Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's Soft Authoritarianism

The Story of the Sandinista Survivor

Like his fellow strongmen Vladimir Putin and Hugo Chavez, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega is routinely excoriated in the international media, sometimes for good reason. There’s no doubt that Ortega employs heavy-handed tactics against his opponents, tilts the electoral playing field in his favor, uses state power to advance the business interests of his friends, and from time to time lambastes “U.S. imperialism.” But this weekend, the guerrilla comandante-turned-politician is likely to coast to re-election.

Personal charisma -- so often the explanation for the unlikely popularity of certain leaders -- is not the answer to the Ortega enigma. A tedious speaker, the 66-year-old Ortega rarely holds press conferences. Nor is Daniel, as his admirers call him, a shining intellect, having cut short his formal education to engage in clandestine revolutionary warfare. But he is smart enough to learn from his mistakes and adjust his strategies to changing international and domestic realities. An astute and tireless political operator, Ortega has survived by seizing opportunities to broaden his political alliances and to debilitate and divide his opponents.

The meaning of Ortega’s rebirth might depend on the eye of the beholder. For some free marketers, Ortega’s brand of state capitalism is a worrisome precedent, even though it has garnered support from the local private sector. And liberal-democrats throughout the Western Hemisphere are alarmed by the erosion of certain constitutional norms -- including, notably, an end to the prohibition of presidential re-election. But Ortega might also offer some inspiration to those on the political left searching for an economic model that combines stability with distributional equity. And development practitioners of all political persuasions might benefit from understanding how Ortega’s Sandinista-led government has apparently been more effective at managing public sector resources than was its more efficiency-oriented, conservative predecessor. 

The Education of a Revolutionary

After waging an armed insurrection that toppled the discredited Somoza dynasty in 1979, the socialist Sandinistas promptly ran the Nicaraguan economy into the ground. (The anti-Sandinista violence of U.

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