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U.S. International Electoral Observation Delegation 
Elections observers

Strengthening Democracy Or Illusion? – An Observer's Notes From the Nicaraguan Elections of 2001

By Jon Cloke, Managua, 11/13/01

"Here there is a situation so difficult that whoever is going to win is he who achieves the awakening of hope and illusion. I have no way of raising the price of coffee, nobody has, but the voter has to believe that I am able to do it."
Dionisio Marenco, right-hand man of Daniel Ortega, quoted in Envio no. 231, June 2001, p.11

As the days dragged on towards the weekend following the Nicaraguan national elections on 4/11/01, with no final results from the CSE (the electoral supreme council), the rumours grew. Daniel Ortega, head of the FSLN (the Frente Sandinista), standing in the gloom of the Carretera del Norte in Managua on the Tuesday after the elections, questioning whether there really had been such a low level of abstention, and where all these citizens came from who didn't appear on the electoral role. How come they all had the witnesses to prove they lived where they said they did, and therefore qualified to vote under the new rule declared by the CSE only days before the election? Was it true that the governing Liberal party, the PLC, had bussed and flown thousands of Nicaraguan migrants back from Costa Rica and the USA to vote for them, paying their fares and promising them money? Why did the FSLN concede defeat so quickly, and why had it done so badly after doing so well in the municipal elections last year? Above all, had the US government, whose officials and politicians had been so blatantly supporting the PLC and whose threats about the FSLN had been so overt, really helped the PLC rig the whole election?………..

The causal mechanisms behind such a big FSLN defeat and consequent PLC victory (PLC 56.31%, FSLN 42.28% and Conservatives 1.41% in the presidential/vice-presidential vote as of 9/11/01) have their roots in the history and the culture of the country, some of it recent and some of it going back for hundreds of years. You could pick a particular point, as the left in Europe tend to do with the constant intervention of the US government in post-revolutionary Nicaraguan elections, and that might explain a part of the situation, but only a part. You could start with the Ley Electoral (Electoral Law) passed by the National Assembly in1999, when the FSLN and the PLC together arranged for the closure of the last spaces in the electoral process for any party outside their own. As well as arranging for democracy in Nicaragua to consist of just two parties (the small Conservative party really not counting), the 1999 law arranged deputy seats for Arnoldo Aleman (currently president of Nicaragua) and Daniel Ortega for life, along with, of course, immunity from prosecution. That's going to be particularly advantageous for both of them, Daniel Ortega because of the sexual abuse case brought against him by his stepdaughter Zoilamerica Narvaez, and his spoils from the FSLN looting of the state in 1990, and Arnoldo Alemán because virtually the whole of his patrimony, his lands, money, businesses, have been bought with money stolen from the state, most of it aid money.

If you don't like this particular starting point, you could go back further, to the elections the FSLN lost in 1990 which brought the revolution to a halt. In the interim period between losing the election and the Chamorro UNO government taking power, the FSLN stole everything that wasn't nailed down, the famous piñata, after the children's party where a papier-mache container is beaten with a stick until all the presents or sweets inside burst out over the assembled children…… a particularly apt comparison. Because the habit of power is hard to give up, the leadership of the FSLN (the cupula) began to investigate the levers of power, after a prolonged period of sulking, and by 1995 were co-governors of Nicaragua with the UNO coalition government. The FSLN had sufficient support, and until these last elections sufficient deputies in the national assembly, to make it impossible to govern without them. Knowing this, and wanting to hold on to absolute power within the FSLN as well as gain access to the fruits of defeat, the cupula of the FSLN has persistently and prolongedly negotiated with the governing party to divide up offices, privileges and power, through the infamous Pact (pacto).

The pact works like this - when Joaquin Cuadra (Ex-FSLN head of the army) formed the MUN (national unity movement), a left-leaning party in 2000, with the intention of fighting the municipal and then national elections, the CSE made sure it didn't get the necessary number of signatures under the 1999 law to participate in any elections (4% of the electoral roll) as a sop to the FSLN. As a quid pro quo, when Jose Antonio Alvarado, a member of the Alemán government, left the PLC in disgust at the ongoing corruption and formed his own right-leaning PLD (Liberal Democratic Party), the CSE made sure that he didn't get enough verified signatures to participate in the electoral process either, and he was simply refused without justification or proof. Whether or not a new party does or does not fulfill the legal prerequisites for participation in the electoral process, therefore, has nothing to do with whether it will be allowed to by Roberto Rivas and Silvio Calderón, the two liberals who control the CSE and act on instructions from President Alemán. Daniel and Arnoldo, not bitter enemies but bosom buddies, walking hand-in-hand into the pacted sunset.

