Humberto Ortega says Sandinistas have right to accumulate wealth
Second in a two-part interview with retired Gen. H umberto O rtega
MANAGUA – Retired Gen. Humberto Ortega is rumored to be one of the richest men in Nicaragua. People say he made his millions during the revolution and the subsequent land grab known as the “piñata,” in which the Sandinistas fattened their party coffers with an estimated $1.5 billion in confiscated properties and goods before handing over power in 1990.
After retiring as head of the Nicaraguan Armed Forces in 1995, Humberto Ortega – who along with his brother, President Daniel Ortega, was one of the most powerful comandantes of the revolution – faded from the public eye. It’s said he spends his time tending to his investments in Nicaragua and Costa Rica, where he has dual residency after marrying a Tica wife.
Gen. Ortega has heard all the rumors, and says they’re not true.
“Here the people say I am the owner of all of Nicaragua, but it’s not true,” Ortega told The Nica Times in a rare exclusive interview earlier this month.
But beyond dismissing rumors of his personal fortunes, Ortega hesitates to elaborate.
“Here you can’t show what you have,” he said. “There are lots of myths, but I have no reason to talk about my private life. My children help me and I have some businesses, but not as many as they say I have.”
Ortega, does, however admit that he has wealthy friends who cut him in on investment deals in exchange for helping them learn the ropes in Nicaragua.
“I have good relations with big investors from Asia, the United States, Costa Rica, Panama, and mostly Mexico,” Ortega said. “So I bring them to Nicaragua to see if they will invest here in energy and other sectors.They know me and ask advice and I tell them don’t be afraid – the problem here is just political talk, but there’s security. I try to push investment.”
Ortega said that people see him with investors and “imagine things.” But he insists his investment-promotion work is all legitimate and in the best interest of Nicaragua.
“But logically I’m not going to not take advantage of benefits, because what am I going to live on?” he said.
As one of the former leaders of the “Tercerista” movement within the Sandinista National Liberation Front in the 1970s, Humberto Ortega was always considered more of a pragmatist than some of the other hardcore Marxist-Leninist comandantes.
In fact, the former Sandinista military chief was one of the main architects of the “mixed-economy” platform adopted by the government led by his brother, Daniel Ortega, in the 1980s.
Still, Gen. Ortega’s economic leanings during the revolution were decidedly leftist. “To be a good Marxist, you have to be a good Sandinista, and to be a good Sandinista, you have to be a good Marxist,” Gen. Ortega said in 1981, according to the general’s former right-hand man, Maj. Roger Miranda, in his 1993 memoir “The Civil War in Nicaragua: Inside the Sandinistas.”
Yet since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Gen. Ortega’s opinions on the economy seem to have changed.
“The whole thing about capitalism and socialism is something that was distorted by the Cold War, and now we see things in different terms,” Ortega said. “Now we don’t put an ideology on the laws of the economy and the generation of wealth.”
Ortega said that today “the principal communists are the Chinese,” and yet they are the “leaders of world trade” and are successfully “developing both models.”
Gen. Ortega is also quick to dismiss the revolutionary rhetoric from his brother and First Lady Rosario Murillo, who recently said the government was trying to “put an end capitalism” in Nicaragua.
Ortega said people shouldn’t pay much attention to the administration’s rhetoric, because, “One thing is discourse for political clients, and another is what the reality shows you are doing.”
Today’s Economic Reality
The reality, Humberto Ortega said, is that Nicaragua has a free-market economy and the Sandinistas are benefiting from it.
“What Nicaragua needs is a modern market economy, where there is the possibility for a lot of competition for everyone. The market will be the fundamental force to develop wealth,” Ortega said.
He also said the market economy should have a strong social component.
Ortega defends the Sandinista Front’s rise to economic power, which started during the 1980s and has accelerated in recent years. Since President Daniel Ortega returned to power, opponents have criticized him and his party for essentially privatizing Venezuelan aid, which last year totaled $457 million, according to the Central Bank.
The Sandinista government has created a series of privately managed companies under the auspicious of the Venezuela-bank rolled Bolivarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA).
Those companies, which represent more than $530 million in energy contracts, tourism holdings, and cattle farms, are linked to the presidential couple and managed by the family and Sandinista party treasurer, Francisco López. Gen. Ortega, however, defends his brother’s massive accumulation of wealth, and dismisses criticism as “part of a political campaign by the adversaries.”
“I don’t think it’s that personalized,” Gen. Ortega said of the Sandinista leader’s holdings. “I think that the Sandinista Front as a political movement and as a party has been looking for material and financial power to be in a better position to struggle politically. Because here the opposition wants the left to not have any political or economic power, so the right can crush them and impose their will – but that doesn’t exist anymore in Nicaragua.”
He added, “The forces on the left require economic power to lead in the political terrain. It’s legitimate, why not?”
Ortega said one can be a self-identified leftist and still be rich.
“Here the critics say, ‘that guy says he’s a communist, but he lives well.’ Do they want him to live like the poor? If you are poor, how can you attend to the problems of those who don’t have anything? If I live in a poor neighborhood, and the neighborhood needs help, how am I going to resolve those problems if I don’t even have enough to take a taxi? That’s what some of the rightwing, reactionary minority want, but they have to understand that it’s legitimate [for the Sandinistas to have wealth],” Ortega said.
Ortega says in the past the Sandinistas were “too close minded” about the prospect of becoming wealthy. “But now it’s not important how each person lives, what’s important is how people act and how people are helping in the fight against poverty, to overcome misery in the country.”
The problem, he said, is not that the Sandinistas are replacing the traditional wealthy elite in the country, rather the old-money families don’t like to see others move up the ladder and become players.
“Those who have the money right now don’t want to lose it, and they have a right to that. But they don’t have to oppose others from having their own group of economic power,” Ortega said. “Why not, if we have a free market economy here? If there is a free market, there needs to be a system in which people are free to get rich, so the poor can stop being poor, so the poor can become middle class and so the middle class can become business owners and be better off.”
Gen. Ortega says the outcry over the Sandinistas’ rise to economic power has more to do with resistance to a new revolutionary economic model.
“Before the revolution, a minority – fewer than 4 or 5 percent of the population – controlled more than 80 percent of the best productive lands in the country,” Ortega said… “But that all changed with the revolution.
To not accept that reality is to not understand what is happening now.”
Though Ortega says there is “no oligarchy now like there was back then,” he claims the traditional economic powers in Nicaragua are still resistant to the Sandinistas becoming part of the wealthy class.
“We are still in a process of recognizing that there are new actors in control of material power, economic and financial power,” he said. “And the minority elite that historically has held this monopoly doesn’t want new powers of Sandinista origin to emerge.
So from the political angle, and in the media, they disqualify any citizen who comes from a humble upbringing or from the middle class and moves into a position of financial power or economic power. They think that this terrain is exclusively for them.”
While there may be class tension between Nicaragua’s traditionally wealthy and the Sandinista nouveau riche, Ortega insists it’s still “a better road than war.”