Reading that Daniel Ortega is heading for a third term as president of Nicaragua brings back memories of a very unusual night in 1979—when I, and other reporters—ate rice and drank Johnnie Walker Red into the wee hours with the future president in a dark, candlelit bar at Managua’s InterContinental Hotel.
Earlier that day, July 17, Nicaragua's longtime leader, Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, was overthrown after an insurrection led by the FSLN, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, a group whose leaders included Ortega. Earlier, Somoza had left the country, flying to exile in Miami.
Rebels were shooting in the air and the celebrations, though dangerous, were going on in the streets. I had been eating cans of tuna fish seemingly for days—there was no food to be had—and had just returned from a tour of Gen. Somoza’s “safe house,” where cans of caviar were ripped open and tossed across the room.
In an earlier time, at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, I had shared a couple of beers with General Somoza during an outdoor party for the astronauts at the Cocoa Beach Holiday Inn. He seemed like a pleasant enough guy, on his best behavior for a visit to the United States. I didn’t know how dictators operated back then.
I was at the Intercontinental Hotel during the revolution for NBC News and walking down a stairwell when I ran into Ortega, an exuberant young 34-year-old leader of the rebellion. I had met Ortega earlier, while shooting video of the Sandinistas in the jungles as they approached Managua. The tension of the earlier days was missing—this time Ortega was relaxed and gleeful.
There may have been no food or electricity in the hotel, but the cheerful Ortega, who spoke perfect English, invited me and other members of the press to join him for some newly discovered booze and rice in the hotel bar. Now, he was a different man, one about to take hold of the reigns of power.
That night he was jubilant and everyone’s best friend. Born poor, his parents had been opposed to Somoza. His mother was imprisoned by the National Guard. Two of his brothers died in combat. He, himself, was arrested at age 15 for political activities, and became an early member of the FSLN.
During his imprisonment, Ortega was severely tortured. After his release, he was exiled to Cuba, where he received several months of guerrilla training. He later returned to Nicaragua secretly.
That night, at least, Ortega told of the good things he would do for his long exploited people. At the time, the things he said made me feel good. I saw hope for this poor country. He was a friendly, very articulate man, not someone I could comprehend to be a killer. But, in Latin America, I have since learned, nothing is as it seemed.
Ortega went on the be in a five-person Junta of National Reconstruction, the only member from the FSLN. Soon, President Ronald Reagan accused the FSLN of joining Soviet-based Cuba in supporting Marxist revolutionary movements in Latin America. Reagan and company authorized the CIA to begin financing and arming rebels, who were known as the Contras. Some of the Contras were former officers from Somoza's National Guard.
This turned out to be one of the largest political scandals in U.S. history—the Iran Contra Affair—when Oliver North and several members of the Reagan administration defied an amendment to sell arms to Iran, and then used the proceeds to fund the Contras. Between 1980 and 1989, over 30,000 Nicaraguans died in the conflict between the Sandinista government and the Contras.
In the 1984 general election, Ortega won the presidency with 67 percent of the vote and took office on January 10, 1985. Now 65, Ortega appears to have won his third term, though not consecutive. More than 600 complaints of voting irregularities have emerged so far.
The New York Times reported that Ortega proved to be a shrewd political strategist. He adopted policies aimed at pleasing his base of poor and working-class Nicaraguans, including supplying them with government-donated food. At the same time, he actively reached out to independents and conservative business leaders with his free-market approach to the economy.
Much of his support, the newspaper reported, was due to an alliance with President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, which brought about $2 billion to the Nicaraguan economy over the past several years. If Ortega makes it this time, he becomes the first president in Nicaragua’s modern history to serve three terms.
As I look back to that time, I have mixed feelings and one genuine souvenir. When I entered Nicaragua, my passport was stamped with General Somoza’s government insignia. When I left a couple of weeks later, a line was crossed through the stamp and the letters FSLN were written with a magic marker. The new government hadn’t had time to make up new emigration stamps yet.