The keys to this particular locked democratic cabinet don't just lie within the CSE, however. Two other keys are the CSJ (the supreme court) and the CGR (the comptroller general's office, responsible for auditing state expenditure). These three strategic offices (and many others) have been divided up amongst loyal FSLN and PLC members, with the result that no-one goes to court, no-one is found guilty of anything, no-one goes to jail.

Sounds unreal? In 2000, the brother of the armed forces general Javier Carrion McDonagh, angered by the way in which the water supply to his estate never seemed to work properly, took an AK47 and shot the man responsible for opening the stop-cocks dead. The way the justice system functions, Carrion McDonagh went to the local police station, made a statement in which he declared he shot the man in self-defence (no police investigation, needless to say), and following the payment of a sum of money to the widow of the dead man, he was free to go. The judge who headed the very brief enquiry decided that there was no case to answer, since Carrion Mcdonagh had very kindly told everyone what happened, even though the mans' widow and sons, who saw him shot dead in front of them, disagreed with his version of events……… a cruel example that outlines exactly the principles underlying justice in Nicaragua - it's perfectly alright to commit murder, if you can afford to pay for it. No change there from the Revolution, either; before the change of power in 1990, the escorts of Umberto Ortega, brother of Daniel and then-head of the ESLN, the Sandinista armed forces, shot dead an innocent man, Jean-Paul Genie, who was on his way home, for no particular reason that was ever explained. No-one was charged, no-one knows who committed the murder, and if there are no witnesses and no-one knows what happened, well, obviously there was no crime, was there?

And so to the elections, in an atmosphere of almost total corruption where the judicial system, from the lowest to the highest, is for sale…… to have heard and believed the FSLN complaining of fraud in 1996, to hear the current outrage at blatant US interference, is to take a very partial view of things, as we've seen already. Even in the aftermath of the municipal elections, with the other small parties, the MUC, MUN, PLD, Tercera Via et al pacted out of the elections, good friends Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega didn't like to leave things to chance with their own party candidacies for the presidential elections. Arnoldo wanted a good pliant friend of his, Ivan Fornos Escobar, to be the PLC candidate, since the Constitution dictates that he couldn't stand for two successive presidencies, and he hadn't yet been able to re-arrange the Constitution or get round it in the way that the Somozas, father and son, used to in the good old days.

Daniel Ortega, on the other hand, wanted his third (and hopefully final) electoral shot at the presidency, and was leaving nothing to chance; the FSLN ranks closed, and modernizing hopefuls such as Victor Hugo Tinoco and Alejandro Martinez-Cuenca, were carefully squeezed out. The voting procedures were carefully rigged, and the hard-line electoral 'commandos' under Lenin Cerna, ex-head of the FSLN intelligence services and alleged multiple 'disappearer' of people, were formed. As Sergio Ramirez, vice-president of Nicaragua when Daniel Ortega was president, said in his 1999 book, 'Adios Muchachos', of the transition to democracy in 1990: "The FSLN was not prepared, as a whole, to assume its role of party of opposition inside a democratic system because it had never been designed for this. Its vertical structure was the inspiration of Leninist manuals, of the impositions of the war and of caudillismo, our oldest cultural heritage." As it was then, so it continues to be.

In this respect at least, Daniel showed himself to be a better caudillo (petty tyrant) than Arnoldo, who wasn't able to enforce his choice of candidate; the PLC party powerful selected Enrique Geyer Bolaños, a conservative (and ex-Conservative party) businessman with a cleaner reputation, a properly right-wing ideological bent and close contacts with the PRN ( the political party representing a majority of the Contra, the US-constructed armed opposition to the FSLN in 1980-90). What should be avoided, however, is the idea that in either party the rank-and-file had any say at all in the selection process for presidential candidate, much less for national assembly deputies.

What put the system to shame on election day was the peaceful and dignified way in which the people of Nicaragua themselves, mindful of the way in which their electoral choices had been carefully narrowed to two, and most of them despairing of making any real change by voting, voted anyway in their hundreds of thousands. I interviewed dozens of people in the queues in voting centers in District V of Managua, and in response to my questioning about any problems throughout the day the answer was the same: "Todo tranquilo, no hay falla…. Es lento, el proceso, verdad?" (Everything's peaceful, no problem..... it's a slow process, isn't it?". This from people who'd been waiting in the sun from 6.00 am, and it was now past 2 pm, thanks to the complicated process devised by the CSE to try and avoid the historic ballot-rigging that characterizes Nicaraguan elections.

