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With Savvy And New-Age Speeches, A First Couple Runs Nicaragua

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega celebrates with first lady Rosario Murillo a day before his re-inauguration in 2012. (AFP/Getty Images)

Nicaragua's gigantic transoceanic canal, if it gets built, will dwarf the neighboring Panama Canal. Ground-breaking is set to begin before the end of the year.

The $50 billion mega project would bring an economic boom to the poor nation — and a political bonanza for its president, Daniel Ortega.

Ortega is not the bombastic revolutionary of years past. He shies away from public appearances and has left day-to-day operations to his wife, an eccentric former revolutionary poet.

Supporters hail the two as socialist saviors of the country, but critics charge the couple with creating a closed, authoritarian regime more akin to the dictatorship they toppled more than 30 years ago.

A Much Different Ortega

At 68, Daniel Ortega has less hair and is much thicker around the middle than when he was first elected president nearly 30 years ago, not long after he and his Sandinista rebels put an end to more than four decades of the Somoza family dictatorship.

He has also toned down his fiery revolutionary rhetoric, even toward his former No. 1 enemy, the United States. At a rare public appearance earlier this summer, commemorating the Nicaraguan navy's 34th anniversary, Ortega told the crowd of faithful Sandinista supporters, "I want to recognize the role of the United States government and President Barack Obama."

He went on to praise U.S. contributions and cooperation in combating drug traffickers in Central America.

His Wife Is The Voice Of The Government

But while Ortega shies away from the public, his wife, Rosario Murillo, doesn't. She is the government's official spokeswoman.

Unlike her husband's stiff style and plain white shirts, Murillo dons bright flowing skirts, rings on every finger and a multitude of colorful necklaces. She has also decorated many of the capital's traffic circles and main thoroughfares with huge, bright-yellow metal trees that look like something out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Every weekday, she takes to the national airwaves. Referred to widely as the Companera, or Comrade, Murillo's daily address begins around noon and usually lasts about 20 minutes.

On a recent sweltering summer day, Murillo used the address to tout the government's free medical services to the poor, and to talk about the weather — Nicaragua is suffering through a devastating drought, which has led to crop losses and a spike in basic food prices.

Christina Ulloas says she tunes in while cooking lunch and enjoys the updates. Nearly every home in her neighborhood was paid for by the government.

While most residents here enjoy Murillo's new-age spirituality lectures, the daily talks drive her critics crazy.

"She just invented that title of secretary of communication," says Sofia Montenegro, a longtime opposition journalist. "In Nicaraguan law, there is no such position."

Montenegro says the first couple has consolidated power to enrich themselves and their family. Ortega recently pushed through favorable electoral laws eliminating presidential term limits. Of Nicaragua's eight national TV stations, seven are owned by Ortega family members and friends.

"They have created a totally secretive political system," she adds. "There is no access to public information or accountability in Nicaragua."

But even key opponents to the government say there are few current alternatives to the first couple. Writer Sergio Ramirez, Ortega's vice president in the 1980s, says the opposition is conservative and divided, and isn't offering the people of Nicaragua anything better than Ortega.

"People are more worried about their social and economic state than about the state of the constitution and democracy," Ramirez says. "What they are worried about is if they will eat today, have a job tomorrow."

The two no longer speak. Most of the original Sandinista leaders have split with Ortega.

Ortega Holds The Power

While Murillo may be the face and voice of the government, Ortega clearly holds the power in the country.

Despite multiple attempts by NPR to talk to Murillo or the Nicaraguan embassy in Washington, D.C., neither would comment for this story.

Richard Feinberg, a professor of International Relations at the University of California in San Diego, says over the years, Ortega has shrewdly become a more flexible politician.

"[He] has learned to accommodate the interests of his opposition, including the Catholic Church, the important business community and, internationally, Ortega is on good terms with the multinational donors," Feinberg says.

Nicaragua's impressive economic growth, averaging nearly 5 percent in the last four years, and low inflation, have kept Ortega on good terms with the World Bank and the IMF, and more importantly, with the country's poor.

