Nicaragua's 1984 Elections—A History Worth the Retelling
These elections have followed a liberal model, but within a revolutionary process. Perhaps the biggest success was the number of votes received by parties other than the FSLN; there has been dissidence and it was expressed. We now see more clearly that the revolutionary conception in 1978 was correct. The vision of the future even then included political pluralism as a basis of this revolution. This pluralism, confirmed in the elections, is one of the new things that our revolution has to teach Latin America and other countries. The contribution of these elections, then, is a revolutionary contribution.
—Leonel Argüello, Supreme Electoral Council member, in an interview with envío, December 1984
What really happened in the 1984 elections? What was the international context and what were the political conditions inside Nicaragua? What obstacles had to be overcome to get to the polls? The 1984 electoral process, buried under successive layers of media distortions in the United States, is worth recounting now, as a reference point for the upcoming elections.
Elections announced; war skyrocketsFrom the very beginning of the revolution, an alleged lack of political pluralism was one of the Reagan Administration's most frequently used arguments to attack the Sandinistas. In early 1982, President Reagan began to call on the Nicaraguan government to hold "free elections," even though Decree 513 of September 10, 1980 had established that they would take place in 1985. Moving the elections forward also became an ongoing demand of Nicaragua's political opposition.
In late 1983, with tensions running high after the US invasion of Grenada, the Council of State, Nicaragua's provisional post-revolutionary legislature, began discussion of an electoral law. It also passed the Political Parties Law, which gave all Nicaraguan parties the right to "opt for political power," a formulation highly debated at the time. At the end of the year, elections were announced for 1984, one year before the original plan. And on February 21, 1984, at the 50th commemoration of the assassination of Sandino, the date was set: November 4, two days before the US presidential elections.
Internationally, the announcement was well received—except by the very government that had demanded it so stridently. "The United States wants to see realities behind the rhetoric," warned Secretary of State George Shultz. The Kissinger Commission's report on Central America, released on January 10, expressed "lack of confidence" in the seriousness of Nicaragua's announcement and proposed it be put to the test by including the "insurgents" in the election process. Shortly afterward, the administration also demanded that the elections be "supervised." Richard Stone, roving US ambassador to Central America, traveled through the region pushing these two conditions and seeking allies to pressure the Sandinistas to submit to them. If Nicaragua does not accept the demands, the Kissinger Commission counseled, the US should not discard the use of force "as a last resort."
Moving up the elections also touched off a strong response inside Nicaragua itself. The coalition called the "Coordinadora," made up at that time of the Social Democratic Party, the Liberal Constitutionalists, the Social Christians and one faction of the Conservatives, published a document on December 26, 1983, setting nine preconditions for its participation. Two were the same points the US had demanded: foreign supervision of the elections and national dialogue, including with "those who have taken up arms," to "determine the form and content of the elections." Most of the other points would have been more appropriate as campaign positions than preconditions. "They want to win the elections before even signing up," chided Daniel Ortega, then Coordinator of the Government Junta. Even Mauricio Díaz, head of the Popular Social Christian Party, recognized that "they are asking, purely and simply, for the FSLN to begin to dismantle its own structures."
The FSLN opposed both US conditions. It argued against negotiating with the contras because it held them responsible for the 50,000 deaths caused by Somoza's repression and for the nearly 8,000 deaths that had resulted by then from the war. Instead, the FSLN called for talks with the United States, which was financing, training and directing the contras. With respect to foreign supervision of the elections, the FSLN called it an affront to national sovereignty and to Sandino's memory, as he had expressly opposed this traditional US practice in Nicaragua. In place of supervision, the FSLN proposed inviting international observers from the United Nations, the Contadora Group of four Latin American presidents, the Socialist, Liberal and Christian Democratic Internationals, and the Nonaligned Movement.
The six parties not in the Coordinadora—the Democratic Conservatives, Independent Liberals, Popular Social Christians, Communists, Socialists and the Marxist-Leninist Popular Action Movement—rejected the US conditions and readied themselves to engage in an electoral battle for power.
International personalities such as West German Social Democratic leader Hans Juergen Wischnewski, Vice President of the Socialist International, and Carlos Andrés Pérez, ex-President of Venezuela, were the first to back the Nicaraguan government's decision. The Contadora Group, in its search for a negotiated solution to the Central American conflict, supported Nicaragua's elections as a concrete expression of the 21 "general objectives" agreed to by all the Central American presidents on January 9, 1984. These objectives dealt with five major categories: peace, democracy, national security, economy and human rights.