All day long we trawled the voting centers of District V, visiting and re-visiting over 60 JRVs (polling stations), observing the voting process, asking for documents, talking to people. In some stations in Managua there seemed to be more observers than voters, up to and including expert observers from such stalwarts of the democratic process as North Korea and China, but there was little enough to observe. Oh, there were a number of procedural irregularities, cedulas (ID documents) not being checked under the UV lamps, electoral police inside the polling station rather than outside at the door, voting boxes not properly sealed with the right tape, but nothing rhythmic, nothing structured, and mainly the result of the complexity of the procedure. There were occasionally more suspicious incidents, such as the refusal of one JRV president to let observers in, and disturbances in one queue caused by PLC supporters, but these were a genuine rarity. Any fixing to be done was going to be done elsewhere, later, in the municipal and regional CSE offices which collated all the local results, in the computer centre where the national results were tallied, or in darkened, smoke-filled rooms where in the event of a close call both parties would trade towns and villages like property on a Monopoly board.

But that isn't what happened. The vote for the PLC was outside all of the percentages predicted by the polling organizations, outside the need for horse-trading, outside the need for any kind of cheating. What about all these people who weren't on the electoral toll, then, did they swing it for the PLC? From my personal experience of just one JRV where I observed the count, this didn't appear to be happening. Of the people who voted there, and this was in barrio Elvis Diaz, generally reckoned to be an FSLN stronghold, 268 were on the electoral roll and 41 weren't. This was quite a high number, but for the presidency and vice-presidency there were 180 votes for the PLC and only 117 for the FSLN; even if all of the 41 voters not on the electoral roll had been PLC stooges and you removed them, the PLC would still have won by a significant margin, and this in an FSLN barrio. Added to which, rather than voting in a surge, these people arrived spread over the day, and in a city like Managua, which has the highest rate of urban migration in the whole of Central America, those 41 extra voters were by no means unusual or out of the ordinary - and anyway, if the poverty of the country in which you live forces you to migrate to Costa Rica or the US, should that bar you from voting?

Despite this, it would be wrong to say that the outside interference in the voting process had no effect at all, from the US government and the Catholic Church above all. The US, in the person of ambassador Oliver Garza, had been working on the Conservative Party throughout 2001, putting immense pressure on the CP candidates Noel Vidaurre and Carlos Tunnermann not to split the right-wing vote, until they gave up and resigned, leaving the CP to its' fate under an unknown candidate, Alberto Saborio. Besides ambassador Garza continually expressing his doubts about the FSLN publicly, the hard line reached right up through the US State department, through Lino Gutierrez, Otto Reich, hard-right heroes of Regan's war of freedom (not to be confused with the War on Terrorism, despite the effects being remarkably similar).

On October 29th, Jeb Bush, governor of Florida and brother of US president George Bush, took a full-page ad in the daily La Prensa, stating that Daniel Ortega remained an enemy of the US, that George Bush supported Enrique Bolaños, and issuing veiled threats as to what would happen if the people of Nicaragua were stupid enough to vote their consciences. Bolaños was invited to join ambassador Garza on a USAID tour donating free food, and so on and so forth. This was undoubtedly the most successful tactic of the campaign, in that myself and the other observers saw substantial vote-swings from PLC to Conservative for national assembly deputies, from people who voted for the PLC for the presidency but who were obviously Conservative voters.

And the Catholic Church was no better. The famously politically apolitical stance of Cardinal Obando y Bravo reared its' ugly head again. Obando y Bravo, commonly known amongst the right-wing Contra as Comandante Miguel during the war of 1980-90, conducted a pre-electoral mass on 4/11/01 in Managua Cathedral as he had done in 1996, in which he devoted perhaps half his sermon to carefully noting the qualities which the voter should examine in their candidate of choice:

"We must ask ourselves, does the candidate give a clear and decided support to marriage and the family founded on marriage, as opposed to the tendency to equate true marriage with other types of unions?….

In choosing our candidate we must see if they preach with the testimony of their lives, if they have been exemplary in their family, if they have really been educated in the faith, now that modern man follows and listens with more pleasure to those who 'give testimony' than to those who teach…..

In voting, we must think how the candidate for whom we vote would govern. Is there that which, in his past history, would demonstrate his capacity to undertake the functions inherent in the office of President of the Republic or deputy, or not? Do the facts support his words? Has the candidate always had this attitude or position, or is this simply a change of direction for electoral purposes?"

