After a popular rebellion resulted in the overthrow and exile of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979, Ortega became a member of the ruling multipartisan junta and was later elected president, serving from 1985 to 1990. His first period in office was characterized by a controversial program of land reform and wealth redistribution, hostility from the United States, and armed rebellion by U.S.-backed Contras.
Ortega was defeated by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in the 1990 presidential election, but he remained an important figure in Nicaraguan opposition politics. He was an unsuccessful candidate for president in 1996 and 2001 before winning the 2006 presidential election.
After his release, Ortega was exiled to Cuba, where he received several months of guerrilla training. He later returned to Nicaragua secretly. Ortega married Rosario Murillo in 1978 but remarried her in 2005 to have the marriage recognized by the Roman Catholic Church. The couple has three children. She is currently the government's spokeswoman, government minister, among other positions.
When Somoza was overthrown by the FSLN in July 1979, Ortega became a member of the five-person Junta of National Reconstruction, which also included Sandinista militant Moisés Hassan, novelist Sergio Ramírez, businessman Alfonso Robelo, and Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the widow of a martyred journalist. The FSLN came to dominate the junta, Robelo and Chamorro resigned, and Ortega became the de facto ruler of the country.
In 1981, U.S. President Ronald Reagan condemned the FSLN for joining with Soviet-backed Cuba in supporting Marxist revolutionary movements in other Latin American countries such as El Salvador. The Reagan Administration authorized the CIA to begin financing, arming and training rebels, some of whom were former officers from Somoza's National Guard, as anti-Sandinista guerrillas. These were known collectively as the Contras. This also led to one of the largest political scandals in US history, (Iran-Gate or the Iran Contra Affair), when Oliver North and several members of the Reagan Administration defied the Boland Amendment, and going against the US Congress, helped sell arms to Iran, using the proceeds to fund the Contras. Between 1980 and 1989, over 30,000 Nicaraguans died in the conflict between the Sandinista government and the Contras.
In November 1984, Ortega called national elections; he won the presidency with 63% of the vote and took office on 10 January 1985. According to the vast majority of independent observers, the 1984 elections were perhaps the freest and fairest in Nicaraguan history. A report by an Irish parliamentary delegation stated: "The electoral process was carried out with total integrity. The seven parties participating in the elections represented a broad spectrum of political ideologies." The general counsel of New York's Human Rights Commission described the election as "free, fair and hotly contested." A study by the U.S. Latin American Studies Association (LASA) concluded that the FSLN (Sandinista Front) "did little more to take advantage of its incumbency than incumbent parties everywhere (including the U.S.) routinely do."
Thirty-three percent of the Nicaraguan voters cast ballots for one of six opposition parties – three to the right of the Sandinistas, three to the left – which had campaigned with the aid of government funds and free TV and radio time. Two conservative parties captured a combined 23 percent of the vote. They held rallies across the country (a few of which were disrupted by FSLN supporters) and blasted the Sandinistas in terms far harsher than Walter Mondale's 1984 critiques of incumbent U.S. President Reagan. Most foreign and independent observers noted this pluralism in debunking the Reagan administration charge – prominent in the U.S. press – that it was a "Soviet-style sham" election. Some opposition parties boycotted it, under pressure from U.S. embassy officials, and it was denounced as being unfair by the Reagan administration. Reagan thus maintained that he was justified to continue supporting the Contras' "democratic resistance".
In the 1990 presidential election, Ortega lost to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, his former colleague in the junta. Chamorro was supported by a 14-party anti-Sandinista alliance known as the National Opposition Union (Unión Nacional Opositora, UNO), an alliance that ranged from conservatives and liberals to communists. Contrary to what most observers expected, Chamorro shocked Ortega and won the election. In Ortega's concession speech the following day he vowed to keep "ruling from below" a reference to the power that the FSLN still wielded in various sectors. He was also quoted saying:
Ortega ran for election again, in October 1996 and November 2001, but lost on both occasions to Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños, respectively. In these elections, a key issue was the allegation of corruption. In Ortega’s last days as president, through a series of legislative acts known as “The Piñata”, estates that had been seized by the Sandinista government (some valued at millions and even billions US$) became the private property of various FSLN officials, including Ortega himself.
