Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 185 | Diciembre 1996



The Roots of The Electoral Crisis

This was the fraud: elections so murky that they make it impossible to see clearly what the will of Nicaraguans really was in many parts of the country.

Nitlápan-Envío team

In the last poll done by CID GALLUP before the elections, 61% of the Nicaraguans polled expressed confidence in the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) and said they believed that the October 20 elections would be clean and free of fraud.

The question about fraud is typical in such pre electoral polls, but in Nicaragua's 1996 elections, it had a special meaning. For many months Presidential candidate Arnoldo Alemán and the Liberal Alliance propaganda mill had been charging that the FSLN was preparing fraud through the various technical positions its members hold in the CSE. (There is no longer any FSLN member among the five magistrates who head the CSE or even among their alternates.) A few days before the elections, Alemán went so far as to propose a "gigantic civic march" in which he would denounce this "fraud." Throughout the period, the Liberals never tired of demanding that these technicians all be fired, even though they had worked in the CSE for years and had proven their skills and honesty in both the 1984 and 1990 elections.

Executioner or Victim?

The other candidate who once referred with alarm to possible fraud by the FSLN was Sergio Ramírez, head of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). In August he suggested that if the CSE gave the ballot printing job to El Amanecer, an FSLN press shop, the party could pre mark its own column on the ballots with an invisible ink that would only show up later. Reality showed that both the CSE's technical team and the FSLN ended
up being not the executioners but among the numerous victims of the array of irregularities riddling the complex and painful electoral crisis that has done so much harm to Nicaragua and its people.

A Long History of Electoral Fraud

All of Nicaragua's elections were stamped with fraud during the Somocista years. The electoral mechanism, in which participatory and representative democracy come together, thus ended up profoundly disparaged in Nicaraguan grassroots consciousness. Elections were associated in the popular mind with traps, disorder, pressures, liquor and violent scuffles.

It took the Sandinista revolution to rescue the electoral process from the garbage heap in which it was found after nearly half a century of dictatorship. The FSLN government had to start from scratch. It set up a Council of Political Parties to legalize the parties that had been left out of the "historic parallel" of Conservatives and Liberals and to arbitrate intra and inter party matters; it created and organized the Supreme Electoral Council as the fourth branch of state; it passed a new Party Law and a new Electoral Law; and it held its first elections in 1984, five years after toppling the Somoza family dynasty.

Those elections, in which the other six parties participating ran unmolested campaigns, attracted over 400 international observers, 1,000 foreign journalists and a 75% voter turnout. The elections put all the new structures, laws and electoral staff to the test, and they passed with flying colors. The elections were so clean and well run that they ushered in a new appreciation of the electoral process. This was unquestionably one of the revolution's most revolutionary contributions to Nicaraguan history.

The 1984 elections were a kind of referendum on the continuation of the revolutionary transformation process, which was already facing serious internal contradictions as well as unrelenting military, economic and diplomatic aggression by the Reagan administration. The FSLN won 67% of the presidential vote, followed by the Democratic Conservative Party with 14% and the Independent Liberal Party with 9.6%. Those results, praised by all the international groups that observed them, including the European Parliament, were never recognized as legitimate by the US government or by the Nicaraguan right that made up the Nicaraguan Opposition Union in 1990 and supports Arnoldo Alemán today.

Despite the war and the critical economic erosion, the FSLN again organized transparent elections in 1990, though they were more complicated than in 1984. In addition to presidential and legislative ballots, they included a first time race for municipal governments and, on the Atlantic Coast, for autonomous regional governments. The Sandinistas were sure they would win those elections, but when they did not they accepted the adverse results, which was an historic benchmark for the Latin American left.

That benchmark was also established in the minds of Nicaraguans, who quite rightly felt that their participation and their votes had produced such a transcendental change. "Your vote counts" stopped being an empty phrase. The vote of each and every Nicaraguan had been so valuable that it had taken the government out of the hands of the powerful FSLN and put an end to the war.

The organization, fairness and transparency of both the 1984 and 1990 elections had a profound impact on the population. They erased the negative images of the past and implanted in the political consciousness of Nicaraguans an almost blind faith in this democratic tool. In both elections this faith virtually turned the polling places into religious temples. Saying that one's "vote is sacred" is perhaps only vapid rhetoric in other Latin American countries, where abstention, skepticism, caution toward the familiar traps or outright fraud are the order of the day. In Nicaragua that was no longer true. In Nicaragua one's vote really was sacred.

