MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Ghosts of tyrants and dictators past haunt Nicaragua, a land of volcanoes and political curses, and some say the nation hasn't broken its jinx.
Even as President Daniel Ortega, a onetime leftist guerrilla commander, glows in a landslide electoral triumph for a new five-year term, many former comrades-in-arms see a new autocrat in the making.
Ortega won more than double the votes of his top adversary in Sunday's election, and the victory showed him at the top of his political game. He will govern Nicaragua until early 2017, and one of his first political undertakings will be to change the constitution to run again for re-election indefinitely.
That possibility evokes the specter of the 43-year dictatorial rule of the U.S.-backed Somoza dynasty that was finally overthrown in the 1979 revolution that Ortega and his Cuba-backed Sandinista Front spearheaded.
Ironically, former fellow Sandinistas are among those arguing the loudest that Ortega is the new Somoza, and they suggest that Nicaragua eventually will be plunged into a struggle to get rid of him.
"Deep inside, he doesn't believe in representative democracy," said Carlos Fernando Chamorro, a former editor of the Sandinista Front party newspaper who now hosts a television news show critical of Ortega's policies. "Definitely, this will end badly. He will never cede power in a democratic or peaceful way."
Supporters of Ortega, who turns 66 on Friday, scoff at the criticism. They say Ortega has used a torrent of aid from Venezuela's Hugo Chavez to win hearts in the second-poorest nation in the hemisphere after Haiti.
"People's expectations in my country are very modest, and if you can satisfy them with small things, they appreciate it," said Arturo Cruz Jr., a historian who served as Ortega's ambassador to Washington until 2009. "This is a government that has very effectively delivered these small things."
Cruz described as "responsible populism" a series of benevolent social programs such as Zero Hunger, Zero Profiteering, Productive Bonds and Plan Roof that offer many of Nicaragua's 5.8 million people aid in the form of piglets, pregnant cows, chickens, zinc laminate for roofing and baskets of food.
Tapping into some $500 million a year of off-the-books aid from Chavez, Ortega's government subsidizes electricity and offers handouts that range from huge (10,545 property titles to families last week alone) to tiny (subsidized bus fares of only about 10 cents per ride).
Ortega has shown mastery at co-opting former enemies.
The most spectacular case is that of Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who only half a decade ago compared Ortega to a poisonous viper. Today, he is an ardent supporter and constant sidekick.
"This government has solved more problems than any other," Obando said at a Nov. 2 Mass aired repeatedly on Ortega-controlled television channels.
Such transformations echo Ortega's own conversion from an opponent of religion during the years 1979 to 1990, when the Sandinista Front, or FSLN, ruled, into a leader who regularly invokes God and has banned abortion even for rape victims.
All but two former high-level Sandinistas have abandoned Ortega, claiming that he hijacked the front. They view his political remolding with cynicism, even anger.
"His policies on religion and abortion — they are practically Republican," said Luis Carrion, who once sat alongside Ortega on the nine-member FSLN national directorate.
"He was an atheist before," said Danilo Aguirre, a former moderate FSLN legislator. "Remember how big the fight we had in 1987 to stick the word 'God' in the preamble of the constitution?"
Comparisons between Ortega and the last of the Somoza dynasty, Anastasio Somoza Debayle, chief of the dreaded National Guard and the de facto ruler from 1967 to 1979, began about two years ago with a popular opposition slogan: "Daniel and Somoza, the same thing" (which rhymes in Spanish).
"Ortega isn't an exact copy of Somoza, but there are similarities," said Edmundo Jarquin, a former banker in Washington sympathetic to the Sandinistas in the 1980s. He was an opposition vice presidential candidate in the recent elections.
"Ortega has destroyed the electoral system. He's privatized the judiciary. He's got his paramilitary hordes," Jarquin said. "It's a new style of dictatorship. It's not a military dictatorship. Rather, it uses institutions of state to pressure or blackmail. Tax authorities are used to reward or punish his opponents."
The patriarch of the dynasty, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, seized effective rule in 1936, favored by U.S. leaders who saw him as a strong anti-communist.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt supposedly said of him in 1939: "He may be a son of a bitch, but he's our son of a bitch."
Somoza family rule was ruthless but brought economic prosperity.
"We were referred to as the 'bread basket' of Central America," said Alvaro Somoza, a grandson. "We had a middle class which we have yet to recover."
Like the Somozas, Ortega has grown rich in power. His family is said to own slaughterhouses, cattle ranches, hotels, property interests and construction firms.
Of his nine grown children and stepchildren, many operate family businesses or television stations controlled by him or the government.
Perpetually at Ortega's side is his wife, Rosario Murillo, a poet and mystic who is the public face of the government and presides over Cabinet meetings.
"When Ortega wants to get rid of a minister, the person who makes the call is Rosario. She says, 'Get your stuff and get out,'" said Carlos Tunnermann, a former university rector and minister under the first Sandinista government.
Rather than dispatching from government offices, Ortega and his wife govern from a sprawling compound in the El Carmen area of Managua that serves as their home and the headquarters of what remains of the Sandinista Front, which is little.
"He is the party. There is no national directorate. It's just him and Rosario," said Tunnermann, who lives on an adjacent street.
Numerous roads are blocked off. A baseball field next to the compound has been turned into a heliport for two aircraft donated by Russia.
Ortega shook off a tumultuous episode in 1998, when stepdaughter Zoilamerica Narvaez, a sociologist, accused him of molesting her from age 11. She eventually dropped criminal charges, to the chagrin of feminists.
Even as Ortega nurtures popular support, and his visage beams from billboards across the country, he remains aloof and secretive. He has given no news conferences since 2007. Reporters sometimes learn he has left the country only when photos appear of him greeting foreign leaders.
"Nobody questions him. Nobody challenges him because he never makes himself available," said Robert J. Callahan, who served as U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua from 2008 until this past summer.
Comparisons between Ortega and Somoza are "increasingly valid," he said.
"His desire to stay in power, his personal enrichment, nepotism, the manipulation of the powers of the state — it's hauntingly reminiscent of precisely what Somoza did," Callahan said in a telephone interview.
The most searing critics are idealistic former Sandinista commanders.
"He is turning into a tyrant," said Henry Ruiz, who served with Ortega on the Sandinista ruling council.
"We are just repeating history," said Tunnermann. "And if it is repeated, the end could be similar. It cost 50,000 lives to get rid of Somoza."
Aguirre, the former legislator and newspaper editor, lost a son in the civil war to rid Nicaragua of the Somozas.
"I would get down on my knees to avoid this," Aguirre said. "But history tells us that the path of our country doesn't end any other way."
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McClatchy Newspapers 2011