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Ortega's comeback is complete

Observers debate whether Nicaragua's new president will be a strongman or an older and wiser politician.

November 08, 2006|Hector Tobar | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — Daniel Ortega, confirmed Tuesday as the winner of Nicaragua's presidential election, decided a few months back to return an antique oak table to an old enemy -- banker Jaime Morales Carazo.

In the 1980s, Ortega expropriated Morales' mansion and furniture in the name of the Sandinista revolution, and for years he and his comrades used it in strategy meetings during the war against the Contras.

Once a leader with the right-wing Contra army, Morales was happy to have the table back, even though Ortega kept the mansion.

The story of the table illustrates the unusual alliances and transformations that define the new Nicaragua, which this week returned Ortega to power after 16 years in the political wilderness.

Ortega's victory, announced Tuesday by election officials, also made Morales the country's next vice president.

"In business and in politics, I never trust anyone who hasn't suffered a serious setback," Morales said, explaining why he decided to bury old animosities and join the Ortega ticket. "Daniel Ortega has suffered many defeats. He's recognized them, and I think he's learned from them."

Ortega's decision to invite an old Contra to join his ticket was one of several savvy -- some say cynical -- political moves that helped secure a victory after he lost presidential elections in 1990, 1996 and 2001.

According to nearly complete results, Ortega defeated his nearest challenger in a fivecandidate field, conservative Eduardo Montealegre, 38% to 29%.

On Tuesday, Ortega struck a conciliatory tone as he met with Montealegre, who came to the Sandinista campaign headquarters to congratulate him.

"This is a sign that Nicaraguans want to work for the common good, and a sign that stability is more important than our political differences," Ortega said. "We are not talking now about winners or losers here."

Some Nicaraguans think Ortega has fashioned himself into a traditional Latin American strongman who rules not out of ideology but for power itself.

Attempts by Sandinista dissidents to challenge Ortega as the party's leader have been quashed, with Ortega stopping attempts to stage an open primary. The dissidents formed their own party but finished fourth in Sunday's vote.

Others see in Ortega an older and wiser politician who may make a better ruler than the firebrand who helped lead a band of guerrillas, radical poets and priests to power in 1979.

Former President Carter, who led a team of election monitors, said he was heartened that Ortega had held off from declaring victory even after early indications in the excruciatingly slow vote count showed that he had won.

It was Carter who refused to intervene on behalf of dictator Anastasio Somoza, allowing Ortega to become Nicaragua's revolutionary leader.

"At that time, he had a harsh and deserved reputation," Carter said of Ortega.

When Ortega was voted out of office in 1990, it was Carter who, in a long and tense meeting, persuaded Ortega to concede defeat. He told Ortega that he was "a young man who could return to power one day."

A generation later, Ortega is an avuncular 60-year-old who promises to respect private property and free enterprise.

He has kissed the hand of a Roman Catholic archbishop, come out for tough antiabortion laws, and adopted nonthreatening pink and blue pastels for the party's campaign materials.

"Whether these sentiments are genuine, I can't say," Carter said. "But certainly his demeanor and his approach and his public statements are different."

Like other Latin Americans from traditionally leftist movements who have been elected to office in recent years -- Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Uruguay's Tabare Vazquez among them -- Ortega probably will rule only slightly to the left of center, analysts said.

"Even if Ortega hasn't changed ... it's important to remember that this is the first time he's reached power in a truly democratic election," said Carlos Tunnerman, a former Nicaraguan ambassador to the U.S. "He will be obliged to respect the rules of the democratic system."

Nicaragua will abide by its commitments to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, Ortega's Sandinista advisors said.

Emilio Alvarez Montalvan, a conservative former Cabinet minister, said he expected Ortega to undertake some reforms to address Nicaragua's rampant poverty, including raising taxes on the wealthy, increasing the capital gains tax and eliminating customs tax exemptions enjoyed by a privileged few.

Ortega may try to create neighborhood organizations in poor communities similar to those formed by President Hugo Chavez in Venezuela.

"But I'm sure that Ortega won't repeat the mistakes of the past and confiscate property," Alvarez Montalvan said. "He'll try to fight poverty by increasing rural salaries and building new housing in the countryside."

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the Bush administration would not comment until the election results were final.

"We'll see what government this election produces," McCormack said. "We'll see what the platform of that government is. But we have very clearly demonstrated our commitment to the Nicaraguan people."

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hector.tobar@latimes.com

Special correspondent Alex Renderos in Managua and Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.

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