Jinotepe and Diriamba: Two Case Studies of a Defeat
The FSLN lost Jinotepe, one of its bastions. And the PLC lost Diriamba, one of its strategic strongholds. In both cases, the losses can be chalked up to the childish dependence of local leaders on their party’s caudillo bosses and national elite.
José Luis Rocha
Jinotepe: The PLC’s big plumThe surprising victory of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) in the municipality of Jinotepe stunned people on both sides. Of the four departmental seats won by the PLC, Jinotepe is the only one it snatched from the FSLN. After 20 years of consecutive Sandinista government, Jinotepe had been considered a solid FSLN bastion, but the Liberals won it by a 1,319-vote margin, equivalent to 22% of the votes cast for the FSLN.
Located in the crux of the "golden triangle" of coffee, the city of Jinotepe has the most highly educated population in Nicaragua. It is home to one of the campuses of the Nicaraguan National Autonomous University, with some 5,000 students from the region, as well as a polytechnic institute and a teacher training college. The municipality has grown to some 35,000 inhabitants, and the city now has a substantial middle class, having traditionally provided administrators for the coffee plantations. For these reasons, the Liberals made much of their electoral victory, describing Jinotepe as the capital of the Pacific and boasting that winning it means as much as winning four departmental seats.
Jinotepe’s municipal government collects the equivalent of over half a million dollars annually in taxes, but municipal authorities have estimated that inhabitants in the urban center alone require services amounting to well over twice that. Keeping a city attractive is expensive, and Jinotepe has been losing its appeal at an alarming rate. The sewage system recently installed by the Nicaraguan Water and Sewage Company (ENACAL) left the streets a mess. The city’s growing public market strews industrial quantities of garbage all around, posing a major headache to a succession of municipal administrations. This explains why all of the mayoral candidates promised to build a new market, ensure efficient garbage collection and repair the streets.
After 11 years of promising a new market and bus terminal that never materialized, the FSLN came into these elections with two strikes against them. The atmosphere was charged with talk of the bad Sandinista administration. People coined the saying, which caught on rapidly, that the city government was "envargada" (literally, all screwed up, but also a play on the name of the Vargas family, which has one member on the Municipal Council and seems to have cornered the market in other administrative posts).
The FSLN’s "captive vote" slips its leashThe FSLN rested on nonexistent laurels. Trusting in Jinotepe’s presumed Sandinista tradition, the party allowed itself to became embroiled in corrosive infighting orchestrated by various local factions, some of them mirroring the FSLN’s divisions at a national level but with variations that reflected local power struggles. Treating the spectacle as its own homegrown soap opera, the media broadcast the newest battles in regular installments on the evening news. The last round culminated when national FSLN leaders moved in to handpick their candidate, relegating to second place the person elected by local Sandinistas in the party primary. This old Latin American political practice of appointing candidates from above is still being used by Nicaraguan parties more often than the times and the evolution of political culture would deem wise. "Even though the man they picked wasn’t the favorite, it never occurred to us that any Sandinista would vote for someone else instead," said Cándida Rosa Cordero, a Sandinista activist and market vendor. They had forgotten the lesson of 1990, which is that Sandinista "captive votes" sometimes slip their leash once in the voting booth.
When parties handpick candidates, the ones they choose tend to represent the party’s most orthodox currents. But just as a collar doesn’t make a priest, being on the ballot doesn’t make a political leader. The party brass corral activists into serving as spokespeople, spouting the political discourse the party provides them with no autonomy. Local leaders are promoted without being given the means or the freedom to form a personal opinion. Those at the top have learned how to inculcate a way of thinking in which the only possible conclusions are those in line with their own positions. The party dictates what can be thought and has the monopoly on producing political opinions.
Such an imposition of candidates can only occur where local leadership is sufficiently fragmented and has not shaken off its childlike dependence. These local leaders may even dissent at times, but end up following the lines that come down from the top, where people have learned to skillfully exploit provincial grudges to perpetuate the model.
Rounding out the picture is the tendency of professional activists—those who can’t accept defeat—to search for scapegoats outside their ranks. This practice also blocks attempts at rectification. After losing in Jinotepe, FSLN activists brought forth arguments that exculpated their own sins, blaming the loss on Machiavellian strategies and anomalies designed by their adversaries. The PLC brought the dead to the polls; the Municipal Electoral Council office is staffed exclusively by Liberals; many names of Sandinistas did not appear on the rolls; the PLC bought the votes of drunks for a few córdobas; the money from the Emergency Social Investment Fund that was to have gone into building a new market was invested in other projects so the Sandinista municipal government couldn’t fulfill its promises; its hands were tied because it had no central government support; ENACAL prolonged the sewage project as part of a Liberal plot so the streets couldn’t be repaired before the elections. The prizewinner for foolishness was that people decided to vote after 6:00 in the evening but the polls had closed.
On the other hand, one high-ranking FSLN leader in Jinotepe who asked to remain anonymous sent us a self-critical evaluation of the FSLN’s defeat, listing three causes:
1. The party put up a candidate who had worked as community relations director in the outgoing municipal government and was thus linked to its ineffective administration and resulting loss of credibility.
