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article imageNicaragua's shrewd power couple

By Blanca Morel (AFP)     Nov 7, 2016 in World

Nicaragua's first couple, President Daniel Ortega and his wife Rosario Murillo, breezed through elections that have extended their rule over one of the poorest countries in the Americas.

Ortega, a former rebel who first took power in 1979 after a Marxist revolution, is known as "el comandante" (the commander) for his strong-fisted rule, which has eliminated any serious rivals.

Murillo, extravagant, with a penchant for poetry and art, is no less redoubtable in her current role as the government's spokeswoman and -- many believe -- the eminence grise behind her husband.

Known as "Companera Rosario" (Comrade Rosario), she now becomes vice president, after the couple won more than 72 percent of the vote Sunday.

- Ortega: reclusive, Machiavellian -

Ortega, 70, first seized control after his Sandinista guerrillas ousted the Somoza dynasty that had held power in Nicaragua from 1937 to 1979.

Now, critics accuse him of again turning Nicaraguan politics into a family affair.

Nicaragua partial election results shows President Daniel Ortega winning his third straight term sin...
Nicaragua partial election results shows President Daniel Ortega winning his third straight term since 2006
Anella Reta, AFP

Ortega headed a leftwing Sandinista junta with the support of Cuba and the Soviet Union after the revolution, and was elected president in 1985.

But, with the economy in ruins, he lost re-election in 1990.

With his Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party in opposition, he spent the next 17 years "ruling from below" -- fomenting violent protests and negotiating reforms with the government.

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

Backed by the deep oil funds of Venezuela, under his ideological ally Hugo Chavez, he started social programs for the poor, who now continue to support him in droves.

But he was also careful to nurture ties with Nicaragua's powerful business families, promising stability.

In 2014, his party in congress engineered a constitutional amendment scrapping presidential term limits.

Nicaraguan first lady Rosario Murillo is the government's communicator-in-chief  crafting its m...
Nicaraguan first lady Rosario Murillo is the government's communicator-in-chief, crafting its messages to the people and setting the official agenda
Behrouz Mehri, AFP/File

Ortega's shrewd politics, combined with his skill at ruthlessly cornering opponents, made him the leader of the FSLN, which he joined in 1963.

Born in the mining village of La Libertad, Ortega ditched his law studies to join the guerrillas.

He spent seven years behind bars, at times tortured, at the hands of the Somoza regime.

Now ruling from a heavily guarded Managua residence, he lives a semi-reclusive life.

He is reluctant to travel, or give interviews or press conferences.

- Murillo: Nicaragua's Thatcher? -

As Ortega has retreated from the spotlight, his "loyal companion" and wife, Rosario Murillo -- with whom he has six children, one of them adopted -- has taken his place.

"She is a very intelligent, original woman who has a commanding voice," Eden Pastora, another ex-rebel, told AFP.

He compared Murillo, 65, to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, who was known as "the Iron Lady," and India's Indira Gandhi.

Supporters of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega celebrate after the presidential election on Novemb...
Supporters of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega celebrate after the presidential election on November 7, 2016
Rodrigo Arangua, AFP

A ceaseless worker, a poet who speaks fluent English and French, and given to wearing colorful clothes and jewelry reminiscent of the hippie 1960s, Murillo acts outside the confines of a traditional first lady.

She is the government's communicator-in-chief, making sure 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, delivered only on state media.

She has imposed her eccentric taste on the capital by ordering the erection of several tall metal "trees of life" painted different colors and lit up at night.

Murillo met Ortega in 1977, when she was a revolutionary fighting the Somoza dictatorship. They soon started a relationship, marrying 11 years ago.

When Murillo's daughter from a previous marriage, Zoilamerica Narvaez, accused Ortega in 1998 of having sexually abused her since age 11, Murillo sided with her man. The charges were eventually rejected by a Sandinista judge.

Today, Zoilamerica lives in Costa Rica, where she speaks disparagingly of her mother, whom she says chose power over their relationship.

Gioconda Belli, a writer and former guerrilla comrade who now opposes the government, said both Ortega and Murillo are "Machiavellian in the sense that the end justifies the means."

Even so, the election has now given the couple five more years. The opposition rejected it as a farce.

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