King's Evangelical Divinity School

9 November 2011

Ortega's Re-election

So Nicaraguan leader and former Sandinista guerrilla Daniel Ortega has just secured another term as President (despite the constitution barring it). Ortega, of course, was one of the nine Sandinista comandantes during the 1979-90 revolutionary period. Ousted in 1990, after which the Sandinistas ominously vowed to "rule from below", Ortega made a remarkable comeback some years ago and has retained and strengthened his grip on power ever since.

This is all the more remarkable because there are so many Nicaraguans who can't stand him. Cronyism, corruption and extending his power far beyond what the constitution permits have all made him highly unpopular, not only with the traditional enemies of sandinismo (multinationals, business, the Catholic Church hierarchy, the middle class), but also among his closest former Sandinista colleagues including several of the nine founding comandantes of the FSLN. Yet Ortega has managed to retain important support among Nicaragua's underclass, many of whom saw real improvements during the Sandinista period in a country which throughout its existence has been highly polarised and divided economically, educationally and in terms of opportunity.

Religion, too, plays an important role as a powerful voting bloc in Nicaragua. With a very strong practising Catholic presence (unlike, say, Cuba, where nominalism permitted Castro to get away with curbing religious freedoms' in the way he did since the 1959 revolution), together with a Pentecostal presence comprising up to 20% of the population, religion represent a very important determinant of voting behaviour in Nicaragua. Indeed, so religious were the Nicaraguans in the lead-up to and during the revolutionary period, it was essential for the government to be seen to be an upholder of religious freedom (this was not quite the case, of course, with considerable persecution of Pentecostals in Nicaragua's northern highlands, as I set out in my Revolution, Revival, and Religious Conflict in Sandinista Nicaragua). Indeed, four liberation theology priests held portfolios in the new government.

Ortega has always been fascinated in religion and openly courts Pentecostals. Indeed, he has created a strange symbiosis of revolutionary socialism and Christianity, melding the cult of sandinismo and faith (and in the process almost presenting himself as a social and political Messiah who can save Nicaragua). The cult of Sandino (the nationalist guerrilla after which the Sandinistas are named) was, of course, prevalent during the 1980s.

Despite the Sandinistas' oppression of many Pentecostals in the 1980s, up to a third of Nicaragua's Pentecostals enthusiastically supported the Sandinistas. Many years later, when I visited one of Managua's largest churches, the pastor explained how many Pentecostals continue to support the Sandinistas' aims. Many Pentecostals supported Ortega's comeback, and in a country so strongly Pentecostal today it seems likely that while some (like Ortega's former comandante colleagues) have become disillusioned, nonetheless many of the country's poorer Pentecostals continue to support him. It demonstrates yet again how one must take great care not to stereotype Pentecostal political engagement and voting habits across Latin America, where they are far from homogenous.

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