Three electoral scenarios in three Nicaraguas
November 5 was the date Nicaraguan voters were
to elect municipal authorities for the next four-year term.
But all along the more urbanized Pacific and northwest strip,
most rejected the collapsed electoral system by abstaining.
In the vast rural zones of north and south central Nicaragua
they expressed their rejection by voting against the FSLN.
And in the other Nicaragua, the part consisting of the
North and South Autonomous Caribbean Regions,
the elections triggered still more violence.
We thus saw the results altered in three
different scenarios in three Nicaraguas.
The government’s elite business allies and their lobbyists in Washington, hired to halt approval of the Nica Act designed to sanction the government of Daniel Ortega for its anti-democratic ways, shared many expectations for the November 5 municipal elections. Both also had high hopes about what kind of evaluation the observer mission of the Organization of American States (OAS) would present. In various areas of Nicaragua, on the other hand, the population sympathizing with one of the two Liberal parties with some possibility of winning mayoral seats away from the governing party were watching for something else: how many and which local governments could be won despite the putrefied electoral system.
As envío went to press ten days after the contest was over, protests and post-electoral violence were still occurring in several municipalities, while the way the elections had developed and their evaluation by the OAS prevented any clear predictions about how they will influence what happens in Nicaragua in the coming months. Although some races offered more than expected, everything is still gray and uncertain.
The map of the results
According to the CSE, the FSLN will now govern 135 of the 153 mayoral posts, one more than it governed since 2012. It now includes the capitals of all 15 departments and both Caribbean regions after having also taken Puerto Cabezas, capital of the North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCN) this time. In addition to Puerto Cabezas it added Waspam and Prinza¬polka, all 3 of which were previously governed by Yatama, the indigenous military organization of the late 1980s turned regional political party.
The FSLN took 5 (San José de Bocay in Jinotega; Río Blanco and Waslala in Matagalpa; Villa Sandino in Chontales; and Wiwilí in Nueva Segovia) away from the newly accredited Citizens for Liberty (CxL), which won them in 2012 as the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), before the Supreme Court stripped that party of its legal credentials in June last year, awarding them instead to a tiny split more willing to do the FSLN’s bidding. But it gave up to the CxL 4 it had previously governed (San Sebastián de Yalí and El Cuá in Jinotega; Murra in Nueva Segovia; and El Almendro in Río San Juan). The CxL only kept 2 of the 13 seats it took as the PLI in 2012 (San Pedro de Lóvago in Chontales; and Pantasma in Jinotega), for a net total of 6.
The Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), a mere shadow of the once powerful party run by former President Arnoldo Alemán, kept its place as first runner-up obtaining 11 mayoral seats. It held the 3 it has governed since 2012 (Bocana de Paiwas and La Cruz de Río Grande in the South Caribbean; and Muelle de los Bueyes in Chontales); and was awarded 5 previously governed by the PLI (San José de los Remates in Boaco; El Tortuguero in the South Caribbean; Mulukukú in the North Caribbean; Santo Domingo in Chontales; and Ciudad Antigua in Nueva Segovia) and 3 previously governed by the FSLN (Camoapa in Boaco; Wiwilí in Jinotega, and La Trinidad in Estelí).
The National Liberal Alliance (ALN) only got one mayoral seat (Cuapa in Chontales), thanks mainly to the leadership skills of the candidate it presented. That was the first party Eduardo Montealegre created after splitting from the PLC in 2005, but it was taken from him by the CSE after he led it to beat out the PLC for second place in the following year’s presidential elections.
Liberals strongest in the 1980s war zones
Mapping the official electoral results shows that the 18 mayoral seats these three Liberal parties won are exclusively in what was known during the 1980s war as the Contra corridor, where the armed movement against the FSLN was born and the bulk of the war was waged. It’s a large expanse of territory that cuts through the middle of the country on a diagonal from the center-north border area with Honduras southeastward toward the Caribbean.
Some of those municipalities are important for their resources, others for their population size and still others, such as Santa María de Pantasma, for their symbolic significance in that war. It was in that municipality of the northern department of Jinotega that incumbent Liberal mayor Óscar Gadea was reelected, running this time under the CxL banner. In that case, all Liberals closed ranks to protect his win against what they argued was a rigged ballot-counting process. They even obliged the anti-riot police to retreat from the area.
