Daniel Ortega (born 1945) joined the revolutionary Sandinista National Liberation Front (Frente Sandinista de Liberación National—FSLN) in 1963, helped lead its overthrow of the Somoza dynasty, and was elected president of Nicaragua on November 4, 1984.
Daniel Ortega Saavedra was born on November 11, 1945, in the mining and ranching town of La Libertad, Nicaragua, in the municipality of Chontales. He was the third son of Daniel Ortega Serda, an accountant for a mining firm. The family later moved to Managua, where his father owned a small export-import business.
Ortega received his education in private and Catholic schools. He was an active Catholic during his youth, becoming a catechist and giving Bible studies to those who lived in poor neighborhoods. His seriousness, intelligence, oratorical skills, and religious devotion suggested to many that he would become a priest. He made good grades, but his parents sent him to four different high schools—trying fruitlessly to keep him out of a growing student opposition movement in the late 1950s. Ortega studied law for one year at Managua's Jesuit-run Central American University (c. 1961), but abandoned his formal education for revolutionary politics.
Much of the Ortega family had revolutionary credentials. Father Daniel fought in A.C. Sandino's 1927-1934 rebellion against U.S. occupation of Nicaragua, for which he served three months in prison. Daniel's younger brothers, Humberto (born 1948) and Camilo (born 1950) also became Sandinista revolutionaries. Humberto, a top military strategist, eventually became minister of defense of the revolutionary government, beginning in 1979. Camilo died fighting in the insurrection (1978). Their mother, Lidia Saavedra, became active in the 1970s in protests and went to jail for these actions. Daniel Ortega's wife was poetess Rosario Murillo; they had seven children. She worked with the FSLN after 1969 and was captured by the Somoza regime's security forces in 1979. After the victory she became general secretary of the Sandinista Cultural Workers Association and in 1985 became an FSLN delegate in the National Assembly.
After the 1956 assassination of Anastasio Somoza Garcia, founder of the Somoza dynasty, Luis Somoza Debayle succeeded his father as president and Anastasio Somoza Debayle assumed command of the National Guard. They terrorized suspected opponents of the regime to avenge their father's death. Repression kindled opposition, which surfaced after Fidel Castro overthrew the Batista regime in 1959. Ortega, still in high school in Managua in 1959, took part in a widespread student struggle against the Somoza regime. The protests of 1959 were organized by the Nicaraguan Patriotic Youth (Juventud Patriótico Nicaragüense—JPN), which Ortega joined in 1960. JPN members later took part in several guerrilla insurgent movements, but only the FSLN survived. In 1960 Ortega was captured and tortured for his role in the protests. Not deterred from his opposition to the Somoza dynasty, he helped establish the Nicaraguan Revolutionary Youth (Juventud Revolucionaria Nicaragüense—JRN), along with the FSLN's Marxist founders Carlos Fonseca Amador and Tomás Borge Martínez. In 1961 Ortega was again arrested and tortured by the regime. But by 1962 he was again organizing JRN revolutionary cells in Managua's poor barrios.
In 1963 Ortega was recruited into the FSLN, a Marxist-Leninist vanguard revolutionary party committed to the armed overthrow of the Somozas. He helped organize the Federation of Secondary Students (Federación de Estudiantes de Secundaria—FES) and was again arrested and tortured. In 1964 he was captured in Guatemala with other Sandinistas and deported to Nicaragua, again to be imprisoned and tortured. Free in 1965, he cofounded the newspaper El Estudiante (The Student), the official paper of the Revolutionary Student Front (Frente Estudiantil Revolucionario—FER), the university support wing of the FSLN. By 1965 he had earned sufficient respect from other top Sandinistas that they named him to the FSLN's Dirección Nacional (National Directorate), the organization's top policy council.
In 1966-1967 Ortega headed the Internal Front, an urban underground that robbed several banks and in 1967 assassinated Gonzalo Lacayo, a reputed National Guard torturer. In November 1967 the security police captured Ortega, and he was given a lengthy sentence for the Lacayo killing. During his seven years in prison he and other Sandinistas exercised, wrote poetry, studied, and continued political activity—including resistance within the prison. During the seven years Ortega spent in jail the FSLN developed and grew. In a December 1974 commando raid in Managua, the FSLN took hostage several top regime officials and Somoza kin. The hostages were freed in exchange for a $5 million ransom, publicity, and the freedom of many Sandinistas, including Ortega and Tomás Borge.
In 1974 President Anastasio Somoza Debayle declared a state of siege (1974-1977) and sharply increased repression of opponents. Under fierce persecution and with many of its elements isolated, the FSLN began to develop different "tendencies" (factions) based on different political-military strategies. In 1975 Ortega rejoined the National Directorate. The next year he resumed clandestine organizing in Managua and Masaya. He helped his brother Humberto and others shape the strategy of the Tercerista (Third Force) tendency of the FSLN. The Terceristas allied with the rapidly growing non-Marxist opposition, and their ranks swelled. Militarily much bolder than the other tendencies in 1977-1978, the Terceristas helped spark a general popular insurrection in September and October of 1978.