No Nicaraguan today will let anyone get away with saying, "Well, although they had their problems, these elections weren't so bad for such a poor country." Nicaraguans don't compare their 1996 elections to the disorganized ones in Haiti or the fraudulent ones in Mexico or the ones in Guatemala in which abstention always gets the biggest vote. Nicaragua is a poor country with nothing to compare itself to except its own elections over the past decade, which have a pattern of quality like those in the first world. Since Nicaraguans now know what "good elections" are like, it makes what happened this time even more serious.

Early Signs of the "Day After"

With those positive experiences in their hearts and minds, over two million Nicaraguans awoke early on Sunday, October 20, to go vote in the nearly nine thousand polling places (juntas receptoras de votos, or JRVs) scattered around the country. In the previous days, many worrisome signs forecast the "day after," particularly in Managua, but confidence prevailed, precisely because of those two earlier elections.

What were these ominous signs? As anybody with a lick of sense had feared, the ID voter registration card process had become a veritable labyrinth for both the CSE and many citizens in the last days. In typical Nicaraguan fashion, many of those who had registered for their permanent photo ID had waited till the last day to retrieve it. Early Sunday morning, after the cut off day for doing so had been extended a number of times, there were still long lines of people clamoring for their ID card or the substitute voting document given to those whose Civil Registry information was still too incomplete, or for any other piece of paper they could wangle out of the CSE so they could vote. Voting had suddenly become an imperative.

The CSE had been overwhelmed by the incredibly complicated process of simultaneously upgrading the Civil Registry and issuing the ID cards, particularly since many people had also waited until mid 1996 to even apply for it. Of course by that time the CSE was already entering the critical stages of its electoral calendar. An estimated 200,000 people may have ended up unable to vote, lost in the identification labyrinth.

There were also other signs in Managua. A majority of voters did not know until some 24 hours before election day where they were supposed to go vote. The electoral rolls, which by law should be given out to the parties 60 days before the elections, had only been released a week earlier and then not to all parties. The voters, who also have a right to see it, only did when they got to their JRV.

Even the credentials for the party poll watchers ended up being handed out late. In addition, on Friday and Saturday, and even in some cases on Sunday itself, the addresses of many JRVs were changed and the members assigned to staff their tables were inexplicably transferred to other locales, along with the respective poll watchers.

Another sign was even more serious. On Sunday morning itself, the ballots for the Managua elections were still being fed through the presses of INPASA, the shop selected by the CSE to print the entire run of some fifteen million ballots after a major debate. The company's alarming delays, which had been predicted, created incredible disorder in addition to violating not only the Electoral Law calender but also the contract that INPASA had signed with the CSE.

"No one will say it publicly," admitted one overwhelmed CSE technician, "but the elections were at the point of being suspended because the material wasn't arriving anywhere on time. If it hadn't been for the tremendous effort that the cadets and officers of the army made, packing and distributing these materials, the elections wouldn't have taken place."

The disorder this created around the country was especially noticeable in Managua, since efforts had focused on getting the packages to the most distant JRVs first. It was in this setting that the rumors began to circulate of "inconsistencies." About the only consistent thing was the desire of voters to go to the polls to change things, to get out from under the bad administration and the poverty of the Chamorro years.

Civic Celebration?

The voters' will was definitely put to the test. For various mutually reinforcing reasons, some of the JRV table staff or party poll watchers either arrived tardy or didn't show up at all. Was it irresponsibility? Political desertion? Boycott? The confusion? In addition, most JRVs around the country opened late--by two hours on average and up to six in some cases--largely because they didn't receive all their materials, such as ballot boxes, voting booths, carbon paper, tally sheets or the ballots themselves, on time. Some never received the ballots at all for one or another election. These generalized delays and irregularities were notably different than the order and punctuality of the 1984 and 1990 elections.

The CSE has released no data on the volume of these irregularities, or of their serious consequences. They may have even influenced the absenteeism levels, although for the most part people waited patiently--or not so patiently--in the long lines. Even without the lateness in opening the polls, voting itself took more time due to the six long and unwieldy ballots. The light headedness resulting from hours in line under the hot sun contributed to voter confusion at the crucial moment of marking the ballots for their favorite candidate or party.

Voting was less a "civic celebration," as so many songs and messages had proclaimed, than a "civic sacrifice." The majority of Nicaraguans suffered hunger, thirst, heat and even sometimes rain as they stood in line for between four and twelve hours.