He should really just have put a sign round his neck saying "Catholics don't vote FSLN"; it would have been simpler, and less long-winded. The above allusions are focused mainly on the family attributes of Daniel Ortega, clear if coded references to Daniel Ortega's sexual abuse of his step-daughter and his 23-year relationship with Rosario Murillo, Zoilamerica's mother, to whom he isn't married. Noting these obviously important character flaws is certainly valid, but because of the Cardinal's erratic memory he keeps failing to mention those of the PLC candidates, in particular their voracious corruption and sociopathic dishonesty, which the Catholic Church has so little problem because, well, it does so well financially out of them. Which is one very big reason why the Catholic Church in Nicaragua, historically one of the strongest in Central America, is thankfully disappearing like the snow in sunshine. The people of Nicaragua may not have many choices, but they clearly recognize hypocrisy where they see it, and where they can they vote with their feet.

Economy with the truth wasn't just on one side, however. The FSLN had no big foreign friends with influence, no apolitical church on their side, so their approach was somewhat more direct. If you voted FSLN, a $1500 loan would be given to 120,000 campesino families, a claim reiterated by Rene Nuñez, Secretary of the FSLN on 2/11/01. The figure represented a cost to the country of $30 million, or about 4% of government income; the funds, allegedly, were already present in the Rural Development Institute, the IDR, ready to be used. Not only that, however, but FSLN leaflets were being passed around with a voucher attached; when the FSLN won, you could take your voucher to the Department of Education and redeem it against a full college grant. Honest. And in the first one hundred days of government, the FSLN would slash the mega-salaries of deputies and state functionaries, and cover the costs of all the student grants and campesino loans by making sure everyone paid all the taxes that they were liable for. The FSLN was also planning on reviving coffee production (by improving quality and thus the price) as soon as possible…… and on the seventh day, the FSLN would rest.

Although the FSLN continues to squeal "No fair!" over these external influences and interventions, it prefers to draw a hastily-contrived veil over its' own role in the closure of democracy in Nicaragua. Long before the municipal elections of 5th November of last year, under no external influences at all, polls taken of the opinions of Nicaraguans of their own leaders showed some interesting facts. Whilst Daniel Ortega came top of the polls as the most popular leader, a massive percentage higher than Alemán, he also topped the poll of the most unpopular leader, a significant percentage higher than Alemán at the height of his unpopularity through the various corruption scandals. The truth of the matter is that Daniel, because of his historical role, polarizes political opinion in Nicaragua like no other political leader, and yet he refuses to see this. Just as, for instance, the left in Europe and the US tend to believe still that free and fair elections in Nicaragua would mean the FSLN re-elected.

If that were really the case, why then are the FSLN so unpopular in many rural areas, where their agrarian reforms of the revolutionary period might be expected to gain them votes? Because what happened in the rural areas during the war wasn't what the left would like to think - the FSLN did forcibly conscript and sometimes shoot people in these zones, as well as transferring entire populations for reasons not necessarily connected to the military situation. The FSLN were responsible for forcing a system of co-operativization on the rural zones which was unpopular amongst the majority of campesinos who wanted their own land, not to work on state lands. The FSLN targeted its' reforms on introducing a landless peasantry into an economically unsustainable system that wasn't very popular, on ideological grounds alone, whilst at the same time excluding the small- and medium-scale producers who constituted the backbone of agricultural production. These producers were treated with suspicion and hostility because FSLN ideology dismissed them as petty bourgeoisie, and therefore politically suspect. Which they rapidly became, and repaid and continue to repay the hostility with interest.

And so the process of electoral control, initiated by the FSLN in 1979, when it pushed Violeta Chamorro and the moderate conservatives out of the government as an interference in the revolutionary project, continued. During the 1990s more than 4,000 of the best and brightest in the FSLN, such as Dora Maria Tellez, who lead the attack on the Somozista national assembly with Comandante Zero in 1978, were pushed out for disagreeing with the cupula, to found organizations such as the MRS (Movimiento Renovación de Sandinismo, or movement for the renovation of Sandinismo) and the Tercera Via (the Third Way). Such a complete intolerance of internal disagreement could only reflect itself in an inability to come to terms with the electoral system, as Sergio Ramirez, co-founder of the MRS pointed out above. Control always came first.

In the municipal elections of 2000, the FSLN won the Atlantic Coast port of Puerto Cabezas with 9% of the vote - through the simple expedient of colluding to pact out of the elections the party of the indigenous peoples, YATAMA, causing 80% of the populace to abstain in protest. Would it be too simplistic to suggest that a political movement displaying such an outright contempt for democratic process has absolutely no right to complain when its' machinations don't go the way they were planned to? And at the heart of the municipal elections, for me, was the real reason why the people of Nicaragua voted against Daniel Ortega - and specifically against him rather than the FSLN. The FSLN made massive gains in the municipal elections, throughout all of the departments, but frequently by only a handful of votes, sometimes in single figures. Both parties, PLC and FSLN made a calculation with the Electoral Law of 1999 that the smaller the electoral roll, the better the advantage to themselves; and in the instance of the municipal elections the FSLN got it right.