Ortega helped form and lead the Terceristas' northern front campaign in 1977, and in 1978-1979 helped lead the rapidly expanding southern front. The FSLN's three tendencies reunited in early 1979 as popular rebellion spread. Daniel and Humberto Ortega became members of the new, joint National Directorate. During the final offensive in June 1979 Ortega was named to the junta of the rebel coalition's National Reconstruction Government. On July 19 the Somoza regime collapsed and the junta took over the shattered nation.
Ortega served on the junta of the National Reconstruction Government from 1979 until its dissolution in January 1985 and was the key liaison between the junta and the National Directorate, which set general policy guidelines for the revolution. In 1981 Ortega became coordinator of the junta, consolidating his leadership role. Within the National Directorate he became a leader of a pragmatic majority faction and emerged as the directorate's and junta's major international representative and domestic policy spokesman. When the FSLN had to choose a nominee for president for the November 4, 1984 election, the directorate selected Ortega. He won with 67 percent of the vote, competing against six other candidates.
The National Directorate and the junta in 1979 adopted, and have since followed, two pragmatic policies that are unusual for a Marxist regime: the economy would be mixed—40 percent in the public sector, 60 percent private—and political parties other than the FSLN (except those linked to the Somozas) could take part in politics and hold cabinet posts. The FSLN quickly consolidated its political advantage in the revolutionary government, fusing itself with the new Sandinista popular army and police and adding new seats to the Council of State in a move denounced by opponents as a power grab.
Ortega exercised no charismatic dominance of the Nicaraguan revolution, but gradually emerged as a first among equals within the top Sandinista leadership. A somewhat gruff and intensely private person, he showed little threat of developing the charismatic mass following that other directorate members feared. Moreover, his ability to concentrate power remained limited by the control of key ministries by other members of the National Directorate.
Ortega's sometimes abrasive or confrontational public style at times caused friction for the revolutionary government, especially with the United States. Members of the U.S. Bipartisan Commission on Central America, for example, reported that Ortega's comments during two 1983 meetings were rather hostile in tone. In contrast, his religious background and longtime acquaintance with Miguel Obando y Bravo, Archbishop of Managua, made him a useful emissary to the Catholic Church hierarchy. But relations with the Catholic Church grew increasingly strained as the Church became an outspoken critic of the Sandinistas in the early 1980s.
As president of Nicaragua, Ortega established a modern team of technical advisers; his cabinet included other top Sandinistas as well as non-Sandinistas. Ortega's rise to the presidency was regarded by many as a commitment by the FSLN's National Directorate to continue the pragmatism of 1979-1985, a sign also reflected in his moderate inaugural speech.
However, daunting problems faced the Ortega administration and the FSLN's National Directorate. Under their leadership Nicaragua expressed solidarity with other Central American rebel movements, built up its military with the help of Cuban advisers, purchased Soviet-bloc arms, increased trade and friendship with the Soviet Union, and sought to increase independence from the United States while remaining friendly with Western Europe and Latin America. U.S. disapproval, however, had severe consequences. The Reagan administration financed a revolt by 10-15,000 anti-Sandinista counterrevolutionary forces sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency. The civil war severely strained Nicaraguan domestic consensus and resources. U.S. troops maneuvered in neighboring Honduras, fueling Nicaraguans' fear of an invasion. A U.S.-engineered international credit slowdown and trade embargo, begun in May 1985, eroded an economy already shrunken by private sector fears, falling export prices, and management problems. Under such pressures, President Ortega's major task was to struggle for the mere survival of the Nicaraguan revolution in an increasingly hostile international environment.
United States aid to the "contra" forces became increasingly controversial with the 1986 disclosure of "unauthorized" funds being sent to the anti-Sandinistas. It was charged that some of the money realized from the sale of arms to Iran was siphoned off to the contras.
In February 1990 Ortega's bid for reelection was challenged by Violeta Chamorro. She questioned the Sandinistas' close links with Cuba and the Soviet Union and reached out to center and conservative parties to help defeat Ortega. A second attempt to regain power in 1996 was again unsuccessful. Twenty-three presidential candidates ran in the October 1996 elections, but Ortega and Arnoldo Alemán emerged as favorites. After several days of vote counting, Alemán was declared the winner with 51 percent of the vote; Ortega came in second with 38 percent. Ortega conceded defeat but continued to question the legitimacy of Alemán's government.
Literature on Daniel Ortega is limited. Recommended for background on the Nicaraguan revolution are Thomas W. Walker's Nicaragua: The Land of Sandino (1981) and his edited works Nicaragua in Revolution (1982) and Nicaragua: The First Five Years (1985); George Black, Triumph of the People: The Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua (1981); John A. Booth, The End and the Beginning: The Nicaraguan Revolution (1985); Richard Millett, The Guardians of the Dynasty (1977); and David Nolan, The Ideology of the Sandinistas and the Nicaraguan Revolution (1984). See also Anastasio Somoza with Jack Cox, Nicaragua Betrayed (1980), and Bernard Diederich, Somoza and the Legacy of U.S. Involvement in Central America (1982).