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What has changed 30 years after Nicaragua's revolution?

Daniel Ortega is back in power, but many criticize his rule.

Mural showing National Guard troops repressing a student demonstration in the 1970s in Leon, at the Nicaraguan National Autonomous University, UNAM, where the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) was formed. (John Enders/GlobalPost)

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Thirty years after the Sandinista Revolution triumphed here over the Somoza dictatorship, many Nicaraguans, including some former top Sandinistas, say the revolution has gone astray and Nicaragua has a new caudillo — Daniel Ortega.

Sandinista rebels victoriously entered this humid Central American capital on July 19, 1979, two days after Anastasio Somoza and most of his hated National Guard troops had fled. A revolutionary junta — with Ortega at the head — eventually took control. Later Ortega left power, but after 16 years of non-Sandinista governments he was reelected in 2006. He has said he hopes to change Nicaragua’s laws to allow himself to run again in 2010.

Critics say that the system of dictatorial, one-man rule once known here as “Somocismo” has now been replaced by “Ortegismo.”

“He who falls in love with power seldom gives it up,” said Bernard Hombach, the Roman Catholic bishop of Granada, an old colonial city and tourist destination on the shores of Lake Nicaragua. Hombach is one of Ortega’s and the Sandinistas’ fiercest critics. He accuses them of corruption and electoral fraud.

“If there were an independent legal system, they’d all go to jail,” Hombach said.

“What Daniel Ortega wants is total control of the state,” said Marcos Carmona, director of the non-profit Nicaragua’s Permanent Commission on Human Rights. “Today, democracy is in danger.”

This July 19, Ortega, 63, led a 30th anniversary celebration of the revolution. Huge billboards adorned the cities and countryside, and hours of state TV and radio time were dedicated to the festivities.

Ortega, who constantly criticizes American interventionism and “imperialism” in the region, is a close ally of Latin America’s radical social reformist presidents, Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa.

Ortega won 38 percent of the vote in 2006, but polls indicate his support is slipping. His strongest support comes from the political party formed from the remnants of the Sandinista movement, the Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN). Frente members are openly favored with government jobs and in lucrative public works programs. The government has in recent months conducted a campaign to recruit all government workers into the Sandinista Party, and many say they are signing up in fear of losing their jobs if they don’t.

In addition, Ortega’s home on the outskirts of Managua is both the seat of government and party headquarters.

The FSLN is a “very small, organized fanatic movement headed by one person (Ortega) and his wife,” said Carlos Chamorro, editor of the political newsletter “Confidencial” and host of a televised political talk show.

Chamorro also is a member of Nicaragua’s most illustrious newspaper publishing family. During the revolution, his father, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, was publisher and editor of La Prensa, then the most important newspaper in Managua and one that was highly critical of the Somoza regime. Somoza henchmen murdered Pedro Joaquin Chamorro in 1978, turning him into a martyr and catalyzing nationwide and foreign opposition to the Somoza dictatorship.
Jaime Chamorro, Pedro Joaquin’s brother who now publishes La Prensa, called Ortega’s government a “criminal dictatorship of the Left,” although the Sandinista Party is “totally loyal” to Ortega.