The bishops speak
Fifteen days before the elections, Nicaragua’s Episcopal Conference achieved enough consensus to issue a message that went beyond the electoral event, tacitly calling for reflection and participation about what is happening in the country and what will happen after the elections.
The bishops wasted no words repeating criticisms of the electoral system and model of government they had made in previous years. They simply said the problems are still the same and referred readers to what they said before the 2012 elections in a communique titled “We could have a better country” (reprinted in envío, October 2012); and to the document “In search of new horizons for a better Nicaragua,” delivered to President Ortega in May 2014 (reprinted in envío, June 2014).
In this new message, they explained that with politics so demeaned in today’s world, we need politicians who serve with compassion and who, quoting Pope Francis, thus negate the fallacy that politics only consists of a pack of predators. They also chose another six of the pope’s remarks on enhancing not only the value of politics but also the citizenry’s duty to participate in their country’s political life.
“Let us be actors, not spectators”
The bishops acknowledged the undeniable: “We perceive and are conscious that the times we are living in are not easy, and may even seem devastating.” They noted that there is “despondency, demoralization, pessimism and despair” and that these “lead people to take refuge inside themselves, to create a bubble of self-protection that ends in social blindness.” They warned that “we must not wait for extreme situations to raise our awareness of responsibility in political and social issues.” And they called people to action: “Never forget that we, the Nicaraguan people, will have the last word and be able to decide the horizon the country must head for. The strength that transforms a society comes from a people energized by justice and liberty, who root themselves in the virtues of the common good, truth and social justice. Let us be actors, not spectators.”
This time, unlike their counsel in a similar message before last year’s presidential elections, the bishops did not call on people to vote, or not to vote. Nor did they even refer, as they did then, to each person’s freedom of conscience to decide what to do. The text simply calls for ethical decisions given the country’s uncertain future.
One bishop, however, went a step further. A week before the elections, Silvio Báez, the auxiliary bishop of Managua, declared that “I am not going to vote because I don’t trust this system. It’s not a question of candidates, but rather a lack of confidence in the system itself, the fruit of a damaged, ruined state institutionality. I cannot rely on elections that grow out of a system such as we have in Nicaragua. It is not simple abstentionism; it’s a way of voting for Nicaragua, because I cannot just sit back with my arms folded. I will continue seeking the best for Nicaragua and giving my best to build a more just and democratic society.”
In a speech on November 8 at an event to celebrate the FSLN’s electoral victories, Ortega mentioned that Managua’s cardinal emeritus, Miguel Obando, and the current cardinal, Leopoldo Brenes, had both voted, and said they did so because they had been in the country in the difficult times of war. It was an indirect dig at Monsignor Báez, who lived outside the country for 30 years before being named auxiliary bishop. “Now it’s easy,” Ortega chided; “some who spent all that time away now come to talk like the gutsiest and most radical.”
URBAN NICARAGUA DECIDED TO ABSTAIN
Independent organizations calculated the massive abstention in last year’s presidential elections, in which Daniel Ortega was reelected for a third straight term, at between 65% and 70%. It surprised Ortega and even the abstainers themselves, particularly since the party’s minions had spread out through their neighborhoods or towns on election day and encouraged people to vote, even driving some from their home to their polling place. The minimal voter turnout was unprecedented in Nicaragua’s recent electoral annals.
The main reason for abstaining that year was a series of events that started the previous June. That month the Supreme Court, which is directly controlled by Ortega, arbitrarily blocked the participation of the main opposition alliance, the National Coalition for Democracy, an initiative headed up by the majority faction of the PLI run by banker-politician Eduardo Montealegre. Despite the severe loss of credibility the entire electoral system had already suffered, the coalition had treated the race as an event with a measure of competition, which encouraged voters. Stripping the PLI of its legal status left the coalition with no slot on the ballot, thus turning the elections into what was widely seen as a farce.
This year abstention was similar or possibly even greater throughout the Pacific and northwest stretch of the country, which contains the capital and most of the largest urban centers where the governing party has concentrated investment in social programs and infrastructure. A multi-causal phenomenon, it largely had to do with voters’ weariness with the imposed electoral model’s well-known routine, which has led increasing numbers to see voting as a waste of time, “if we already know who’s going to win.”
Despite the dedicated work of Ortega’s young followers to herd as many people as possible to their polling center again this year, there were no lines of voters and the voting tables themselves were desolate. The three electoral officials per voting table and all the electoral clerks, party monitors, electoral police and the like sat around bored for 11 hours, waiting for the occasional voter to wander in. When the polling centers closed at the end of the day, many of the stacks of 400 ballots allotted to each table were still virtually intact.
