Rosario Murillo: More Than Just Nicaragua's First Lady

In Nicaragua, where Marxist dogma has given way to a free market economy, the red-and-black flags of the Sandinista revolution have been supplanted by the pink and baby blue colors favored by the country's first lady, "la companera" Rosario Murillo.

Her husband, Daniel Ortega, is president, but as chief of communications, Murillo is the voice and the other face of the government. At border crossings and on roadside billboards throughout the country, "Daniel and Rosario" are pictured side-by-side. On the government website, she dominates the page of "Speeches by Daniel and Rosario."

And while Ortega occasionally appears in public, Murillo holds forth on current events each weekday on national television, often with supporters at her side. She speaks on behalf of her husband's government in a stream of rhetoric that blends socialism, New Age spirituality and Catholicism, but brooks no criticism.

This month marks the 35th anniversary of the Sandinistas' ouster of dictator Anastasio Somoza, and as always on such occasions, Murillo stood beside Ortega at the official commemoration, welcoming Latin American dignitaries with a bejeweled fist raised in triumph.

"The faith in each and every one of us has made it possible for God to fill us with miracles," Murillo told the crowd.

"Who would have said that 35 years would pass so quickly, always in the scent and roar of combat," she went on. "The revolutionary people of centuries past and present inspire us in the advance of socialism that, for us in Nicaragua, is made up of Christian faith, family values, the life and spirit of community."

Politics long have been a family affair in Nicaragua, and Latin America has a tradition of women leaders stepping in when their husbands leave the political stage. Given that, the political partnership of Ortega and Murillo leads many here to speculate that she aspires to succeed Ortega as president one day.

Ortega may have fueled a recent spate of such talk in April after a magnitude 6.2 earthquake damaged many buildings in the capital of Managua. He went on television to say that while he protected their grandchildren, Murillo began issuing instructions to Cabinet members.

"The problem with the presidential couple is that their vocation is to remain in power," said Rosa Maria Zelaya, former president of the council overseeing elections. "They are preparing the succession in the person of Murillo, for whenever it is necessary."

Barring illness or death, the 67-year-old Ortega is not likely to leave office soon, thanks to his backers in Congress and on the Supreme Court who approved a constitutional change allowing for unlimited re-election. And supporters say the image of a power-hungry first lady is a form of sexism that overlooks her many contributions to Nicaragua.

"The opposition would love for Murillo not to exist," said Aldo Diaz Lacayo, former Nicaraguan ambassador to the United Nations. "She is efficient, productive and pivotal in implementing all of the government policies."

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