Ortega's policies became more moderate during his time in opposition, and he gradually reduced much of his former Marxist rhetoric in favor of an agenda of more moderate democratic socialism. His Roman Catholic faith has become more intense in recent years as well, leading Ortega to embrace a variety of socially conservative policies; in 2006 the FSLN endorsed a strict law banning all abortions in Nicaragua.
In 1998, Daniel Ortega's stepdaughter Zoilamérica Narváez released a 48-page report describing her allegations that Ortega had systematically sexually abused her for 9 years beginning when she was 11. The case could not proceed in Nicaraguan courts because Ortega had immunity from prosecution as a member of parliament, and the five-year statute of limitations for sexual abuse and rape charges was judged to have been exceeded. Narváez's complaint was heard by the Inter American Human Rights Commission on 4 March 2002.
In 2006, Hillel Neuer, the executive director of UN Watch, expressed concern that election of Ortega, described as having "highly substantiated" charges of sexual abuse raised against him, to the Presidency of Nicaragua, could undermine worldwide NGO efforts against child abuse and sexual violence.
The controversial alliance of Nicaragua's two major parties aimed at distributing the powers between the PLC and FSLN, and preventing other parties from rising. "El Pacto," as it is known in Nicaragua, is said to have personally benefited former presidents Ortega and Alemán greatly, while constraining then president Enrique Bolaños. One of the key accords of the pact was to lower the percentage necessary to win a presidential election in the first round from 45% to 35%, a change in electoral law that would become decisive in Ortega's favor in the 2006 elections.
Herty Lewites – who was also running for president prior to his death in July 2006 – suggested that Ortega's pact with Alemán had given Ortega de facto control of the bodies responsible for administering the election, and thus that Ortega would most likely have won. Under the old law, Ortega would have gone to a second round against Eduardo Montealegre (he would have needed 45% instead of 35%.)
In his first week as President of Nicaragua, Ortega met with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The two heads of state toured shantytowns in Managua. Ortega told the press that the "revolutions of Iran and Nicaragua are almost twin revolutions...since both revolutions are about justice, liberty, self-determination, and the struggle against imperialism.
As of June 2007, a CID-Gallup survey published in the Managua daily La Prensa found that Ortega's approval level had dropped significantly: 26% of Nicaraguans had a positive image of his handling of the job, 36% a negative impression, and the remaining a neutral impression. The poll also indicated that 54% were still optimistic about Ortega and the government, in particular the health and education policies. Additionally, 57% of Nicaraguans believed the country is on the "wrong track", and only 31% believed that the country is on the "right track". CID-Gallup surveyed 1,258 people throughout the country and had a margin of error of about 2.5%.
On 6 March 2008, following the 2008 Andean diplomatic crisis, Ortega announced that Nicaragua was breaking diplomatic ties with Colombia "in solidarity with the Ecuadoran people". Ortega also stated, "We are not breaking relations with the Colombian people. We are breaking relations with the terrorist policy practiced by Alvaro Uribe's government". The relations were restored with the resolution at a Rio Group summit held in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on 7 March 2008. At the summit Colombia's Álvaro Uribe, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, Venezuela's Hugo Chávez and Ortega publicly shook hands in a show of good will. The handshakes, broadcast live throughout Latin America, appeared to be a signal that a week of military buildups and diplomatic repercussions was over. After the handshakes, Ortega said he would re-establish diplomatic ties with Colombia.
On May 25, 2008, Ortega, upon learning of the death of FARC guerrilla leader Manuel Marulanda in Colombia, expressed condolences to the family of Marulanda and solidarity with the FARC and called Marulanda an extraordinary fighter who battled against profound inequalities in Colombia. The declarations were protested by the Colombian government and criticized in the major Colombian media outlets because FARC actions are deemed criminal.
On September 2, 2008, during ceremonies for the 29th anniversary of the founding of the Nicaraguan army, Ortega announced that "Nicaragua recognizes the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and fully supports the Russian government's position." Ortega's decision made Nicaragua the first country after Russia to recognize the independence of Abkhazia and South Ossetia from Georgia.
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