Marina Loza irons clothes for a living and makes about $5 a day. She says the Ortegas are doing a good job running the country.

She predicts Murillo will be president one day, after Ortega can no longer do the job.

"If the two continue doing right by us, then they will stay in power," she adds with a broad smile.

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Transcript

LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

In Nicaragua, ground breaking for the country's Transoceanic Canal begins before the end of the year. If it's built, the mega-project will dwarf the Panama Canal and bring an economic boom to Nicaragua - not to mention a political bonanza for its president, Daniel Ortega.

But Ortega is not the bombastic revolutionary of years past. He's left the day-to-day running of the country to his wife, an eccentric former-revolutionary poet. Supporters hail the two as socialist saviors of the country. But as NPR's Carrie Kahn reports, critics charge the couple with creating a closed authoritarian regime similar to the dictatorship they toppled more than 30 years ago.

CARRIE KAHN, BYLINE: At 68, Daniel Ortega has less hair and is much thicker around the middle than when he was first elected as president. That was nearly 30 years ago - not long after he and the Sandinista rebels put an end to more than four decades of the Somoza family dictatorship. He's also considerably toned down his fiery rhetoric, even toward his former enemy-number-one, the United States - like at this rare public appearance earlier this summer commemorating the Navy's 34th anniversary.

(SOUNDBITE OF CEREMONY)

PRESIDENT DANIEL ORTEGA: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: Ortega said he wanted to acknowledge, publicly, the role of the U.S. - it's contributions and cooperation in combating drug traffickers in Central America. But while Ortega shies away from the public, his wife Rosario Murillo doesn't.

She's the government's official voice. And unlike her husband's stiff style and plain white shirt, Murillo dawns bright, flowing skirts, rings on every finger and a multitude of colorful necklaces. She's also decorated many of the capital's traffic circles and main thoroughfare with huge bright yellow metal trees that look like something out of a Dr. Seuss story. Every weekday she takes to the national airwaves.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

KAHN: Referred to widely as the companera, or the comrade, Murillo's daily address usually begins around noon and usually last about 20 minutes.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROADCAST)

SECRETARY OF COMMUNICATION ROSARIO MURILLO: (Foreign language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: On this day, Murillo touts the government's free medical services to the poor and the weather. Nicaragua is suffering through a devastating drought which has led to crop losses and a spike in basic food prices.

CHRISTINA ULLOAS: (Foreign language spoken).

KAHN: Christina Ulloas says she tunes in while cooking lunch and enjoys the updates. Nearly every home in her neighborhood was paid for by the government. While most residents here enjoy Murillo's new age spirituality lectures, they drive her critics crazy.

SOFIA MONTENEGRO: (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: Sofia Montenegro, a longtime opposition journalist, says Murillo invented her current position - secretary of communication. Montenegro says the first couple has consolidated power to enrich themselves and their family. Ortega recently pushed through favorable electoral laws eliminating presidential term limits.

MONTENEGRO: (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: And she says the government has become increasingly secretive. Montenegro says today there is no access to public information and no accountability. Of the eight national TV stations, seven are owned by Ortega family members and friends. Despite multiple attempts, Murillo and the Nicaraguan embassy in Washington, D.C. declined comment for this story. But while Murillo may be the face and voice of the government, Ortega clearly holds the power in the country.

Richard Feinberg of the University of California in San Diego says over the years Ortega has shrewdly become a more flexible politician.

RICHARD FEINBERG: ...Who has learned to accommodate the interests of his opposition including the Catholic Church, the important business community and, internationally, Ortega is on good terms with the major multilateral donors.

KAHN: Nicaragua's impressive economic growth, averaging nearly 5 percent in the last four years, and low inflation has kept Ortega on good terms with the World Bank and the IMF and, most importantly, with the country's poor.

Marina Loza irons clothes for a living making about $5 a day. She says the Ortega's are doing a good job running the country.

MARINA LOZA: (Spanish spoken).

KAHN: And she predicts Murillo will be president after Ortega can't anymore. That's OK, she says, as long as they keep doing right by us, they'll stay in power. Carrie Kahn, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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