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Nicaraguan president missing in action for nearly one month and counting


By Ismael Lopez

MANAGUA (Reuters) - During Nicaragua's devastating civil war in the 1980s, youthful revolutionary Daniel Ortega toured every town in the Central American nation, clad in his green Sandinista uniform.

Now in his second stint as president, the 74-year-old leftist leader has disappeared from public view for nearly a month, raising questions about his health and whereabouts as the world reels from the spread of the coronavirus.

As in 2014, another time he dropped off the map, his absence has even prompted speculation he may have died.

The government did not respond to a request for comment on the reasons for Ortega's absence, his health or whether he is alive.

However, a government official close to Ortega said he was alive, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Over the years, the former guerilla has suffered two heart attacks and developed high cholesterol and other ailments, said the official. Since then, the president has been increasingly protective of his health, said the source.

Ortega's last public appearance was on March 12, in which he spoke briefly via video from a living room.

"He has always fled from problems; no wonder he is absent in the midst of the coronavirus crisis," said Dora Maria Tellez, a former minister in Ortega's first government in the 1980s who later broke with the president.

Ortega also disappeared for several weeks in 1998, after his adopted stepdaughter accused him of abuse, which he denied.

During his current absence, Vice President Rosario Murillo, his wife, has spoken publicly every day, fueling speculation that Ortega will eventually emerge to oversee a campaign to defeat the coronavirus.

So far, Nicaragua has not encouraged social distancing or other measures against the virus, even as neighboring Honduras and nearby El Salvador implement tight restrictions.

Nicaragua has registered seven coronavirus cases and one related death, but experts question the numbers because the government has not revealed how many tests have been conducted.

Ortega's health has often been a closely guarded secret. Elected president in 1984, Ortega was voted out of office after a single five-year term as the economy floundered. He eventually won re-election and returned to office in 2007.

After orchestrating a constitutional change to allow for re-elections, his current term is due to end in 2022.

(Reporting by Ismael Lopez, Writing by Daina Beth Solomon)

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