The famous ticket splitting that had become the chief topic of conversation as election day rolled around virtually did not happen. It failed not only because the Liberals or Sandinistas imposed ironclad party discipline, as many claim. After so many exhausting hours waiting in line, it was a lot easier to vote a straight party ticket, and also a safer bet against error.

The complexity of these elections, the difficulties of getting the materials and people where they were supposed to go given the constant rains of the previous week and the resulting delays of all kinds meant that some people were still voting in different points around the country when the first results started arriving at the CSE's computer center in the early hours of October 21.

Alemán Proclaims himself Winner

The JRVs should have officially closed at 6 pm, to allow time for scrutinizing null ballots, counting the valid ones and drawing up the official tallies for each of the six different elections, all of which took four hours at the very least. Since so many JRVs opened late and people took longer to vote, they also tended to close late.

Many people around the country were glued to their radios or televisions, tensely waiting the first results. They were kept waiting until 3 o'clock the next morning. At that hour, CSE president Rosa Marina Zelaya announced that, with only 2.7% of the JRVs reporting in, Arnoldo Alemán was in the lead with about 18,000 votes against 15,000 for Daniel Ortega.

With that, Arnoldo Alemán proclaimed himself the President of the Republic and a party celebrating his victory got underway in the Liberal Alliance campaign headquarters. Some firecrackers could be heard around the capital.

The international cable TV channels immediately picked up the news. But inside Nicaragua, exhaustion quickly gave way to perplexity: what was his hasty triumphalism all about?

Six hours later, with no new public information on the results, Daniel Ortega called an improvised press conference. "We are concerned to see that the Liberal Alliance has rushed to sing its victory," he said. "We've done a parallel count and by now have over 300,000 votes, more than the Supreme Electoral Council shows. In our count, the FSLN is a point ahead of the Liberal Alliance. The last word has not yet been spoken here."

Both attitudes--the Liberals' precipitous triumphalism and the Sandinistas' public distrust--set the tone of the crisis that began to unfold at that moment. What was happening in the vote count? Soon the question took a step back: What had happened during the voting itself, in which virtually all voters had noted some kind of irregularity?

Thus began day 2 of the 33 days that shook Nicaragua.

Missing: 60,000 Votes

At 11 am that same day Rosa Marina Zelaya, making no reference to either the Liberals' triumphalism or the Sandinistas' doubts, announced the results of the 30% of the JRVs that had sent in their results by that time. The Liberals' lead over the FSLN had grown: it was now 48.4% to 39.3%. In any election in the world, 30% of the votes can be trusted to show an irreversible trend. But with so much disorder, was this a reliable, representative sample? At 2 pm, with 46% of the JRVs reporting in, the CSE count showed the same trend: 48.2% to 39.1%.

Two hours later, Daniel Ortega made another declaration, this time more concrete. He explained that the FSLN's count, based on the tally copies already sent in by a majority of the FSLN's poll watchers, differed from that of the CSE by some 60,000 votes. For this reason, he deduced that the telegrams sent to the CSE from around the country had been tampered with, and implied that the CSE should stop giving any further results based on the telegrams. Explicitly he requested that a review be done based on the official tallies.

This perfectly legal demand had enormous political consequences. The entire country tensed up as speculative rumors ran rampant. Many people tried to piece together the events of election day, reviewing data, listening to the endless stories of poll watchers, JRV presidents and voters themselves about the myriad irregularities that had occurred. While Sandinistas tended to exaggerate and Liberals to minimize, the picture in most people's minds grew from their own personal experience, usually assumed to have been anomalous, to a problem of national proportions. That was the point at which the word fraud appeared on the horizon.

Ballots in the Garbage

By the time of the FSLN's second press appearance, anyone watching TV had already seen unforgettable chaos on their screens. Still at that hour, a throng of over two thousand JRV members and Electoral Police were milling in front of Managua's Departmental Electoral Council (CED), where many of them had been since before dawn. All were trying to find someone to whom they could hand over the valuable electoral documentation they had brought in the plastic bags provided by the CSE or in the boxes the ballots had been shipped in. Both bags and boxes were disheveled, since many people had used them as pillows to catch a few winks in the parking lot; more than a few hadn't eaten or slept in at least two days. In addition to wanting to get rid of their cargo, many wanted their pay (between 40 and 80 córdobas--$5 10--a day depending on the case). The Managua CED had failed to prepare the conditions to receive anything, pay anything or resolve anything.