The CSE reported national participation at around 53% of eligible voters. Magistrate Roberto Rivas, who has been the CSE president since even before Ortega returned to office, hyped that official figure as he always does, calling this the municipal election “in which the most people have participated.” Given that the majority of registered voters who abstained live in this urban swath that runs from Chinandega in the northwest down to Rivas, bordering Costa Rica in the south, that national figure he offered has no credibility, particularly given that municipal elections traditionally have a lower turnout than presidential ones even in the best of times.
While hardly anyone believes this official percentage, there’s no way of knowing what the exact figure was. No numbers published by the CSE since 2008 have any certifiable way of being proven; they are simply not auditable.
Ortega on abstention
Although arithmetically favoring President Ortega because it increases the percentage by which his own candidates win, abstention doesn’t benefit him politically because the bottom-line problem of Nicaragua’s elections under his baton has been the lack of legitimacy of both the process and its arbiters. The rising voter abstention also undermines his confidence, expressing disinterest, disgust and latent or even increasingly explicit opposition. Worst of all, he’s aware that the ranks of stay-at-homers have been swelled by historical militants and sympathizers of the FSLN—most of whom are increasingly distanced from the governing couple. Even many of the young new recruits Rosario Murillo has spent so much energy attracting find little motivation to go vote since the results are believed to be sewed up.
Ortega brought up the subject of abstention in a speech he gave three hours before the polls closed, implicitly recognizing the evidence that most people in Managua and other major cities weren’t exercising their vote and revealing his concern about it. He used a sui generis historical interpretation to rail against those promoting abstention and, by extension, those opting not to vote. He remarked, quite accurately, that had the opposition called for abstention in the 1990 elections, he wouldn’t have lost. The lesson he offered his listeners, however, was clearly not the one he learned from that—that the way to assure victory is by controlling the electoral branch of government. Rather, he scolded, “Those who promote abstention only have confrontation as an alternative.” Suddenly an advocate of elections, he added that “the only path to generate confidence, peace and stability, to be able to decide on the national or local authorities, is the path of the vote.”
After recalling the “terrible years of war,” he previewed his later criticism of Monsignor Báez by drawing a clear line between “those of us who had relatives fallen in those terrible wars, [who] are the ones who most value peace and reconciliation” and “those who did not live through that war because they waited it out abroad, going into exile, who are the ones most feeding confrontation.” Painting himself the great peacemaker, he said that “in the war zones where we fought each other, where the blood and pain ran in Nicaraguan families, we have been bonding, reconciling, reaching out to each other.” He closed his speech with a line from the prayer of St. Francis of Assisi: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love.”
RURAL NICARAGUA DECIDED TO VOTE
It was precisely in the Contra Corridor, traditionally Liberal rural territory where Nicaragua’s peasants were caught up in the war of the 1980s, that the election scenario was markedly different than in the major cities and towns. An important voter turnout was visible in numerous rural munici¬¬palities, but as there are no reliable abstention figures, there’s no way to verifiably contrast the desolation in one Nicaragua and the participation in the other. Nonetheless, that contrast was an important characteristic of these elections, because the wounds of that war are still raw in rural Nicaragua, where the younger generations have heard from their elders what happened during those times.
It is there that what ended up calling itself the Nicaraguan Resistance—to distance itself from the name used throughout the war by the ex-Somocista Guardia Nacional-CIA alliance—repre¬snted young peasants with legitimate anger. And if anger motivated them then, the deception and resentments have only accumulated ever since, particularly in the dozens of municipalities that felt the FSLN had seized local power, displacing their traditional Liberal mayors, through fraud. In the 2016 presidential elections, those voters largely seemed to share the apathy of the urban areas, but this time, when local power was at stake, their resentment fed a desire to vote.
Competition was promised by the two Liberal parties that by hook or by crook have safeguarded or recovered their legal status. The first case is the PLC, which has always had a strong base among the rural peasantry; and the second is Citizens for Liberty (CxL), née PLI, a somewhat more middle-class urban-based party. The competitive tension between the two was palpable in numerous municipalities in the run-up to this year’s elections. One could even discern a certain electoral effervescence in the air that hasn’t been felt for years. It was in that rural Nicaragua where people decided to vote, braving militarization, threats and intimidation. No few voters gambled on achieving the “political security” of at least having a mayor who wouldn’t be in the hands of the FSLN political secretary in their municipality, since that figure wields even more power than the governing party mayor, and not in a very inclusionary manner.
