Nicaragua’s Elections Under the Eagle’s Talons

Against the Current, No. 97, March/April 2002

Phyllis Ponvert

THIS PAST NOVEMBER, 92% of Nicaraguans voted in national elections. While the U.S. government was making its list of terrorist nations, and checking it twice, State Department officials were conducting their own campaign of intimidation designed to influence the outcome of the Nicaraguan election.

I was an observer in the city of Matagalpa, located in the mountainous coffee growing region, and assigned to a polling site at the Carlos Fonseca Elementary School. On election day, the polls opened at 6 am, and people stood in line for hours, a lucky few shielded from the hot sun by colorful umbrellas.

International and Nicaraguan observers were present until the last voters had cast their ballots at 10:30 pm. Then the classroom doors were locked and observers watched as ballots were counted and recounted by hand, then sealed in special bags and taken to a central location in Matagalpa.

Daniel Kovalik, co-Counsel of the United Steel Workers of America, spoke for our delegation when he said, “As an official election observer, I had the honor of watching Nicaraguans, many of them elderly, poor and infirm, stand in line for hours in the hot sun to cast their vote. Simply put, I received a class in democracy.”

But the real winner of the Nicaraguan elections was the U.S. government and the Nicaraguan rich. The losers are the majority of the Nicaraguan people who suffer from poverty, unemployment and lack of health care and education.

While Bush was holding up the U.S. example of democracy, peace and compassion, Nicaraguans were threatened by our government with a return to the 1980s war and blockade if they voted for the Sandinista party (FSLN). While Bush was enjoying a 90% approval rating, U.S. government officials were in Nicaragua intimidating voters by accusing Daniel Ortega of supporting terrorism.

Nicaraguans cast their votes for a president, vice president and deputies for both the National Assembly and the Central American Parliament. The election pitted the right wing Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC) headed by Enrique Bolaños against the National Convergence, a coalition led by the Sandinista party, with Daniel Ortega as the presidential candidate.

Why Did Washington Care?

An election observer’s job is to watch for irregularities while voters go to the polls on election day, and then decide if the election was free or not. But this method is flawed. Just as a democracy is more than a country that holds open elections, it is not enough to declare that an election is free and fair by looking only at what takes place on election day.

The outcome of an election is influenced by the political and economic climate in which the voters go to the polls. Forming parties, choosing candidates, conducting campaigns and voting are all decisions that are informed by current events in the country, and indirectly by the historical background.

In 1979, the Sandinista uprising led by Daniel Ortega ended fifty years of the U.S.-supported Somoza family dictatorship, along with their private army, the National Guard. The Sandinista government’s aspirations included free education and health care for all Nicaraguans. Property was also confiscated from the Somoza family and some large plantation owners.

Seeing this revolutionary success as a dangerous example in “our backyard,” and using the threat of Communism as an excuse to intervene in Nicaragua, the United States under Ronald Reagan recruited and provisioned an army made up of the ex-National Guard and others known as “Contras” to overthrow the Sandinista government.

Beginning in 1980, the U.S. government also pressured international lending agencies not to give aid to Nicaragua. Although international observers declared the 1984 elections to be free and fair, with the Sandinistas winning 67% of the vote, Washington refused to recognize the Sandinista victory, and, in 1985, imposed an economic blockade on the country.

By the late 1980s, many of the Sandinista policies were failing as most of the country’s resources were spent on military defense. Our own election-monitoring delegation was named in honor of one of the victims, Benjamin Linder, the young U.S. engineer murdered by the Contras in 1987.

In 1990, Nicaragua once again held national elections. President George Bush was clear about U.S intentions: a Sandinista victory would mean the continuation of the war and blockade.

Nicaraguans had lost 50,000 of their sons and daughters, and their economy was in ruins. They went to the polls and voted out the Sandinistas. In spite of the climate of fear produced by the ongoing U.S. threats in the election, it was declared to have been free and open in the opinion of hundreds of international observers, and the Sandinistas handed over power to the U.S.-backed UNO coalition.

In the 1996 elections, the Liberal Party (Somoza’s old party) returned to power in the person of Arnoldo Alemán. The current Liberal Party’s corrupt government is tolerated by the United States because it allows U.S. and foreign businesses to operate without fair employment laws and to punish attempts at union organizing. Continuing a long-standing practice, wealthy plantation owners and exporters pay no income taxes.

