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Nicaragua's President : Ortega--A Leader With Little Clout

January 15, 1986|WILLIAM R. LONG | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Someone with more ambition and flair might have seized the reins of power and boldly asserted his leadership. But Daniel Ortega, in his first year as president of Nicaragua, has shown little inclination or talent for the role of strong national leader.

Power continues to be collectively wielded by the nine-member National Directorate of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, political analysts say. And that is apparently the way the directorate wants it to stay.

"He's no Fidel Castro," a diplomatic observer here remarked after watching Ortega's presidential performance for the last 12 months.

President Reagan has called Ortega a "dictator in designer glasses," but a more apt description might be "administrator in olive drab."

His Color Is Olive Drab

For if any color can be associated with Ortega's lackluster, low-key presidential style, olive drab is it. The former guerrilla chief, who once helped spark a national insurrection, has proved to be a distinctly unexciting chief executive.

"That's the thing about Daniel, he's boring," a journalist with an American television network commented.

As president, Ortega has plodded dutifully along like a good soldier, doing little to alter the Sandinista power structure that existed before he took office in January, 1985.

Ortega, 40, and the directorate's other eight members are all former guerrilla commanders who fought their way to power in July, 1979, ousting strongman Anastasio Somoza. From 1981 until his presidency began, Ortega was also "coordinator" of the three-member government junta that carried out directorate policy.

As the Sandinista Front's presidential candidate, Ortega won two-thirds of the vote in the November, 1984, elections. Some opponents said the vote was rigged. Ortega was inaugurated on Jan. 10, 1985, and for the first time since Somoza fled the country in 1979, Nicaragua had a president.

War and Economic Crisis

It was, and continues to be, a difficult time of war and economic crisis. But there was only the slightest expectation that Ortega might rise to the moment and give the Sandinista revolution new direction with forceful, decisive leadership.

Perhaps another of the nine commanders, a figure such as Tomas Borge, could have done that. Borge, in contrast to Ortega, is a witty and engaging public speaker with a reputation for personal ambition and drive.

According to one foreign diplomat here, the directorate picked Ortega for the presidency precisely because he lacked qualities of the kind that could threaten the shared power of other members.

"His colorlessness obviously is what made him the choice of the leadership to be first among equals," the diplomat said. "He is only president because he is not very good at it. If he were really good at it, Borge and others might get together and knock him off. So it pays him to be not too hot."

Another diplomat called Ortega a "revolutionary puritan."

'Power-Hungry for His Cause'

"He's a man totally dedicated to the cause," this diplomat said, "and his life is given up to that cause. He's not power-hungry for himself, for his own personal benefit. He's power-hungry for his cause."

He rarely makes major decisions on his own, consulting instead with specialists, fellow members of the directorate and other Sandinista leaders.

"We believe that a decision, when it is a very important decision . . . it is not appropriate that it be made by a single individual," Ortega said recently.

Erick Ramirez, president of the opposition Social Christian Party, said, "Sometimes you get the impression that there is a power vacuum when it comes to making clear political decisions."

Ortega's public speaking style runs from lukewarm to cold. When it is not monotonous, it is strained. In press conferences, he shows little agility in fielding questions. He dodges issues awkwardly, utters platitudes and repeats stock phrases.

'Little Recorded Messages'

Diplomats say that Ortega is ineffective in encounters with foreign officials. "He tends to have little recorded messages in his head for people he meets as president," one said.

Ortega is also obviously ill at ease in crowds, and he rarely smiles.

"He is a very serious comrade," said Carlos Jose Guadamuz, a fellow revolutionary and old friend of Ortega. "His character is very reserved." Guadamuz said Ortega laughs and smiles freely only among close friends and family.

Guadamuz and others who know Ortega say he is an untiring worker with uncommon determination, that he faces problems with supreme serenity and that he subjects himself to iron self-discipline.

He jogs regularly in the early morning, carrying an automatic rifle and often an ammunition pack to increase the intensity of the exercise. He does not smoke and rarely drinks anything alcoholic.

'Amazing Tranquility'

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