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Nicaragua’s Elections: A National Turning Point?

Council On Hemispheric Affairs
Tuesday, December 12th, 2006
Nicaragua, Reports, Front Page

A Very Mixed Message Out of Managua:
Nicaragua’s Elections: A National Turning Point?

A statement by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) denouncing Ambassador Paul Trivelli’s patent intervention into the internal affairs of Nicaragua, and its urging the Bush administration to replace him:

• Although Daniel Ortega’s compromised presidential victory and promises of reform propelled him to the nation’s executive mansion, he might have problems reconciling the two distinct versions of what he publicly advocates
• Ortega’s victory delivered a hard blow to U.S. policy toward Latin America as the State Department, and the U.S. ambassador to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli, failed to prevent Ortega from winning, even though the White House was prepared to allocate U.S. taxpayer funds to undermine the Ortega campaign
• Controversy surrounds the unorthodox methods employed by Trivelli, who, playing quarterback in efforts to defeat Ortega, publicly urged the coalition of Nicaragua’s two conservative parties

UNIDA, NICARAGUA TRIUNFA! (United, Nicaragua Triumphs) With this campaign slogan, the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN), on November 5, won its first presidential election since 1990. Or, to be more precise, the party’s perennial candidate, 61-year-old Daniel Ortega, won back the presidency after three previously unsuccessful attempts. His provocative victory reverberated through the halls of the State Department, whose efforts to undermine Ortega’s support base came to a disastrous conclusion. Washington and the U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli were the clear losers in the election, considering that they violated the rules of normal diplomatic deportment by directly overseeing efforts to block Ortega’s electoral prospects. Among other resources, funds had been offered by Trivelli to the country’s two prongs of conservatism – the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC) and the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) – in order to assist their election campaigns. (They wisely refused to accept them). In fact, the U.S. efforts were so cravenly blatant that they may well have created the very reaction they were designed to prevent, which is why a number of Washington insiders have called for Trivelli’s replacement in his post.

Blatant Interventionism

Ambassador Trivelli’s activities concerning the elections, and his open endorsement of the ALN’s candidate – Montealegre – were condemned by the Organization of American States (OAS) in an October statement lamenting the “active intervention of foreign authorities and representatives” in the Nicaraguan elections. In a similar move, the Carter Center issued a declaration calling on all countries in the Hemisphere not to intervene in these “sensitive moments” of the electoral process. While the State Department, after Ortega’s triumph, claimed that the U.S. would respect the wishes of the Nicaraguan people, Trivelli asserted that they would “also have to live with the consequences.” A few days after the elections, a State Department official was interviewed on a Public Broadcasting station about the attitude of his government. He stated that the U.S. would accept the electoral results as long as the new Nicaraguan leaders “behave themselves.” Unfortunately, the interviewer did not ask what he meant, or what the U.S. might do if Nicaragua did not “behave” properly.

The failure of U.S. efforts to unify the countries’ two rightist parties, the PLC and the ALN, with threats of cutting off aid was obviously not convincing enough to persuade a sufficient number of voters to defeat the FSLN. Former U.S. Ambassador to El Salvador, Robert White, observed that “The Bush administration should take credit for getting Daniel Ortega elected,” because “there are legitimate ways to influence the vote, but there are also ways of doing things that are insulting.”

The analysis below by COHA Senior Research Fellow Dr. Frank J. Kendrick investigates the factors behind the victory of Daniel Ortega and what this means for the future of regional relations and ties with the U.S. It was compiled as a result of his just-concluded visit to the country.

The Bush Administration’s Onslaught

During the campaign there was a great deal of anti-U.S. rhetoric in Ortega’s statements. But it was more a matter of criticism of the role that the U.S. played during the Cold War years when he said “Today more than ever, the Sandinistas have to be patient….We are not going to fall into provocations or insult anyone.” But he also made it clear that he would not be pushed around by Washington.

In addition to Trivelli’s onsite offensive, other branches of the U.S. government were enlisted to further the Bush administration’s assault. The U.S. International Republican Institute, which receives almost all of its funds from the National Endowment for Democracy, a controversial body that is affiliated with the U.S. Republican Party and which was headed by such luminaries as the late Jeanne Kirkpatrick, financed the Youth Vote Movement in Nicaragua that openly backed the ALN’s campaign against the Pacto forces.

