Herty Lewites’ sudden and shocking death on July 2
changed Nicaragua’s electoral race even before the
candidates had taken up their positions at the starting gate.
How enduring will the changes brought by his death be
and in what direction will they tip the odds?
Just as the presidential candidates were moving into position for the official starting bell of this year’s electoral race, Herty Lewites’ heart stopped beating. Lewites was the dark-horse Sandinista candidate who, following a highly successful term as mayor of Managua, had excited so many dispersed Sandinista energies in January 2005 by announcing he would run against FSLN leader and perennial candidate Daniel Ortega in the party’s presidential primary. When that audacity led to Lewites’ expulsion from the party he had belonged to for 25 years, he formed the Movement for the Rescue of Sandinismo, which today is part of the MRS Alliance, on whose ticket he was running. His affable personality and his identity as a non-sectarian, “modern” Sandinista quickly became the alliance’s main political and electoral asset. From the outset, he was the candidate with the most positive image among the population, and the best shot at pulling the sizable number of voters who claim no party affiliation.
Although his originally stellar ratings declined over the year, as other candidates with more powerful party machinery and/or a more bulging campaign chest gained on him, most polls showed both a fairly close race among the top four candidates and a still significant number of undecided voters. His death has introduced a powerful thread of memory and unrealized hope into the electoral weave. It is a political and emotional factor as unpredictable as the death that triggered it.
Unanticipated death,Over the past year, all electoral analyses have included the hypothesis of what would happen if the state institutions controlled by Daniel Ortega inhibited Herty Lewites from running. If that didn’t occur at the time of the official candidate registration, it was because the FSLN calculated that letting Lewites run aided its strategy of keeping the Right divided: his potential pool of votes was not the diehard Ortega supporters within his former party, but rather the anti-pact electorate also courted by Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN-PC) candidate Eduardo Montealegre. Lewites’ candidacy could keep Montealegre from pulling too far ahead of Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) candidate José Rizo and thus possibly winning the four-horse race in the first round, or worse yet leading the PLC to bow out and throw its support behind Montealegre.
In the end, however, it was not the Supreme Electoral Council that inhibited Lewites’ candidacy. It was a heart attack on the afternoon of Sunday, July 2. The MRS Alliance, a project still in formation, reacted with surprising agility, giving a major signal of its maturity. On Sunday night, various spokes-people announced that the Alliance would not pull out of the race, and the next day proclaimed Herty its “spiritual candidate,” announcing that his friendly face and enviable political record would continue to be part of the campaign. On Wednesday, after a three-day period of mourning announced by President Bolaños and Lewites’ burial in his birthplace of Jinotepe, the new ticket was announced. Herty’s chosen running mate, Sandinista politician, diplomat and economist Edmundo Jarquín, would move up to the presidential slot and the internationally known and popular singer-songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy would step in as the vice presidential candidate.
It was a question of life or death for the MRS Alliance. If it couldn’t quickly shake off the pain and shock of Lewites’ death and show that it was the stuff that ruling parties are made of by seamlessly presenting a new candidate, the Alliance would have died with him.
That “three candidate ticket,” as Carlos Mejía called it, now faces a colossal challenge. It must consolidate and increase the political capital that former mayor of Managua Lewites built; nail down the campaign financing that business leader Lewites guaranteed the Alliance; and keep alive the hope for a clean and caring government that Sandinista Lewites represented. The challenge for the MRS Alliance is even greater. It must channel all its energies into creating a nationwide campaign that can compete with three other candidates who have superior party machinery and/or significantly more money.
An irreplaceable man, Herty Lewites is irreplaceable. He was an unusually successful mayor of Managua (2000-2004) and then openly, tenaciously and courageously challenged the all-powerful Daniel Ortega, doing it all with a smile. He also had a resolute and frank style, although he had little time for deep reflection. De-spite his ambiguities, he also achieved something that has eluded everyone else in the past 15 years: to the surprise of many, he inspired a movement with Sandinista roots to begin to build “another Left” in Nicaragua and attracted supporters from outside the traditional Left.
a fragile movement
At the time of his death, that movement is still fragile and suffers important inconsistencies. It is going into the elections determined to remain independent of the financial powers, but for that very reason is at a disadvantage against the highly organized traditional political machinery of the FSLN and PLC, whose upper echelons are joined at the hip in a self-serving pact that hasn’t wavered in seven years.
