Like many young victims of sexual abuse, Zoilamerica Narvaez says she lived with a terrible secret for nearly two decades, ashamed and afraid of what would happen if she told anyone. But as the stepdaughter of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega, Narvaez, now 30, carried a double burden. Revealing that her stepfather molested her, she felt, could threaten not only her family’s stability but that of her nation, which was in the midst of consolidating Ortega’s socialist revolution. “I was in a private hell,” she told Maclean ’s in a three-hour interview last week. “Everyone believed I lived in this gilded, privileged world—but instead it was a prison.” The incest, she says, began when she was 11, persisted through most of Ortega’s years in office between 1979 and 1990, and continued as tormenting, obscenity-laced phone calls that lasted right up to this year.
Next week, Ortega heads into a party congress that is still expected to reconfirm him as leader of the Sandinista Front. But the accusations by the daughter he adopted have scandalized the country, fractured its largest opposition party and opened an emotional debate over incest, rape and the treatment of women. When Narvaez published an open letter in a political newsletter in March, Ortega immediately held a news conference expressing “pain and sadness” over what he called a “manipulation.” Yet he never addressed the charges directly, leaving that to Narvaez’s mother, Rosario Murillo, who denied that abuse ever took place. Ortega has since called his daughter—who is a sociologist and prominent Sandinista activist—“crazy” and “hys-
Charges ot incest cloud the political future of Daniel Ortega
terical.” She, in turn, says death threats have forced her to seek police protection.
Despite Ortega’s reputation as an autocrat, many Sandinista supporters at first flatly refused to believe their hero capable of such behavior, dismissing the incest story as a political vendetta, even a CIA plot. Ortega, after all, had overthrown dictator Anastasio Somoza and held his ground during a decade-long campaign by U.S.-backed Contra rebels, until his defeat by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro in the 1990 election. Although the party has been waning ever since—he lost again to Amoldo Alemán in 1996—the personality cult around Ortega, known as “Danielismo,” has persisted. While Sandinista feminists are in open revolt, the party faithful have closed ranks around their leader, refusing to order their ethical committee to investigate. Several members who have spoken up on behalf of Narvaez have been summarily sacked and more expulsions are expected.
Narvaez’s husband, 48-year-old Alejandro
Bendana, backs her version, admitting he was aware of what was going on even before he married her in 1990. Bendana, an ambitious politician who served as Nicaragua’s envoy to the United Nations, says loyalty to the Sandinista cause and to his idol Ortega had stopped him from confronting the issue. “How many times has Daniel Ortega phoned me in the morning to ask my political advice, then dialled the same number in the evening to make sexual insinuations against my wife?” asks Bendana, who separated from her in part due to the stress caused by the abuse, but has returned to support her. “Finally, I decided that keeping quiet meant colluding with him.”
Narvaez, whose disclosure came after a year of psychotherapy, says she had no motivation beyond salvaging her health and that of her children, aged 3 and 5. “I wouldn’t let them leave the house because I was haunted by the fear something would happen to them,” she said. “I couldn’t bear to destroy their lives, too. I didn’t want them to have an emotionally disturbed mother.” She says she had two nervous breakdowns, in 1982 and 1986, and suffered from claustrophobia, migraines,
nightmares and the eating disor-
der bulimia. On two occasions, she tried to run away from home, but police promptly returned the daughter of the president.
In recent weeks, several insiders have admitted they knew of the abuse, and there is a growing acceptance of Narvaez’s story among Nicaraguans. Women’s groups have decried a national “epidemic” of sexual abuse, citing a recent survey claiming that one in four women become victims before the age of 12. Narvaez has turned her catharsis into a crusade, urging other women to speak out about their ordeals. She has little compassion left for the
revolutionary icon whom she said controlled her for years and whose surname she has renounced. “I had already spoken to him privately, telling him how badly his actions were hurting me,” she recounts. “But still he wouldn’t desist.” She plans to take legal action against Ortega and is lobbying for his parliamentary immunity to be stripped so he will be forced to stand trial. She also wants his adoption of her revoked.
The Sandinistas appear nervous. Organizers cut the length of next week’s conference from three days to one and a half in an apparent attempt to keep the issue from bubbling over. Privately, many admit Ortega’s candidacy for the next presidential election in three years is a dead letter. “It would be political suicide for us,” says one party official. Narvaez still regards herself as a dedicated Sandinista. But she is long past the point of suffering in silence.
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