Ortega: I'm a changed man

Daniel Ortega has told Nicaraguans he is not the same revolutionary the US once tried to overthrow.

Daniel Ortega has told Nicaraguans he is not the same revolutionary the US once tried to overthrow.

The Sandinista leader spent this campaign - his fourth for the presidency - preaching harmony, love and reconciliation, often with John Lennon's Give Peace A Chance playing in the background.

Ortega, whose businessman father opposed Anastasio Somoza's dictatorship and fought US occupation from 1927 to 1934, joined the clandestine Sandinista National Liberation Front in 1963 and led its urban resistance. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1967, then released in 1974 after the group kidnapped several top government officials.

He was elected president at 39 in 1984, five years after Somoza's ousting, as the country was in the middle of a war against Contra rebels financed and organised by Washington. Under Sandinista rule, the local currency devalued 33,000% and foreign debt ballooned.

But before he lost the presidency to Violeta Chamorro in 1990, Ortega lowered illiteracy rates from 60% to 12% and built a free health-care system.

He also confiscated many homes, including the estate of his current running mate, Jaime Morales, a former Contra spokesman. He reconciled with Morales recently by paying him for the sprawling complex and Morales agreed to run as his vice president.

Ortega has made three unsuccessful runs for the presidency in 1990, 1996 and 2001, and used congressional immunity to dodge rape claims filed by a stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez. He has denied the allegations, but Narvaez continues to push her case publicly.

The father of nine - seven with his wife and campaign manager, Rosario Murillo - Ortega is known to enjoy ranchera music. But his favourite song is Frank Sinatra's My Way.

Now 60 and balding, he has toned down his revolutionary rhetoric, invoking both Lennon and God and promising to favour free trade policies and improve health care and education.

His main opponent, Harvard-educated Eduardo Montealegre, says the new Ortega is a farce.

But Morales is convinced. "I believe in him because he has truly matured over the years," he said.

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