AP Photo/Esteban Felix
MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) — On bright-pink billboards across the Nicaraguan capital, President Daniel Ortega looms triumphantly over motorists ahead of next Sunday’s vote, where he’s considered a shoo-in.
He’s almost never alone in those ads: Accompanying Ortega is the smiling visage of his first lady, spokeswoman and now running mate, Rosario Murillo.
“That woman is the one who rules in the country. She is powerful,” said fruit vendor Roberto Mayorga. “If ‘the man’ dies, she’ll be there. She has been his shadow. There is nobody who can keep her from being next.”
Murillo has taken on ever greater responsibility during the last decade that her husband has been in office. She is said to run Cabinet meetings and many Nicaraguans credit her for social programs that have helped keep the ruling Sandinista party’s popularity ratings high.
Murillo is beloved by many poor Nicaraguans and Sandinista faithful, consistently polling around 70 percent approval. And she’s equally reviled by government opponents, who see her presence on the ticket as another step in the 70-year-old Ortega’s push to maintain the couple’s grip on power in a country with a long and uncomfortable history of dynastic families.
“She’s already been involved in the main decisions affecting the country and advising the president. So now she’s just getting the appropriate title to go along with that,” said Michael Allison, a political scientist at the University of Scranton.
“The Ortegas really seem to be intent on increasing the family’s control over much of Nicaraguan political, social and economic life …” he added. “And so this would be a way to really guarantee that should something happen to him, the family control over Nicaraguan politics will continue.”
Murillo, 65, was born in Managua in 1951 and obtained diplomas in English and French while studying in Britain and Switzerland. In the 1970s she began publishing poetry, worked at a newspaper and co-founded a cultural group opposed to the dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza. She met Ortega during the revolution, and they fell in love while in exile. She returned home when Somoza was toppled.
During the first Sandinista governments from 1980 to 1990, she was a newspaper culture editor, head of the Sandinista Cultural Workers’ Association, a lawmaker and head of the country’s Institute of Culture.
But it was after Ortega returned to the presidency in 2007 that Murillo’s rise truly began.
When the government makes public announcements, they usually come in Murillo’s voice. She has represented Ortega overseas on diplomatic and trade missions. She spearheaded the installation of giant metal “trees of life” sculptures in the capital, a beautification campaign that opponents have criticized as costly but which many residents appreciate.
Said to be a tireless worker, Murillo broadcasts daily TV and social media messages in which she offers everything from world news to culinary tips in a style that draws on religious, revolutionary and poetic rhetoric.
“I mean she’s in people’s homes all the time now. … She’s become really the public face of the administration, and I think that’s helped her popularity immensely,” said Christine Wade, a political scientist at Washington College in Maryland.
That’s particularly true among the poor and women, who see her as responsible for programs she announces: putting roofs on homes, doling out micro loans, funding school lunches and running women’s clinics.
“Our aspiration is for all women in Nicaragua to play a full role,” Murillo said in August after being named to the ticket. “We are more than 50 percent of the population and we have the possibility, the duty, the right to fill decisive positions.”
“Who better than ‘the companera?'” Ortega said.
Recent surveys give the husband-and-wife team over 60 percent of voter preference compared with just 12 percent for a smattering of little-known candidates.
Critics accuse Ortega of blatantly rigging the system despite the fact he would likely win anyway.
First his backers pushed through constitutional amendments to let him seek another re-election. Then rulings by the Ortega-friendly Supreme Court and Supreme Electoral Council blocked his most serious opponents from running and unseated nearly all opposition lawmakers remaining in the National Assembly.
That prompted the U.S. House of Representatives to pass a bill that would require the U.S. to oppose loans to Nicaragua from international lending institutions unless the country takes “effective steps to hold free, fair and transparent elections.” Companion legislation has been introduced in the Senate.
“What’s going to happen (in the election) is a farce,” said Carlos Langrand, one of the 28 opposition lawmakers booted in July.
Opponents also accuse Murillo of overreaching.
The shared power between Ortega and Murillo aims to create “a new dynasty,” said Monica Baltodano, a former guerrilla commander who broke with the Sandinistas. “And mafia-style, he picks his wife to give her the kind of institutional power that she already had de-facto.”
Working in Ortega’s favor is the country’s consistent if unspectacular economic growth, as well as relatively low homicide rates at a time when neighboring El Salvador and Honduras are among the deadliest countries on the planet.
Many Nicaraguans are also enthusiastic about the Ortega-backed plan for an interoceanic canal they hope will jump-start the economy of the Western Hemisphere’s second-poorest nation, though critics say it’s unlikely to ever get built and threatens environmental and social disruption if it does.
In the 1990s, Murillo defended Ortega against her own daughter Zoilamerica, who alleged that her adoptive stepfather had sexually abused her for more than a decade.
Efforts to prosecute the case were long stymied by Ortega’s immunity from prosecution as a member of Nicaragua’s congress. He gave up that immunity only after the statute of limitations expired.
While many Sandinista loyalists wave the issue aside, some Nicaraguans continue to hold a dim view of Murillo’s role. “There’s definitely a segment of the population in women’s groups and in feminist groups and in human rights groups that I don’t think will ever forgive her the controversy over Zoilamerica,” Wade said.
Associated Press writer Luis Manuel Galeano reported from Managua and AP writer Peter Orsi reported from Mexico City.
Peter Orsi on Twitter: www.twitter.com/Peter-Orsi
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