WHAT A difference a few years make. Daniel Ortega, dressed in fatigues, came to power in Nicaragua in 1979 when a popular revolt led by the Sandinista revolutionary movement unseated the dictator Anastasio Somoza. One of the least dangerous of the Sandinista commanders, Ortega quickly became the compromise political leader of the triumphant revolution. But within less than two years, the Sandinistas chose a rocky road, mixing Somoza's feudalism with Castro's Soviet slant. In short -- order, the revolution lost much of its pluralistic promise, the Sandinista leadership lost the support of most Nicaraguans and the Reagan administration rushed into the fray, financing the anti-Sandinista contras.
Then in early 1990, Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, did the unexpected. Under pressure from the international community, he held special, internationally supervised elections fully expecting to win. But he lost to Violeta Chamorro, who headed a broad coalition. Now the Chamorro years are coming to a close and suddenly, after nearly seven years in the cold and just weeks before today's general elections, Daniel Ortega is back.
Remade in the last few months by U.S.-style political consultants who have dressed him in white, a tan and rested Ortega surged in the polls. Most recent surveys place him within striking distance of the leading candidate, the former mayor of Managua, Arnoldo Aleman.
Daniel Ortega is far from the ideal candidate. During his tenure in the 1980s the economy shrank by more than half, inflation peaked at 34,000 percent annually and the deficit grew by more than ten-fold. State security became pervasive while price controls devastated the rural economy, running afoul of small, independent-minded farmers in this eminently agricultural nation. His brand of militaristic feudalism became more extensive, restrictive and humiliating than even the Somoza variety. And the renowned confrontation with the United States that led to the U.S.-backed contra war clamed tens of thousands of Nicaraguan lives. The Ortega era was far from the good old days an electorate might look back to longingly.
His personal record is not much better. While the Sandinistas' rhetoric condemned the commercialism, capitalism and fiscal corruption of the regime they unseated, Ortega and most of his eight colleagues in the military directorate that ran the country participated fully in the conspicuous consumption that characterized the 1980s in the United States. They filled their opulent homes confiscated from Somoza associates and other assorted "enemies of the revolution" with expensive new toys. This new high living in the years of austerity and economic shrinkage, when for most Nicaraguans even toilet paper was a rare luxury, was paid for by public funds that the commanders spent and salted away as though they belonged to them.
Once Ortega lost the election in 1990, but before Violeta Chamorro took office, he gave away more public property -- much of it confiscated illegally -- to himself and a myriad of supporters in the famous "Pinata," involving everything from real estate to toilet bowls from government offices. His wife, who had elbowed herself to the top of the Ministry of Culture by the end of the 80s -- an icon of neo-radical chic in her leather pants in sweltering Managua -- made the better part of the national art collection and library her own.
Since relinquishing formal power more than six years ago, Ortega's clout has only diminished. He vowed to "rule from below." But instead his party split into three factions, and the army/security apparatus -- the foundation of Sandinista power -- was chopped up. Then his tactic of using Sandinista labor unions and inciting street violence to disrupt Chamorro's economic plan won him the allegiance of a small core of Sandinista faithful, at the cost of wider support.
So how can this man, a stiff candidate, apparently so ill that he sleeps in an ozone chamber like Michael Jackson, and with a record that would shame a Borgia pope, be surging in the polls?
It's the economy, estupido. While the decade of negative growth has finally been reversed, most Nicaraguans are in dire economic straits. Easily 70 percent of Nicaraguans live in poverty. Unemployment exceeds 30 percent, wages are low and underemployment is endemic.
Social services are minimal at best and 700,000 children in this nation of just more than 4 million inhabitants have been left out of the underfinanced educational system. Shortages of clean drinking water, safe sewage and garbage services have fed a rise in disease, with which the strapped health care system cannot cope. To put it simply, a free election (1990), the building of democratic structures -- an independent legislature and a free press -- and the shift to a market economy, all major accomplishments of the Chamorro government, have been more bust than boom for many Nicaraguans.