For its part, the US not only stepped up its political pressures, but also escalated the military aggression. In February 1984, mines were planted in Nicaragua's harbors. Henry Kissinger and US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick justified this action—which The New York Times called a "handmade blockade"—as "legal" because Nicaragua was "carrying out an armed action against its neighbors." The CIA's mining of the harbors, revealed in great detail during the Iran-Contragate scandal, aimed at further eroding Nicaragua's already weakened economy and destabilizing the country to a degree that would make the elections impossible.
Furthermore, in the months following the announcement of the elections, 6,000 newly trained contras infiltrated into Nicaragua, backed up by $21 million in congressionally approved funds. The US government also organized three major military maneuvers as a warning to Nicaragua: Granadero I, only five miles from the Honduran border; Ocean Venture 84, in the Caribbean Sea; and Guardians of the Gulf, in the Gulf of Fonseca. "With elections or without them we will continue our policy of pressure on Nicaragua," were George Shultz's words.
The Nicaraguan government responded with an international campaign denouncing the Reagan Administration's "state terrorism." It appealed to Contadora, which condemned the mining on April 8, and to the UN Security Council, and formally accused the US government at the International Court of The Hague.
Organizing the elections: A tough challengeOn March 15, 1984, after much debate, the Council of State finally approved an electoral law. Among its most controversial points were the minimum voting age (approved as 16 years) and the minimum age to run for president and vice-president (25 years) as well as for the National Assembly (21 years). Others included whether registration and voting should be obligatory (both are a right, not a duty) and whether military personnel should be allowed to vote (they are).
The electoral calendar was fixed, with candidate enrollment lasting from May 25 to July 25, voter registration from July 27 to 30, and the electoral campaign itself from August 4 to November 2.
The Government Junta named the three members (later extended to five) of the new Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), which would function as the fourth branch of government. The CSE was given full responsibility for organizing the elections.
The CSE had to start almost from scratch. Its main objective was to overcome the only image Nicaraguans had of elections—under Somoza they had been organized from beginning to end for fraud and coercion. To do this meant rethinking every detail, from the kind of cloth to use for the curtain on the voting booth (during Somoza's reign it was transparent) to establishing electoral districts (they had to work from population estimates since a census had not been taken for years).
Another challenge was to prepare all the volunteers who would work on the local voter boards. Training sessions were held throughout the country, snowball fashion, lasting anywhere from two to eight days. In all, 40,000 people were trained as CSE volunteers.
The electoral costs covered by the state budget—including financing for all political parties—came to some $14 million. It is calculated that 300 tons of paper were used, for which the CSE received $1.5 million in international aid. Sweden, Norway and Finland donated the paper to print the ballots and other CSE materials and to fill the publicity needs of the parties. France gave 30 telexes for receiving data from the local polling places, and Finland donated calculators for the accountants working in the computation center installed in Managua as well as indelible ink for voters' fingers. Swedish experts also offered advice in organizing the technical aspects of the process.
Political doors open; Coordinadora exitsThe Coordinadora used the open electoral process guaranteed by the new law solely to broadcast its abstentionist option. On the first day of party registration, it issued another communiqué pegging its participation to fulfillment of the nine points of its December 1983 document, with special emphasis on dialogue with the contras. Just a month earlier, on Easter Sunday, Nicaragua's Bishops' Conference had released a pastoral letter with the same message, provoking the most intense verbal confrontation between the government and the Church hierarchy in five years of revolution.
La Prensa attacked all parties that had decided to participate in the elections, focusing particularly on the Independent Liberals (PLI) and the Democratic Conservatives (PCD). It accused both of "collaborationism," and relentlessly ridiculed PLI candidate Virgilio Godoy (the current UNO vice-presidential candidate). The daily refused to publish any party or government publicity that might legitimize the elections, including CSE public service notices such as dates and places of voter registration.
While this was taking place in Nicaragua, the debate on Nicaragua and Central America was heating up in the United States. Reagan needed to soften his militarist image, since his Central America policy was not popular. To deny the Democrats the Central America issue, the administration decided to give a sign of flexibility.
Thus, on July 1, George Shultz made a surprise stop in the Managua airport to "dialogue" with the Sandinista government. His arrival coincided with one of the contras' most important military-propagandistic failures—their frustrated attempt to take the northern city of Ocotal. Shultz's visit was the first step in the US-Nicaragua negotiations known as the "Manzanillo talks"—named after the city in Mexico where the later encounters were held. By mutual accord, the content of those talks was never made public, but their paralysis immediately after the US elections suggests their cosmetic nature.