This chaos, whether a result of intent or sloth, produced even more regrettable actions. For several days afterward, hundreds upon hundreds of marked and unmarked ballots as well as official tallies continued to be found in rain ditches, vacant lots and dumps around the capital. The elections were back in the garbage.

Why did this chaos occur, bringing such a political impact with it? Who was responsible? Those in charge of turning the material in to Managua's electoral authorities, who, desperate after such a long wait, decided to chuck the whole thing and go home to eat and sleep? Or Managua's electoral authorities, who did their work so sloppily? Or could it be that the chaos in Managua, including this disregard for the election materials, was just one more fraudulent maneuver? As more than one Nicaraguan was heard to say in those days, "Fishermen prosper in turbulent rivers."

A Real Jigsaw Puzzle

Whoever was responsible, the fact remains that a picture is worth a thousand words. The powerful images of muddy, stepped on and even singed ballots and tallies, tossed in latrines, half buried in garbage, added a collective emotional crisis to the mounting political one--particularly among Managuans and most particulary among those who had voted for the FSLN. "Where is my vote?" many asked themselves with genuine anguish. "Do you suppose it got counted?" "I stood eight hours in line for this?"

Thus began the impassioned and disorderly task of piecing together the "electoral jigsaw puzzle," to figure out what had happened, how and why. As one former CSE official explained, "Because each Nicaraguan was not just a voter, but also felt like a monitor of the electoral process, they have been better able to reconstruct some of the pieces of this colossal set of irregularities."

At first it seemed that putting the jigsaw puzzle together would be easy: there was fraud and the Liberals "stole the elections." But history is never so simple; the more one looks, the more one learns. We soon realized that discovering the truth would be a daunting, perhaps even impossible task. The puzzle had 10,000 pieces, many of which were missing, and there was no picture of it on the box top. Getting to the truth would take a special team of systematic, patient, totally honest and disinterested people willing and able to sift through mountains of details. But both the details and people like that are hard to find in a "country of inconsistencies." Meanwhile, the more we tried to get a clear picture with each new piece of scarce information, the murkier it got.

The fact is that the FSLN's request to clear up what had happened ended by revealing some bitter truths to the nation and anyone else who wanted to see them. In this sense it was useful, since solid constructions can only be built on foundations of truth.

CSE Finally Orders the Review

Despite so many concerns, the CSE president went on announcing preliminary results based on the questionable telegrams for the next two days. On Wednesday, October 23, the CSE called on both the media and the international observers who had remained in the country trying to get some clarity on what had happened. Zelaya made no reference to the political tension, the images of chaos in Managua, the comments being made on all sides. Each time she appeared, her smile was more wooden and her tone more controlled and chilly. "Yes, there are some inconsistencies," she responded to one journalist. "Yes, sometimes two and two make five and not four in the telegram," she tried to joke with another. "Yes, we have telegrams with incidences, but the computer rejects those," she explained to yet another.

In the last announcement of partial results from the telegrams that Wednesday, based on 87% of the JRVs, Alemán remained ahead by virtually the same margin: 49.3% to 38%. The CSE never explained why it called a halt at that point. One observer was told at the computer headquarters that some 500 faxed telegrams were unreadable, but that only accounted for about 5%.

Why did the CSE continue giving preliminary results from allegedly inconsistent telegrams for three full days, ignoring the political tension that had been created? Was it to give the impression that everything, anomalies notwithstanding, was normal and correct? To let enough time pass for tempers to cool and the idea of an Alemán victory to soak in?

It is said that two of the renowned international observers, former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias and former US President Jimmy Carter, "negotiated" with Alemán: in exchange for ceasing to proclaim his victory, the CSE would continue to add up the votes that confirmed it.

Finally, on Thursday, October 24, the CSE gave the order to review the tally originals stored in its departmental offices around the country. The review would consist of an arithmetic check of the official tallies, followed by their comparison with the telegram copies, also stored in the CEDs. By that time only the FSLN media were still carrying images of the chaos. On Wednesday Barricada had carried a two page spread of altered or otherwise suspicious tallies and telegrams, showing for example a JRV in which under three hundred valid votes had been cast but over a thousand appeared alongside the Liberal Alliance's name. The most serious anomalies were in Managua, Jinotega and Matagalpa, all three of them with CEDs headed up by Liberals.

With that, Nicaragua entered the next phase of the crisis. That phase revealed new and even more troublesome evidence of the disorder surrounding the elections.

