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Last Updated: Wednesday, 8 November 2006, 22:52 GMT
Second chance for Nicaragua's Ortega
By Duncan Kennedy
BBC News, Nicaragua

It is a pretty exclusive club - the one formed by heads of state who have been voted out of their countries' highest office and then, years later, manage to stage a comeback. But Daniel Ortega has pulled it off.

It has been a gap of 16 years between the first time he was president of Nicaragua and now.

Daniel Ortega
Daniel Ortega has spoken of reconciliation
But he never quite went away in all that time. Far from it. And this week's convincing victory came after several other attempts to re-secure the top job.

But this time, personal popularity, a well-organised campaign and a divided opposition have propelled him back into the world's limelight.

He says he is now a changed man - no longer the revolutionary Marxist he was in the 1980s. Back in those days he was anti-capitalist and virulently anti-American.

The Americans did not care for him much, either. President Ronald Reagan regarded Mr Ortega as part of the Cold War furniture that had to be removed from his Central American back yard.

That is why Washington secretly armed, trained and funded members of Nicaragua's former National Guard, a group that evolved into a force of counter revolutionaries, and became known as the Contras.

We feel conditions are right in our country for a new political culture
Daniel Ortega
Mr Ortega's Sandinista forces, named after an early 20th-Century revolutionary, Augusto Sandino, took on the Contras. Many people died in the civil war that followed.

And at the end of it, in 1990, the voters grew weary of Mr Ortega and removed him from office.

He has not spent the last two decades in the wilderness. But the population could never quite bring itself to trust him again in large enough numbers, until now.

Help

Turning 61 on Saturday, this father of seven has now convinced sufficient numbers people he has become a moderate.

In accepting his victory he spoke of reconciliation.

Children in the streets
Nicaragua is one the poorest countries in the regions
"We feel conditions are right in our country for a new political culture," he said. A culture, he added, that "will lead us with a constructive spirit out of our adversity and dispute, putting Nicaragua and its poor first".

Few would argue with such lofty aims. Achieving them will be much more difficult.

In one of Managua's poor neighbourhoods, the kind that Daniel Ortega draws his support from, I asked a woman called Nora what she wanted out of his victory.

"Help," she said, simply.

By that she meant help for housing, education and health.

"I have a family of five and my husband earns US$200 a month," Nora said. That is about US$6 (3) a day.

Roughly seven out of 10 Nicaraguans live like that. After Haiti, it is the poorest country in the region.

Memories

Mr Ortega believes foreign investors can help. He spent much of his campaign offering reassurances that private capital would have no fear doing business in Nicaragua.

But one man I met in Nicaragua is not so sure. Ernesto remembers the day in late 1979 or early 1980 when he and his family went to his uncles' house, only to find it occupied by one of Mr Ortega's Sandinista security guards.

"My father got out of the car and went over to ask what right the man had to take over the house," he recalls.

"The guard then pulled out a gun and pointed it at my father's head."

"It was enough," said Ernesto, "for us to realise that these people were tough and they didn't care for those who had money and property".

No serious observer is suggesting Mr Ortega's victory will lead to those kinds of excesses again. But distant memories provide the basis for present-day nerves.

Second time

The Americans are also anxious. Although Nicaragua is no longer the stage for the United States and the Soviet Union to confront each other on someone else's turf, the geography has not changed.

Nicaragua is still in what used to be called Washington's "sphere of influence". And Washington is not sure what kind of relations Mr Ortega will form with his even more colourful neighbours.

These include people like Hugo Chavez, the President of Venezuela, or Fidel Castro of Cuba, who reportedly sent a note congratulating Mr Ortega saying the win "fills our people with joy - at the same time filling the terrorist and genocidal government of the United States with opprobrium".

There have been hints by the Americans that Mr Ortega could find favour again with his northern neighbour, if he is a transparent democrat and co-operative partner.

Those tests for this old, new-kid-on-the-block are still ahead.

For now, the man whose full name is Daniel Ortega Saavedra, which spells D-O-S, or the number "two" in Spanish, is basking in his re-election victory, a case of second time lucky for this veteran political figure.


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