Meanwhile, the Nicaraguan government announced to the 300,000 people who turned out in Managua to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the revolution that it would almost entirely lift the state of emergency during the campaign. The rights to freedom of movement, to meetings and public demonstrations, to strike and to habeas corpus were all reestablished, as was freedom of expression, with the single exception of military information. The amnesty law decreed in December 1983 was also extended through the elections, and prisoners serving sentences for activities violating the emergency law were released.
Who was that masked man?The Coordinadora named banker Arturo Cruz as its presidential candidate on July 21, when the parties in the alliance were not yet sure they would participate. While still in Washington, where he worked for the Inter-American Development Bank, Cruz claimed that he was sure to win if given "time and freedom."
Cruz's return to Nicaragua was one of several big surprises in the electoral campaign: despite all the propaganda in La Prensa, only some 400 people came to receive him at the airport. Upon his arrival, Cruz threatened to abstain if the government did not fulfill the Coordinadora's nine points—even though the relevant ones were already being implemented. Cruz also added his voice to the ultimatum that a "dialogue of national reconciliation," to include the contra leaders, was the "basic condition" for the Coordinadora's participation in the elections. He called the electoral process a "farce" and labeled the Electoral Law, debated for months by all the parties including those in the Coordinadora, "political extortion." In press conferences, Cruz presented himself as a "mediator" between the revolutionary government and the counterrevolutionaries—whom he referred to as "friends" and with whom he acknowledged being in contact.
For days, the Coordinadora> organized demonstrations in which one could hear slogans such as, "With Arturo as president, we'll have toothpaste again!" In Chinandega and Matagalpa these gatherings, the largest of which had a turnout of only 3,000 people, ended in clashes between Sandinista and Coordinadora sympathizers. Cruz's visit was so brief it prompted a major US newsweekly to lead its article with a quote from a befuddled Nicaraguan who mused, "Who was that masked man?" Some US media even remarked that his reception had been much smaller than hoped for. In the end, after all the expectations created, the Coordinadora did not register its candidates in the time stipulated by the Electoral Law, nor did it do so when the deadline was extended until the first day of the campaign.
In accord with the Electoral Law, the Coordinadora parties lost their legal status by abstaining from the elections. They maintained a presence, however, through the pages of La Prensa, and through meetings, assemblies and even open-air demonstrations—the latter prohibited them by law since they were no longer registered parties. For the next two months, the Coordinadora continued to threaten that there would be a "bloodbath" if its conditions were not met. Given the climate created by such declarations, their demonstrations led to violent street altercations in León, Boaco and Masaya.
The parties participating in the electoral process criticized the Coordinadora's abstention, although for very different reasons. Virgilio Godoy accused the Coordinadora parties of collaborating in the continuation of the FSLN, despite the fact that his own party, the PLI, threatened throughout the campaign to abstain as well. Socialist Party candidate Domingo Sanchez accused them of "backing Reagan with their intransigent position." PPSC candidate Mauricio Diaz called the Coordinadora's posture a "cushy" one, proposed "from Washington." For the FSLN, on the other hand, the Coordinadora had simply "committed political suicide" by abstaining, since it thus marginalized itself from the drafting of Nicaragua's new Constitution, the fundamental task to be taken up by the newly elected National Assembly.
Voter registration: Another big surpriseVoter registration took place in the last days of July. Organizing the process, from the printing of registration forms and voter IDs to the preparation of publicity urging people to register, was a sizeable part of the CSE's challenge. The lack of any national system of identification, together with the desire to create fraud-proof mechanisms, led the Supreme Electoral Council to establish a "civic booklet" to be given to each citizen who registered. On election day, the voter would turn it back in as identification at the polling place, where it would be retained by officials.
The CSE's biggest fear was abstention. Its worry was not so much that people would not want to participate, even though the Coordinadora had promoted abstention up to a few days before registration. Rather, it was the tense military situation in some zones, the lack of a healthy voting tradition among the populace, and the defects that might surface at any point in the new infrastructure designed by the CSE.
No one was prepared for the registration results. The number of eligible voters had been estimated at 1,665,528; at the end of the four registration periods 1,551,597 had signed up. A Reagan Administration spokesperson did not hide his initial perplexity: "We cannot explain what is moving Nicaraguans to register." The high level of participation surprised even Nicaragua's government, which had never expected anything so ordered or so massive. (The National Institute of Statistics and Census was forced to reformulate its population estimates.) The registration was interpreted as a vote of confidence in the process itself and a guarantee that the logistics necessary to assure participation and order on voting day were now "tested" and assured.