2. Juan Narváez, the unpopular deputy mayor, pressured to impose his candidate.
3. Many Sandinistas decided to abstain in order to punish a bad administration.
The mere fact that such a self-evident list of reasons is grounds for anonymity speaks volumes.
People, not parties: A good candidate winsThe election came down to 7,365 votes for the PLC’s Tomás Guadalupe Guevara Enríquez and 6,046 for the FSLN’s Alvaro Santiago López González. Guevara is a pharmacist and large landowner who had some of his property confiscated by the FSLN, although Violeta Chamorro’s government compensated him for it. He carries his 83 years very well, though he may not approach the job with the same vigor he had when he assumed it for the first time in 1963, at age 46, leaving it in 1977 after seven consecutive terms.
Guevara’s main credentials were thus 14 years running a very effective municipal government, during which he paved the streets, significantly improved the drinking water and public lighting services and donated his salary to public projects, although it is rumored that he also exempted himself from paying municipal taxes. As the recidivist mayor-elect, Guevara has now promised to donate his salary to a scholarship fund for low-income students.
The PLC candidate’s personality was key to his victory; it mattered more than his program and may have been as important as the divisions within the FSLN that pulled the rug out from under his opponent’s candidacy. Guevara’s steady disposition has won him the respect of his adversaries, who choose to see him as a figure relatively distant from the PLC—against all evidence, since he is the Ministry of Government’s departmental representative. Simplifying things, one might say that the campaigns appealed to class unconsciousness more than class-consciousness, allowing Guevara to run successfully on his record.
If it was an unequal fight, Guevara did not have everything going for him in his battle with 33-year-old Alvaro López, who has an MBA and an outstanding academic record. Guevara’s age led many to fear that he will be little more than a figurehead and, unfortunately, not all of his Liberal colleagues have shown the degree of tolerance that makes him acceptable to diverse sectors of society.
We were treated to a clear example of this intolerance when the PLC’s alternate departmental legal representative Bayardo Briceño Cruz, surrounded by a cohort of PLC members who nodded enthusiastically after each of his statements, offered his version of why the FSLN lost. Rather than comment on the virtues of his party’s winning candidate—which he finally did only at the end of his tirade—Briceño persisted in a discourse that fuels polarization. "We believe that people are tired of the demagogy to which they have been subjected for 20 years. In one way or another, the Sandinista Front sullied all of society. After 20 years of iron-clad Sandinista rule, a 2,000-vote difference is more than enough to demonstrate people’s rejection of the Sandinista Front." He seemed to care little about the fact that municipal government is a collegial structure in which a Municipal Council comprising members of the losing parties as well as the winning one will be making the decisions.
Briceño also disregarded Jinotepe’s high abstention rate, which should sober any triumphalism. Only 60.8% of Jinotepe’s 24,255 registered voters turned out on May 5. While this affected the FSLN more than the PLC, it was high enough to argue that a significant number of non-Sandinista voters stayed home too, thus relativizing the victory of even an attractive figure like Guevara. The total number of registered voters in Jinotepe increased by 2,533 over the last four years, but the PLC won 119 fewer votes running the very same candidate it did in 1996: Tomás Guevara. (The FSLN obtained 1,804 less than in 1996.) Even taking into account that some of those votes went to the Conservative Party and the Christian Way, the abstention rate is high enough to suggest that people were not enthusiastic enough about any of the ballot choices to go vote.
Diriamba: Birthplace of the GüegüenseIn the neighboring city of Diriamba, the numbers are even more striking. Only 50.8% of the 31,428 registered voters went to the polls and, while the number of voters increased by 3,373 in the past four years, the FSLN obtained 1,802 fewer votes than in the 1996 elections and the PLC did even worse with 4,149 fewer. In Diriamba, it was the PLC that handpicked its candidate and the FSLN that stole the municipality.
The Güegüense—Nicaragua’s famous 17th-century theatrical indigenous figure who continually hoodwinked Spanish colonizers, has his roots in this city, which was supposedly founded by Diriangén, the indigenous leader who stood up to the conquistadors. If Jinotepe supplied the administrators to the coffee plantations, Diriamba supplied the field workers, which is why the differences between the two cities are enormous although they are only three miles apart. Diriamba’s municipal government collects under a quarter of a million dollars in taxes each year—less than half that of Jinotepe—but must provide services to a population of 50,143, or 16,000 more than live in Jinotepe.
The PLC’s candidate selection mechanisms were better than those of the FSLN, but were not always respected. While the FSLN selected its candidates based on a primary among its sympathizers this year, the PLC copied the FSLN’s 1996 procedure, surveying the whole population in each municipality without making distinctions according to party allegiances. This procedure, more congruent with the role of a modern political party, allowed it to sound out the ability of its potential candidates to pull votes beyond the party.