A steep drop in coffee prices on the world market has forced many farmers in areas such as Matagalpa to lay off their migrant workers, leaving thousands of landless peasants without jobs. Small growers are in debt to the banks and face losing their land.

The present political and economic situation in Nicaragua is even worse than in the 1980s. There is 60% unemployment and severe hunger in rural areas. In the just-concluded election, both the Liberal and the FSLN parties promised to provide more jobs and put an end to government corruption. Enrique Bolaños, a rich plantation owner and businessman, campaigned for increased foreign investment.

This election was Daniel Ortega’s third attempt to recapture the presidency and he has refused to give up leadership of the FSLN. For many older Nicaraguans, Ortega is the symbol of Nicaragua’s finest hour, but he is also remembered for the war and the draft.

Early U.S. Intimidation

In the months before this election, results of Nicaraguan and U.S. opinion polls all showed Ortega was leading Bolaños by 6%. Washington launched a campaign of fear and intimidation designed to influence the outcome of the election.

In June, Lino Gutierrez, ex-Ambassador to Nicaragua and now a State Department official, addressed the Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce. Gutierrez used this opportunity to focus on the upcoming election. “From the perspective of the United States, we will have excellent relations with the next government if it eschews contacts with rogue states that support terrorism or do not otherwise share the values of the world community.”

Gutierrez went on, “I am amazed that anyone who professes to be a democrat can still regard Fidel Castro as the `shining light of the Hemisphere.’ How could anyone who believes in freedom pay homage to Qadaffi, who has a record of supporting international terrorists who kill innocent victims? No, no one in this day and age who lives, breathes and thinks democracy could possibly hold those beliefs.”

In July, Washington put pressure on third party candidate, Conservative Noel Vidaurre, to drop out in order to prevent splitting of the anti-Ortega vote.

U.S. Ambassador to Nicaragua, Oliver Garza, visited Matagalpa with a group of recently arrived U.S. Marines (said to be there to build health clinics and dispense medicines, but an unmistakable symbol of U.S. physical might) and told the crowd that “an Ortega administration would not be in the interests of the United States.”

Pro-Democracy Protest

Against this intimidation campaign, a protest movement took shape in the United States. In June, Bishop Thomas Gumbleton of Detroit circulated the following “Message to the Nicaraguan People” which was signed by over 100 groups and individuals and published in the Nicaraguan newspapers La Prensa and Nuevo Diario:

“We, the undersigned U.S. citizens, wish to express our grave disapproval of our government’s current attempts to influence and undermine the outcome of the upcoming national elections in Nicaragua. We are well aware of the fact that the U.S. government, through the embassy in Managua, is engaged in a campaign to strike fear in the hearts of Nicaraguan voters so as to ensure that candidates favorable to its interests are elected in November.

“We feel compelled as U.S. citizens — some of us Congressional leaders, clergy, educators, entertainers, trade unionists and social activists — to share our belief with the Nicaraguan people that the intervention in the sovereign elections is simply wrong. We hereby protest the reckless, dangerous and arrogant actions of our government.

“The U.S. government has no right to try to influence or determine the outcome of the Nicaraguan elections, just as it had no legal or moral right to militarily intervene in Nicaragua during the 1980s. The U.S. is now trying to raise the specter of such past intervention to scare Nicaraguans into voting the way it wishes . . . .”

Terror After 9-11

After September 11, the United States used the “terrorist” theme in its propaganda, and this was quickly incorporated into the Bolaños campaign. Enormous signs along the streets in Managua proclaimed: NICARAGUA DOES NOT WANT A PRESIDENT WHO IS A FRIEND TO TERRORISTS.

Pro-Bolaños ads on Nicaraguan television showed images of Saddam Hussein, Libya’s Moammar Qadaffi, Fidel Castro, and finally, Osama bin Laden. Then the image faded into Daniel Ortega in a military uniform.

In October, John Keane, an official of the U.S. State Department’s Central American Bureau, told an audience at the University of Pittsburgh that the Sandinistas included people responsible for abominations of human and civil rights. “We cannot forget that Nicaragua became a refuge for violent political extremists from the Middle East, Europe and Latin America . . . Why should we think that things have changed?”

In his final campaign speech, Bolaños confidently told the crowd, “If Ortega comes to power, that would provoke a closing of aid and investment . . . I’m not just saying this. The United States says this too.”

