A decade ago Ortega was the leader only of an idealistic band of urban guerrillas (called Sandinistas for the 1930s underground leader Augusto César Sandino) who were seeking to overthrow dictator Anastasio Somoza. Ortega, the eldest of five children in a family that idolized Sandino, says he grew up on the streets of Managua fighting Somoza's National Guardsmen. "I didn't have a normal teenage life," he recalls. "A few girlfriends, a few dances, but mostly I was fighting, burning cars." His high school education was followed by seven years' imprisonment for such Sandinista exploits as bank robberies and sabotage. Even so, in the late 1970s he was viewed by many as a moderate among revolutionary hardliners, and by holding out the promise of representative democracy he was able to encourage a Sandinista alliance with the middle-class opposition to Somoza.
After Somoza's overthrow in 1979, Ortega served as the dominant figure in the Sandinista Party, ruling until 1984 when he won the presidency in an election that was boycotted by most of the moderate opposition parties. Since then, as head of the Sandinistas' nine-man politburo, he has fielded the largest military ground force in the region—and been reduced to silencing his critics in the Roman Catholic Church and the press through censorship, jailings and expulsion of dissidents. "The Nicaraguan revolution is in very deep trouble," says Howard Wiarda, a foreign policy analyst at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C. "There are a lot of food shortages, lines for everything and a lot of discontent. Ortega also faces neighbors who are very worried about the massive military buildup." He lost a great deal of his old support, says Heritage Foundation policy analyst Dr. Timothy Ashby, "by closing down the press, not allowing people free assembly and suppressing the church."
Among his more apparent problems are Nicaragua's withering economy and the presence on the border with Honduras of the U.S.-backed contras. With about 75,000 Soviet-armed, Cuban-advised troops on alert, his army is more than equal to any local threat. "We're ready to face and defeat any invading mercenaries or yanqui troops," he says. "Our revolution is a fact. You can't change it or kill it." Still, Ronald Reagan's staunch support for Ortega's enemies and the recurrent Sandinista nightmare of a U.S. invasion do not allow Ortega the luxury of calm. A frustrated family man (he and his common-law wife, Rosario Murillo, 34, have eight children), he complains he has no time "to throw the ball" with his kids. "I can't," he says, suddenly grim. "If we have to fight, we have to be ready."