The electoral campaign would last three months, triple the time of Britain's campaign, double that of Spain and a third longer than the post-primary campaign in the United States. The state provided roughly $250,000 to each of the seven participating parties, independent of their size, to help defray campaign costs such as media time, gasoline, print materials and the like.
The Electoral Law gave each party the right to purchase, per week, up to 30 minutes on TV and 45 minutes on each of the state radio stations. Private radio stations were obliged to sell a minimum of 5 minutes a day to each party desiring it, with the exception of the two religious stations, Radio Cató1ica and Ondas de Luz, which were not allowed to publicize any party. The parties agreed to each take two rotating 15-minute slots per week on the two TV channels, both state-owned. Channel 6, which has the largest audience of the two, offered its space during prime time. For the last month of the campaign, the state halved the price of both its TV and radio time.
The national newspapers were under no specific obligations. La Prensa never published a single line from any party during the whole campaign. Barricada, the FSLN's party paper, only carried FSLN ads, but gave broad news coverage to all the parties' activities. El Nuevo Diario published ads for all parties.
And still the war ground on; 40 registration centers could not open given contra presence in their zones. The US military threat also continued. On August 8, with the electoral campaign just inaugurated, the US battleship Iowa dropped anchor in the Pacific waters off Central America. The Iowa was a veritable floating barracks, carrying 1,200 Marines as well as projectiles capable of reaching the Nicaraguan capital. Gerald Gnockow, the ship's captain, declared that "if my government orders me to intervene in any Central American country, I have the capacity to do it." To such end, the Iowa had recently been modernized at a cost of $400 million.
Contadora takes a step forward, the US takes two backwardBy early September the Contadora Group, made up of the presidents of Colombia, Mexico, Panama and Venezuela, had been working 20 months to prevent the US-Nicaragua conflict from engulfing the whole region militarily; it had just drafted a Central America peace treaty which Nicaragua was showing some reluctance to sign. To move forward, Contadora would have to 1) revise the treaty taking Nicaragua's concerns into account, 2) commit the US to the peace process and 3) avoid the Nicaragua issue from being taken up in the Organization of American States, where the Latin American countries' level of autonomy from the US had always been scant.
On September 7, it presented a revised treaty, eliminating the demand for a national reconciliation dialogue with the insurgent forces of the various Central American countries. This undercut the US effort to challenge the legitimacy of Nicaragua's electoral process by conditioning it on such talks. Second, it opened the treaty's additional protocol on non-intervention to the signature of any country in the world. This significantly strengthened the protocol's weight, since in the first version it was only to have been signed by outside countries directly involved in the Central American conflict (United States, Soviet Union and Cuba). And, finally, the foreign ministers of the four Contadora countries personally delivered the new draft treaty to the 39th General Assembly of the United Nations, thus avoiding the danger that the issue could get swallowed up by the OAS.
On September 21, government junta coordinator Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's foreign minister, Father Miguel D'Escoto, formally announced Nicaragua's decision to accept the revised treaty "in its totality and sign it immediately, without any modifications." Nicaragua was the first Central American country to announce its position on the new text, accepting it fully. It would also be the only one.
The Reagan Administration tasted gall at Nicaragua's decision. In the previous days, it had been portraying Nicaragua as the "intransigent" country that was hindering peace and boycotting Contadora. It even speculated that Daniel Ortega, in his speech to the UN General Assembly, planned to explain why Nicaragua could not sign the treaty.
Making a quick though transparent recovery, the US pressured its Central American allies to make some "necessary modifications" to the draft. Soon the four other governments of the region were all grumbling that the treaty was deficient and would require a new round of negotiations.
But even these manipulations were overshadowed by the administration's new military escalation. Nicaragua was now threatened by 9,000 more contras on the Honduran border. In his UN speech, Ortega alerted the world's delegations that "the military offensive will be ready by October 15. US forces are also ready for an eventual bombardment, landing and direct incursion in Nicaragua. The Central American governments are prepared to formally solicit 'help' from the United States. Even estimates of US casualties in carrying out the intervention are already prepared. It is a repetition of the shameful feat in Grenada, now against Nicaragua."
And while the threat of direct intervention hung over Nicaragua's head, the ground war spread. Official reports from August and September listed 202 combats, leaving 286 contras and 75 government soldiers dead.
