Daniel Ortega, who won the heart of the world's Left as guerrilla commandante of the Sandinista revolution, now drives a US-made Jeep and a Mercedes. The heroic Comrade-President of Nicaragua, who defied Uncle Sam for a decade, recently got himself an American Express card and was last year an honoured guest at the 4 July Independence Day party in the US Embassy in Managua. He did, though, ignore the stipulation that dress should be formal, and turned up in a denim shirt.
Ortega returned to the campaign trail this summer, revisiting the wretched barrios where, in 1979, a tide of rage propelled the Sandinistas to power. But the Ortega who wants to be elected president in November is shaped by the memory that last time the trail ended in 10 years of crushing political defeat, isolation and disgrace over claims that he abused his own step-daughter.
Unbelievably, Ortega is set to rise from the dustbin of history and become Nicaragua's head of state once again.
Presidential candidate Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista Front of National Liberation party (FSLN) greets supporters in Managua, August 22, 2001. The elections will be held on November 4, 2001. REUTERS/Oswaldo RIvas
In 1979, Marxist guerrillas overthrew a brutal junta inspired by former dictator Anastasio Somoza and backed by the United States. For 10 years, Ortega's Sandinista army - named after the 1930s national hero Augusto Sandino - held one of the bloodiest front lines of the USA's 'dirty wars' in Central and South America, proxy struggles of the Cold War.
Throughout the Eighties, Ortega's defiance of Ronald Reagan's punishing embargo, and his waging of fratricidal war against murderous rebels, the US-backed 'Contras', entranced the world - an international radical cause ranking alongside Nelson Mandela's campaign to end apartheid. His cause drew battalions of volunteer coffee-pickers from across Europe and America, spawned solidarity movements across the planet.
Ortega was the unlikeliest of leaders - awkward and introspective - but he cut an iconic figure in military fatigues and hallmark baseball cap. Born in 1946, he was a revolutionary from the cradle. His mother was imprisoned after being arrested by Somoza's National Guard for being in possession of love letters which the police insisted were coded political missives. His father was a lifelong foe of the dictatorship; his brother died fighting in the revolution. Ortega - a street-wise urban kid - joined the underground Frente Sandinista de Liberacíon Nacional as soon as the movement was founded in the 1960s. His first 'job' was to rob a branch of the Bank Of America brandishing a machine gun, so the revolution could arm itself.
Ortega, then aged 23, was arrested and imprisoned at the El Modelo jail on the bleak outskirts of Managua. There, he wrote poems - 'I Never Saw Managua When Miniskirts Were in Fashion' - and received visits from Rosario Murillo, fellow poet. Prisoner and visitor fell in love; Murillo became Ortega's wife.
Ortega's deputy in the Sandinista government, Sergio Ramirez, who later left to lead a dissident faction, describes Ortega as having 'a prison personality. Lonely, solitary, mistrustful, hard'. Political prisoners were isolated, made to stand all day and deprived of food. Many were executed for no reason, creating permanent terror among all.
Ortega was released in 1974, after seven years, and flown to Cuba under a scheme whereby Somoza's lackeys and foreign diplomats kidnapped by Sandinista commandos were delivered to Havana and then exchanged.
Four years later, Ortega moved to Costa Rica with Murillo and her three children from a previous marriage. According to Sandinista mythology, the capital, San José, became the base from which Ortega detonated the revolution. In truth, by the time he returned to Nicaragua, the insurrection by the poor and downtrodden, and the FSLN's military offensive, were in full swing.
But Ortega was the man the movement needed: determined, quick-witted, introverted and serious yet with a deadly sense of humour. However, outwitting Goliath USA was a deadly reality. Nicaragua was stuck in the abyss of civil war, between the rock of Ortega's disastrous imitation of Cuba's economy and the hard place of a US embargo which would ensure that any political experiment failed.
Washington's illegal support for the Contras unleashed armed bands across the countryside, some with genuine grievances, others out to massacre the innocent.
Ortega, meanwhile, played to the international gallery. He stirred the United Nations to its feet, declaring: 'Let President Reagan recall that Rambo exists only in the movies.' Desperate for legitimacy, he agreed to a peace plan and elections in 1990. Certain of victory, he embraced foreign observers and made it impossible for himself to challenge the result, which came like a bolt out of the blue.
