Critics call him a regional bully, a paranoid isolationist, or a once-and-forever Sandinista. He's a former left-wing guerrilla who has been accused of taking bribes from drug gangs to finance city elections for his party. More recently, he was among the few to defend Muammar al-Qaddafi as the late Libyan dictator began to turn on his own people. And yet Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega -- about to coast to re-election for his third nonconsecutive term -- may just be the most savvy left-wing firebrand in Latin America.
On Nov. 6, Nicaraguans head to the polls, and there's little doubt that Ortega will win. The conventional wisdom in Managua is that Ortega will either win with a majority vote, or by any means necessary. Over the past few years, opposition parties have been blocked from ballots, critical journalists have been threatened, and independent election observers have been barred entry to the country.
But Ortega's re-election, however imperfect, isn't likely to provoke any serious conservative backlash. Ortega's unique ability to thread the needle between his socialist leanings -- and alliances with third-rail politicians like Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro -- and his lucrative partnerships with Western governments and business leaders makes him a formidable operator in the murky world of Latin American politics.
Despite many bitter memories of his first administration -- a period marred by chaotic events ranging from his own suspension of civil rights to the Iran-Contra Affair -- Ortega's current term, beginning in 2007, has been a relatively stable one for most Nicaraguans. Thanks to a robust police force and Ortega's complete control of the military, the people of Nicaragua have been spared the organized crime wave that has overwhelmed many of their Central American neighbors. Ortega managed to steer his nation through the global economic crisis, maintaining a steady rate of economic growth when recession was plaguing much of the world. Sure, Nicaragua is one of the poorest nations on Earth, but its current outlook is one of the best in the region -- the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported 4.5 percent GDP growth there last year. Despite his socialist background, Ortega has positioned himself as a pro-business president, endorsing so-called Free Zones: industrial areas throughout the country in which foreign and domestic companies can operate with incentives like total income tax exemption.
Of course, Ortega isn't doing this entirely out of a newly discovered respect for the free market. Want to do business in a Free Zone? You have to get approval -- from the president himself. Seeking to import or export foodstuffs? First Lady Rosario Murillo is the only one who can give the stamp of approval. "Ortega is pro-business, as long as they're his," says one Western diplomat based in Managua, speaking on condition of anonymity. Local business leaders also quietly explain that while foreign investment is welcome, the two most profitable industries are already taken: The state runs energy, while Carlos Slim's America Movil has telecommunications covered.