Seven parties lock hornsElection year was thus one of the hardest of the counterrevolutionary war, and the vision of a post-election future was murky. The FSLN did not dare, as it has in 1989, to use the electoral slogan, "Everything will be better."
The electoral campaign was austere, weak in the publicity and advertising resources that are the stuff of elections. Just the four-color ballots, one of the most notable products of the campaign, cost weeks of effort and nearly $200,000 to print.
The seven parties initiated their campaigns in August. The Independent Liberal party's candidates, Virgilio Godoy and Constantino Pereira, were put forward as the peace candidates. "In a country where war takes first place, there can be no well-being or peace for the people. Voting for the PLI, we are voting for peace," said one of its radio slogans. The PLI interpreted the war as "an affair of those who govern us" and "an experiment of the two great powers." It also launched a campaign against "internationalists"—foreigners working in Nicaragua in support of revolutionary projects. In all the PLI's gatherings, Godoy promised that if he won he would kick them all out of the country.
The Democratic Conservative party had as its candidates Clemente Guido and Mercedes Rodríguez (widow of Conservative General Emiliano Chamorro, who signed the so-called Generals' Pact with Somoza). The PCD defined itself as centrist, claiming in one of its radio slots that "we are the middle class fighting for your rights!" In his public appearances, Guido taught the electorate what he called his "prayer of freedom," to be prayed "every night before going to bed to gain courage to vote for the Conservative Party." The prayer was simple: "De frente contra el Frente" (Forward against the Front), a play on the FSLN's own slogan, "De frente con el Frente" (Forward with the Front).
The Socialist Party candidates were party founder Domingo Sánchez Sancho (expelled from the party in 1989 for opposing its participation in UNO) and Adolfo Everstz. At the start, the Socialists wanted "all the revolutionary forces" to enter the elections united: "We are political and ideological brothers of the FSLN," Sánchez said various times, "and we care for the revolutionary process like the child of our dreams." He proposed a "revolution in the revolution" to combat the opportunism, bureaucratism and "overbearing sectarianism" that he claimed were skewing it. He also criticized US imperialism and supported strengthening the country's military defense.
The Popular Social Christian Party ran Mauricio Díaz and Guillermo Mejía, and in its campaign emphasized its Christian nature with slogans such as "Christians to power," "We Christians are peace" and "Revolution yes, but Christian."
The Communist Party of Nicaragua candidates were Allan Zambrana and Manuel Pérez Estrada. The PCdeN's campaign was the most somber of all, dryly emphasizing the "non-revolutionary" nature of the Sandinista government's economic program, from its mixed economy to its salary policy.
The candidates of the Popular Action Movement-ML were Isidro Téllez and Juan Alberto Henríquez. Their campaign was characterized by strong criticisms both of the government's economic policy and of imperialism. They implicitly called Sandinismo "social democratic" and explicitly declared that their campaign was not to ask for votes but to "get to the minds of the workers." One of the party's slogans was "Not one vote to the bourgeoisie! Bullets for imperialism."
The FSLN ran Daniel Ortega and Sergio Ramírez, whose campaign offered no promises of improvement. "The FSLN responsibly declares to the people that the possibilities of rapidly raising living standards are very limited," said official campaign documents. The FSLN's 70,000 activists focused on house-to-house visits throughout the country, speaking unhesitatingly about the continuation of the war and the difficult economic perspectives.
Rio de Janeiro: Coordinadora's burial groundFrom the moment the elections were announced, the Coordinadora tried to present itself internally and internationally as the only "legitimate opposition." Although never admitting to this, the government bent over backward to persuade the Coordinadora to abandon its abstentionist position. It got the Supreme Electoral Council to extend the deadline for candidate registration twice and successfully appealed to the Council of Political Parties to return the Coordinadora's legal status, but all to no avail.
On October 2, the FSLN made its final effort. During a Socialist International meeting in Rio de Janeiro, FSLN National Directorate member Bayardo Arce met with Arturo Cruz to negotiate the participation of the Coordinadora in the elections. West German Social Democrats Willy Brandt and Hans Juergen Wischnewsky witnessed the talks, as did Carlos Andrés Pérez.
Bayardo Arce freely acceded to 20 Coordinadora demands, including more government funds for paper, more time in the media, and the like. Its key demand, however, was that the elections be postponed for up to a year. Drawing on Cruz's claim to be a mediator with the contras, Arce agreed to a two-month postponement, but on the condition that Cruz persuade the contras to lay down their arms and leave Nicaragua before October 25. Cruz seemed at the point of accepting, but before doing so excused himself to call Managua. When he returned to the table a few minutes later, he suddenly claimed he had no authority to sign any definitive agreement.
