Celebrations and questions greet the return of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua

By staff writers
13 Jan 2007

Social movements, progressive Christians and radical politicians across Latin America have welcomed the inauguration this week of Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega as the new president of impoverished Nicaragua.

Ortega has returned to power 16 years after Nicaraguans voted him out of office in 1990, following a prolonged US-backed insurgency. In 1979 the Sandinista Front, an alliance of socialists and radical Christians, overthrew the hated Somoza dictatorship and was confirmed in power with 67 per cent of the popular vote in the 1984 election.

Sandinista leader Ortega, who has since converted to Catholicism and social democracy, won the 5 November 2006 presidential election in the first round with 38 per cent of the vote. This was enough to avoid a runoff under Nicaragua's election rules.

The new Nicaraguan government will be one of “national reconciliation,” after years of poverty, corruption and under-development President Ortega told an enthusiastic crowd of 300,000 in his first speech after returning to office.

Ortega took the presidential oath of office in a brief ceremony before the National Assembly in a central square in old Managua, in front of an audience that included more than 2,000 foreign guests including many heads of state – including Venezuela’s newly re-elected firebrand Hugo Chavez and Bolivian radical Evo Morales.

Jaime Morales Carazo, a former member of the leadership of the anti-Sandinista Contra guerillas, now an ally of 61-year-old Daniel Ortega, was also sworn in Wednesday 10 January 2007.

Mr Ortega said he sensed a “spirit of unity across the political and economic spectrum” for action to tackle endemic poverty. At least 75 per cent of the country's 5.5 million people live in poverty, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Ortega stressed that Nicaragua will abide by the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States, though the treaty contains what he called “asymmetries” that do not benefit all of Nicaragua.

And he said that an aggressive capitalist model in Nicaragua since 1990 had unacceptably widened social inequalities, promising to improve health care and education.

His ally Chavez has already offered to help re-build Nicaragua’s collapsing energy with help from oil-rich Venezuela.

Cardinal Miguel Obando, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua, and a critic of the first Sandinista government, stressed the “search for true solidarity” and the need to defeat poverty, discrimination and racism.

Radical Christians, NGOs and international solidarity groups have greeted the lection of Ortega with hope, but remain nervous about the extent to which he will be able to resist the neo-liberal tide in tackling debt and social injustice.

They are also angry that he has endorsed a total criminalization of abortion, even for women who have been raped, accusing conservative Catholics of exercising an undue influence on social policy.

In an interesting synthesis of sartorial politics at the inauguration, Daniel Ortega wore the white and blue of Nicaragua’s flag in his sash, whereas Chavez, who held up the ceremony for 90 minutes by arriving light, donned the red and black colours of the Sandinistas.

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