In the national elections, however, with the anti-Daniel vote as strong as we saw, the municipal elections acted as a wake-up call. The percentage of abstainers who see the FSLN as simply Daniel, who may dislike the corruption of the PLC but don't have that visceral dislike for them, reacted in a huge turn-out against what was widely feared to be an FSLN win. Which for me was another reason for the strength and hysteria of the US response to the possibility of another FSLN government, and the biggest reason why the FSLN will never win power while Daniel is leader. I took a taxi from the bus station when I arrived in Managua and immediately got into a political conversation with the driver(never a good idea at the best of times in Managua), who was about 20 years old. He started telling me that people who voted for the FSLN were voting for the return of military service, food-rationing, no fuel, the whole works. And yet what did he know? He would have been 8 or maybe 9 when the 1990 elections came around. You heard it here first folks; fear of Daniel is in the genes….

So what is the reality in Nicaragua? The reality is over 600,000 disabled people in a population of 5.2 million, crippled by war, pesticides, famine and drought. The reality is 3.5 million Manzanas of agricultural land in the hands of small and medium producers, the same quantity of land as the entire agrarian reform handed over, the same producers who were abandoned by the revolution, and who are now being destroyed by the IMF, the World Bank and the government of the US, and who sit in lean-tos outside the town halls and city assembly buildings, begging for food. The reality is a national assembly that does little or no work above approving budgets for its' own pay and for the government to steal, and whose functionaries and deputies are paid a salary equal to their US and European counterparts, an obscenity in a country whose economy is 1/87th the size of the US. Above all, perhaps, the reality is that the economy of Nicaragua would have to grow at 5% per annum for the next 50 years to reach the levels of productivity achieved in 1978. Back to the Future, with a vengeance.

This reality, however, is bounded by falsified, virtual-reality economic figures that the government hands over politely to the IMF as proof of economic and employment growth, in return for which proof of the success of structural adjustment and neo-liberalism the IMF politely hands over more adjustment loans and grants, to be salted away in foreign currency accounts, offshore businesses and illegal land purchase. But hey, as the head of the Nicaraguan Comptroller General's office said in El Nuevo Diario on 10/11/01: "Illicit enrichment has not been classified as a crime…." And so where there's no crime, there's no victim, right? Well, wrong, actually - the victims of this victimless crime are the poor of Nicaragua, the most heavily indebted country on a per capita basis in the entire world, who always end up paying, with their external debt pretty much in free-fall. But if the Comptroller of Nicaragua says no-one's responsible and no crime's been committed, it's scarcely fair to blame the IMF and the World Bank for handing over rich-country taxpayers' money when they know full well it will just be stolen, now is it? Anybody would think it's as if they had some kind of role in poverty alleviation, for Crissakes….

And after all, it isn't just the IMF and the World Bank who let down the poor of Nicaragua with their virtual version of reality. César Gaviria, the secretary General of the OAS, the Organisation of American States (OEA by its' initials in Spanish), was most concerned, in La Prensa on the Saturday before the election that the CSE be the organization that gave the results, as the body responsible for the elections. Any projections by other organization could be very risky, and besides, there had been no indications of fraud: "We have great confidence that the electoral organization, on Sunday, will be one which not only permits the people to express themselves freely, but hopefully and relatively before the dawning of Monday will produce a consolidated electoral result…. " Well quite. Bearing in mind all of the above, I suppose it all depends on how 'liberal' your interpretation of the word 'freely' is, doesn't it?

I had a nightmare last night, where the cupula of the FSLN, used to control after all those years, refused to let go and limped on, grimly clinging to power, in the same, suffocating electoral system. And in 2007, there dawned a day clear and bright, when the fat, gleaming body of Arnoldo Alemán slouched towards Managua like some rough, insatiably hungry beast, awaiting his hour to be reborn, surrounded by the lean, slavering faces of those most corrupt in the PLC, their appetites sharpened by years of waiting. And meanwhile, in our real reality, those hundreds of thousands waited in the baking sun to vote again, watching their own warm sweat roll off the chilled, granite indifference of a pathologically corrupt criollo political class. Not so much lions led by donkeys, for in truth neither the PLC or the FSLN shows any real leadership, but more lions shackled, and forced to crawl behind vultures.

2001 Nicaraguan Elections

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