Despite these weaknesses, however, the movement that Lewites sparked had already become a serious electoral option and a political and emotional reference point for important segments of the population from all social strata, although mainly from the country’s urban electorate. Lewites’ unexpected death triggered widespread demonstrations of grief, fondness and dashed hope.
An idea taken seriously Sandinista comandante Henry Ruiz—the legendary “Modesto” during the insurrection—discussed the origin of this movement in the pages of envío in April of last year. It all started in 2004, he related, when some Sandinista friends, disillusioned by what the FSLN had been doing in those years and by the visible inoperativeness of the Bolaños government, called him to see if they could do something. He quickly ascertained that this group, which he described as “concerned citizens” rather than politicians, didn’t just want an electoral alternative for the upcoming municipal elections, but a longer-term political project. “To engage in politics you need tools,” Ruiz told them, “ideas alone don’t work. You need communicating vehicles…. In the middle of all this incompetence I see someone who’s doing a good job, who’s been making a name for himself, and he’s Sandinista to boot…. People speak well of Herty, and not only in his native department of Carazo. People seemed to take a shine to him in Managua and elsewhere; even peasants in the north spoke well of him and so did people from the coast.”
at risk of death
Ruiz explained that “we tried to take a closer look at what was making Herty into a pole of grassroots attraction, why he was also getting on well with the middle strata and why not even big business was afraid of him. We decided then that we had to take advantage of this opportunity to do something, and had better do it quickly…. After taking those first steps with my friends, I began to talk to Herty about running for presidential candidate in the FSLN primaries. As it turns out, he’d already had the same idea. At the beginning, he just saw it as quixotic, but I started discussing it with him seriously.”
In the end Lewites embraced Ruiz’s idea with such conviction that it cost him his life. He didn’t waver even when he was expelled from the FSLN for what some rivals ridiculed as the “inane” idea of taking on Ortega. Lewites had been fighting a series of complicated heart ailments for thirty years and the seriousness of this new challenge risked turning that battle into a losing one, because the obstacles in the race to the presidency weren’t just the predictable ones of endless meetings, rallies, house-to-house canvassing, events and media interviews, all of which he actually seemed to enjoy. He also had to face a very organized campaign of threats, intimidations and disparagement against both himself and his group by the party he had dedicated his life to for a quarter of a century. It was not a regimen designed for cardiac sufferers.
An opportunity and The opportunity represented by Herty Lewites was gradually deploying its potential and acquiring form in the MRS Alliance and at the time of his death it was still not fully defined. Is the MRS Alliance a real vehicle for the rescue of Sandinismo, of Nicaragua, or is it no more than a limited group bonded around an electoral opportunity? Will it have the capacity and cohesion to remain bonded around a more far-reaching project after November 5, whether it wins or not? Does it intend to confront the neoliberal project already installed in Nicaragua or just to administer it with greater heart, as Andrés Pérez Baltodano asks in this same issue of envío.
an identity in the making
None of this was clear—nor did the group even pretend it was—when death knocked at Lewites’ door. It was far too occupied with the electoral rush—meeting the strict requisites of the pact-born Electoral Law, suffering discrimination from the pact-born Electoral Branch, creating a presence in all departments of the country, finding qualified electoral monitors... But the ambiguous, even contradictory set of interests and aspirations clamoring for a ride on Lewites’ coattails—following the principle that any opportunity breeds opportunism—challenges the MRS Alliance to declare and define itself clearly now that the opportunity for power represented by Herty Lewites is no longer the unifying factor.
A symbolic gambleThe MRS Alliance is gambling on the symbolic, agglutinating and mobilizing power that Lewites’ death is so far continuing to have in Nicaragua. “If we brought down the Somocista dictatorship with Pedro Joaquín’s death, with Herty’s we’ll bring down the pact’s dictatorship!” shouted a tearful man as Lewites’ coffin wended its way to the cemetery through the thronging streets of Jinotepe. Promoting Herty as the “spiritual candidate” was an attempt to continue tapping into such profound energies. The challenge will be to translate this intangible quality into votes. It will also be to transform the emotional spirits that, for better or worse, are never absent from Nicaraguan political life into ideas, initiatives and proposals that are real alternatives to the country’s confusing and depressing situation.