"It's Absurd to Accuse Us"

On the afternoon of the 24th, Alemán called a second press conference to proclaim his own victory, this time with less festivity. In fact he spoke in a dramatic tone, referring to the "unjustifiable uncertainty" that had been created and to the fact that he would already have been proclaimed President in any other country in the world. He categorically denied having anything to do with what had happened and was still happening. "It's an absurdity to try to attribute gratuitous irregularities, manipulations and supposed fraudulent actions to us. We did not and do not have the resources, the capacity or the participation to commit them in a process whose law, naming of principal authorities and control of the administrative, operational and logistical apparatus have been completely out of our hands. We made neither the laws nor the appointments, nor did we control said apparatus or count the votes."

At the end, in a conciliatory tone, he added, "There are neither winners nor los ers. We are all going to save Nicaragua. Let's celebrate, as true reconciled brothers, without triumphalism but with joy..."

At that point in the crisis, joy was the last thing that Nicaraguans, whether Sandinista or Liberal, were feeling.

Virtual Reality

Alemán had made reference to what the pro Liberal media, anxious to see his victory legalized, had never mentioned, although he only did so to wash his hands of it all. In the first week of the electoral crisis, and even afterward, the same social and economic powers that had polarized the country on the eve of the elections with an irrational anti Sandinista discourse continued in the same vein through the media.

While the Sandinista media were documenting the irregularities being discovered, in some cases with exaggerated sensationalism and in others objectively and with an invitation to reflect on them, the other media ignored them all. Paid ads congratulated Alemán on his victory. Declarations by anyone calling the elections clean were published. And the FSLN's request for the review, though perfectly legal, was treated as a maneuver to bid for quotas of power in back room deals, or as the tantrum of bad losers incapable of accepting their defeat, or as an underhanded call to violence to inflame the country. Following the range of media was, as one CSE official remarked, like living in two different countries: Switzerland with transparent elections or Hell with fraudulent ones.

The most contradictory aspect of the rightwing messages was that, while praising Nicaraguan voters to the sky for their "democratic will" and for having exercised their "civic duty" so well, their writers forgot that a large percentage of this admirable population--at the very least 38% of it--had voted Sandinista.

An unrelenting battle went on in the streets as well as in the media during those long and tense days, as everybody fought over how to interpret such a complex situation. It became the vogue to refer to Alemán as the "virtual President elect." Dionisio Marenco, director of Channel 4, the Sandinista TV station, remarked that "we are living in two worlds: the real world, in which we speak of the sad reality we have all lived through, and the Liberal world, a virtual reality world in which nothing happened." Seeking to simplify the events in order to understand them, the country divided into black and white, which only deepened the pre electoral polarization.

Not Sad but Furious

The basis for the media that moved in "virtual reality" was provided by several key international observers, such as Arias, Carter and OAS secretary general César Gaviria, who declared the elections "exemplary" simply because they had seen how exemplary the Nicaraguan voters were to stand in line for hours. (The important issue of observation organizations is taken up in a separate article in this same envío issue.) The basis for the media that informed about the real reality was provided by all the evidence of irregularities, which flourished everywhere.

The basis for large capital to again close ranks around Alemán and isolate the Sandinistas was provided not only by the exemplary conduct of so many voters, but also by the exemplary self control of Sandinista voters in particular. They showed tremendous maturity in their political handling of both the confusing news and their own indignation. In 1990, Sandinismo suffered a paralyzing trauma with its electoral defeat. "Then we lost, but now they stole it from us; then we were sad, but now we're furious," said many grassroots Sandinistas.

What Good Was the Review?

The review of the votes in all departments of the country began on October 24 and ended anywhere from a week to two weeks later. This phase of the crisis finally concluded with the announcement of the provisional reviewed results on November 8. The process went fairly fast in some small departments where there had been no lack of transparency, even though there was also no lack of disorder. In Boaco, Carazo, Chontales, Managua, Matagalpa and Jinotega, the departmental electoral authorities resisted doing the review.

In the end, the exhausting process of scrutinizing the vote tallies for each of the six elections as well as the two other official JRV documents (signed memoranda of opening and closure) didn't significantly alter the results already learned from the telegrams. The FSLN got another deputy or municipal mayor or two, and a number of the small "centrist" parties, which had virtually nothing before the review, got a few more votes. The strangest phenomenon was that the Liberal advantage in the presidential election even grew by two percentage points. The gap was established at 13%.