A video press conference was given in October by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, in which he spoke of the “historic danger” presented by a possible FSLN victory to the $220 million of annual U.S. aid to Nicaragua. Another threat was made by the embassy concerning the cancellation of a possible U.S. grant to Nicaragua to rebuild the picturesque colonial city of Leon should the Sandinistas win. Yet another warning was issued later in the campaign by several Republican members of Congress, potentially preventing Nicaraguans living in the U.S. and Costa Rica from sending remittances to their homeland, which amount to an estimated US $800 million a year.

The Washington-orchestrated offensive proved unfruitful as Ortega’s performance in the election was a success. In round numbers, with an estimated 75% of those eligible participating, the results were: Ortega, FSLN, 38% of the vote; Eduardo Montealegre, Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), 29%; Jose Rizo, Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC), 26%; Edmundo Jarquin, Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), 6%; Eden Pastora, Alternative for Change (AC), less than 1%.

Ortega’s Peculiar Vote Tally

The usual electoral process in Latin America is that if there is no majority in multi-candidate presidential elections, the top two candidates must submit to a run-off ballot. But Nicaragua adopted a different system in 2000 as a result of the infamous Pacto (pact), drawn up by former Presidents Arnoldo Alemán and Ortega for entirely self-serving purposes. The pact decreed that if a presidential candidate receives at least 40% of the total votes cast for all candidates, or at least 35% with a 5% margin over the total votes received by the next highest candidate, the former would be automatically elected. In other words, Ortega won with nearly two-thirds of the voters casting ballots for other candidates. Without the self-serving 35% minimum formula, Ortega would have had to run against the U.S.-backed Montealegre, who would probably have been endorsed by the PLC, and might well have defeated the Sandinista candidate.

Another factor contributing to Ortega’s victory is that the original, very popular and highly respected MRS candidate, Herty Lewites, died suddenly of a heart attack in July. Lewites had been an outspoken challenger to Ortega within the FSLN, which had got him ousted from the party by Ortega. The former president had ruled the orthodox Sandinistas for almost three decades with an iron hand and personally decided to bypass the primary election by which FSLN candidates are usually chosen. Ortega did this to have himself named the unchallenged FSLN presidential candidate. Another factor was that Montealegre had been ousted from the PLC by Alemán, who, improbable enough, remains the boss of his party. Alemán had been convicted of stealing some US $100 million from the country’s treasury while he was president and as a result was sentenced to twenty years in prison, as well as being barred from running for public office. He evidently decided to back a relatively unknown candidate, Jose Rizo, the nation’s current vice president, rather than allow the better known and much more popular Montealegre to challenge his domination of the party. So the recent election was a challenge to both of the traditional parties, the PLC and the FSLN, and Ortega’s victory has to be seen as the result, in part at least, of a combination of unusual circumstances –one might even call them gross – that led to his receiving the most votes, although hardly a majority.

One other factor that probably influenced the election results was the impressive gain that the FSLN had made in the November 2004 municipal ballot. The party increased its control from 55 to 88 of Nicaragua’s 152 municipalities, including the capital, while the PLC (then the chief FSLN opponent) lost in 39 municipalities, the worst defeat that the PLC has suffered since 1994. As for percentages of votes cast, the FSLN received 46%, the PLC received 36%, and another party, the Alliance for the Republic (APRE), made up of dissident PLC members, received 12%. Obviously these local elections reflected a fatal split in the conservative vote that paved the way for an Ortega victory. Moreover, according to observers, the FSLN was able to demonstrate to those living in municipalities it controlled, that it could govern effectively.

As for the National Assembly (AN), unless there are serious challenges before January 10 when the new government takes over, the distribution of elected seats will be: FSLN, 38; PLC, 25; ALN, 22; and MRS, 5. Because the runner-up presidential candidate, Montealegre, will be given an ALN seat, and the outgoing president, Enrique Bolanos, will also acquire an ALN seat, the PLC and ALN will be almost tied, with 25 and 24 seats respectively. In other words, because the FSLN will have only a plurality of seats in the AN, it eventually could face a united front of the ALN and the PLC, if they can reconcile their personality differences. Therefore, although Ortega will be both FSLN chief and President of the Republic, his power could be significantly limited.