This “spiritual” gamble is personified in the Jarquín-Mejía Godoy ticket. While similar to Lewites in a number of ways, Edmundo Jarquín is unknown to many voters; they have either never laid eyes on him before or they saw him in the eighties and have since forgotten all about him. Carlos Mejía Godoy, in contrast, is one of the best known Nicaraguan faces in the world.
Candidate Edmundo JarquínEdmundo Jarquín left Nicaragua for reasons of family health around the end of the Sandinista government, during which he had been both a legislator and an ambassador. In recent years he has been working for the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and when Lewites asked him to be his running mate, he had taken a leave from there to work with an international foundation in Madrid. The day Herty died, he was on his way back to Nicaragua from Madrid to dedicate himself full time to the campaign.
Like Lewites, Jarquín has been involved in politics from an early age, combating the Somoza family dictatorship with the same political commitment born of indignation and pain at Nicaragua’s enormous inequalities and acute lack of freedom. Also like Lewites, he worked as a child, was raised by a schoolteacher mother and acquired an understanding of business that did not clash with his ideals of greater equality. Unlike Lewites, Jarquín is a highly trained professional, a man of letters and the world. As a young man he was a friend of anti-Somocista newspaperman Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Sr., with whom he collaborated closely. He also hung out with Reynaldo Antonio Téfel, who was conscienticizing Nicaragua with the country’s first social research titled “El infierno de los pobres.” [The Hell of the Poor]
What remains of Jarquín’s “first love” after 15 years making a career in international financial agencies such as the IDB, which bear so much responsibility for the infernos in which the world’s poor—Nicaragua’s included—live today; after all those hours spent in the offices that reproduce the neoliberalism that constructs such hells? This is just one of the unknowns surrounding the new MRS Alliance presidential candidate. If Lewites projected the image of a man who “resolves,” “reconciles” and “does things for the people,” Jarquín is haunted by things the IDB has done and its attempted solutions that didn’t resolve anything.
To begin to neutralize that image, Jarquín not only embraced the MRS Alliance’s central slogan—“The only good pact is a clean pact with the people”—but added a new one: “No more of the same!” He explains that Nicaragua cannot continue bearing the burden of the neoliberal economic policies of recent years. Will it turn out to be just another slogan or are those words backed up by the determination and desire to organize a genuine program of changes? Such a program would necessarily have to de-adjust the structural adjustments that the international financial agencies have imposed and that Nicaragua’s governments have so passively accepted for the past decade and a half.
Candidate Carlos Mejía GodoyWhile Jarquín is thinking up programs to generate attractive and realistic jobs, which was the first thing he promised after stepping off the plane in Managua, the “spiritual” work will fall mainly to the charismatic Carlos Mejía Godoy. Jarquín may be affable, but at the end of the day he is still an intellectual, which doesn’t pull a lot of votes outside Managua, particularly if your party doesn’t have strong structures in the countryside. It will be Carlos Mejía’s task to maintain Herty’s politically captivating legacy of frankness, prankishness, good humor, gaiety and flippancy. That role fits Carlos like a glove, perhaps even more than it did Herty.
But that doesn’t mean that he’s just window-dressing. Carlos is more than just a singer, songwriter and exceptional actor; he’s also a politician in his own right, whose words and tunes captured and disseminated the objectives of the anti-Somocista insurrection and the Sandinista revolution. In so doing he has built ideology, educated and raised awareness on a massive scale, strengthening the people’s identity and sparking their protagonism. All eminently political tasks.
Although his Sandinista roots run very deep, Carlos Mejía Godoy has managed to transcend ideological borders in these post-Sandinista years. He is the pride of an entire nation, and by universalizing Nicaragua’s music and way of speaking, he also transcended the frontiers of our small country, becoming a worthy representative of our culture, roots and people, particularly the humble and grassroots. His new task will be to present this incipient “new Left” to the electorate and the country.
Carlos is the author of the original FSLN anthem, which describes the US government as the “enemy of humanity.” He is also the father of Camilo Mejía, one of the most famous conscientious objectors to the US war in Iraq. In Carlos’ first declarations as the MRS Alliance’s vice presidential candidate, he told Nicaraguan newspaper El Nuevo Diario, “When I went to the United States they asked me if I would take back that line. I said I hadn’t come to beat my breast or tear off my clothing. I wrote that verse and I stick by it. The United States has earned it by becoming a world policeman, by intervening in the destiny of weak nations. That bad reputation will remain until they want to change it. I personally experienced the crimes against humanity they committed here and I had a son in Iraq, who saw what they did against Iraqi citizens. That refrain will remain in force as long as the US government continues to be confrontational, as long as it continues killing people in Iraq.”
