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30 years later, Sandinista revolution ages awkwardly

He is as old as the Sandinista revolution, 30 years. His father was such a true believer that he named him after a communist hero. Twice.

“My father still believes,” said Marx Lenin Martinez, an aspiring computer technician. “I admired the original goals of the revolution, but today the Sandinistas are just like all politicians.”

On July 19, 1979, a young Nicaraguan guerrilla commander with an idealistic swagger and a droopy black mustache helped overthrow a brutish dictator and captivate the world’s imagination. Three decades later, older and not necessarily wiser, President Daniel Ortega has repulsed many followers and baffled others.

Although Sandinista loyalists like Martinez’s father, Mario, still abound, far more common are the disillusioned, like Martinez himself -- those who believe today’s version of Sandinista rule is a mockery of the original leftist revolution. “A farce,” in the words of renowned Nicaraguan poet and novelist Gioconda Belli.

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Most of the top Sandinista comandantes who led the revolution, along with other prominent militants, have long parted company with Ortega. They accuse him of reversing many of the revolution’s gains and of using the presidency primarily to expand his own financial and political power base.

Critics charge that Ortega and his forces have systematically persecuted opposition politicians, dissidents and independent journalists, while striking deals with erstwhile enemies, including right-wing businessmen, in the interest of political expediency.

Ortega has created a kind of “co-government” with his wife, Rosario Murillo, who has never held an elected post. He benefits from millions of dollars from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, most of which evades central accounting procedures. Some is used to finance populist, vote-grabbing social programs, but it is a mystery where it all ends up. Mayoral elections last fall, in which Ortega’s supporters won the lion’s share, were widely seen as fraudulent, and Ortega has begun to explore ways he can change laws to succeed himself at the end of his term in 2011.

“The revolution is dead and buried,” veteran Sandinista activist Sofia Montenegro said. “So much effort, so many lives sacrificed to create a process of democratization, a political constitution, elections . . . a legacy that they are destroying.”

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The revolution will forever have its place in history. It made Nicaragua the region’s most tenacious Cold War foil for Washington during the Reagan administration. And it led to fundamental changes in a country where, more than in most of long-repressed Central America, citizens are not shy about demanding their rights. Today, an army and police force that were once purely partisan are considered models of professionalism.

But many of the revolution’s brightest lights now worry that Ortega will plunge the country deeper into poverty and push a divisive agenda that will lead to more violence.

Dora Maria Tellez, a onetime guerrilla commander and member of the dissident Sandinista Renewal Movement, assailed what she calls Orteguismo, a faction used to sustain Ortega and his family in power. He spouts anti-imperialistic rhetoric to give a leftist patina to his government, she and others say, while making deals with the most conservative sectors of society and building up his own business interests.

The Times’ requests for interviews with Ortega and Murillo for this article went unanswered. He has routinely dismissed his critics as disaffected oligarchs or reactionaries.

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In July 1979, Ortega and other Sandinista militants rode a popular insurrection against dictator Anastasio Somoza into the seat of power. Those were heady, passionate days, the first time in the Americas, since the Cuban revolution 20 years earlier, that a nation rose up to overthrow its entrenched rulers (and the last time).

The Sandinistas ruled over a revolutionary experiment for the next decade, and fought U.S.-backed rebels for the last decade of the Cold War. Ortega called elections in 1990, and then unexpectedly lost them. He failed in successive attempts to return to the presidency until 2006, when he won election with just 38% of the vote.

His climb back to power involved an unsavory deal with former President Arnoldo Aleman, who was convicted of fraud and money laundering after his term ended in 2002 and sentenced to 20 years in prison. In a nutshell, Ortega purportedly promised to pardon Aleman if Aleman threw his support behind the Sandinistas; the deal would shelve allegations from Ortega’s stepdaughter that he had molested her for years, a never-resolved case.

Even die-hard Sandinistas such as Marx Lenin’s father, Mario, are uncomfortable with the deal, known as El Pacto. In the end, though, he says it was necessary.

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“The alternative, of the right wing continuing [in office], would have been worse,” said Mario Martinez, 50, in the three-room home he has lived in for 25 years. The son of a market vendor, Martinez says his children got educations and careers as engineers and teachers thanks to the revolution.

“Sandinismo taught me to be a fighter and a good citizen,” he said as a hot breeze fluttered the floral curtains that serve as doors and a green parrot chattered from its cage.

Martinez’s mother, Juana Aminta Mendez, 78, is also an unflinching Sandinista. Mother and son were wearing Che Guevara T-shirts during a recent visit; Marx Lenin was having none of it. His memories of the revolution have more to do with the clothes he couldn’t buy and the obligatory military service that kept his father away when he was a boy.

Through the 1980s, Managua was a tired shell of a city. The earthquake-ruined center had never been repaired. Shortages, thanks to U.S. embargoes and Sandinista mismanagement, meant empty store shelves and long lines for fuel to cook and run cars.

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Today, Managua’s center has shifted a couple of miles north, along a major road now lined with restaurants, U.S.-style gas stations and a handful of sprawling malls. Intersections where beggars languish are anchored, remarkably, by casinos.

Nicaragua remains one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, though it does not suffer the same sky-high crime rates of some of its neighbors.

Somewhere along the way, the Sandinista party under Ortega abandoned its trademark and ubiquitous red-and-black colors for what can only be described as a garish fuchsia. Hot-pink signs with Ortega’s picture equate El Presidente with El Pueblo -- the people and the president are one.

To grasp power, Ortega formed an unlikely alliance with the conservative Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, notably with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who had been one of the Sandinistas’ fiercest critics in the ‘80s.

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To win Obando’s support, Ortega came out in favor of tightening Nicaragua’s already tough abortion law: It is now illegal in Nicaragua even if the woman’s health is threatened. In the ‘80s, Ortega had been a champion of women’s rights and abortion rights.

“We have gone backward,” said Ana Quiros, a public health advocate and longtime Sandinista.

“They are taking away rights and liberties, and we have gone full circle, back to dictatorship,” Montenegro agreed. “We are fighting for the same things we were fighting for 30 years ago.”

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wilkinson@latimes.com


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