The tactics used in the Nicaragua that voted
In these peasant zones, where Ortega claimed in his speech that “we have been bonding, reconciling, reaching out to each other,” the CSE and the FSLN political secretaries employed at least four tactics in their party’s favor: one to discourage voters identified as opponents and three to stimulate multiple voting by those who identify with the governing party.
To dissuade the FSLN’s adversaries, the CSE used the “crazy mouse” tactic in municipalities where the elections were predictably close. Without acknowledging that its observers had seen it in previous elections, the OAS described how it worked based on citizens who reported to its observers that “upon arriving at their polling centers, they discovered they did not appear on the voter list… at that site, which is where they had usually voted.” The tactic earned its name because the voting table authorities then sent the confused voter running around to other, sometimes very distant, hard-to-reach rural polling centers. While the OAS didn’t mention how commonly its observers had encountered that modality this time, the CxL documented hundreds affected by it just in the small Chontales municipalities of El Coral and El Ayote. And it was reportedly applied to hundreds of peasants in rural areas of the Mining Triangle, the municipalities of Siuna, Bonanza and Rosita.
In Rancho Grande, which the FSLN governed last term, the well-organized struggle against the B2Gold mining company encouraged much of the population to vote for the PLC candidate this time, since the FSLN supported B2Gold rather than its own constituency. PLC representatives there told the Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) that upwards of 3,000 voters were affected by the “crazy mouse” ploy.
Independent journalists and Panorama Electoral, the consortium of eight social organizations that mobilized 294 short-term volunteer observers reporting to 158 municipal coordinators, described three other tactics to stimulate multiple voting by FSLN supporters. One was the use of two types of the ink traditionally used to stain voters’ thumbs to prevent them casting a second vote elsewhere: the ink used for known FSLN supporters washed off easily.
Another was driving contingents of army and police personnel from one polling center to another so they could vote several times, taking advantage of a CSE rule allowing them to vote where they were supposedly temporarily stationed rather than at their permanent polling center. This tactic, also reported by the OAS observers, had the added benefit of the “intimidation factor”: the sudden arrival of a truck full of uniformed men and women.
The third one, apparently applied for the first time, was a yellow card signed by the electoral authorities that accredited holders as “auxiliary CSE personnel.” Liberal jurist José Pallais showed these cards on television and explained that they permitted people to circulate from one polling center to another… of course voting in each one.
CARIBBEAN NICARAGUA DECIDED TO FIGHT
The FSLN went into these elections knowing it would have to rein in its desire to control all or even almost all of the country’s municipalities, given the pressure from the US Congress and the fear its domestic business allies have of economic sanctions should the Nica Act pass the Senate. It would have to leave some to the opposition to make the election look more legit after last year’s presidential elections were so tainted.
It wasn’t willing to give up the 15 departmental capitals; as in 2012, it took all 15 as well as Bluefields, the capital of the South Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region (RACCS). But this time it added Puerto Cabezas, capital of the RACCN, a municipality traditionally won by Yatama. While it was at it, the governing party also took Waspan and Prinzapolka, two other municipalities governed by Yatama in the RACCN, leaving it with none.
For some time now a number of indigenous, particularly Miskitu, communities in the RACCN have been under permanent tension due to the influx of mestizos from the western side of the country who have settled on lands legally demarcated over the past decade as indigenous territories. The inability of the two sides to reach any agreement in line with the demarcation law (Law 445) and the central government’s failure to play its role in accord with that law to resolve the disputes have led to numerous outbreaks of violence and deaths on both sides. These municipal elections threw gasoline on that existing fire, intensifying the crisis in that “third Nicaragua” where the abundance of natural resources, a deeply-entrenched extractive model and the “domesticated autonomy” described by four coast intellectuals in the Analysis section of this issue of envío have complicated the scenario, taking it to even more dangerous levels.
Violence in the Caribbean
The largest protests and greatest violence occurred in in the north: in Sandy Bay, Waspam and Bilwi, the municipal seat of Puerto Cabezas. For much of the previous decade Yatama had governed the latter in alliance with the FSLN, but broke with it over a year ago. After warning in recent months that the FSLN was buying coast people’s votes, Yatama leader and National Assembly representative Nancy Elizabeth Enríquez calculated that the “crazy mouse” had been applied to more than 700 people in a single polling center of Bilwi. Yatama immediately refused to recognize the election results. The protests that unleashed resulted in four deaths, a number of people wounded, injured and detained, and infrastructure burned down, as the Police looked the other way or was even complicit.
