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RPT-Nicaragua's good times help Ortega shrug off 'autocrat' jibes

Fri 4th November, 2016 1:01pm
(Repeats to additional subscribers) 
    By Enrique Pretel 
    LA LIBERTAD, Nicaragua, Nov 4 (Reuters) - Ten years ago, 
less than a third of voters in President Daniel Ortega's mining 
hometown backed him, but his support has since surged here and 
nationally, setting him up to win a third consecutive term this 
week despite criticism he is autocratic.  
    When he ran for a second term in 2011, the Sandinista leader 
won handily in La Libertad, as the small mining town embraced 
his dramatic shift from Marxist guerilla to a pro-business 
champion who has brought solid economic growth to Nicaragua, 
Latin America's second-poorest country. 
    Now, aged 70, La Libertad's native son looks certain to win 
an election on Sunday, lauded by voters who enjoy some of the 
lowest crime levels in Central America and appear unfazed by 
opposition warnings that Ortega's tight grip on the levers of 
power mark a slide toward despotism. 
    A poll published by M&R Consultants on Tuesday showed 69.8 
percent of those surveyed planned to vote for Ortega and his 
leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party, 
compared with 8.1 percent for right-wing opposition candidate 
Maximino Rodriguez. 
    In 2006, Ortega barely convinced voters that the return of a 
Cold War icon who boasted close ties to Venezuela, Russia and 
Iran - after more than a decade out of power - would not mark a 
renewal of spiraling inflation and instability. 
    Instead, helped by exports, foreign investment and 
multi-lateral loans, Nicaragua's GDP per capita has gone from 
$1,245 the year of Ortega's election to $2,087 in 2015, a rise 
of more than 67 percent, according to World Bank data.   
    "He built roads and houses here and made a lot of progress. 
He loves the people," said Marlon Laguna, a 57-year-old butcher 
proudly displaying photos of a young Ortega. "Since he got into 
power, things have been better in Nicaragua."     
    Others fear Ortega's sway over the courts, police and armed 
forces will make it hard to change governments when the country 
tires of him. The United States and the Inter-American 
Commission on Human Rights criticize Ortega's government for not 
accepting international election observers. 
    After elevating relatives to key government posts and 
changing the constitution to remove presidential term limits, he 
is accused by rivals of installing a dynasty, much like the 
43-year rein of the Somoza family Ortega helped topple in 1979.  
    The growing role of Rosario Murillo, the first lady, 
communications tsar and now Ortega's running mate, has proved 
particularly divisive. 
    "Somoza's greatest student is Ortega," said Oscar Rene 
Vargas, a former ally and adviser to Ortega. "Ortega is a smart 
man and will give congressional seats to various parties so it 
appears there is no dictatorship - just like Somoza did." 
    Good times have been rare in La Libertad. The city was hurt 
by the Sandinistas' nationalization of the mining industry after 
Somoza's ouster, and later by a civil war, which pitted Ortega's 
leftists against the right-wing, U.S.-financed Contras.  
    So like much of the country, La Libertad eyed with 
skepticism Ortega's 2007 return, in which he won just 38 percent 
of the vote nationally.  
    That year, the main firm operating in the region, Central 
Sun Mining, collapsed amid the global financial crisis and La 
Libertad was left waiting to see if a new company would take 
interest in its huge gold deposits.  
    Then, in 2010, Ortega visited La Libertad bearing good news. 
He came with Canadian miner B2Gold to announce an investment of 
$70 million to restart mining operations. He also inaugurated 34 
kilometers (21 miles) of road financed by the World Bank, 
fulfilling a pledge to locals who had been waiting decades for 
better infrastructure. 
    The town has also benefited from the more than $3.5 billion 
in food, low-interest credit and other types of direct support 
Venezuela has pumped into Nicaragua since 2007 to alleviate 
poverty, funds that helped improve education, sanitation and 
gender equality. Critics say this bonanza has served to enrich 
businesses close to Ortega. 
    Gains such as those in La Libertad were reflected in the 
2011 election results, in which 60 percent of voters chose the 
former fighter, despite allegations of electoral fraud from the 
opposition and criticism from international observers. 
    This time too, Nicaragua's opposition accuses Ortega of 
twisting the election by controlling electoral and judicial 
authorities and forcing his strongest rival out of the race. But 
there is little doubt that he is the country's most popular 
    In the face of Ortega's commanding lead, adversaries are 
weak and divided. Some want to fight at the polls at all costs, 
while others say voters must abstain in a protest against 
electoral fraud.   
    Nicaragua remains painfully poor, but across the country 
there are signs of prosperity, with new developments, hotels and 
shopping malls cropping up, and imported cars filling the roads. 
    "It's progress," said Carlos Romer, a 46-year old soldier 
who attended an Ortega rally in Ciudad Sandino near the capital 
Managua with his wife and two daughters, explaining his support 
for the aging president. 
    "We used to have blackouts, no education programs, nowhere 
to turn for health care. Now they care for us."  
    With few other options, even those less fond of Ortega 
concede he has helped improve the situation.  
    "We have to recognize that some things are better," said 
Claudia Escobar, a marketing specialist walking through a new 
port on the lake in Managua. "But I don't like Ortega and when 
we want to take him out of power, we won't be able to, just like 
the Venezuelans." 
 (Additional reporting by Ivan Castro; Writing by Alexandra 
Alper; Editing by Dan Grebler) 
 ((Alexandra.Alper@thomsonreuters.com; 5255-5282-7142; Reuters 
Messaging: alexandra.alper.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net)) 
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