Since this had not been the original understanding, Arce interpreted the shift as another delaying tactic and walked angrily out of the talks. The collapse of the negotiations, barely a month before the elections, left the Coordinadora parties to their chosen fate; the elections would go ahead as scheduled, without them. While the outcome was widely reported in the United States and by the Coordinadora itself as the result of Arce's "hard-line" posture, Willy Brandt had a different take: "The train has left the station and [the Coordinadora] wasn't on it." On another occasion he added, "There is no reason to commit the error of thinking that the only opposition group is that of Dr. Cruz." Comandante Tomas Borge was equally succinct in his evaluation: "The FSLN was as desirous that the Coordinadora register as the Coordinadora was not to register."
Such recalcitrance could be interpreted simply as the Coordinadora's unwillingness to participate in elections in which it knew it would show badly. But it should not be separated from the Reagan Administration's own maneuvering for a postponement of the elections ever since the Nicaraguan government had announced their date. Given the FSLN's still obvious popularity, the Reagan Administration can only have wanted a free hand after its own reelection to see to it that Nicaragua's elections not be held at all.
The US-backed Coordinadora was not the only source of pre-election tension. Another revolved around the official position the Nicaraguan bishops would take regarding the elections. In all their public declarations, both then-Archbishop Obando y Bravo and Bishop Pablo Vega expressed skepticism about the "lack of conditions" for an open electoral process. Then Father Bismarck Carballo, one of Obando's most trusted assistants, began to circulate the rumor that a pastoral letter on the subject was about to be released.
In fact, the letter never materialized. The bishops' Easter letter calling for dialogue with the counterrevolutionaries had already caused an open break in church-state relations. That, combined with the trip of a Sandinista delegation to the Vatican in September, had deepened the lack of consensus already existing in the Bishops' Conference. Instead of a pastoral letter, there was collective silence. Only Bishop Vega, on October 25, wrote a long, and personal, pastoral letter filled with vitreous criticisms of the Sandinista government. It, too, was met with silence from the rest of the bishops.
Would-be abstainersWhile the Coordinadora used the results of the Rio negotiations as an argument against the elections internationally, inside the country they served to finally define the players. Up to that point, the six participating opposition parties had been upstaged by the Coordinadora. They rightly complained that, abroad, the Coordinadora had been puffed up into the "only legitimate opposition" and that, thanks to the FSLN, the same thing had occurred domestically.
A "political parties' summit," as it was called, was held between October 9 and 20. Although the Coordinadora was invited, it did not attend. In seven rounds of talks—60 hours in all—the opposition parties, particularly Virgilio Godoy's PLI, jockeyed for more post-electoral political space before testing their weight at the ballot boxes. On October 20 they all signed an accord outlining the country's political future. The document addressed the periodicity of future elections, freedom of expression, mobilization, trade union freedom, property guarantees and the non-party character of communal organizations, among other issues.
The very next day brought the biggest surprise of the whole campaign: the PLI announced that it was abandoning the contest. The decision had been made that same day in the PLI's National Convention by a vote of 94 delegates to 20 after 7 hours of debate. The following night, Godoy announced his reasons on television: there were no guarantees for the public to express itself and peace would not be gained with the elections.
La Prensa, which had been mercilessly trashing the PLI as collaborationist, curiously changed its tune the day before the PLI's convention (the day the accord was signed). Following the PLI's announcement, contra radio stations in Honduras and Costa Rica applauded Godoy's decision, citing it as definitive proof that the elections were illegitimate and "without conditions."
Godoy presented his decision in written form to the CSE a week later, only five days before the elections, requesting the withdrawal of the PLI's emblem from the already-printed ballots. Referring to the terms of the Electoral Law, the CSE declared that the ballots could no longer be altered, and that any votes for the PLI would be counted as valid.
The CSE's decision catalyzed the PLI dissidents. Godoy's own running mate, Constantino Pereira, called on party members to vote in spite of Godoy. "The parties and the candidates belong to the people," he said on TV. "The PLI is a party that respects the laws and acts legally."
Pereira, who said that his objective was to unify the PLI around a patriotic stance, later charged that "someone" had offered Godoy the presidential candidacy in a coalition of opposition parties in future elections, in which victory would be assured. "It was a last-minute decision," Pereira declared after the elections, "a kind of compromise born of pride and arrogance fed by the promise that he could be president."
