The Various Meanings of Ortega’s Triumph

After sixteen years and numerous failed bids, Daniel Ortega will once again become president of Nicaragua. On November 5th, Nicaraguans headed to the polls and elected the former revolutionary leader once more to the presidency over his U.S. favored opponent, Harvard educated Eduardo Montealegre. With 91% of the votes counted, Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation edged out two conservative candidates and was officially pronounced the winner of the elections. On January 10th, Ortega will return to the presidential office he once held from 1985-1990 and complete his long awaited political comeback. In order to prevail, Ortega compromised and calculated his return to power. Therefore, what are the various meanings of his political resurrection?
Numerous U.S. officials, including the particularly ambitious U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli, and the notorious Oliver North sought to discourage an Ortega victory but in the end failed in their endeavor. In this regard Nicaragua’s election represents a triumph over U.S. interference. The return of Ortega is an affront to North, Trivelli and other conservatives in the United States who wished to influence the outcome of the election. Daniel Ortega’s win at the polls certainly represents a victory over U.S. intimidation of Nicaraguan voters and affirms the nation’s right to electoral self-determination. Such a victory should not be undervalued in a society that has faced heavy U.S. intervention in its political affairs for well over a century.
However, to what extent can the electoral victory of Daniel Ortega be perceived as a manifestation of popular disaffection with neo-liberal economic policies? There are those on the left who see it as the latest manifestation of such. In a article by Tariq Ali entitled, “A Beacon of Hope for the Rebirth of Bolívar’s Dream,” Ortega’s victory is characterized as a similar expression of a desire for change that has swept through Latin American countries such as Venezuela and Bolivia. Though popular disaffection with neo-liberalism was certainly a factor, it must be understood in the context of other factors that helped propel Ortega to victory. First, in a move towards social conservatism, Ortega recently supported a total ban on abortions without exceptions. Ortega’s approval solidified his support of the Catholic Church and vice versa. The election of Daniel Ortega, in terms of women’s reproductive rights, yields no illusions. It is retrogressive in terms of eviscerating a century-old exception in abortion law.
Ortega’s victory was also, in part, a result of a second pact with former president Arnoldo Alemán, (the first pact being one that had granted both Ortega and Alemán senatorial immunity) Daniel Ortega triumphed on November 5th with a lower percentage than in his previous electoral attempts. By negotiating with Alemán and his Liberal Constitutionalists Party, the Ortega and the FSLN gained a constitutional amendment that lowered the the percentage needed for a first round victory from 45% to 35%. In exchange, Alemán, who was imprisoned for corruption, was allowed to return to his wealthy ranch under “municipal arrest.” With the change in place, Ortega was able to avoid a run-off election, which some analysts predicted he would have lost, by gaining a percentage of votes above the threshold and by having a large enough margin of victory over his nearest opponent. Lastly, if Ortega’s election percentage is paired up with the alternative leftist candidate, Sergio Ramirez of the Sandinista Renovation Movement Party, the sum vote for leftist platforms is 44%, which is less than the combined numbers of the two right wing candidates and is also less than 50% in a nation where poverty affects nearly 80% of the population. All these alternative factors are important to keep in mind when assessing the forces that propelled Daniel Ortega back to power.
For those who did vote for Daniel Ortega in the expectation that he will make good on his campaign promises to aid the impoverished of Nicaragua, what can they expect? Ortega’s calculated political moves and compromises make for a very complicated politician. On one hand, Ortega seeks to maintain what he describes as the current “stability” of Nicaragua’s economy. He has taken steps to reassure Nicaragua’s business community by stating that he is not, “contemplating dramatic, radical changes in the economy.” Despite Ortega’s description of the economy as “stable,” Nicaragua, after a consecutive series of neo-liberal presidents, has remained one of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere and ranks second only to Haiti in that regard.
On the other hand, Ortega, in borrowing a phrase from the late Pope John Paul II, decried ‘savage capitalism’ in his campaign. In order to attempt to aid the impoverished through social programs without seriously challenging the foundations of a neo-liberal economy, Ortega will have to enlist the help of Fidel Castro and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Chavez, who has recently suffered  political setbacks to his influence in the hemisphere, was particularly pleased with Ortega’s victory. In a telephone conversation carried on Venezuelan television, Chavez congratulated Ortega and said, “Now like never before, the Sandinista revolution and the Bolivarian revolution unite, to construct the future socialism of the 21st century.” Chavez’s statement is indeed grandiose but any semblance of partnership with Ortega would run counter to the United States’ desire to see the Venezuelan leader isolated in the region. How Ortega can balance the contradictions of his objectives remains to be seen. Lastly, without posing a serious challenge to Nicaragua’s neo-liberal economy, will the impoverished that put their hopes in his candidacy become quickly disillusioned? If that is to be the case, it just may turn out that the wave of disaffection with neo-liberalism that some left commentators see as the propelling force behind Ortega’s return will truly grow in grievance with his presidency.

Gabriel San Román is the assistant producer of Uprising, a popular prime time radio program on KPFK Pacifica Radio in Los Angeles.

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