Nicaraguans see First Lady as power behind throne

MANAGUA (Reuters) - It is too early to say where Daniel Ortega will take Nicaragua in the five-year presidential term he just began but there is consensus on who is likely to be the most influential figure in the former revolutionary’s government - his wife, Rosario Murillo.

Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega (R) and his wife Rosario Murillo greet supporters during a celebration of his victory in the Nicaraguan general elections in Managua November 8, 2006. REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas

In one of his first moves after being sworn in, Ortega made her the government’s chief spokesperson and gave her a say in a wide range of affairs, including health, education and culture.

The government’s official Web site, still under construction, lists her as “First Lady of the Nation” and places her third after Ortega and his Vice President, Jaime Morales. But some Nicaraguans think that ranking does not fully reflect reality.

“The people of Nicaragua,” said a caller to a TV talk show a few days after Ortega was sworn in on January 10, “are under the impression that the person in charge is Rosario Murillo.”

The caller exaggerated.

But judging from conversations with Nicaraguans from all walks of life, Comrade Rosario, as she likes to be called, is seen by many as the power behind the throne.

Murillo, 56 and the mother of six of Ortega’s eight children, has been likened to Hillary Rodham Clinton, and there is incipient speculation in Managua’s small political class that she, too, harbors long-term presidential ambitions.

Less flattering than Hillary comparisons: the label “La Chamuca,” meaning witch or she-devil.

“She’s a mixture of political strategist, image consultant, and cheerleader,” said a Latin American diplomat. “But even more importantly, she controls access to Ortega.”

A noted author of poetry, much of it erotic, Murillo ran the election campaign that brought Ortega back to power 16 years after he was voted out of office in 1990 -- at the end of a decade of turbulence and a U.S.-Soviet proxy war between the Marxists of Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and U.S.-backed Contra rebels.

Her touch was everywhere, from pink as the signature color of campaign posters to a Spanish-language version of John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance as the signature campaign tune. Even critics concede that she was instrumental in Ortega’s victory, on his third attempt to recapture the presidency.


Murillo is widely believed to have been the driving force behind some of the backroom deals that reshaped the political landscape in the past few years as Ortega forged alliances with former enemies, including the man who is now vice president and the former archbishop of Managua, Miguel Obando y Bravo.

He married Ortega and Murillo in a church ceremony in 2005, a quarter of a century after they started living together in what the church saw as concubinage.

One of Murillo’s most outspoken critics, fellow-poet and ex-Sandinista Gioconda Belli, said the ceremony had reasons other than the “deep commitment to the faith” the bride cited at the time. It was, after all, an election year in an overwhelmingly Catholic country.

The wedding pointed to an obsession for power at any price, according to Belli.

Not long after Ortega and Murillo reconciled with the church, Nicaragua’s congress passed -- with the backing of the FSLN -- a law banning all abortion, even in cases where the mother’s life is at risk.

Relations between Murillo and Ortega have been as turbulent as their country’s recent history. The two first met when Murillo visited a prison where Ortega served time for robbing a Managua bank, part of the then-clandestine Sandinista movement’s fund-raising activities.

The two became companions after the victory of the Sandinistas -- most of whom preferred informal unions to the formal blessings of a church they detested -- but their relationship was fodder for the Managua gossip mill for many years.

In the 1980s, Nicaragua attracted many international leftists who flocked to the country to express solidarity with the young revolutionaries who overthrew a corrupt dictatorship and defied the United States.

Ortega, then in his early 30s and trimmer than he is now at 61, was often seen in the company of beautiful women. Murillo wrote poems -- including one entitled Loving Is Fighting -- and in the freewheeling spirit of the time is said to have had dalliances of her own.

The couple grew inseparable after Murillo’s daughter, Zoilamerica, accused her stepfather of having molested her sexually from the age of 11 and started raping her when she was 15. Nicaraguan media carried details of the 40-page indictment that resulted from the accusations.

Ortega’s political career looked doomed -- on tours of the popular barrios that make up the core of his support, he was faced with crowds waving placards saying “Rapist Daniel.”

But Murillo stood by her man and sided against her daughter, saying she was mentally unstable. The protests died down. A court eventually shelved the case.