Recent accusations of sexual misconduct leveled against former President Daniel Ortega, patriarch of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front, have brought to a boil simmering discontent over the lack of democracy and the treatment of women within the party.
The crisis is splitting a party already weakened by repeated losses at the polls and the defections or expulsions of top lieutenants in the eight years since Ortega left office in electoral defeat.
The scandal erupted two weeks ago, when Ortega's 30-year-old stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez, publicly accused him of having sexually molested her since she was 11, including during the years he was president. The harassment continued even after her marriage in 1990, she said.
Ortega's wife--Narvaez's mother--denied the allegations at a news conference last week that Ortega also attended. All three have turned down requests for interviews since then.
The accusations have divided Sandinistas into Ortega loyalists and those who support Narvaez, who has held leadership positions in the party's youth movement.
Two Narvaez backers, William Rodriguez and Henry Petrie, have been removed from elective party offices. A third, lawmaker Xanthis Suarez, said she is facing expulsion from the party.
Narvaez and her estranged husband, who has supported her accusations, joined Suarez in filing complaints with the police Wednesday stating that they have been harassed by menacing telephone calls.
"I've been told to 'watch it' and that I'm 'going to get hurt,' " Suarez said. The telephone calls and the effort to expel her reflect a fanaticism within the party, she charged.
"It is idolatry, the symbol of Daniel Ortega," she said. "It is as if someone told you that your father is a rapist. You would not believe it."
Ortega's backers insist that their support is based on their belief in his character.
"I have known him for 33 years," said Doris Tijerino, who led an unsuccessful bid to remove Ortega as party secretary-general in 1994. "I do not believe that he could be a rapist and hide it."
Nevertheless, she added that it was wrong to punish Rodriguez and Petrie, saying, "This situation should not provoke sanctions based on emotion."
Narvaez's supporters said the reactions to the scandal reflect the party's problems with democracy and equality.
"They are sweating from someone else's fever," Rodriguez said of Ortega's backers. "This is a personal problem between Zoilamerica Narvaez and Daniel Ortega. But power has been used and abused to put all the [party] machinery at one person's disposal."
Suarez said she was disappointed, but not surprised, by the support for Ortega among women. "To be a Sandinista woman is not synonymous with being a woman who is conscious of her rights," she said.
Moises Hassan, a prominent former Sandinista, said that if the accusations against Ortega are true, they would only be the most egregious case in a long history of disrespect for women by the male Sandinista leadership.
"The position of women within Sandinismo has been one of manipulation," said Hassan, who is now a political analyst. "It is a farce."
Sandinista leaders speak eloquently about women's rights in public, he said, and then treat women disrespectfully.
Tijerino acknowledged that women must constantly fight to maintain their gains in the party power structure.
But she warned that the scandal will do nothing to advance the cause of women or reform within the party, saying she worries that the spotlight will cause the Sandinistas to close ranks.
"The effect has already been negative," she said, "but we need to take care that it is not so negative that it affects the process of modernization and restructuring that the Sandinista Front needs."
Others said the scandal and the reaction to it underscored why reforms are unlikely, even though the party has little chance of success at the polls without such changes.
"In order to win elections, the [Sandinista] Front has to get rid of its national committee . . . in a way that leaves no doubt that they are serious" about reform, Hassan said. "But they are not going to do that. They are a party that is condemned to keep losing."