The review thus did not serve, as had first been expected, to change the results or even prove the "fraud" that the Sandinistas alleged. What did it serve for then? Perhaps only to demonstrate the complexity of some patterns of irregular behavior bordering on electoral crimes, allowing one to imagine how the "fraudulence" could have occurred. Without the review, these patterns would never have been revealed. The price the country paid for this knowledge, however, was extremely high. During the long wait for the results, the tension continued, the polarization grew and the economy went into a tailspin.

Localized Fraud?

The review also served to localize the "fraud." In most departments the review transpired in peace and order, and the irregularities that cropped up were only the multiple delays already known as well as some more serious problems in a relatively few JRVs. It was soon clear that the maneuvers had names and addresses. In Managua, Matagalpa and Jinotega, and to a lesser degree in Chontales, Boaco and Carazo, the review was turbulent and plagued with a new round of anomalies, tensions, irregularities and even crimes.

The review--and in some cases recount--was not only to discover quantitative errors. Even more importantly, it was to discover the serious qualitative anomalies that had occurred during the voting, many of them not impugned by the party poll watchers at the time, and hence no longer remediable. The anomalies were of such a magnitude that one was inclined to conclude that the "fraud" in the 1996 elections was this: the elections were so untransparent that they prevented a clear vision of voters' true will in certain departments, particularly in large and critical ones such as Managua.

A Pandora's Box

The multiple incidences and inconsistencies and occasional uncooperative attitudes--that showed up in the review made it even harder to comprehend and interpret the size and complexity of what had happened. They exceeded the capacity of most people to analyze them all. It is no exaggeration to say that this is why this issue of envío is both so long and so late.

FSLN National Directorate member René Vivas summed it up as follows: "On the morning of October 21, when Daniel spoke, we thought that the whole problem was in the numerical irregularities of the telegrams. That's why we wanted a JRV by JRV review of all the official documents: the opening, the closure and the ballot counts. The telegram is simply a means of data transmission, but the legal basis of that data is in the documents. When they began to review these documents, however, we discovered that there were three kinds of documents in the most conflictive departments.

"First, original ones that no longer exist because they didn't show up at all or were found in garbage dumps. In Managua there are about 300 of these, and in Matagalpa another large number. Second, other documents that don't fulfill the legal requirements: they lack signatures, have visible corrections, etc. These are unreliable documents. In Managua alone, we discovered 1,600 such documents. Third, the innumerable documents throughout the country that have greater or lesser arithmetic inconsistencies.

"So seeing that neither the telegrams nor the documents guaranteed veracity, the order was given to open the bags of ballots. But that was like opening Pandora's box! The security number on the back of the ballots didn't coincide for the same JRV; ballots didn't coincide with documents; huge numbers of rolled, not folded, ballots appeared in the bags, which means they hadn't used, and all were marked in the Liberal column..."

The "Fraud" in Managua

And what happened in Managua? According to the data that has been strung together so far, some level of fraud seems to have been organized after the JRVs closed, once the the ballot count began.

Various tactics seem to have been followed by the JRV presidents, 70% of which are thought to have been Liberals (this is among the information not provided by the CSE). One tactic was that Managua's CED president, César Membreño of the Liberal Alliance, decided 48 hours before election day to change the location of many of the JRVs whose presidents were not from his party, but he did not inform the table staff of the change until Saturday morning, one day before the elections. Another was to hold off informing the designated table staffs and poll watchers that their credentials were ready. The credentials were dropped off to them between midnight Saturday and the first thing Sunday morning.

For both of the above reasons many people didn't show up to their assigned JRVs, or didn't get there on time. And since they didn't, the Liberals selected people to fill the supposed vacancies from an "Association of Unemployed Poll Watchers" they had conveniently set up. This confusion appears to have been deliberately created, since these and other tactics were how the Liberals came to control the presidency of so many JRVs. The new people assigned had not been trained in the CSE workshops but were unconditionally loyal to the Liberals.

Yet another tactic was that when the Sandinista poll watcher or those of other non Liberal parties wanted to impugn some irregularity, the JRV president simply didn't register it on the official document. That's what makes it so hard now to determine the sizable number of anomalies that occurred. And of the nearly 90 that were impugned on election day, Membreño threw out close to half.

And that's not all. Many of these JRV presidents refused to give copies of the tallies to the party poll watchers, alleging that no carbon paper had been included, that they were tired, or whatever. Lack of carbon paper was indeed a serious omission by the CSE, but at least in Managua some of the more diligent and well heeled JRV presidents sent someone out to a local stationery store to buy it.