The tension in Bilwi began on election Sunday itself. In response to the protests, FSLN sympathizers set fire to the Miskitu community radio station as well as to the Casa Verde, a Miskitu community center, destroying computers, electoral tallies and files. They also destroyed the statue of Miskut, ancestral hero of the Miskitu people. “The FSLN announced that even if it rained blood they would win Bilwi, Prinza¬polka and Waspan, our three traditional municipal governments. They want to return to the 1980s,” said Enríquez. “It’s all about land, to continue invading our lands.”
It was hardly a civic fiesta
The CSE’s now standard decision not to issue the results by voting table, thus making it impossible to contrast the percentages it presents as definitive with those of the opposition party monitors, provoked legal challenges, marches, protests and different levels of violence in both the Caribbean Coast, including Corn Island, and various municipalities of rural Nicaragua: Jalapa and other municipalities of Nueva Segovia; La Concepción in Masaya; San José de Bocay in Jinotega; El Coral in Chontales; and San Dio-nisio and Rancho Grande in Mata¬galpa. There were also protests at the mayors’ offices along the route of the moribund if not deceased interoceanic canal, the most violent in San Miguelito and the El Tule district of Río San Juan.
Ten days after the elections, the bottom line of the protests was seven dead and dozens wounded, injured, maltreated, jailed, disappeared or fleeing in the territories of rural Nicaragua and the Caribbean. National Police Commissioner Francisco Díaz reported that all were “isolated incidents led by sympathizers of Yatama, the PLC and CxL” even though both the passivity of the Police and the participation of FSLN sympathizers was common knowledge.
It was also clear to all that the outbreaks were closely linked to the ballot-counting process in which the governing party allegedly manipulated figures, made off with tallies and generally used its control of all electoral structures to decide which mayor’s offices it was going to take and which it had no other choice than to give up.
One of the emblematic cases of police passivity and the participation of FSLN sympathizers was the killing in Yalí, Jinotega, of two CxL members, one of them a nephew of that party’s victorious mayoral candidate, while they were still celebrating in the municipal seat the morning of November 6. “I’ve never seen so many people, both children and adults, hundreds of them, all crying at the same time over his death,” recounted one witness of the moment the casket bearing the body of 26-year-old Wilder Moreno was brought into the town. Thousands of people joined the procession to the cemetery where this young man and the other murder victim were buried.
THE OAS PRESENCE
The OAS observer mission of 60 specialists, who arrived at the end of October, visited 393 polling centers, which accounted for only 787 of the country’s more than 13,000 polling stations. The national business elite were banking on the mission’s presence to improve the Ortega-Murillo government’s deteriorated image following repeated electoral frauds and all the problematic decisions the governing couple made last year. Ortega’s invitation to the OAS to come was based on this same gamble.
It was the CxL, however, that most often referred to the OAS presence as a guarantee that would make people decide to vote. Contrary to its CxL’s expectations, however, it wasn’t a determining factor in reversing the abstention in the Pacific, although it indeed may have made the rural population feel more assured about casting its vote. They remember the role the OAS played in Nicaragua’s war zones through its peace accords Support and Verification Commission (CIAV) in the first postwar years, which helped resettle the former contras. In Pan¬tasma, reelected Mayor Gadea testified to the communication the OAS observers maintained with the Liberal candidates in the department of Jinotega.
The vote tallies
When the polls opened on Sunday morning, Wilfredo Penco, the questioned head of the OAS mission, assured that the CSE would immediately publish the electoral results on its web page, including the vote tallies for each voting table, as established in the Electoral Law. The last time the CSE complied with that aspect of the law was the 2008 municipal elections, and it was precisely the ability of a good number of opposition party monitors to produce legible copies of the vote tallies that permitted documented proof of that year’s fraud. Since then it has only given results by polling center at best.
The tallies are hand-filled forms duplicated using carbon paper. Obviously, with three table staff and other officials, the carbon copies are either too weak to read or are smudged by the time the ones for the various party monitors are distributed. The OAS has repeatedly recommended other solutions, such as scanning the original, which would make any later alterations impossible, but that’s a first-world solution not easily implemented in such a poor country as Nicaragua with its thousands of polling centers.
