Ortega and Murillo: Nicaragua's power couple

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·4-min read
Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and his wife, Vice-President Rosario Murillo, command a lot of support despite accusations of repression (AFP/Cesar PEREZ)
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Nicaragua's first couple, President Daniel Ortega and his wife Vice-President Rosario Murillo, are both in their 70s but have shown no desire to relinquish their vice-like grip on power.

On Monday they romped to victory in an election dismissed as a "sham" by the United States following a months-long campaign of political persecution.

More than 30 opposition figures, including former guerrilla comrades and seven potential presidential candidates, have been detained on vague charges of undermining Nicaragua's "sovereignty."

Former guerrilla leader Ortega, known as "el comandante" (the commander) for his iron-fisted rule, first held power for 11 years after the 1979 revolution, including five years as president.

But it is since his re-election in 2006 that he has gradually cemented his position and eliminated any rivals, leading to accusations of repressing dissent.

Murillo, with a penchant for poetry and art, is no less redoubtable, and her husband's right-hand woman, though some believe she holds the true power.

Known as "Companera Rosario" (Comrade Rosario), she has risen through the party ranks since her husband's re-election to the point of sharing control.

"Here we have two presidents because we respect the 50:50 principle -- in other words, here we have the co-president in Comrade Rosario," Ortega said in a recent televised address.

- Ortega: shrew, ruthless -

Ortega, 75, first seized control after his Sandinista guerrillas ousted the Somoza family dynasty that held power in Nicaragua from 1937 to 1979.

Now, critics accuse him of authoritarianism, corruption and turning Nicaraguan politics into a family affair.

"In the end we have a dictator in Ortega, a caudillo (strongman)... he hasn't allowed any other candidates in his party and now, it seems, he won't allow a president in Nicaragua that isn't him," Fabian Medina, the author of a biography on Ortega, told AFP.

Ortega headed a left-wing 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 the following 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 before his 2007 presidential comeback.

Backed by the deep oil funds of Venezuela, then under his ideological ally Hugo Chavez, he started social programs for the poor, many of whom continue to support him.

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

In 2014, his party in congress engineered a constitutional amendment scrapping presidential term limits, opening the way for him to remain president for life.

Ortega's shrewd politics, combined with his skill for ruthlessly cornering opponents, have allowed him to retain control 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.

- Murillo: fiery, eccentric -

Being a first lady was never enough for the ruthlessly ambitious Murillo, 70.

Known for her fiery speeches laced with biblical and esoteric references she preaches "love and reconciliation" while in the same breath branding the opposition "blood-thirsty vampires."

As Ortega has retreated from the spotlight, his "loyal companion" -- with whom he has seven children, one of them adopted -- has to some extent taken his place.

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

Her first government role was as a self-appointed communicator-in-chief, making sure no other ministers spoke or acted without her permission.

She has imposed her eccentric taste on the capital Managua 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, but did not get married until 2005. It was her fourth marriage.

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 husband.

The charges were eventually rejected by a Sandinista judge.

Today, Narvaez lives in Costa Rica, where she speaks disparagingly of her mother.

"They are playing for their lives because they cannot survive without political power," she has said.

"Ortega found in Murillo what he lacked, and Murillo found in Ortega the vehicle she needed," said Fabian Medina in his book.

Murillo comes from revolutionary stock as her mother was a niece of nationalist hero Augusto Cesar Sandino, who led resistance to the 1927-33 US occupation of Nicaragua.

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