Nicaragua's President : Ortega--A Leader With Little Clout

Times Staff Writer

Someone with more ambition and flair might have seized the reins of power and boldly asserted his leadership. But Daniel Ortega, in his first year as president of Nicaragua, has shown little inclination or talent for the role of strong national leader.

Power continues to be collectively wielded by the nine-member National Directorate of the Sandinista National Liberation Front, political analysts say. And that is apparently the way the directorate wants it to stay.

"He's no Fidel Castro," a diplomatic observer here remarked after watching Ortega's presidential performance for the last 12 months.

President Reagan has called Ortega a "dictator in designer glasses," but a more apt description might be "administrator in olive drab."

His Color Is Olive Drab

For if any color can be associated with Ortega's lackluster, low-key presidential style, olive drab is it. The former guerrilla chief, who once helped spark a national insurrection, has proved to be a distinctly unexciting chief executive.

"That's the thing about Daniel, he's boring," a journalist with an American television network commented.

As president, Ortega has plodded dutifully along like a good soldier, doing little to alter the Sandinista power structure that existed before he took office in January, 1985.

Ortega, 40, and the directorate's other eight members are all former guerrilla commanders who fought their way to power in July, 1979, ousting strongman Anastasio Somoza. From 1981 until his presidency began, Ortega was also "coordinator" of the three-member government junta that carried out directorate policy.

As the Sandinista Front's presidential candidate, Ortega won two-thirds of the vote in the November, 1984, elections. Some opponents said the vote was rigged. Ortega was inaugurated on Jan. 10, 1985, and for the first time since Somoza fled the country in 1979, Nicaragua had a president.

War and Economic Crisis

It was, and continues to be, a difficult time of war and economic crisis. But there was only the slightest expectation that Ortega might rise to the moment and give the Sandinista revolution new direction with forceful, decisive leadership.

Perhaps another of the nine commanders, a figure such as Tomas Borge, could have done that. Borge, in contrast to Ortega, is a witty and engaging public speaker with a reputation for personal ambition and drive.

According to one foreign diplomat here, the directorate picked Ortega for the presidency precisely because he lacked qualities of the kind that could threaten the shared power of other members.

"His colorlessness obviously is what made him the choice of the leadership to be first among equals," the diplomat said. "He is only president because he is not very good at it. If he were really good at it, Borge and others might get together and knock him off. So it pays him to be not too hot."

Another diplomat called Ortega a "revolutionary puritan."

'Power-Hungry for His Cause'

"He's a man totally dedicated to the cause," this diplomat said, "and his life is given up to that cause. He's not power-hungry for himself, for his own personal benefit. He's power-hungry for his cause."

He rarely makes major decisions on his own, consulting instead with specialists, fellow members of the directorate and other Sandinista leaders.

"We believe that a decision, when it is a very important decision . . . it is not appropriate that it be made by a single individual," Ortega said recently.

Erick Ramirez, president of the opposition Social Christian Party, said, "Sometimes you get the impression that there is a power vacuum when it comes to making clear political decisions."

Ortega's public speaking style runs from lukewarm to cold. When it is not monotonous, it is strained. In press conferences, he shows little agility in fielding questions. He dodges issues awkwardly, utters platitudes and repeats stock phrases.

'Little Recorded Messages'

Diplomats say that Ortega is ineffective in encounters with foreign officials. "He tends to have little recorded messages in his head for people he meets as president," one said.

Ortega is also obviously ill at ease in crowds, and he rarely smiles.

"He is a very serious comrade," said Carlos Jose Guadamuz, a fellow revolutionary and old friend of Ortega. "His character is very reserved." Guadamuz said Ortega laughs and smiles freely only among close friends and family.

Guadamuz and others who know Ortega say he is an untiring worker with uncommon determination, that he faces problems with supreme serenity and that he subjects himself to iron self-discipline.

He jogs regularly in the early morning, carrying an automatic rifle and often an ammunition pack to increase the intensity of the exercise. He does not smoke and rarely drinks anything alcoholic.

'Amazing Tranquility'

"The quality I most admire in him is his calm," said politician Rafael Cordova Rivas, a leader of the Democratic Conservative Party and collaborator with the regime. "I think that if he was drinking a cup of coffee and they told him that the city of Leon was being bombed, he would keep drinking his coffee and then decide what to do with amazing tranquility."

Ortega's inner mettle was tempered in jail. As a young revolutionary, he was arrested several times, and in one instance he was imprisoned for seven years. In an interview last month, he recalled the way he was treated as a political prisoner.

"On several occasions they locked me in a very small cell where you practically had to stay lying down," he said. "It was like a kind of casket, very low, about a half-meter high. So you couldn't stand up, you had to be lying down there, handcuffed, too, in that cell, handcuffed there, defecating on yourself and urinating on yourself."

Sometimes, he said, he was taken out for interrogation.

"In the interrogation, if they didn't get the information they wanted, then there was a torture session, with beatings, electric shocks."

And then back to the cell--and a feeling of new life.

'Like Being Born Again'

"The very fact of being alive after having been tortured was a little like being born again," Ortega said.

What helped him through was the thought of his revolutionary struggle, he said.

"You always felt a link to the struggle outside, you felt a commitment to the people who had died, you felt a commitment to the people who were fighting, too. That gave you the heart to live each day."

Ortega's revolutionary commitment is a family trait. An official biographical sketch begins, "He was born in La Libertad, department of Chontales, on Nov. 11, 1945, a member of a family of revolutionaries."