More or less fulfilling Penco’s promise, the CSE began giving results on its web page on November 6 by department, municipality, polling center and voting table, but all in percentages presented in pie charts rather than numbers. Providing the results in that form rather than photographed vote tallies, which has been a constant demand, allowed the CSE’s departmental and municipal structures, all of which are run by loyal FSLN members, to arithmetically alter the results in various municipalities, without it being possible to compare them with the paper tallies so jealously guarded by the now-wise PLC or CxL monitors, which have other numbers. Panorama Electoral was unable to witness any ballot count or preparation of tallies, because the CSE did not accredit its observers and the polling centers shut their doors before the count began.
The immediate publication of the results on the CSE web page was surely negotiated between the OAS and Ortega, who accepted it to somewhat polish up the legitimacy of these elections. However, the form in which they were presented remained a limitation, given what a crucial element the tallies are to detecting fraudulent maneuvers.
The preliminary OAS report
Wilfredo Penco released the first preliminary OAS report on November 7 and announced that the final one will be presented in December at the OAS headquarters in Washington. He also added verbally that they had received 800 denunciations, which he said the CSE is tasked with analyzing and resolving. It was later reported in the media that the CSE had either rejected all challenges out of hand or resolved them in favor of the governing party.
The OAS report detailed that “on election day, the members of the Mission observed the assembling and opening of the JRVs as well as the way the voting and vote tallying unfolded. They then accompanied the transfer of the poll records to the municipal tabulation centers, where they observed the arrival and filing of documents, the processing and arithmetic review thereof, and the transmission of the results.
In Managua, the specialists in electoral organization and technology were present at the National Tabulation Center, where they watched as the national databases were reset and the results tabulated.” The report did not list which poll records the 60 observers accompanied; it would be interesting to see whether they matched any of the seven municipal governments the FSLN gave up to its opponents.
In synthesis, the preliminary OAS report claims to have identified “important advances” in the Nicaraguan electoral system and “weaknesses typical of all electoral processes,” assuring that the latter “have not substantially affected the popular will expressed through the vote.” The report adds that “the voting unfolded calmly, smoothly, peacefully, and without major incident,” although it noted the “series of isolated incidents of violence” that occurred after the voting and called on the authorities “to conduct the appropriate investigations and punish the perpetrators of these crimes.”
Many problems couched in diplomatic language
The report concludes that “the Mission’s verified findings as well as the complaints it received make it possible to determine that there is space to strengthen the legal, technical, procedural, technological, and human aspects of electoral processes in Nicaragua” and that “Nicaragua’s electoral system would benefit from a comprehensive electoral reform that addresses various topics. A permanent judicial and administrative framework that gives more confidence and security to political forces and citizens is necessary.” To the latter end, the OAS recommends drafting a new political parties law in addition to “comprehensively” reforming the Electoral Law itself, a product of the pact between Ortega and then President Alemán in 2000.
The report assures that the mission “conducted a comprehensive analysis of the process.” It lists the problems and offers “preliminary” recommendations to improve the country’s electoral system, but most of those recommendations were already made by the OAS mission for the 2012 municipal elections, virtually none of which the government has implemented in the intervening five years.
The text’s carefully balanced language makes it clear the OAS wants to do nothing that would endanger its priority objective of staying in the country and dedicating itself to cleaning up the electoral system over the next three years. That plan was established in the memorandum signed between Ortega and OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro in February aimed at ensuring the 2021 presidential elections will have a very different profile than those of the last ten years.
The report gets mixed reviews
Both the government and COSEP, Nicaragua’s big-business umbrella organization, congratulated the OAS for its report. COSEP president José Adán Aguerri lauded it as “professional.” The comments of the social and political groups critical of the government were less flattering: “it has holes,” “it is impeccably diplomatic,” “it did not get to the bottom of things,” “it is technical and not political”… US Ambassador Laura Dogu firmly straddled the fence, saying she needs to “process” its contents.
In a press release, the US State Department expressed concern with “persistent flaws in the Nicaraguan democratic process, as illustrated by the November 5 municipal elections,” saying it was “seriously troubled by credible reports of irregularities throughout this electoral process.” At the same time, it recognized that the OAS mission “provided much-needed transparency,” adding that “the United States concurs with its recommendations focused on strengthening balance within the political party system, improving the selection of election councils at all levels, establishing an adequate legal framework for civil society, and promoting broad and inclusive domestic electoral observation.” The latter sentence suggests a unanimity of criteria and purpose between the State Department and the OAS to “resolve” the Nicaraguan case.
