Former revolutionary Daniel Ortega was sworn in as Nicaragua’s president Wednesday, ending his two-decade fight to return to power with promises to maintain relations with the United States while building a leftist coalition with some of Washington’s top enemies.
Wearing his signature white, button-down shirt, the cuffs rolled up his elbows, Ortega took the oath of office at a plaza he constructed as president in the 1980s — the same place where he conceded electoral defeat to Violeta Chamorro in 1990 after a turbulent decade in power marked by food rationing and civil war.
Ortega has promised a delicate balance between taking a moderate economic and social stance while cultivating close relationships with U.S. opponents such as Venezuelan Hugo Chavez and the communist Cuban government. Ortega was once one of the most bitter foes of Washington, which secretly backed a rebel insurgency aimed at toppling him.
Chavez, who has called President Bush the “devil,” used his inaugural visit to play up his support of Nicaragua, promising the impoverished nation 32 desperately needed electricity plants, low-interest loans to the poor from a branch of his state development bank and help in improving the country’s health and education systems.
Another guest was Bolivian President Evo Morales, a close ally of Chavez and ailing Cuban leader Fidel Castro. Morales has expressed doubts about the U.S. drug war efforts in the Andean region and recently announced that U.S. citizens would need visas to visit Bolivia. The U.S. is wary of Morales’ ties to Chavez and Castro.
Castro didn’t attend because of his health, but Ortega has already sought close ties with the communist island, attending Castro’s delayed 80th birthday celebrations in December.
U.S.: 'Desire to work with you'
Nicaraguan officials initially said that hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who has defied international criticism of his country’s nuclear program, also planned to attend. They later said Ahmadinejad would not be coming, and that a lower-level representative would take his place.
The U.S. has reluctantly welcomed Ortega’s promises to respect private property and continue free trade agreements. Late Tuesday, Ortega chatted comfortably with Health and Human Services Secretary Michael Leavitt, who was heading the U.S. inaugural delegation. Before entering a private, 30-minute meeting, the two exchanged pleasantries about the weather and expressed their desire to maintain strong ties.
“I want to make very clear that our desire is to work with you,” Leavitt told Ortega.
Ortega said he hoped the visit was the “first of several” and he described a phone call he had with Bush on Monday as a “very pleasant and positive conversation.”
Ortega was part of a junta that took power of Nicaragua in 1979. He was president from 1985-1990. Under his rule, Nicaragua descended into economic chaos under radical economic policies that included property seizures.
The U.S. government so despised Ortega during the 1980s that aides to President Reagan secretly sold arms to Iran’s radical Islamic government to finance clandestine aid for the Contra rebels trying to overthrow Ortega.
Bush’s father, who followed Reagan as president, sneeringly described Ortega as “this little man” and as an “unwanted animal at a garden party” when both attended a Central American summit in 1989 — a year before Ortega was voted out of office.
Plan for future unclear
Ortega also met with representatives from Japan, Korea and Russia. In a meeting with Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian, Ortega expressed his willingness to continue to work with Taiwan — dispelling rumors that he might cut ties with the island and seek stronger relations with China.
Taiwan and China split amid civil war in 1949, but Beijing still claims sovereignty over the island.
Ortega has been guarded about his new government, but Wednesday’s ceremony should provide a better idea of his future plans. He is expected to confirm members of his Cabinet.
Ortega will be sworn in at the Omar Torrijos Nonaligned Plaza, which he constructed as president in the 1980s. It is the same plaza where he conceded defeat to Violeta Chamorro after the Feb. 25, 1990, election.
He plans to use a former convention center near Congress as his office, instead of the presidential palace built by former President Arnoldo Aleman with $10 million donated by Taiwan.
Ortega’s Sandinista party has the largest number of lawmakers in Congress, but it is short of the majority needed to approve new laws. Many have speculated that Ortega could renew his past coalition with the party of Aleman, who was convicted in 2003 for money laundering and embezzlement.
During their first session on Tuesday, lawmakers elected a Sandinista as leader of Congress. But lawmakers from all opposition parties warned Ortega not to return the country to the dark days of his previous leadership.
“May God light the path of the new president and his government ... so that they don’t fall victim to totalitarian temptations or even think of setting back our democracy even a centimeter,” warned Wilfredo Navarro, of Aleman’s party.
In an interview with The Associated Press, outgoing President Enrique Bolanos predicted that Ortega’s government would be “as strong as it was in the 1980s.”
“It won’t be a democracy, because democracy requires divided power,” said Bolanos, who was jailed twice and had much of his property seized under Ortega’s previous rule.