MANAGUA, Nicaragua – Former Marxist Daniel Ortega, who battled a U.S.-backed insurgency in the 1980s, returned to Nicaragua's presidency calling for reconciliation, stability and a renewed fight against poverty.
His election victory Tuesday adds to Latin America's diverse array of left-leaning leaders, including anti-U.S. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, who said his and Ortega's countries would be "uniting as never before" to construct a socialist future.
"Latin America is ceasing to be — and forever — a backyard of U.S. imperialism. Yankee, go home!" Chavez said.
But Ortega laid out moderate goals Tuesday night, saying he would work to eliminate poverty in the Western Hemisphere's second-poorest country after Haiti. He also sought to reassure investors worried about his radical past that he was open to business, and would "create a new political culture" that would "set aside our differences and put the Nicaraguan people, the poor first."
"We are showing the country that things are stable, that we can set aside our political positions and put first our commitment to pull Nicaragua out of poverty," he said in a speech that lasted only about a minute. He was expected to address supporters at length in a victory rally planned for Wednesday afternoon.
His supporters waved black-and-red party flags and sang Ortega's campaign song, set to the tune of John Lennon's "Give Peace a Chance."
It was a major turnaround after three failed presidential bids for the balding 60-year-old leftist, capping a 16-year quest to return to his old job. He says he has changed profoundly since he befriended Soviet leaders, expropriated land and fought Contra rebels in a war that left 30,000 dead and the economy in shambles.
Joining the clandestine Sandinista National Liberation Front in 1963, Ortega then led its urban resistance. He was arrested and imprisoned in 1967 and released in 1974 after the group kidnapped several top government officials.
First winning the presidency in 1984 at age 39, Ortega lost it in 1990, ending Sandinista rule and the Contra war. He has run for president in every election since.
The Iran-Contra scandal came shortly after his 1984 election, embroiling Washington when it emerged that the U.S. secretly sold weapons to Iran and used the money to arm the Contras.
Since Ortega's defeat in 1990, U.S. money has flowed to Nicaragua in the form of investments by foreign companies drawn by the country's cheap labor, relatively low crime rates and recent decision to join the Central American Free Trade Agreement.
Ortega toned down his once-fiery rhetoric during the campaign, promising to support the regional agreement with the U.S. and maintain good relations with Washington.
Ortega has used congressional immunity to dodge rape allegations filed by a stepdaughter. He has denied the charges, but the woman continues to push her case publicly.
Ortega's guerrilla past isn't the only thing that has sparked concern.
His economic policies during his first presidency led to the local currency being devalued 33,000 percent and the foreign debt ballooning to $12 billion.
In an interview with The Associated Press Tuesday, Ortega's vice president, Jaime Morales, a former Contra who was once one of Ortega's biggest enemies, said the first thing the new administration would do is "talk immediately with all the businessmen to maintain their confidence and reassure them that everything's fine."
The U.S., which had warned against a win by the former revolutionary, did not immediately comment on the results. But former President Jimmy Carter, who served as an election observer, said Tuesday in Managua that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice "assured me that no matter who was elected, the U.S. will respond positively and favorably." Rice's office confirmed that the two talked by phone, but did not give details.
With 91 percent of the votes tallied, Ortega had 38 percent of the votes from Sunday's election compared to 29 percent for rival Eduardo Montealegre. Under Nicaraguan law, the winner of Sunday's election must have 35 percent of the vote and a lead of 5 percentage point to win the vote outright and avoid a runoff.
Montealegre conceded defeat, congratulated Ortega and called for reconciliation, saying: "Nicaragua needs to move forward. The people have suffered enough."