsmen killed his father, Panfilo Pastora, a farm worker who opposed the Somoza regime.

“I grew up always wanting a father. Somoza’s National Guard assassinated my father when I was 7 years old. For me that’s when it all began; when I learned the meaning of the word assassination. That’s when my fight began,” Pastora said during an interview in his humble yet well-guarded home.

He took up a rifle as soon as he could hold one, he said, and went on to become the revolution’s strongman at the Southern Front straddling Nicaragua’s border with Costa Rica. However, like other former comrades of President Daniel Ortega, Pastora became disillusioned with the party and defected. He sought to bring about a counterinsurgency against his old comrades to, in his words, “rescue the original project of the revolution.” Although the guerrilla chief praised Ortega’s social programs, such as the national literacy campaign, he criticized the leadership for allowing the erosion of basic freedoms during its 10 years of rule following the revolution.

“The companeros (who were leading the country) were really young, they lacked a level of statesmanship, and they made mistakes,” he said. He cited media censorship, lack of political freedom and lack of respect for human rights among the “errors” that made him want to defect.

But Pastora and Ortega have somehow reconciled their differences. Pastora said much has changed during Ortega’s rule this time around, after an election victory in November 2006 following 16 years of lost elections. “Now we’re having a revolution the way we ought to have done in 1980, with freedom, democracy and respect for human rights,” Pastora claimed.

Ortega’s detractors differ.

Critics have levied harsh accusations against Ortega, including charges that he rigged November’s municipal elections, after minority parties such as a Sandinista splinter group were prohibited from participating. The United States recently added critical pressure, cutting $64 million in development aid after the controversial November mayoral vote that spiraled into weeks of street violence here.

Ortega claims that this foreign aid loss will be made up by funds from his close ally Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, through the cooperation and trade bloc known as ALBA. This has led many to wonder about a deepening of Chavez’s left-wing influence across the region. But some experts say the rise of Latin America’s left seems like a given after failed dependencies on the International Monetary Fund and the United States.