- The Washington Times - Monday, November 13, 2006

MANAGUA, Nicaragua

Daniel Ortega returns to Nicaragua’s presidency a shadow of the fiery revolutionary who vowed an endless fight against a U.S. government deter- mined to overthrow him during the Cold War.

Balding, weakened by heart trouble and often appearing almost docile, he now preaches reconciliation and stability, and promises to maintain close ties with the United States and the veterans of the Contra army it trained and armed against him.

He has traded his wartime military fatigues for a white shirt and jeans. His guide, he says, is God, not Karl Marx.

The United States and his rivals worry that the Sandinista revolutionary in him will resurface as Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Cuban leader Fidel Castro welcome him into a club of leftist leaders fighting American dominance in the region.

But Mr. Ortega, who was president from 1985 to 1990, the height of the Contra insurgency, says he has traded war for peace, love and consensus.

His victory speech on Wednesday was tinged with some of his old fire. Raising his arms, he led thousands in a rendition of an old revolutionary song: “The people united will never be divided.” He promoted socialist ideas such as free education and medical care, lambasted Republicans in the United States for the war in Iraq, and thanked other leftist Latin American leaders for their support. But most of his speech was dedicated to praising democracy and reaching out to opponents.

“Don’t let one criticism slip from your lips against those who didn’t vote for us,” he told his supporters. “We have to be humble.”

Mr. Ortega, who turned 61 Saturday and will take office Jan. 10, has been careful not to sound triumphalist. Even though his strong lead over Harvard-educated banker Eduardo Montealegre was clear soon after Sunday’s election, he waited two full days for Mr. Montealegre to concede defeat before declaring victory.

Mr. Ortega’s speeches have focused on reassuring skeptics that he plans no radical changes and will embrace free trade, job creation and close U.S. ties.

On Saturday, Mr. Ortega said his Cabinet ministers will be named by the people — not him — and asked local representatives to send him proposals for candidates. He vowed that half of his top officials would be women and that he will include people who didn’t vote for him.

He also promised more than 1,000 Sandinista peasant leaders that the government would buy land for people who need it, which they could pay for “little by little, even if it is with a sack of corn.”

Perhaps the biggest sign that Mr. Ortega has changed is his vice president, Jaime Morales.

Shortly after the Sandinistas ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, Mr. Morales’ wife came home to find Mr. Ortega’s wife, Rosario Murillo, occupying her house and wearing the family’s clothes and jewelry. Mr. Morales spent years fighting for restitution.

Recently, he got it: Mr. Ortega returned works of art, a desk that was a family heirloom, and other things. Shortly afterward, Mr. Morales agreed to run as his vice president, saying he prefers “the strange to the unknown.”

“We agreed on peace 18 years ago, and it’s time to heal that wound,” Mr. Morales told the Associated Press. “Maybe together we can get people to forgive and forget and move on.”

He said the next five years will be nothing like Mr. Ortega’s first regime, when state economic control was so heavy that people lined up for rationed food and hungry farmers could be jailed for butchering their own cows without permission.

“Daniel Ortega knows he made a lot of mistakes,” Mr. Morales said. “He’s honestly regretful.” But the mistakes are likely to haunt Mr. Ortega’s new administration.

Leaders of the country’s Miskito Indians have accused him of genocide for forcing thousands to relocate during the U.S.-backed Contra civil war. He has apologized for moving them, but denies genocide.

On Thursday, the Permanent Commission on Human Rights, an independent Nicaraguan body, said it would push the genocide case against Mr. Ortega.

His stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, says he molested her for years, starting when she was 13, and often speaks against him publicly. Mr. Ortega and his wife deny the accusations, saying Miss Narvaez is mentally unstable.

Remembering the Sandinista closure of opposition media, some worry that Mr. Ortega won’t keep his promise to respect media rights. During his campaign, he rarely spoke to the press he thinks is tied to the United States, and refused to take part in a campaign debate sponsored by U.S.-based CNN en Espanol.

In his third failed run for president, in 2001, when reconciliation was the watchword, he waved a U.S. flag on stage. Yet, celebrating May Day in Cuba last year, he referred to Americans in a speech as “the enemies of humanity.”

Maricela Ortega, 43, a store saleswoman, says she thinks the president-elect is a different man. The former Mr. Ortega “was a dictator,” she said. “But from what I’ve seen so far, he’s no longer a rebel.”

His wife, who also is his campaign manager, decides whom he talks to and is always at his side. Cartoons show her manipulating Mr. Ortega like a puppet.

Dissident Sandinistas say he has become too conservative, as well as opportunistic in his alliances — for instance joining forces with his opponents to push legislation through Congress that effectively weakened outgoing President Enrique Bolanos.

Now he will replace Mr. Bolanos in that diminished presidential role, and must work with an opposition-dominated Congress. More than ever, Mr. Ortega will need the support of his former enemies, and they have promised to keep him in check.

Gonzalo Gallegos, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, has said that cooperation with Mr. Ortega and his government will be “based on their action in support of Nicaragua’s democratic future.”

“We want to have a close, respectful relationship with the United States,” Mr. Morales said. “That doesn’t mean we will always agree with the U.S., but it also doesn’t mean we are an enemy.”

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