Then, on October 28, the Democratic Conservative Party celebrated its own National Convention to decide the same issue. Like the PLI, the Conservatives were split, but the faction that wanted to go to the elections, led by presidential candidate Clemente Guido, defeated the abstentionist proposal pushed by PCD coordinator Enrique Sotelo Borgen. Such perturbations did not contribute to a climate of peace in the already tense week before the vote.
And through it all, the counterrevolutionaries continued their terrorist activities, among them a mortar attack on the peasant settlement of San Gregorio, Nueva Segovia on October 29, in which six children were killed. The image of those children laid out on a crude wood table, "innocent saints" of the contra war, became a symbol of what was taking place in Nicaragua.
During that week, Managua had been filling with nearly 500 observers and invited guests from 21 countries, as well as 1,000 journalists. One group of US observers listened aghast to Bishop Vega's views on the deaths of San Gregorio's children: "To kill the soul is worse than to kill the body. Here there is an ideology that the other is my enemy, and for this reason a bomb put in the soul is very serious."
November 4—A historic dayBy October 31, everything was ready for election day. "We've done it all in only eight months," Roberto Everstz, head of the CSE Electoral Affairs Department, said proudly. "In a normal situation all this would have required up to three years."
That same day terrifying explosions came from the skies over Nicaragua. It was the first over-flight of the sleek, black SR-71, the most sophisticated spy plane in the US fleet. The famed "Blackbird" entered the country over the port of El Bluff in the southeast and in only seven minutes it exited over the port of Corinto in the northwest. As it raced unseen over Managua, it intentionally produced window-rattling sonic booms. The flights crisscrossed the country every day thereafter until November 8.
Two days before the elections, the FSLN held its closing demonstration of the campaign in the new plaza constructed at the edge of Lake Managua. With 300,000 Managuans in attendance, it was unquestionably the largest and most festive of the 250 demonstrations held anywhere in the country in the 94 days of campaigning. But FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega was not in a festive mood. "We must push ourselves, in the true sense of the word, to prepare for the defense of Managua," he urged. "We must ready ourselves to face intervention at any moment." The omens were alarming. By that day seven election officials had been killed by the counterrevolutionaries; the eighth, an electoral police officer, was ambushed on a road in the Matagalpa mountains on election day itself.
On November 4, starting at 6:15 in the morning, Nicaragua awoke to simultaneous election coverage on all radio stations, with frequent reference to the "hour of dignity." At that same moment, Father Carballo spoke on the Voice of America: "As a priest I have no political opinions," he said. "Who should give such opinions are the parties, but the parties have said that these elections are illegitimate."
Only after some days was it learned that 16 of the 3,892 polling places, located in border regions and in the central Atlantic, had been unable to open or function normally due to contra harassment. The other polling places opened their doors to journalists and observers from all over the world. There were two separate ballots: one for president and vice president, and the other for representatives to the National Assembly, the legislative body that would replace the provisional Council of State.
The atmosphere was so calm that La Prensa and like-minded media conjured up the image of an unhappy people forced to vote. "We insisted so much in the training sessions on the solemnity of the moment and on the sovereignty of the vote," concluded Evertsz, "that everyone interpreted it with maximum seriousness." CSE member Leonel Argüello added that he had also been surprised by the people's discipline. "The same thing happened during registration. It seemed like the people were going into a church; they didn't talk." One of the Swedish observers said he felt like he was in his own country.
By that night, the first figures suggested more than 80% participation. The radio chain called on citizens to celebrate the triumph, even though concrete figures on the winner were not yet available. There were dances and piñatas in towns and cities all over the country, "like Christmas," said one reveler. In Managua, over 100,000 people danced until dawn, celebrating a historic day: these were the first elections held in Nicaragua against the will of the United States.
The next day Barricada ran the banner headline: "Victory of Sandino in free elections." EI Nuevo Diario's top headline was: "The people won." La Prensa's was: "Voting under tremendous apathy."
MiGged election resultsSeveral days later, while signs of Finland's indelible ink could still be seen on the thumbs of voters, the results were published. Of the 1,551,597 citizens registered in July, 1,170,142 voted (75.41%). The national averages of valid votes for president were:
Given that the US and the Coordinadora had proposed abstention, they interpreted the 25% who abstained as belonging to them. In the view of other analysts, however, the two main abstaining sectors were combatants mobilized by the war who could not vote, and peasants who had difficulty getting to the polls in isolated war zones.