Ortega promises to “improve our model”
Might Ortega’s Washington lobbyists have leaked to him what the State Department would say? The timing permits such speculation, since shortly before the State Department released its communique, Daniel Ortega was already pledging to reform the electoral system. In an event to celebrate the FSLN’s municipal victories, after again referring to abstentionism, he noted that only 18-22% of Costa Ricans vote in their municipal elections. He also criticized the US model in which the presidential elections are decided by Electoral College members, not voters. He then said that in Nicaragua “we have our model, and we will continue developing it and working to improve it in accord with our possibilities.”
He said he had already communicated to Wilfredo Penco a willingness to improve “his” model, although he made clear that this would require money. The next elections in which Ortega’s model will, according to him, be “improved, more perfected, stronger and more secure,” will be for the Caribbean regional authorities next year.
Can we take seriously his commitment to debut the “improvement” in the Caribbean, where there was so much violence this time? Yatama representative Enríquez immediately spoke out in name of that “third” Nicaragua, arguing that the improvement Ortega had just promised must begin by reversing the results Yatama claims the FSLN altered in the North Caribbean.
The Nica Act’s promoters are unconvinced
US Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, the main promoter of the Nica Act, was not moved. “The results of the Nicaraguan municipal election were not a surprise given that the electoral system remains corrupt and lacks transparency in the hands of the Ortega dynasty,” she said in a statement on November 8, the same day as the State Department’s press release.
She said the OAS report “does not tell us anything new,” adding that “it has been well-documented that the Ortega family has failed to implement any reforms. Instead, the Ortega regime has continued to undermine democratic principles by ruling with an iron fist, controlling the electoral council, the judiciary, and any other institution in Nicaragua, in order to consolidate more power.” Touting her bill, which has already passed the House and is now in the Senate, she concludes that “in order to incentive reforms to the electoral system in Nicaragua and holding the Ortega regime accountable for its human rights abuses, we must pass the NICA Act.”
Possible black lists against Nicaragua
We are ending this year and preparing for 2018 laden with unanswered questions and facing a gray and blurry horizon. Will US policy under Trump lean toward a hard hand with Nicaragua, as in Venezuela and Cuba, or will it be more flexible? Will the OAS report convince senators to hold off on approving the Nica Act? And will it also be able to avoid that other list that could sanction Nicaraguans accused of corruption, as it is also doing with Venezuelans?
The Nica Act does involve such a list, but there are others Washington is already activating from other directions, such as the sanctions against PDVSA, Venezuela’s state oil company, which is the majority partner of Nicaragua’s Albanisa consortium, run by Ortega’s closest associates. Another might be Treasury Department sanctions through its Office of Foreign Assets Control or application of the Global Magnitsky Act, which extends the original 2012 legislation directed at Russia. Enacted by the US Congress last year, the new version allows the executive branch to impose visa bans and targeted sanctions on individuals anywhere in the world responsible for human rights violations or gross corruption. None of these possibilities require approval of the Nica Act and any one of them could go after Nicaraguans.
Questions with no answers
To what degree will the final OAS report and the final one, which will surely also be written with the same diplomatic care to avoid affecting the negotiations on cleaning up the electoral system agreed to with Ortega, actually advance those negotiations? Will the scenario of the coming years depend more on other factors and look more like the realistic way Ética y Trans¬parencia director Roberto Courtney envisions in the Speaking Out section of this issue?
Still other questions concern the new term of the municipal governments. Will the FSLN’s mayors be left any autonomy? Municipal expert Silvio Prado explains in the Close-Up section of this issue that they will very likely have none. And what levels of central government financial asphyxiation will the 18 Liberal mayoral offices experience after the FSLN felt forced to renounce them? What wounds will remain open in the mayoral offices taken by the FSLN in rural Nicaragua where there was strong candidate competition and voter participation, but people believe the CSE altered the results? And how much more violence might lie ahead in the Caribbean?
Is a cycle closing?
What are the chances that the disgust, disinterest and dejection felt by those who abstained from voting will be surmounted by an awaking of a critical mass of them who abandon their role as spectator to become protagonists, as the bishops urged?
Could this possibly end up closing one cycle and opening another? And most important of all, would this new cycle be an improvement for the populations in the three Nicaraguas who are hoping for a better life?