MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Nicaraguan ex-rebel Daniel Ortega, joined by allies from Iran and Venezuela, was sworn in as president for the third time on Tuesday.
At a ceremony in Nicaragua’s capital, the leftist 66-year-old Ortega, who has long since traded guerrilla garb for white shirts and Christian messages of peace, returned to office in an evening ceremony in Managua’s Revolution Square, which was decked out in thousands of flowers.
Ortega delivered an hour-long speech that criticized the United States for lack of assistance in Central America’s efforts to combat drug trafficking, condemned Israel’s nuclear policies, lamented the deaths of Saddam Hussein and Moammar Gadhafi, and neglected to mention Costa Rica altogether.
“There is no place left on this planet for undiluted capitalism,” Ortega said.
In the presence of dozens of international diplomats, regional heads of state and Spain’s Prince Felipe of Asturias, Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo – wearing her usual array of bracelets and colorful necklaces – seemed to improvise much of the ceremony as they danced and waived to the crowd. “Nicaragua Triunfará” (“Nicaragua Will Triumph”), an ubiquitous campaign song lifted from Ben E. King’s 1961 hit “Stand By Me,” played on loop throughout the evening.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahma-dinejad, who is on a tour of Latin American allies amid growing tensions with the U.S., and Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, Ortega’s key financial backer, were among more than 8,000 guests.
As Ortega took the microphone after being sworn in and adorned with the blue-and-white presidential stash, he launched into a meandering speech that highlighted global issues including drug trafficking, atomic weapons and political assassinations.
“If it is known that drugs are being purchased by North American [countries], why aren’t their highest political figures assisting in stopping the trafficking in Central America?” Ortega said. “If they have the most powerful police in the world, if they have the most advanced technology in the world, if they have the most developed military forces on the planet, why aren’t they using all of these capabilities to help fight this war?”
Ortega said the spread of regional drug violence was rooted in the U.S.’ inability to control its drug consumption.
“Why don’t they concentrate their resources on controlling the consumption of drugs in their country?” he added. “While they continue to fail to control the consumption of drugs, they continue to contaminate and poison this region.”
Ortega gave a military salute to Chávez before hugging his wife and the Iranian president, and then offering sound support for Ahmadinejad in his showdown with the West over Tehran’s suspect nuclear program.
“Countries have the right to develop nuclear energy,” Ortega said. “Don’t forget what happened in Iraq. They swore Saddam Hussein had nuclear weapons. They swore it, and launched an invasion based on that. Then they had to admit … there were no such nuclear weapons.”
Ahmadinejad greeted his “revolutionary brother Ortega” upon arriving in Nicaragua Tuesday and said the two nations were “fighting to establish solidarity and justice.”
The U.S. did not send an official representative to the inauguration. The U.S. State Department has yet to recognize Ortega’s November reelection, which was criticized by international election observers with accusations of widespread fraud.
Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla was also on the notable list of no-shows Tuesday night. During a weekly press conference on Tuesday, Costa Rican Presidency Minister Roberto Gallardo said Chinchilla did not attend because of the ongoing conflict between the two countries over Isla Calero, a stretch of swampland in the northeast corner of Costa Rica.
Chinchilla and the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry have also refused to recognize Ortega’s reelection. Ortega attended Chinchilla’s inauguration ceremony in San José in May 2010.
“To me, it is a shame that Costa Rica doesn’t have the dignity and respect to recognize our president,” said Heidy Montero, a business owner in Managua who attended the inauguration. “We are neighboring countries with a lot of history and commonalities. The dispute over the Río San Juan is minor and petty. Chinchilla’s decision not to come will only worsen relations.”
Ricardo Martinelli, president of Panama, also skipped the inauguration.
In this third term as president, Ortega will enjoy the support of a legislative super-majority that has provoked fears of authoritarianism. Ortega won re-election in November with 62 percent of the vote in polls that also gave his Sandinista National Liberation Front a majority broad enough in the unicameral legislature to change the constitution.
Ortega first governed at the height of the Cold War – supported and inspired by Cuba and the former Soviet Union – suspending civil rights and taking on the U.S.-backed Contra rebels.
Defeated in 1990 elections, Ortega returned to power in 2007 after 17 years of opposition rule.
Though Ortega has moderated his socialist rhetoric, he still riles U.S. officials, even while respecting a bilateral free trade accord and receiving U.S. aid.
Many analysts believe his relationship with Iran has so far produced little more than symbolism and rhetoric, while risking U.S. ties.
But Ortega is riding a wave of popular support at home, where his latest term saw economic growth despite the global crisis, though the country of almost 6 million still remains the poorest in the Americas after Haiti.
Ortega counts on $500 million of annual aid from Chávez to help fund popular social programs for the poor and has courted business and religious leaders in recent years.
Ortega is the first president to be reelected since the 1979 Sandinista revolution ended the more than 40-year dictatorship of the Somoza family.
The broad powers he won in the Nov. 6 polls – in which the broken opposition denounced fraud and observers cited irregularities – caused concern among critics who accuse him of seeking to stay in power indefinitely.
Tensions already rose after the Supreme Court cleared the way for Ortega to seek a third term despite the fact that consecutive re-elections and third terms were supposedly banned.
“The president has all the power that no one in the history of Nicaragua has had in their hands,” writer Sergio Ramírez, who was vice president under Ortega during his first mandate in the 1980s, told La Prensa daily.
Ortega has promised he will make no “dramatic changes” and maintain ties with business leaders as well as workers.
Many former Sandinistas, as well as human rights and women’s groups outraged by strict anti-abortion laws, strongly oppose him.
AFP news service contributed to this story.