What changes will be wrought in the electoral process?Lewites’ death will most probably change the projections being made about the results of the electoral process. Will the closed and close competition between four bands continue or will we find ourselves again, as in the past three elections, caught in a polarized race between the FSLN’s irresponsible Sandinismo and a Right that feeds off an irresponsible anti-San-dinismo?
Before Lewites’ death, most polls were showing Daniel Ortega ahead by anywhere from one to several points, although none gave him the 35% needed to win in the first round, much less with the 5% lead over the second-placed candidate legally required to win with such a small percentage. All polls indicated the likelihood of a second round, with Ortega probably running off against either Lewites or Montealegre. All polls were also projecting massive participation, although a good part of the electorate—between 18% and 32% depending on the polling firm—had still not decided or didn’t want to reveal their choice. That significant pool of potential voters only four months before the elections is enough to change the outcome.
Who benefits most At first glance, the main beneficiaries of Lewites’ death are Eduardo Monte-alegre and Daniel Ortega. Montealegre because he was fishing in the same waters as Lewites: the undecideds, those without a party and those who are anti-pact above all else.
from Lewites’ death?
Ortega benefits in two ways. The most obvious is that some Sandinistas who went over to Lewites might return to the fold, but only if they think he could win or if the polls show a vote close enough to prefer him over an anti-Sandinista Liberal. The flashy spending on propaganda and clientelism-promoting gifts that the FSLN has been engaging in all over the country are consolidating the perception of power and victory gradually accumulated throughout the Bolaños government.
The other possible influence of Lewites’ death, which will only be confirmed on election day, is that many Herty supporters who never did and never will vote for Ortega could decide to abstain. In the first, emotion-charged hours following the announcement of Lewites’ death, many who had planned to vote for Herty said they felt bewildered and bereft at the lack of alternatives. Abstention clearly favors Daniel Ortega, whose solid vote is the most disciplined and whose percentage of the total could grow with low participation levels.
Even before Lewites was buried, the unattributable rumor mill that the FSLN structures are so good at stoking began to spread the idea that “there’s no one to vote for.” At the same time, the formal message fed to the media was that “Herty and we were brothers; we’re one and the same.” It was a crafty attempt to attract gettable votes and encourage everyone else to stay home.
Will the Right stay divided? Daniel Ortega is also favored by the strategy he has been employing since 2003: do everything possible to ensure his rightwing competition remains divided between Montealegre’s ALN-PC, which represents continuity with the Bolaños government, and José Rizo’s PLC, with which the FSLN still has strategic agreements and shared interests.
But will the Right remain split until November 5? It could easily go on for a while longer, with each candidate openly measuring his strength against the other, but it would be an error to discard the possibility that one of the two groups could throw its support behind the other to keep Ortega from winning. To aid and abet such an outcome, the US government is monitoring the performance of both groups and pressuring on sensitive points. At some moment, when it becomes clearer which of the two anti-Sandinista Right candidates is running best in the polls, Washington can be expected to pull out all stops to reunify them and prevent Daniel Ortega from winning in the first round.
Meanwhile, Montealegre and Rizo are locked in an all-out competition to show the United States that their particular option can guarantee Ortega’s defeat. The thirst for that anointment has led the PLC to ridiculous lengths: the slogan of its first TV spots is “Only one man can bring down Daniel: José Rizo!” This same party is making its militants sing the following campaign jingle: “Only Rizo can beat Daniel; only Rizo will defeat Daniel.” Has any other political party ever included its rival’s name quite so prominently?
The big gap in Montealegre’s line against interference The backing of the United States and of big national and Central American capital, the positive results of most polls and the structures the ALN-PC has won away from the PLC put Monte-alegre in a very comfortable position in the test of strength being played out for the powerful neighbor to the North. His abundant campaign chest compared to the PLC’s self-admitted scarcity of resources is also in his favor.
Montealegre presents himself as “a different kind of Liberal.” Acknowledging the grassroots backing for Lewites, he declared that he “will follow his example.” The anti-Sandinista undertone to his messages contains none of the venom the PLC offers its own rank and file. It is a “geo-strategic anti-Sandinismo” that rings bells with elites and gently infuses the more simple people with fuzzy fears of rationing cards, empty store showcases and saber-rattling from the North.
