Across the Nicaraguan capital on bright-pink billboards, President Daniel Ortega looms triumphantly over motorists ahead of next Sunday’s vote, where he’s considered a shoo-in victor.
Accompanying Ortega in those ads is the smiling visage of his first lady, spokeswoman and now running mate, Rosario Murillo.
“That woman is the one who rules in the country. She is powerful,” said fruit vendor Roberto Mayorga. “If ‘the man’ dies, she’ll be there. She has been his shadow. There is nobody who can keep her from being next.”
During the last decade Murillo has taken on ever greater responsibility since her husband has been in office. She is said to run Cabinet meetings and many Nicaraguans credit her for social programs that have helped keep the ruling Sandinista party’s popularity ratings high.
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Murillo is beloved by many poor Nicaraguans and Sandinista faithful, consistently polling around 70 percent approval. And she’s equally reviled by government opponents, who see her presence on the ticket as another step in the 70-year-old Ortega’s push to maintain the couple’s grip on power in a country with a long and uncomfortable history of dynastic families.
“She’s already been involved in the main decisions affecting the country and advising the president. So now she’s just getting the appropriate title to go along with that,” said Michael Allison, a political scientist at the University of Scranton.
“The Ortegas really seem to be intent on increasing the family’s control over much of Nicaraguan political, social and economic life …” he added. “And so this would be a way to really guarantee that should something happen to him, the family control over Nicaraguan politics will continue.”
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Many Nicaraguans are also enthusiastic about the Ortega-backed plan for an interoceanic canal they hope will jump-start the economy of the Western Hemisphere’s second-poorest nation, though critics say it’s unlikely to ever get built and threatens environmental and social disruption if it does.
In the 1990s, Murillo defended Ortega against her own daughter Zoilamerica, who alleged that her adoptive stepfather had sexually abused her for more than a decade.
Efforts to prosecute the case were long stymied by Ortega’s immunity from prosecution as a member of Nicaragua’s congress. He gave up that immunity only after the statute of limitations expired.
While many Sandinista loyalists wave the issue aside, some Nicaraguans continue to hold a dim view of Murillo’s role. “There’s definitely a segment of the population in women’s groups and in feminist groups and in human rights groups that I don’t think will ever forgive her the controversy over Zoilamerica,” Wade said.