The contras themselves had mounted a campaign encouraging people to go to the polls, but to nullify their ballot by making erroneous markings or writing insults. The null votes, however, were only 6% of the total.
Percentages for National Assembly representatives were very similar to those the parties had received for their presidential candidate. The electoral quotient needed to win one of the 90 National Assembly seats was obtained by dividing the number of valid votes in each region by the number of representatives that had been assigned to each region, proportional to its population. Each party's "left over" votes—those insufficient to earn it a seat in a given region—were then added together and re-tallied nationally. The seats earned in this second count went to the next candidate on the party's slate in the regions where it had come closest to winning on the first round. In addition, any party getting at least 1% of the presidential vote (which all six losing parties did) was allowed a seat for its defeated presidential candidate. The final composition of the National Assembly was thus:
The international observer delegations unanimously ratified the honesty of the voting process they had seen. A joint delegation from the Washington Office on Latin America and the International Human Rights Group spoke of "an efficient and honest electoral system." The Irish delegation, made up of parliamentarians of various parties, concluded: "We believe that the elections in Nicaragua were free and honest. The electoral process was carried out with total integrity. We have no doubt regarding the validity of the election results." A Canadian religious and human rights delegation called the Electoral Law "excellent" and praised the elections themselves as "well administered in exceptionally difficult conditions." A Dutch church delegation said that "to the question of whether the elections on November 4 constituted a step toward pluralistic democracy, we would respond affirmatively."
Even the less enthusiastic conclusions, such as those of the European Parliament's official delegation, were positive: "The fact that the opposition parties won 32% of the votes means 1) that the Sandinistas have benefited from their identification with a victorious revolution; and 2) that Nicaragua is not presently a totalitarian state, although the capacities and courage of the elected and non-elected opposition will be vital in determining whether democracy will thrive in Nicaragua or whether this country will gradually slip in the direction of a one-party regime."
These were not the conclusions the Reagan Administration had wanted to hear. The Nicaraguan elections were not the farce predicted in the United States.
On November 6, the US population cast its own vote for president. Reagan won as expected, but no one expected what happened next. With the results of both the US and the Nicaraguan elections just about to be announced, the Reagan Administration upstaged them with the MiG scandal.
Announcing the supposed shipment of MiG jet fighters about to arrive in Nicaragua aboard a Soviet ship, the US government threatened to take "all necessary measures," not excluding intervention, to prevent their offloading in the port of Corinto. The United States charged that Nicaragua's acquisition of such planes would create a dangerous disequilibrium in the Central American balance of military strength, thus posing a threat to US national security. (No mention was made of Honduras' outsized fleet of fighter jets.) Reagan, Shultz and Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger all made aggressive declarations that night.
Within the next 48 hours, the Soviet ship Bakuriani—which was only carrying farm machinery—was intercepted in the channel to Corinto by a US war frigate. After the Blackbird made its November 8 over-flight, the Voice of America broadcast the intercepted signal of La Voz de Nicaragua, a state radio station, as "a test" of its ability. (That also occurred in Grenada just before the US invasion of that tiny island.) That same day the US government announced that several of its best-trained land divisions—among them the 82nd Airborne, which had participated in the taking of Grenada—had been mobilized. It also announced massive new military maneuvers in the area.
Nicaragua's newly elected government quickly put all its armed forces and civil defense units on alert, fearing air attacks or a massive invasion of the capital. It also called the UN Security Council and mobilized its political and diplomatic contacts around the world. The 20,000 student volunteers who were to leave imminently to pick the coffee ripening in the mountains were told to stay in Managua and train as combatants to reinforce the defense of the capital.
Thus, within days of the FSLN and Republican Party victories in their respective elections, the Nicaragua-US conflict entered one of its must acute phases. With the observers' positive appraisals successfully blacked out in the US media by the MiG crisis, Reagan freely and repeatedly declared Nicaragua's elections a "sham." "It is the revolution's most critical moment," said Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua's new president.
The anticipated invasion never came, but the other 9,000 contras did. By mid-1985, they were awarded $100 million in military funding from a US Congress that felt "betrayed" by President Ortega's visit to the Soviet Union. (Not even congressional liberals acknowledged that Ortega's long-planned trip to seek critically-needed new oil contracts included visits to Western European heads of state or that it only coincided with the vote because Congress had dragged its feet for months.) It would not be long before President Reagan would again begin the call for new "open and honest" elections.