Montealegre visited Washington on June 13, where he presented himself to the State Department as the standard-bearer in Central and Latin America of the kind of leadership he’s promoting in Nicaragua. He tends to argue that while in the eighties a line was drawn in Nicaragua against the expansion of communism in Central America, “We’re currently drawing a line in Nicaragua to keep the interventionism and expansionism of Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela from moving into the region.
Was Herty Lewites cut of the same cloth as Montealegre?The “philosophical” part—as the Mejía Godoy brothers are wont to say in their songs—of the challenge facing “Mundo” Jarquín, Carlos Mejía and the entire Alliance, will be how to carve out a winning slice of this particular electoral scene, dominated by the well-oiled campaign machinery of both the FSLN and the PLC, who are rivals on stage and allies behind the curtain. More specifically, how can they achieve it on a stage influenced from afar by Hugo Chávez’s petro-dollars and petro-generosity toward the FSLN on the one hand and the more brazen, less generous US interference in the electoral process on the other. While Washington’s money is clearly on Montealegre, it has always bet on more than one horse. In this case it could provide the MRS Alliance with the kind of resources needed for a really effective electoral marketing campaign, however “spiritual” the Alliance chooses to be. Helping the Jarquín-Mejía Godoy ticket could crowd out Ortega’s first-round victory chances, although it’s a dicey gamble unless the Right unites, given that polls show Alliance votes come mainly from the same pool as Monte-alegre’s.
Only days before Lewites’ death, US Under-Secretary of State for Western Hemispheric Affairs Thomas Shannon visited Managua, where he declared both Eduardo Montealegre and—to everyone’s surprise—Herty Lewites to be the “options of the future” in Nicaragua as both represented a modern vision of leadership.
Shannon met with both men, and both expressed great satisfaction with the backing they had received from the US government. Shannon pointedly chose not to meet with the PLC candidates Rizo and Alvarado, claiming a rushed schedule, although he professed to appreciate both men.
Several analysts and even MRS Alliance spokespeople viewed the nod for Herty as signaling a possible change in US policy toward Nicaragua and Sandinismo. Some even suggested the US had abandoned that “cold war relic” of using knee-jerk anti-Sandinismo as a parameter for anything happening in Nicaragua. Although it’s impossible to read Shannon’s mind, it would be ingenuous to isolate his message from the current electoral context. Only the most de-nationalized Right—which is what button-down banker Montealegre represents—would be interested in a relation of subordination with Washington, which is what the United States has always promoted in Nicaragua and is now promoting by backing Monte-alegre’s project.
How could Shannon genuinely put the MRS Alliance on a par with that Right, when it is led by figures such as Dora María Téllez, Víctor Hugo Tinoco, Henry Ruiz, Mónica Baltodano and many other men and women who are less visible but just as committed to social justice and national sovereignty?
Its own agendaThe “new” US position of endorsing Lewites right alongside Monte-alegre, leaving Rizo to twist in the wind, is consistent with its interests: defeat Ortega, provide continuity to the Bolaños government by favoring Monte-alegre in his race with the PLC and attract the Lewites group, knowing that its weak flank is its financial straits.
The United States agrees with both Montealegre’s Alliance and the Alliance bequeathed by Lewites on the need to modernize the institutions of representative democracy in Nicaragua by dismantling the FSLN-PLC pact. But the anti-pact banner, which Monte-alegre raised rather late, was originally hoisted by disenchanted Sandinistas, and it still has a more profound content than the United States would like to grant it.
The Bush government is interested in institutionalizing the pact/anti-pact contradiction as the centerpiece of the national conflict because it simplifies Nicaragua’s problems, thus erasing many of the historical and more immediate conflicts that grow out of contradictions between sovereignty and interventionism, and between social justice and market freedom. The pact doesn’t explain everything, and thus dealing with it won’t resolve everything.
It’s very important to banish ghosts and fears that still linger among the population by transmitting a message of non-confrontation with the United States. But transmitting one of national dignity, educating the electorate by presenting it with a truly Nicaraguan agenda is even more important. And it’s crucial for the MRS Alliance to do so if it wants more than just a “spiritual candidate”; if it also wants a spiritual project that embodies that spirit Sandino dreamed of for his country.