There was still another step. After finishing the ballot count and filling in the official tally, a vehicle contracted by the CSE was supposed to pass by, on a fixed route, to collect all the electoral material to be deposited in the CED and either take the telegram to the local ENITEL branch for sending or, if the vehicle's route was in the inner city, drop it off directly at the CSE computer headquarters to avoid congesting the phone lines. But the Liberal JRV presidents reportedly decided not to use these vehicles. Instead they used others that the Liberal Alliance had ready, and they did not let any party poll watchers ride with them. They disappeared for up to two hours in those vehicles, presumably to alter tallies and telegrams, and only then took the material to its destination. Was it on those trips that some ballots and even whole JRVs favorable to the FSLN found their way into the garbage dumps and other strange hiding places in Managua?

The itinerary between the JRVs and the corresponding ENITEL offices was also changed at the last minute. And not only in Managua, but all around the country, poll watchers and observers reported that the JRV presidents did not allow them inside the ENITEL office.

Seeking to Create an Effect

What objective could there have been in adulterating the telegrams if it could be proven in a review of the tallies? Some analysts concluded that "the goal was to give the impression that Alemán was winning, even if it wasn't true, and gain time to alter even the tallies in cases where that could be done. It was an effort to create an effect on public opinion that would make a Liberal victory irreversible, and to hasten international recognition, particularly among the observer missions in the country. That would make it harder for the Supreme Electoral Council magistrates to reverse the results. It would create a de facto situation requiring a great deal of courage, firmness and honesty for them to reverse."

This description of how a fraud could have been organized is based on an effort to reconstruct the facts. There could be others. In any case, the Liberal Alliance gave no explanation or other interpretation of these same facts. Alemán himself steadfastly refused to recognize any possibility of fraud, much less any Liberal responsibility for the chaos, even though that chaos in the three departments whose CED presidents were Liberals was far and away the greatest of any in the country.

Dare We Speak of Fraud?

"Fraud" is a legal word, used to describe a crime that can be proven and judged. But it was also the quickest and most simple word used by the majority during those days. When we asked former CSE magistrate Julián Corrales if there really could have really been fraud, he gave this answer:

"To understand what fraud is one has to think about two basic variables: the will to commit it and the structures that permit it to happen. If you have the will to commit fraud, all the organization and planning of the structure that you put together is geared toward doing it: before the vote (through a false electoral roll, for ex ample), during the vote (casting ballots for non existent people), and after the vote (in the counting).

"The opposite case is the will for transparency and a structure totally geared toward a clean election. If you have this, fraud isn't impossible but it can be detected.

"The two variables can be mixed; a desire for transparency, but a lack of technical, organizational and administrative structures to guarantee that transparency. In my opinion, that was the case. The CSE didn't willingly commit fraud, but it lacked the administrative and technical capacity to close all the doors to fraud."

According to some analysts, "Alemán and the Somocista Liberals didn't want to risk a second round. The polls indicated a close election, with no one daring to make a definite prediction. They calculated that they could win or lose, so the tricks they used were to guarantee the minimum difference needed to win without going to a second round. Managua, Matagalpa and Jinotega assured them the points needed for a first round victory. Alemán had neither the organization nor the ability to commit a national fraud."

Managua and Matagalpa: The Keys

While the Sandinistas tried to understand and explain and the Liberals to deny, minimize or conceal, the other parties remained quiet, or congratulated Alemán, looking for political spaces or "work" in his new government, or joined the FSLN's demands to try to rescue some votes. Meanwhile, one by one the review concluded in Bluefields, Estelí, Madriz, León, Nueva Segovia, Río San Juan...

The Sandinista media daily reported all sorts of stories. The most conflictive ones always occurred in the same places: Managua and Matagalpa, Matagalpa and Managua... Sometimes Jinotega. All the clues led there. Pinpointing the electoral crisis in Managua and Matagalpa is key to understanding any altering or distortion of the results, since almost 50% of the Nicaraguan voters are found in those two departments.

Alemán did not tell the truth when he said that the Liberals had no role in organizing the elections. César Membreño, a new leader of Alemán's Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), directed the electoral process in Managua as president of the Departmental Electoral Council. He was a tax collector in the Managua mayor's office, a political faithful who is close to Roberto Cedeño, the Liberal candidate for mayor of Managua. In Jinotega the CED was headed up by coffee producer Roberto Castellón, another known Liberal militant. In Matagalpa it was presided over by Alberto Blandón who, though only a Liberal sympathizer, is so ardent in his sympathy that he was more active than any militant or leader.