Ortega’s Multi-Platforms

At the heart of Ortega’s presidential campaign was his repeated emphasis on creating a “government of reconciliation and national unity.” Coupled with “a preferential option for the poor,” what eventually turned out to be his campaign platform was first previewed before the FSLN Congress in May 2006. It contains some highly challenging proposals directed at bringing all groups in Nicaraguan society together in “Assemblies of Citizen Power,” which supposedly will contribute to resolving the society’s economic and social problems. Specifically, Ortega wants to resolve such problems as the nation’s poverty, which plagues 80% of its population; the crippling inflation that must be controlled; interest payments on the public debt that in effect denies vital resources to the public health and education sectors; and the widespread public and private sector corruption that can be seen at every turn. At least it is a program that appears to demonstrate some sensitivity to the numerous social and economic problems confronting 21st Century Nicaragua.

Concerning the “preferential option for the poor,” Ortega’s campaign manifesto cites Jesus Christ, who always preached in favor of the poor, the weak, and the humble. It also quotes the renowned Nicaraguan patriot, Ruben Dario, who said “Nicaragua is made for liberty!” The program promises that the Government of Reconciliation and National Unity will work toward creating a country with “zero illiteracy, zero unemployment, and zero hunger.”

The party’s platform also has a long list of specific obligations to the citizenry which are spelled out in great detail. The category of Employment, Credit and Business, includes: (1) Employment for all people; (2) Credit for all through a Bank to Foment Production; and (3) Public Investments in Energy and Communications, in order to provide public participation in otherwise privatized industries. In the category of Health for All and Free Primary and Secondary Education For All, he includes such items as: (1) Health Care for all sectors of society through public Hospitals and Health Centers; (2) Literacy for all through Literacy Campaigns, as those advanced by the Sandinistas during the 1980’s; (3) Free Primary and Secondary Education; and (4) more public support for the universities. In the category of Decentralization, Autonomy, and Governability, are included: (1) Autonomy for the Caribbean Coast; and (2) New, harmonious relations between the national and municipal governments.

Another category, called Citizen Security, includes (1) recovering control of the streets and roads; and (2) Improvement in the relations between the Army and the National Police, and the people. In an interesting category of obligations called “Passing from External Dependence to National Sovereignty,” are included (1) Passing from Human Assistance to Human Development, by seeking the economic independence of Nicaragua; and (2) Passing from adjusting poverty to Development with Equity; (Here he asserts that the Central American Free Trade Agreement – CAFTA - should be re-negotiated to open “alternative markets” and to achieve means of protection for local producers; or, in other words, to achieve a kind of “fair trade” set of relations with other countries.); and (3) Passing from “plans of exclusion to strategies of inclusion.” By this he means that public planning should be accomplished by all Nicaraguans working together to ensure that the benefits are distributed equitably to all citizens.

The outline of his program ends with a brisk call: “These are new times…of Hope, of Reconciliation, of Justice, of Liberty and of Unity!” It is to be implemented by a government united and reconciled to the citizenry. After winning the election, Ortega once again called for reconciliation, and promised to “create a new political culture,” and to “set aside our differences and put the Nicaraguan people, the poor, first.”

Ortega’s Political Savvy

A major feature of Ortega’s campaign was the series of small forums held throughout the country in which average Nicaraguans from numerous factions, political parties, contra groups and indigenous groups used the microphone to voice their concerns and to offer their support for the FSLN. These were broadcast on the FSLN-TV news network, Multinoticias. Meanwhile, Ortega refused to alter his incomprehensible strategy of not agreeing to debate any of his opponents.

Ortega went surprisingly far in his efforts to gain support from a wide variety of often disparate groups. For one thing, he openly courted former U.S.-backed Contra leaders and parties. He selected as his Vice-Presidential running mate a former banker and political leader of the Contras, Jaime Morales Carazo. (Incidentally, Carazo was also the former owner of the home that Daniel had confiscated for his own use after the revolution.) Carrying reconciliation even further, in October several hundred former Contras –Nicaraguan Resistance Party (PRN) members – were invited to rally with Ortega’s FSLN in support of a “peace accord,” that promised that there will never again be war, compulsory military service, confiscations of private property, or rationing cards in Nicaragua.

