Nicaragua’s election on Sunday isn’t expected to produce any surprises — but it is drawing attention.
The current president and former Marxist rebel, Daniel Ortega, who is seeking an unprecedented third term, is widely predicted to win. He does, however, have a new vice presidential running mate — his wife Rosario Murillo — and has banned all national and international observers, leading some opponents to say the elections are fixed.
Last week, thousands of protesters packed cars, pickup trucks and school buses, with many riding on the roof, for a mile-long protest high in the northern mountains of Nicaragua.
The procession rolled slowly into the town of Pantasma, famous for its fertile grounds for both coffee growing and revolutionary resistance.
“The electoral farce has begun,” screamed a woman over a loudspeaker amid the protesters. One of the demonstrators, Johaven Herrera, 20, picks coffee and corn alongside his parents. He says this was going to be his first time voting. Instead he’ll be sitting at home Sunday.
“There is no one to vote for. It’s as simple as that,” he says.
For most young people like Herrera, Ortega is the only leader they’ve ever really known.
Ortega led the country after his Sandinista rebels overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, until losing an election in 1990. He regained power in 2007, garnering just 38 percent of the vote, defeating a fractured opposition. And he’s ruled ever since, with each election drawing more international scrutiny and mounting fraud allegations.
Ortega changed the constitution to remove term limits on the presidency and has banned international observers, calling them “shameless.” This summer he appointed his wife, Murillo, to be his vice presidential candidate and managed to remove the leadership of the country’s main opposition group, leaving just five minor parties on the ballot.
Violetta Granada, the recently dismantled Liberal Independent Party’s VP candidate, says this time Ortega has closed the door on the democratic process.
“We are trying to open it, because we don’t want violence, we don’t want the country to fall back into the cycle of war again,” says Granada surrounded by signs reading, “Democracy Yes, Dictatorship No.”
While Ortega has spent much of the past decade increasing his grip on power, he’s also spent much energy on mending fences with past enemies like the Catholic Church and the business community.
Annual economic growth in the country has topped 5 percent for the past five years, one of the highest rates in the region. Nicaragua has not been crippled by high murder and crime rates like it’s troubled neighbors. And foreign investment has returned too.
Walmart just opened its first store last year, there’s a newly expanded upscale mall in the capital and several high rises.
Roberto Sanson, the head of the American Chamber of Commerce here, just opened a two-story, glass-enclosed, Nissan dealership.
From the second floor he looks down on his shiny showroom with all the latest Nissan offerings including one SUV that goes for $130,000 dollars.
He chuckles, “I only sell about three of those a year.”
Sanson says there is no doubt that Nicaragua is better during the past decade of Ortega’s rule.
“Daniel Ortega has done everything that he has been able to do because the opposition has allowed him to do it and the country has allowed him to do it, not by force, but because he has been smarter than everyone else, that’s the truth, even if we don’t like it,” he says.
And Sandson adds, Ortega is smart enough to take care of the country’s poorest too.
Ortega has long appeased the poor, mostly with massive handouts funded by his leftist ally, Venezuela, which provided around a half-billion dollars a year. But that money is drying up as Venezuela has been embroiled in its own economic and political turmoil.
Berta Aguilar knows first hand about the Ortega’s work for the poor. For the past 16 years she’s lived in her modest three-bedroom cinderblock house in a poor barrio not far from Managua’s airport. Six years ago, with funds from Venezuela’s former leader, the late Hugo Chavez, she got running water.
She proudly shows off her bathroom out back and turns on the shower while giving her toilet a hardy flush.
All thanks to Ortega’s Sandinistas.
Her visiting friend, Maria de los Angeles, joins in on the praise.
“I always vote for the party,” she says. “It’s because of them that I’m alive”
The Sandinistas free healthcare provides treatment for her leukemia and hearing aids for her daughter.
De los Angeles credits Ortega’s wife, Murillo, for the party’s gains. The two women settle in to watch Murillo’s daily lunchtime address to the nation, which can last nearly an hour and is peppered with the first lady’s trademark mix of New Age references and Christianity.
“Thanks to God, we are here with our health and strength to receive God’s blessings,” says Murillo.
Always dressed in flowing skirts and blouses, adorned with rings on every finger, and bright necklaces, Murillo has been the public face of the regime for years. Ortega, soon to be 71, is rumored to have health issues, leading to speculation that her appointment as vice president will secure the Ortega’s hold on power. The couple’s children own most of the media outlets and key businesses in the country. Murillo declined an interview request. Ortega hasn’t talked to independent reporters in years.
Poet and writer Gioconda Belli was a spokeswoman for the Sandinastas back in the 1980s. She’s long split with the couple who she says have become very messianic.
Ortega “has in Rosario the most efficient assistant that anyone can dream of, like the assistant to a CEO of big company,” says Belli. “That’s her expertise”.
Murillo was always extremely disciplined and efficient says Belli, with a strong authoritarian streak just like her husband.
“The perfect queen to his king”, she adds.
But international pressure is mounting for the couple to restore democratic institutions. The U.S. House of Representatives voted unanimously to block some international loans to the country and the Organization of American States says it will send a delegation to Nicaragua. However, the officials won’t arrive until after this Sunday’s election.