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Last Updated: Thursday, 14 September 2006, 10:19 GMT 11:19 UK
The marathon man of Nicaraguan politics
By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Managua

Could Nicaragua's former leftist revolutionary leader, Daniel Ortega once again become president of his country? Mr Ortega's Sandinista party led Nicaragua in the 1980s with strong US opposition.

Former leftist leader, Daniel Ortega
Mr Ortega still enjoys public support
I had travelled to Nicaragua with a vague promise of an interview with a legendary figure of the Cold War era.

He is a hero of the left, whose name some say should have long faded into the past. But Daniel Ortega, the leader of the Sandinista revolution, and thorn in America's side, is still alive and kicking - 16 years after being voted out of office.

Back in Washington, Ortega's wife Rosario, the power behind the throne, had assured me that he wanted to talk to the BBC.

Now in Managua, though, the doubts set in. It was proving hard to nail down a time or a place.

I had been told that Mr Ortega would be holding a political meeting on Saturday night. Now we were informed that it would happen in the morning.

The venue - one of Managua's more exclusive hotels, seemed a bit odd, too. It is hardly the choice of a self-proclaimed champion of the poor and man of the people.

"El Comandante"

I had been hoping more for a mass rally near a Managuan slum.

But, yes, there in this conference room of a four star hotel with its own casino, was "El Comandante" - the commander of the Sandinista revolution.

The military fatigues have been dispensed with long ago. The Marxist rhetoric has softened. A few of his supporters wore Che Guevara T-shirts, but there was little else to suggest this was a revolutionaries' meeting.

And there was still no sign that I would be getting the interview.

The one constant from the era of the revolution seemed to be the Sandinista love of long political discourse.

The conference room, I was told, had been booked until five o'clock. There was a long list of speakers. Mr Ortega, it seemed, was intent on listening to every word and embracing each speaker when they had finally stopped talking.

Contra rebels
US-backed Contra rebels fought 10-year rebellion against Sandinistas
I decided to cut my losses and come back later.

Anyway I had a previous engagement to interview the US ambassador.

Washington is alarmed by Mr Ortega's political comeback and there is plenty of bad blood.

In the 1980s, the Reagan administration had illegally funded the "Contras" to oust Ortega from power.

Then it was the fear of creeping Soviet influence.

Now Washington worries about interference from the confrontational Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Chavez wants Mr Ortega to win. But the Americans, too, are now openly voicing their support for other candidates.

I wanted the ambassador to explain Washington's continuing animosity towards Mr Ortega.

But, just as I was drawing up to the US embassy, a colleague called to say that Mr Ortega would do the interview in 20 minutes. Inconvenient, but still a sense of relief.

Inside the compound

Mr Ortega's many critics charge him with behaving like a dictator and I was beginning to see why. Sandinistas who have challenged him have been expelled from the party. His opponents accuse him of political manipulation.

I asked him if he was still a revolutionary. He replied with an unequivocal yes.
His minders said they would meet us at our hotel later. This time they proved true to their word.

They picked us up and drove us through the streets of Managua. For a visitor the city is virtually impossible to navigate.

There is no real centre and few if any street signs. In 1972 an earthquake levelled the city. Managua's chaos can be blamed on the forces of nature - but the country's political troubles are more a man made disaster.

We were eventually taken to what turned out to be the Ortega compound. After another short wait we were ushered into a room decorated in bright colours.

There we were warmly received Rosario. She was responsible, I was told, for the new colour scheme of the Sandinista movement - a garish pink. Seconds later Daniel appeared. We sat down for the interview in purple wicker chairs.

I had finally got my interview with the Sandinista leader.

His waistline was a little wider, his hair a little thinner - and still suspiciously dark. But there was still mischief in his eyes and strong anti-American rhetoric.

I asked him if he was still a revolutionary. He replied with an unequivocal yes.

In the past he said he had fought a revolution with arms, but now Nicaragua had entered a new chapter. This time he was defending the revolutionary project with the vote.

Daniel Ortega talked for more than 40 minutes.

In the end my wait had been worth it.

But the question now, will his own patience, endurance and careful political manoeuvring finally pay off?

Will Daniel Ortega - the marathon man of Nicaraguan politics - once again become president of his country?



SEE ALSO
US urges Nicaragua to shun Ortega
19 Apr 06 |  Americas
Country profile: Nicaragua
12 Jul 06 |  Country profiles
Nicaragua candidate dies suddenly
03 Jul 06 |  Americas
Deal to end crisis in Nicaragua
11 Oct 05 |  Americas

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