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Ortega and Murillo: Nicaragua’s canny power couple

Critics compare Nicaragua's Daniel Ortega, right, and his wife Rosario Murillo to Frank and Claire Underwood, the pitiless first couple from the hit series "House of Cards"
AFP/File inti ocon

Managua (AFP) – One is a former guerrilla and admirer of Fidel Castro, the other an eccentric poetess and self-described mother of the nation: together Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo run Nicaragua with an iron-like grip.

Critics compare them to Frank and Claire Underwood, the pitiless first couple from the hit series “House of Cards,” denouncing them for their authoritarianism and almost exclusive hold on power.

In power for 11 years, Ortega is now facing the biggest wave of unrest of his presidency after a controversial pension reform plan sparked days of rare street protests that degenerated into violence, leaving 25 people dead.

Known as “El Comandante,” Ortega — who is today 72 — breezed through elections in November 2016 after preventing rivals from contesting the race, winning a fourth term in power in one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

A former Sandinista rebel who first took power in 1979 after a Marxist revolution, Ortega is known for his iron-fisted rule, which has eliminated any serious rivals.

One of the last allies of Venezuela’s beleaguered leftist leader Nicolas Maduro, Ortega has also spent years building a comfortable relationship with Nicaragua’s business community, coming under fire for abandoning his revolutionary principles. 

At his side is Murillo, or “Companera Rosario” (Comrade Rosario), his 66-year-old wife and, since the 2016 election, also his vice president. 

Despite a penchant for poetry and art, she is no less formidable than her husband and believed by many to be the eminence grise behind him. 

As has often been the case in this Central American country, being in power is a family affair, with many of the couple’s children holding key positions in politics, business and the media. 

– Ortega: reclusive, Machiavellian –

Born on November 11, 1945, Ortega grew up in the mining village of La Libertad and went on to study law, but dropped out to join the guerrillas.

He spent seven years behind bars and was at times tortured by the Somoza regime.

He first seized control after his Sandinista guerrillas ousted the Somoza dynasty that dominated Nicaragua from 1937 to 1979.

Then in 1985, as head of a leftwing Sandinista junta backed by Cuba and the Soviet Union, he was elected president.

But, five years later, with the economy in ruins, he was not re-elected.

With his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party now in opposition, Ortega spent the next 17 years “ruling from below” — fomenting violent protests and negotiating reforms with the government.

In 2006, he managed a presidential comeback, managing to gradually take control over all state bodies, the police and the army.

Backed by the oil wealth of Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez, his ideological ally, Ortega started social programs for the poor, who continue to support him in droves.

But over time, the former guerrilla underwent a change, abandoning his earlier Marxist principles for pragmatism that saw him nurturing ties with Nicaragua’s powerful business families.

Known for his shrewd politics and skill at ruthlessly cornering opponents, Ortega pushed through a constitutional amendment in 2014 that scrapped presidential term limits.

Now ruling from a heavily guarded Managua residence, he lives a semi-reclusive life, shying away from both travel and encounters with the press. 

– Murillo: Nicaragua’s Thatcher? –

As Ortega has retreated from the spotlight, his “loyal companion” Murillo has taken his place.

“She is a very intelligent, original woman who has a commanding voice,” ex-rebel Eden Pastora told AFP, comparing her to Britain’s late Margaret Thatcher, “the Iron Lady,” or India’s Indira Gandhi.

A poet who speaks fluent English and French, and wears colorful clothes and jewelry reminiscent of the hippie 1960s style, Murillo often acts outside the confines of a traditional first lady.

As the government’s chief spokesperson, she ensures no other ministers speak or act without her permission.

“We live in a time of blessings, prosperity and victories. Daniel salutes you, embraces you,” she regularly says in soothing broadcasts laced with poems on state media.

And she has imposed her eccentric taste on the capital by ordering the erection of several tall metal “trees of life” which are painted in different colors and lit up at night.

But her powerful presence behind the presidency has led some critics to nickname her “la bruja” — or “the witch.”

The pair met as revolutionaries in 1977 and married in 2005. Between them they have raised 10 children, six of their own, while Murillo has three from a previous marriage and Ortega has one. 

In 1998, when Murillo’s daughter Zoilamerica Narvaez accused her stepfather of having sexually abused her since age 11, the ever-loyal Companera Rosario sided with her man.

The charges were eventually thrown out by a Sandinista judge.

For Gioconda Belli, a former guerrilla comrade who opposes the government, the pair are nothing short of “Machiavellian — in the sense that the end justifies the means.”

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