MANAGUA, Nicaragua—When I was covering the Peruvian presidential election this spring, people would do a double-take when they learned I’m half-Venezuelan. “Éres chavista?” they would inevitably ask. (In other words, “Are you a supporter of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez?”) Pleading journalistic neutrality generally placated them—had I sung the praises of the Venezuelan president, I doubt the conversations would have continued. Chávez was ubiquitous in the limeño press at that point, seizing every opportunity to champion his favored candidate, radical leftist Ollanta Humala. The cheerleading ultimately backfired: When Humala narrowly lost, many Peruvians pointed to Chávez’s meddling as a factor in his acolyte’s defeat.
Given that experience, I was a little stunned by the greeting I received from a twentysomething supporter of Daniel Ortega after a Sandinista rally on Wednesday night. “Sister, you’re Venezuelan?” he exclaimed, throwing his arm around my shoulder. “Greetings to you! Give my best to your comandante.” Granted, if you’re looking for chavistas in Nicaragua, an Ortega rally would be the place to start: The two leftist politicians are close allies.
Still, although Chávez has done much to prop up Ortega’s candidacy—in particular, he’s arranged for cut-price oil and fertilizer to be distributed by the Sandinista-controlled mayoral association—he hasn’t become a divisive figure in this campaign.
Elcomandante appears to have learned from his mistakes: Instead of publicly pounding the table for Ortega, he’s quietly delivering goodies for the Nicaraguan to shower on potential supporters. As the Managua-based political analyst Arturo Cruz puts it, that strategy is the inverse of the U.S. approach. “From Venezuela, there’s no rhetoric and tangible aid,” he says. “From the Americans, you have loud rhetoric and intangible aid.” To be sure, total U.S. donations to Nicaragua carry a higher dollar figure than the Venezuelan’s gift package. But Tío Hugo’s largess has come at a propitious moment. Nicaraguans are in a grinding energy crisis—blackouts are a daily occurrence, and rising gas prices have hit the poor particularly hard. On the stump, Ortega has pledged to end the power outages and to make public transportation more affordable; Chávez’s support lends credence to those promises.
Having an international sugar daddy also helps Ortega counter U.S. threats to cut off aid and remittances to Nicaragua in the event of a Sandinista triumph. When Ortega and Chávez first announced the oil-and-fertilizer package, the Nicaraguan gleefully ribbed his longtime international nemesis. “Where is the United States when Bolaños needs help resolving problems with oil prices?” Ortega asked, according to press accounts. “The yanquis had hundreds of millions of dollars to invest in the war in Nicaragua … but where is the United States when Nicaragua has to start rationing energy?”
That verbal slap is out of character for Ortega this election cycle. Those who remember the candidate as a fatigues-clad, AK-47-wielding guerrilla leader would be surprised by the persona he’s projecting on the hustings. His campaign song is a Spanish-language version of John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance.” He’s traded the traditional red-and-black Sandinista colors for bright pink and turquoise. When the Sandinista served as president in the 1980s, he traded barbs with the Nicaraguan clergy; today Ortega is a church-going Catholic who invokes Christ in his speeches. During a campaign rally on Tuesday he went so far as to characterize his imperviousness to political attacks as Messiah-like: “We forgive them,” he declared, “because they themselves don’t understand the harm they are doing to their own hearts.”
Ortega’s effort to come across as a ‘60s peacenik has been abetted by some surprising new allies. His vice-presidential candidate, Jaime Morales, was once a high-ranking Contra leader. (Morales’ antipathy toward the Sandinista was no doubt somewhat personal, since Ortega snatched his palatial, six-bedroom house the day after he became president. To add insult to injury, the Sandinista arranged to buy the $500,000 home for a mere $2,000 when he left office.) Another new friend is Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who feuded with Ortega for decades. During the 2001 presidential election, for example, the cardinal delivered a heavily publicized homily reminding attendees that Ortega’s step-daughter had accused the candidate of raping her. (The Sandinista has never been tried on the charges, because as a member of parliament he is immune from prosecution.) But last year, in an about-face, Obando y Bravo officiated at the marriage of Ortega and his longtime partner, Rosario Murillo. The church seems to have profited from Ortega’s new-found religious fervor. While he had long been a supporter of abortion rights, last month he helped pass one of the strictest anti-abortion laws in the hemisphere. Terminating a pregnancy in Nicaragua is now illegal in all circumstances, even if the mother’s life is threatened.
The high-profile defections to the Sandinista camp do not necessarily mean that Ortega is a changed man. The candidate has taken pains to distance himself from his 1980s incarnation: He swears there will be no expropriation of land or forced military conscription. And his party permitted the Central American Free Trade Agreement to pass through parliament. But Ortega has also promised that “on Nov. 5, the poor are going to bury ‘savage capitalism’ once and for all in Nicaragua.” Since the candidate has spurned virtually all interview requests and rarely goes beyond the most basic platitudes in his speeches, it’s hard to know what kind of agenda he will pursue if he lands back in office.
While Ortega’s governing plans are a mystery, no one doubts his effectiveness as a retail politician. “He’s like [legendary Chicago Mayor Richard J.] Daley,” says Cruz. “His organization does favors for people—providing a wheelchair, getting someone a doctor’s appointment. It’s a big reason the Sandinistas have lasted for so long.” Indeed, one of the stragglers at Wednesday night’s rally gushed about how her membership in Ortega’s political party had allowed her to land a job as a secretary in the Managua mayoral office. “I have two children, and I was unemployed for eight years before they helped me get that position,” said 36-year-old Dulce Pastrán. “The party came through for me.”
The Sandinista machine hasn’t delivered that kind of aid to enough people to guarantee Ortega a victory. Visions of Hugo Chávez’s oil and fertilizer may woo some voters to the Sandinista ticket, and fence-sitters could be swayed by Ortega’s reconciliation with high-ranking Contras. Still, a lot would have to break the Sandinista’s way in order for him to return to the president’s mansion, but political analyst Carlos Chamorro (whose mother, Violeta, defeated Ortega in the 1990 election) suspects that if Ortega comes within a hair’s breath of the 35 percent and 5 percent advantage over his nearest rival that he needs, the Sandinista isn’t going to retire quietly. “Forget that John Lennon song about peace,” said Chamorro. “He will turn himself into a kind of devil. He has waited for this moment for a long time.”