As for the Catholic Church and religion, the new Ortega maintained, during his campaign, that his guide in life and government is God, not Karl Marx. Representing an astonishing change of course, his party also backed the severely restrictive anti-abortion law recently passed by the AN. While he claimed to have abandoned socialism, he also has declared that “God does not want a society divided between the rich and poor.” He frequently has invoked his devotion to Christian principles and called for a “spiritual revolution.” As quoted in the October 24-November 1, 2006 issues of the Nicaraguan News Service, Ortega found that “Today more than ever we must fill ourselves with the greatest spiritual fortitude, asking God daily for the patience and intelligence necessary to avoid confrontation with those who seek to provoke us.” In September, he reached out to real-estate developers and U.S. expatriates to address their concerns about property rights, tourism, and investment incentives. Meeting with 128 developers, many of whom were foreign investors, he sought to allay their fears about the future of investments in Nicaragua, as well as the disposition of property claims still outstanding from the confiscations of the 1980’s. He promised a “definitive solution” to the property issue, and also promised that he would support the CAFTA (although his platform did call for renegotiation of its provisions to promote “free but just markets”). He also promised to work to resolve the energy crisis and to support a Tourism Investment Bonds law pending in the AN.

Harking back to the spirit of his 1980’s rhetoric, from time to time Ortega has promised to curb what Pope Paul called “savage capitalism,” and to maintain friendly ties with his old comrades, Fidel Castro and Hugo Chávez. In fact, Chávez commented in regard to Ortega’s victory that he and Ortega would be “uniting as never before” to construct a “socialist future” in Nicaragua. However, despite some nostalgic rhetoric in this direction, Ortega avoided showing any marked interest in building such a socialist political school of thought anytime in Nicaragua’s near future.

Ortega’s Winds of Change

Since the election, Ortega has met with various groups to explain his view of Nicaragua’s future. One of these gatherings consisted of several hundred foreign and domestic private sector leaders to tell them that he would work with them to build his new government. He assured them that “times have changed,” and that the FSLN has worked in the recent past as the loyal opposition party in order to help Nicaragua be active again in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and to approve the CAFTA. Ortega called upon these non-governmental forces to work with him to eradicate poverty and create jobs. As he put it: “We are not going to eradicate poverty by eradicating capital, eradicating investors, or those who have money.” An indication of his success in reassuring the private business sector was the announcement that the Inter-American Development Bank would honor its commitment to loan Nicaragua U.S $100 million of assistance that was promised to the out-going Bolanos administration.

This writer was privileged to be with a group of Latin American scholars invited to “chat” with Ortega at his home two weeks following the election. He began by calling for a “new kind of relation between all the Americas.” He emphasized the importance of achieving a U.S. policy that views Latin Americans as “peoples with whom we can establish respectful relationships in the political sphere and just relationships in the economic and social spheres.” He also made it clear that he was his own man, yet at the same time invited the U.S. to join in the construction of a new canal across Central America through Nicaragua. He emphasized that “We want to move towards the union of all the Americas. In this, the U.S. is vital because of the obvious weight it carries.”

According to The Nica Times, a weekly English-language newspaper about Nicaragua published in Costa Rica, “Nicaragua is still a country of extreme poverty and unmet basic needs.” Some 80% (4,200,000 people) live in poverty and some 45% live in extreme poverty, with the equivalent of one dollar per day income. Also, more than 1,000,000 people are illiterate, 2,000,000 suffer from malnutrition, and 1,000,000 children do not attend school. Furthermore, some 600,000 adults are unemployed, and nearly one in five Nicaraguans has left the country to “scrape together a livelihood abroad.” Although President Bolanos claims that “Nicaragua is advancing,” it is difficult to see in what direction that it is taking place.

Nicaragua’s Reality

A visitor today to the country would encounter gambling casinos, luxury hotels, tourist resorts, and rich people driving SUV’s, a symbolic reflection of the wealth that merely serves to deepen the chasm between the classes. One only has to look closer, at the under-employed individuals washing car windows at intersections, and a super abundance of beggars on the streets to see reality. Poverty and deprivation is fairly well-hidden from tourists’ eyes, but it is certainly there and it is going to take more than free trade agreements and increased foreign investments are able to bring about to improve the lot of the people now living in what has become the second poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. It is this situation that Daniel Ortega has promised to deal with during the next five years. In contrast with Nicaragua’s last three presidents, Ortega at least demonstrates an awareness of the dire situation dominating his country, but that by no means guarantees that he will be any wiser than he has been in recent years in applying solutions for these maladies within his own party.


This analysis was prepared by COHA Senior Research Fellow Frank J. Kendrick
December 12th, 2006
Word Count: 3300

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