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Daniel Ortega's cult of personality

Is Ortega pushing Nicaragua toward a retro-tropical dictatorship with a God complex?

Supporters of the FSLN
Supporters of the Sandinista National Liberation Front celebrate International Workers Day, April 30, 2010. (Elmer Martinez/AFP/Getty Images)

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Blazoned across giant billboards on the streets of Managua, larger-than-life images of President Daniel Ortega offer the promise of “more victories” in 2011 — a vague assurance illustrated by the aging revolutionary’s wistful, unfocused stare into the future.

The constitution prohibits the president from seeking re-election next year, but the ruling Sandinista party, which Ortega and his wife micromanage like a family business, has made it clear it intends to remain in power for a longtime.

Comandante Tomas Borge, the last living founder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), boldly stated earlier this year that the FSLN will be around for another 100 years. He said giving up power, as the party did when they were voted out of office in 1990, was a mistake that should never be repeated.

“I told Daniel that this time around, no matter what the cost, the FSLN cannot allow the return of the right wing,” Borge said in comments to the press in Peru. “It would be like getting terminal cancer; we cannot allow a return to the past.”

Ironically, the FSLN’s idea of preventing a return to the past is to allow Ortega — the party’s only candidate for the past five presidential elections — to run again next year. Ortega, who has essentially been in continuous campaign mode since 1984, seems up to the challenge.

Amid blaring campaign music and thunderous chants of “Daniel! Daniel! Daniel!” Ortega took center stage in Managua’s Plaza de la Fe on Monday and waved to some 500,000 supporters gathered for the celebration, an annual event to commemorate the fall of the Somoza dynasty in 1979. Though the national holiday commemorates a popular revolution that overthrew a brutal dictatorship 31 years ago, the annual event has since become a campaign rally for Ortega and a celebration of his cult of personality.

“This is Daniel Ortega’s great show — his biggest show of the year. It’s almost become a religious event,” said former guerrilla leader and retired army general Hugo Torres, a Sandinista dissident who was a member of the revolutionary council of state in the 1980s. “Ortega is a messianic caudillo with fascist tendencies. He thinks he is illuminated and predestined to rule the country. He’s become crazy with power.”

Ortega showed some of that this week, claiming his return to power in 2007 was due to “the hand of God.” Others in his government have likened his presidency to “the project of Christ.”

Nicaragua’s majority opposition — including many former revolutionary leaders who have turned against their old comrade — claim Ortega is pushing the country toward a retro-tropical dictatorship with a God complex. They argue that Ortega’s persecution of political enemies, intolerance to criticism and manipulation of the electoral and judicial branches to consolidate power has pushed Nicaragua’s weak institutional democracy precariously close to the abyss.

“This is an abusive regime; it’s an abusive power that uses populist and opportunistic imagery,” said former guerrilla Henry Ruiz, who was one of the original nine Sandinista comandantes who led the revolutionary government in the 1980s. “Daniel says he is socialist, Christian and in solidarity — he isn’t any of those three.”