The biography says that Ortega's father, also named Daniel Ortega, supported the guerrilla campaign of rebel Gen. Augusto Cesar Sandino against U.S. intervention in Nicaragua in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Later, the elder Ortega collaborated with Sandinista Front guerrillas in the 1960s and 1970s.

Daniel and his two younger brothers, Humberto and Camilo, were active in the front in their teens. Camilo was killed in the revolution's first local insurrection, in the city of Masaya in February, 1978, and Humberto at present is minister of defense and a member of the directorate.

Juan Velasquez, a journalist with the opposition newspaper La Prensa, remembers Daniel Ortega from the time both were teen-agers in Managua and Daniel's family lived across the street from Velasquez's grandmother.

Dedicated Revolutionary

"He was a boy who spent 24 hours a day dedicated to revolutionary activities," Velasquez said.

Daniel had a shortwave radio with a big antenna, and he "always tuned in Radio Havana," Velasquez said. "He listened to all of Fidel Castro's speeches. He turned them up loud, because I could hear them from my grandmother's house."

Since then, Ortega and Castro have become friends and allies. Castro attended Ortega's inauguration last January.

Sandinista literature is replete with references to the movement's Marxist-Leninist orientation. A 1977 political-military platform, drafted mostly by Humberto Ortega and issued by the National Directorate, reaffirmed its links to the "Marxist-Leninist cause."

"Daniel's political formation is Marxist-Leninist," a Western diplomat said. "That doesn't mean--and it's true for all these guys--that they want a little Soviet Union here or that they even want a Cuba. One of them once said to me, 'We want a Cuba without the warts.' "

Daniel, however, is evasive when responding to questions about his ideology.

Admires Marx and Lincoln

"I admire Marx, I respect Marx, as I also admire and respect Lenin," he said. But he added that he admires Sandino, Lincoln, Washington, Bolivar and Christ as well.

He said the example of Christ "as a liberator" was his "first inspiration in the struggle against the Somoza dictatorship and against U.S. policy." And he said, "I saw the Yankee on Somoza's side because the Yankee ambassador was a defender of Somoza, the American presidents were friends of Somoza."

In 1963, after several arrests for anti-government activity, Ortega joined the newly formed Sandinista National Liberation Front. It soon put him in charge of the organization's secondary school movement.

Ortega studied in Catholic schools, dropping out of the Central American University of Managua after only three months. Aside from his revolutionary and government work, the only job Ortega is known to have held was as a radio news reporter, for three months.

He went to Guatemala in 1964. Ignacio Briones, a Nicaraguan journalist and historian, said that Ortega received sabotage instruction at a Guatemalan guerrilla training camp and also took part in several guerrilla actions there. Ortega denied that he was "active in guerrilla warfare in Guatemala."

Ties in Guatemala

"There were ties between the Sandinista Front and the Guatemalan revolutionaries," he said. "I was in Guatemala at that time, but in more of a political than military connection."

Guatemalan authorities captured Ortega and returned him to Nicaragua, where he was jailed once again.

As head of the Sandinista urban movement in 1967, Ortega said, he had "global responsibility" for the "execution of some Somoza henchmen and the recovery of some funds to buy arms and food." He did not deny that he took part directly in some of the holdups and assassinations.

"When there was a need for me to participate personally, I participated," he said.

He was captured in November, 1967, and sentenced to prison, where he stayed for seven years. He and 13 other Sandinista prisoners were released in 1974 in exchange for hostages taken by a Sandinista force that invaded a Christmas season party in the home of a prominent Nicaraguan. The freed prisoners were given safe passage to Cuba, where Ortega stayed for several months, receiving guerrilla training.

Meanwhile, the Sandinista Front was split into two "tendencies," one headed by Borge, who is now interior minister, and the other by Jaime Wheelock, now minister of agriculture and agrarian reform.

The Insurrectionals

After Ortega's return from Cuba, he and his brother Humberto created a third tendency, called the Insurrectionals. They also devised a strategy for enlisting a broad front of Nicaraguan and international allies and starting a popular uprising against Somoza.

To help attract support, the Sandinistas de-emphasized their Marxist-Leninist orientation. The strategy worked, and some analysts say that this is one reason the Ortegas together have the lion's share of power today in the Sandinista structure.

Last August, the National Directorate created a new Executive Commission made up of five directorate members, including the Ortegas. Daniel Ortega heads the commission as coordinator. The new title is said to further consolidate his position as first among equals on the ruling directorate.

But some analysts say his authority remains limited by the countervailing power of the tendencies headed by Borge and Wheelock. Borge's Interior Ministry controls an estimated 40,000 armed officers and troops in the police, State Security Agency and special combat forces. Wheelock's Agriculture Ministry has access to important sources of foreign exchange because it controls farm exports.

Virgilio Godoy, president of the Independent Liberal Party, said in an interview that the government functions in "three constellations" revolving around the Ortega brothers, Borge and Wheelock.

'Don't Always Agree'

"Each one of these constellations is a kind of ministate with its own domestic and foreign policies," Godoy said. "They don't always agree, and they provoke a distortion in the public administration."

Godoy was minister of labor until he quit in 1984. He was also his party's presidential candidate against Ortega.

The constellations of Borge and Wheelock--and Ortega's own limitations--have prevented Ortega from putting his personal seal on the presidency, Godoy said, adding, "He continues to be a fuzzy president with a low profile."

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