In Diriamba, however, the PLC took a step backwards by dropping the most popular candidate from its final list of mayoral candidates just two months before the elections. Although Douglas Arias González had already been officially designated as the PLC candidate after coming out on top in the survey, the secretary to the PLC president in Diriamba insisted that the order came "from above" when asking for his resignation. This move was not made in either the time or manner required, and Diriamba’s Municipal Electoral Council issued a ruling that Arias would remain the PLC’s official candidate. Nonetheless, the Supreme Electoral Council in Managua shamelessly put itself at the service of the PLC’s political game, permitting him to be replaced with someone who was practically unknown in Diriamba but had deep roots in the PLC.
PLC activists correctly predicted that in the wake of this mini-fraud, abstention among Liberal activists would lead to the party’s defeat in Diriamba. This may well even have been a microcosm of what happened at the national level, in which the numerous pre-electoral frauds, which were a lot less "mini," could have been a large part of what discouraged people from voting.
The FSLN and the PLC enjoy identical systems: parties kidnapped by an elite that tolerates only those who unconditionally conform. But dogmatic dreams suffer rude awakenings. Seemingly docile local leaders often rebel when the upper echelons benefit another local faction to the detriment of their own. Each faction then claims to be the bearer of the authentic ideology, the Holy Grail, the royal stamps, the canonical papyruses, and charges that the others are apocryphal versions.
And sure enough, those who felt defrauded when the PLC replaced the legitimate candidate with its handpicked one circulated an epoch-making accusation that can be obtained in any photocopy shop in Diriamba. The least inflammatory fragment of this document reads as follows: "The great defeat suffered by our Liberal Constitutionalist Party in our beloved city of Diriamba is a product of the pact and the corruption promoted and exercised by the main traitor, a corrupt man who has stained the red flag of Liberalism, President of the Republic Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo, who with his hirelings delivered the municipal government of Diriamba to the Sandinista Front. It is time to name those responsible for the defeat suffered by our glorious Liberal Party, whom we also accuse of being traitors and corrupt, servile, inept, rumormongering politicians." It is signed by the "Group of 11 in the City of Diriamba" (an obvious echo of the G-11 that is challenging Alemán from within the PLC at a national level).
While party leaders bicker in sterile brawls, seeking to win a slice of power and an endorsement from top leaders who have lost all respect, citizens either abstain or cast their votes for very practical reasons. In the end, local leaders shaped by the elite are far removed from people’s daily needs and concerns. Are people beginning to demand something else from the political system? Have these elections given us the first signs? Are the most powerful parties losing their ability to stir up the political demand that would allow them to remain in power?
Abstaining is also a response. It reveals more than just the failure of political parties to seduce voters with their door-to-door canvassing and seemingly endless speeches with the same old vacuous promises. In Jinotepe and Diriamba, abstaining was also a way to criticize authoritarianism, the arbitrary imposition of candidates and poor government.
How Chilito the market vendor votedA vote is the simplest formulation of political opinion. It puts the educated and the illiterate on the same plane. This is why practical details, the most basic things that directly affect ordinary citizens, are important. Individual ethical perceptions as well as immediately felt needs ultimately carry more weight for the majority of people than fidelity to political parties. When a party’s fissures have nothing to do with people’s common, everyday headaches, it can suddenly find itself holding the short end of the stick.
Doña Chilito, who has sold fruits and vegetables on a corner in Diriamba for years, knows what she wants and what upsets her. She is not active in any party and does not expect favors from anybody, but the elections provided her an opportunity to see if she can lower the nuisance level of government a little. "I’ve been working on this street corner for 10 years. Everyone knows that this is Doña Chilo’s corner and that I’ll be working right here ’til the day I die. Sometimes I move over there, to that other corner, to get a bit of sun, but I’m not going to work in the market. This is the place for me. I’ve been out here through four hurricanes, in sickness and in health. My son died in the war; they said it was a mine. All I got were the pieces that were left. I had to raise both his kids. I’ve raised them with what I earned from these baskets, and I’ve made sure they study and don’t go around begging. I work for them, not for anything else. I’ve done what I had to do and made just enough to put food on the table. I know how to use my knife if anyone wants to cause any trouble, which is why the delinquents don’t mess with me.
"The only ones who bother me are the cops sent by the mayor. They confiscate my produce and say they throw it away. Now come on, why would they throw away good stuff like this? They come looking for you as though you had bad things. I don’t sell bad things. We don’t have bad things. Marijuana is a bad thing and we don’t sell that. They grab what I have for sale and, bam, throw it all out. I used to run, leaving produce strewn all over the place. They’d dump things over and all the tangerines would end up on the street. But not any more, now I stay put and people back me up. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ they say. ‘Let Doña Chilito work. Go after the thieves, not the vendors!’ My nephew is deputy mayor and doesn’t even come by to see me. He never said, ‘Let me give you 10 pesos so you can buy a pound of cheese.’ I’ve gotten by all on my own. But eventually you pay for everything in this life and that’s what I told them: ‘You’re only stuck together with spit and one day you’re gonna fall.’ And they fell. That’s why I voted. What do I want from the new municipal government? I want it to be different from these men, I don’t want it to come messing with us, to attack us like that. I just want it to be better, that’s all."