An aristocratic Catholic, Violeta Barrios de Chamorra, won overwhelming victory. Ortega conceded defeat. Oddly it was his finest hour: 'We leave victorious,' he said, 'because we Sandinistas have spilled blood and sweat not to cling to government posts, but to bring Latin America a little dignity, a little social justice.'
Cold War gave way to cola war; Ortega's murals exalting struggle between classes were painted over to advertise that between Coke and Pepsi. Ortega entered into a game he did not know other than as a revolutionary: opposition.
The FSLN became Ortega's personal tool, with a notion of 'rule from below' through strikes and the army and in time the leadership became corrupt and undisciplined. But none of this shook Nicaragua like the scandal detonated by Zoilamerica Navaez, Rosario's daughter, Ortega's step-daughter.
One day in 1998, Zoilamerica, a mili tant Sandinista, walked into one of the counselling centres she had established to challenge the cult of machismo and abuse of women and told her friend, psychiatrist Marta Cabrera, 'I want to talk.' The story she told was that since she was 11, Ortega had fondled, abused and finally raped her.
Her claims were the basis for a detailed 40-page legal indictment, reproduced in the press. When Ortega toured the barrios, he needed a phalanx of guards to divide angry loyalists from protesters wielding placards reading: 'Ortega Violador' ('Ortega Rapist'). There was war in the family: Zoilamerica was denounced by her own jewellery-decked mother as 'a slut'.
By June 1998, Sofia Montenegro, former editor of the FSLN's paper Barricada , said: 'In the end, Zoilamerica is going to do to Daniel what Somoza, Reagan and the Contras never could.' No one could have predicted how wrong she was. There were changes: the conservatives were corrupt to the core, enabling Ortega to resurface in style, working the crowds by calling President Aleman 'Somozista', and 'criminal'.
He did not operate in a vacuum: beneath the tides of globalisation and free trade, an undercurrent draws Latin America back to the language of class war. The socialist Hugo Chavez thrives in Venezuela; the Zapatistas arise in Mexico; Alan Garcia, the left-wing lawyer, nearly won the Peruvian election; and Ortega's comrades among El Salvador's former guerrillas could also be elected to power.
George Bush Senior once called Ortega 'an animal at a garden party' when, in 1988, he wore camouflage to a regional summit. Now, on the US side, Bush the son has recruited the old guard that oversaw the dirty wars for Reagan to senior positions within his own administration. But there is one particular winning twist to Ortega's candidacy this time around. He appeals to all those victims of 'a war imposed by the North Americans', not just his own supporters but 'poor campesinos (peasants) who were not defending anything of their own, who were nothing more than slaves and servants of the rich' - an acknowledgement of the losses suffered by the Contras as well as his own.
Ortega intends to meet capitalism halfway, not to be a gadfly president. 'We have not renounced our ideals or our dreams,' he says. 'We keep fighting for a just and free world. We keep defending the socialist ideals - not in a dogmatic way, but in line with the new reality.' He makes overtures to the business community and promises independence from the state for the central bank - heresy to the old ideology.
But Ortega's main appeal is no compromise at all: his language is directed at the angry downtrodden of the world's poorest Spanish-speaking country. The barrios are without water or sanitation; tens of thousands prowl the poisonous landfills for food; a world coffee glut causes unemployment to soar towards 70 per cent.
At potholed crossroads, barefoot children gather to beg or to thrust captured jungle monkeys and parrots through car windows for sale. Men play dominoes and talk politics: 'We are the children of the Cold War,' says Jose Peralta, idly fiddling with his dominoes just as the Americans and Soviets had toyed with Nicaragua. 'No,' says his opponent Sergio Zeas, 'we are the orphans of the Cold War.' Whoever's children they are, these are now Daniel Ortega's people once again.
DANIEL ORTEGA SAAVEDRA
Born: 11 November 1946 (La Libertad, Nicaragua)
Jobs: Former president (1984-1991) of Nicaragua; poet; leader of the Sandinistas
Family: Married to Rosario Murillo (seven children - three from her first marriage)
Scandal: Accused by stepdaughter Zoilamerica of indecently assaulting and raping her
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001