Nicaraguan guerrilla leader and socialist politician, head of the Junta of National Reconstruction 1981–85 and president 1985–90 and from 2007. He headed a moderate faction of the Marxist Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), which in 1989 overthrew the regime of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Latin America's longest dictatorship. His government's efforts at economic reconstruction became deflected by the military campaign waged against it from 1982 by Contra guerrillas backed by the USA.
As head of one of the more moderate factions of the national directorate of the FSLN, Ortega played a leading role in the military campaign of the Nicaraguan Revolution, which succeeded in overthrowing Somoza in 1979. The FSLN won the free 1984 elections to the National Assembly and Ortega became president, with 60% of the vote. He inherited an economy in tatters and a hostile external environment when the Republican anti-communist hawk, Ronald Reagan, succeeded the Democrat Jimmy Carter as US president in 1981. Fearing that Nicaragua was becoming a pro-Soviet state, the USA gave backing to counter-revolutionary Contras, who launched attacks on Sandinista forces from land and sea, combined with a trade embargo. This weakened further the economy and polarized politics, and in 1990 Ortega was defeated in the presidential elections by US-backed Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, a former member of the 1979 junta. Ortega became secretary general of the FSLN in 1991, but despite repackaging himself as a more moderate democratic socialist, he was defeated in the 1996 and 2001 presidential elections by the conservatives Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolanos respectively.
Born in La Libertad, Nicaragua, Ortega studied law at the Central American University in Managua, but gave up university in 1963 to join the FSLN opposition to the Somoza dictatorship, which had been founded in 1960. He soon became head of the underground urban resistance activities, but was jailed 1967–74 for his involvement in urban guerrilla bank raids. In 1974 he was released to exile in Cuba, but returned in secret to Nicaragua.