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Ortega vows to combat poverty

His swearing-in as Nicaragua's president comes amid a regional struggle between the U.S. and leftist leaders.

January 11, 2007|Hector Tobar and Alex Renderos | Special to The Times

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — Daniel Ortega was sworn in Wednesday as president of this Central American country, bringing the erstwhile rebels of the Sandinista movement back to power as professed allies of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

In a speech before more than a dozen heads of state and an estimated 300,000 supporters gathered in this capital city's John Paul II Plaza, Ortega, 61, promised to attack the grinding poverty in which 80% of Nicaraguans live.

"During 16 years the people endured the consequences of this neo-liberal economic model," Ortega said, referring to the free-market policies of his three conservative predecessors. "What benefits has this model brought us? Where is the wealth?"

The return of Ortega and the Sandinistas, who ruled when Nicaragua was a Cold War battlefield in the 1980s, comes amid a new regional tug of war -- this one between the Bush administration and left-leaning populist leaders, among whom Chavez is the most colorful and controversial.

The Venezuelan leader, noted for his fiery anti-U.S. rhetoric, flew to Managua for Ortega's inauguration hours after his own swearing-in to a third term in office Wednesday morning in Caracas, Venezuela's capital.

Before Ortega spoke, Chavez took the stage and handed Ortega a replica sword of the one used by the 19th century South American independence fighter Simon Bolivar.

"Dear brother Daniel, friend, comandante ... I have come to Nicaragua with my heart overflowing with joy," Chavez said. "There are men who are indispensable to history. And you, Daniel, are indispensable."

Earlier, in a two-hour address before the Venezuelan National Assembly, Chavez said he would deepen his "revolution" and end "privilege and inequality."

"The time has arrived!" Chavez said. "No one and nothing will stop the train of revolution." Taking the oath of office, he concluded with a call of "fatherland, socialism or death!"

Chavez, who shook up international markets this week with a pledge to nationalize key industries, said he would ask Venezuela's Congress to authorize a measure that would give his presidential decrees the force of law. He also pushed for a constitutional amendment that would allow him to run for reelection indefinitely.

News reports in Nicaragua and Venezuela this week said that one of Ortega's first orders of business will be the signing of an agreement to allow Venezuelan funding of dozens of public construction projects, including housing, hospitals, port facilities and electrical infrastructure.

"Our cooperation with Nicaragua could be even greater than what we have with Bolivia, Argentina or Cuba," Venezuela's ambassador to Managua told the local newspaper El Nuevo Diario on Monday.

Today, Chavez will receive an honorary doctorate from a Managua university.

The U.S. delegation to Ortega's inauguration was led by Health and Human Services Secretary Mike Leavitt. Since his November election victory, Ortega has worked hard to assure Washington that he will not return to the radical economic measures that defined his government in the 1980s.

During last year's campaign, the Bush administration actively tried to discourage Nicaraguans from voting for the Sandinistas. But this week, President Bush and Ortega held a cordial telephone conversation.

On Tuesday, Bush called Ortega "to congratulate him on his election victory, to express America's strong commitment to the well-being of the Nicaraguan people and our continuing interest in a relationship with Nicaragua," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow.

Ortega, who helped lead the 1979 revolution against dictator Anastasio Somoza, was voted out of office in 1990 and lost elections in 1996 and 2001.

He won in November with slightly more than 38% of the vote, defeating the divided conservative opposition.

The Sandinistas triumphed with a smart media campaign that refashioned Ortega as a centrist and by cutting deals with old opponents, including the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church and several leaders of the U.S.-backed Contra movement that took up arms against Ortega when he was president in the 1980s.

He echoed the themes of reconciliation in his speech Wednesday.

"We have to unite as Nicaraguans and bury the hatred, the revenge and the confrontation of the past," Ortega said. "Poverty and hunger

The Sandinista movement bused in thousands of supporters for the event, including many poor farmers.

"We're happy, because with Daniel all of us peasants are winners; the poor and the proletariat are winners too," said Leoncio Bertios Huerta, a 72-year-old tenant farmer who said he lost his small plot of land during the government of conservative Violeta Chamorro, who defeated Ortega in 1990. "Now we're going to have a government that helps us."

Analysts say that Ortega and the Sandinistas are also counting on a promise from Venezuela to sell oil at discounted rates, an arrangement similar to the one Chavez has granted Cuba and other Latin American allies.

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