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Ortega's last straw in Nicaragua

September 3, 2008 | 10:25 am

A bitter political-cultural confrontation that exploded in Nicaragua in late August could mark the final end of the passionate romance between the world's leftist intellectuals and Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega, writes Stephen Kinzer in this Opinion piece.

Ortega, you may recall, was the leader of the Sandinista National Liberation Front when it seized power after overthrowing the 40-year Somoza family dynasty. A dashing young revolutionary who electrified liberals and leftists around the world, Ortega served as Nicaragua's president for most of the 1980s. He lost power in 1990, but after 16 years in opposition, he was elected president again in 2006.

For years -- in and out of government -- the Sandinista Front has been Ortega's private fiefdom. Most of the other Sandinistas who riveted the world's attention in the 1980s have broken with him, but he emerged with control over the party machinery, and he wields power like an old-fashioned Latin American caudillo.

Despite Ortega's recent slide into authoritarian rule, and despite his glaring failure to address the urgent needs of an impoverished nation, the Sandinista cachet continues to give him an air of celebrity in some circles. His denunciations of American imperialism (issued even as he deals easily with the U.S. military and the International Monetary Fund) still warm the cockles of many hearts.

That has changed in recent days. On Aug. 22, in a crude act of political revenge, a Sandinista judge dredged up an old case that had been dismissed three years ago against Ernesto Cardenal, the 83-year-old poet who is one of Nicaragua's most beloved figures. Intellectuals from around the world, including many with pro-Sandinista pedigree, have angrily protested what they see as a transparent effort by Ortega and the Sandinistas to humiliate and punish Cardenal.

Read the rest of this Opinion piece on Nicaragua here.

Stephen Kinzer's latest book is "A Thousand Hills: Rwanda's Rebirth and the Man Who Dreamed It." His 1991 book, "Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua," recounts his experience as the New York Times' bureau chief in Managua.

Here's an L.A. Times profile of Cardenal from 2005.

Click here for more on Nicaragua.

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City