Nicaragua’s first lady and self-styled spiritual guru Rosario Murillo has charmed her way into second place in the national public opinion polls. Once an unpopular figure, the ubiquitous government spokeswoman has risen from obscurity to assume second place in Nicaragua’s popularity polls in just five years.
According to two polls released this week, Murillo has surpassed her husband in popularity and is now behind National Police Chief Aminta Granera, Nicaraguans’ perennial favorite public figure. The M&R Consultants poll shows 76.8% of the population has a favorable opinion of Murillo, compared to 89.8% for Granera. A CID Gallup poll released this week also shows Murillo in second place to Granera, albeit at a greater distance.
Regardless of the amount of daylight between Murillo and Granera—two strong, non-traditional women recognized for their own styles of leadership and protagonism—the first lady’s rise through the polls has been remarkable.
Murillo’s fame is related to her visibility, power and influence over the Sandinista Front; she even determines the party’s dress code, lexicon and music repertoire (the first lady writes the lyrics to all the Sandinistas’ campaign songs). Indeed, Murillo’s influence over the Sandinista Youth is like that of the hip-hop and rap stars of the early 1980s who influenced the way a whole generation of urban-dwelling teens dressed, spoke and loitered. Murillo, however, drops lyrics about peace, love, fraternity and unity.
The first lady is virtually unavoidable in Nicaragua. A pleonastic usageaster who speaks in breathless incantations and palindromes, Murillo’s prolix verbiage is broadcast for 10 minutes every day at noon on the various media outlets controlled by her children. Murillo has fondly dubbed her family’s media empire the “media of citizen power.” The first lady has denied interviews to all other media outlets.
Murillo calls her government role “Coordinator of the Council of Communication and Citizenship,” but it’s still unclear what that is or if anyone else is on the council. If there are other members of the board, no one has heard from them in six years.
Murillo’s daily soliloquies are an unscripted anacoluthon of loosely associated thoughts related to peace, love, happiness, and the Virgin Mary, tied in with a barrage of statics related to the government’s social programs. While her utterances may be confusing to the unanointed, they apparently have a soothing and hypnotic effect on three-quarters of the population.
The first lady is also politically astute and agile. In less than six years, she has maneuvered to wrest power away from several internal party factions that were decades in the making, marginalizing once powerful party figures such as Lenín Cerna and Nicho Marenco, and cornering historic comandantes such as Tomás Borge (q.e.p.d.) and Bayardo Arce.
Murillo’s power play prompted a pushback this year from traditional Sandinista community leaders who rebelled against her designations for mayoral candidates in nearly 30 municipalities. Murillo stood her ground.
Her power is also perceived outside the party’s rank and file. When M&R Consultants polled Nicaraguans on “who has the real power in Nicaragua?,” 41% answered either “the presidential couple” or “Rosario Murillo.” In comparison, 44% of the population said “Daniel Ortega.” (Curiously, only 3.8% said “the people,” suggesting that even the Sandinistas don’t put much stock in the government’s main slogan, “the people are president!”)
Murillo is proud of her prominence. Following the release of the M&R and CID Gallup polls this week, her government website published an article celebrating her popularity under the subhead “Rosario has no equal in Central America.”
“The work of compañera Rosario Murillo has been vital to this government,” said Deputy Ombudsman Adolfo Jarquín. “I am one of the people who follows everything that she has been doing and I have found it has a logic and she has an incredible control over the situation. It’s not demagoguery…every day she is in contact with the people.”
Political analyst Cairo Amador noted that Murillo is the most popular first lady in Central America, and must be envied by Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, who is very unpopular.
“Doña Laura is probably paying very close attention because doña Rosario has an excess of what (Chinchilla) doesn’t have: communication skills,” Amador said.
Murillo’s popularity has spawned a whole generation of young Sandinista followers, many of whom were born in the 1980s. Her rise in power and support from the younger generation has many speculating that she might someday outgrow the role as first lady and launch her own solo career.