In a grand finale, in case any Nicaraguans didn’t get the message, Florida Governor Jeb Bush wrote an article for the Miami Herald which was reprinted as a full-page ad in a Nicaraguan newspaper.

Spot the Terrorists

In a post-election article in the London Guardian (November 7), Duncan Campbell wrote, “While the U.S. government radar may seem to have been pointed in the direction of Afghanistan and the Middle East, the State Department and many American politicians and officials still found time to use money, free food and propaganda to try to influence the vote in Nicaragua . . . Just at the moment when the U.S. needs to be convincing the world that they do not impose their will to protect their commercial interests with little regard to local people’s desires, the events of the last few weeks in Nicaragua will serve to create more cynicism.”

In sum, “The Sandinistas, a small, disorganized party, in one of the world’s poorest countries, posed no threat to the United States. To link them to terrorism in the wake of September 11 was a cheap and dishonest shot.”

Certainly nothing ominous can be made of friendly relations between the former Ortega government and Cuba. Nearly every government on the planet wishes friendly ties with Cuba. Here the United States is the “rogue” state, defying the civilized world’s opinion and conscience.

For example, in the latest annual United Nations resolution to lift the U.S. embargo on Cuba, 167 nations voted to lift and only three rejected this (Washington and two of its dependencies, Israel and the Marshall Islands).

As with the case of Cuba, there is nothing inherently “suspicious” about friendly relations with Libya. For example, in 1997 in response to U.S. criticism of then-President Nelson Mandela of South Africa for a visit to Libya, Mandela stated:

“How can they have the arrogance to dictate to us where we should go or which countries should be our friends? Qadaffi is my friend. He supported us when we were alone and when those who tried to prevent my visit here today were our enemies. They have no morals. We cannot accept that a state assumes the role of the world’s policeman.”

Additionally, as mentioned above, Ortega’s party oversaw elections in 1984 that were internationally proclaimed free and fair, despite being under severe military attack. And when the party lost the election in 1990, they handed over power peacefully.

Terror Pays Off

Nevertheless, the U.S. terror mongering had its intended effect. Paul Baizerman, the head of our delegation and coordinator of Tecnica (a volunteer organization that has worked since 1984 with Nicaraguan popular organizations and the union movement), wrote in his report:

“September 11 was to mark the end of the FSLN chances. From the day of the tragedy on, the U.S. government and the PLC became relentless in presenting the vote as democracy (PLC) vs terrorism (FSLN). The U.S. made it crystal clear that a Sandinista victory was unacceptable, painting the Sandinistas as terrorists and associating the FSLN with war, repression, shortages and human rights abuses  
. . The implications were another U.S. embargo, or even a possible military campaign against Nicaragua if the FSLN won.”

Nicaraguan friends told Baizerman that many of them would not vote for the FSLN because they were afraid that an FSLN victory would result in increased hardship and violence as a result of U.S. policies. Baizerman continued, “The U.S. government had turned the election into a referendum on whether the Nicaraguan people would vote their interests with their hearts or their fears.”

On election evening, former President Jimmy Carter, in Nicaragua to oversee a fair election said, “I personally disapprove of statements or actions by another country that might tend to influence the votes of a people of another sovereign nation.”

Rev. Miguel D’Escoto, the former Sandinista foreign minister, asked more pointedly, “How is it possible for the United States to talk so much about democracy and then try to intimidate the people of Nicaragua to go to the polls with a pistol at their heads?”

In the end, Bolaños’ PLC beat Ortega’s National Convergence in all the races. PLC candidate Enrique Bolaños won 53.7% of the votes, over FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega’s 44.7% for the Nicaraguan presidency.

“We must congratulate Washington because their intimidation tactics worked,” said Rev. D’Escoto. “They are now into electoral terrorism among a people here where the wounds are still open. We did not lose 5,000 people as in New York, we lost 50,000 in a war that was invented, organized, armed and financed by the United States.”

Get Involved

U.S. interference was not reported by the U.S. media until after the elections. On election day, November 4, the New York Times alluded to U.S. involvement only with the words “the opposition (Bolaños) has been supported in spirit by the U.S. government.” And on Nov. 5 the paper wrote, tepidly, “U.S. officials have declared they will respect the winner of a fair election but hinted at reservations over Mr. Ortega’s past.”

You can reach Tecnica at 718-859-4546, and the author of this article at

from ATC 97 (March/April 2002)