According to officials from the CSE technical team, Membreño, Blandón and Castellón had already demonstrated a no table inability to prepare the electoral processes in the months leading to election day. It was not only due to their clear political loyalties or their unhidden distrust of those who were not Liberals, but also to inefficiency, lack of dedication, and an inability to understand or accept suggestions or technical recommendations, or to establish good relations with their own teams.

The crisis was brewing in the crudeness of these three electoral officials and in their extreme partiality towards Liberalism. For these same reasons, everything that happened after October 20 has been no more than the chronicle of an announced crisis.

Key Questions

A 10,000 piece puzzle is not the only metaphor that serves us in the complex task of discovering what happened. What Nicaragua has lived through in this period can also be compared to a good detective novel, with its challenging labyrinth of clues aimed at confusing us. These clues offer up hypotheses and key questions that can help us get closer to the "scene of the crime" and reveal one or two of the responsible people.

If Membreño, Blandón and Castellón are key figures to understanding the disorder and irregularities in these three points of the country, strategic and not yet adequately answered questions would be:

Why did the CSE magistrates assign them rather than other, more capable people to run the process precisely in territories that could tilt the results one way or another?

Since there was ample proof of their Liberal favoritism and even more of their deficient management of the process almost from the moment they were appointed, why did the CSE magistrates not substitute them for others who could guarantee efficiency and transparency?

And finally, why, with the elections consummated, were they not removed from their posts, at least during the vote review, a process that made it publicly obvious that they had created innumerable problems, damaged the CSE's name as well as that of the Liberal Alliance itself, and harmed the nation by aggravating the tensions?

CSE technicians with long experience offer some possible responses to these questions. They note that the choices of who would occupy all three top positions in the Departmental Electoral Councils were limited by the new Electoral Law to lists provided by the political parties, which the CSE says were drawn up quickly and with inadequate information about the candidates. Many of the parties proposed candidates based on personal political loyalties rather than criteria of technical capability, responsibility or honesty. Even worse, the quotas of presidential assignments by party were based on very confidential negotiations inside the CSE. The technicians also indicate that some CSE magistrates acted like regular "godfathers" to their favorites who were chosen. From the perspective of these technicians, the most serious aspect of this "godfather syndrome" was that the "godchildren" were not urged to be more efficient or motivated, or even to accept technical suggestions made to them, which converted some CED presidents into "untouchables." In Blandón's case, his "godfather" in the CSE was magistrate Roberto Rivas, adviser to Cardinal Obando.

The Deepest Roots

In addition to such questions, there are also the antecedents that we have spoken of again and again for months in these same pages. It's worth recalling some of them at the moment of assigning responsibility.

The oldest root of the crisis, although not old enough, is the Law of Citizen Identity, legislation that enabled the CSE to initiate the processing of ID cards as legal identification. Had it been passed in 1990 instead of April 1993, the CSE would have had three years uninterrupted by elections to work through the problems of the deficient Civil Registry used as the basis for the ID cards. As it was, legislation authorizing the use of these cards for voting purposes was not passed until December 1995. This meant that the cards could not be used for the 1994 autonomy elections on the Atlantic Coast, and also that much of the citizenry did not take seriously the need to apply for one until this year--when it became impossible for the CSE to process the avalanche of requests, much less maintain control of the rest of the electoral calendar.

Another deep root of this crisis dates back to 1994, when a majority of National Assembly representatives decided to undertake an important series of reforms to the Constitution. These legislators challenged the presidentialism of the 1987 Constitution, which Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo of the Chamorro government had converted into hyper presidential authoritarianism.

The reforms were approved after much tension and debates, but the executive office irresponsibly refused to recognize them; for six months Nicaragua had two Constitutions and endured an acrid power struggle between the two branches. During those months the idea of solving the crisis by postponing or even suspending the 1996 elections cropped up from time to time. It was bandied about partly because of a fear awakened in the non Somocista right wing by what they saw as the inexorable triumph of Arnoldo Alemán, particularly if Lacayo was prohibited from running by the new constitutional clause disqualifying him as a relative of the incumbent.

In mid 1995, pressure from countries that cooperate economically with Nicaragua--especially the United States, which let it be known that "if there are no elections, all aid will be cut off"--finally did the trick. The constitutional crisis came to an end with Cardinal Obando's mediation. The reformed Constitution was finally promulgated but a Framework Law was also created. That piece of legal nonsense postponed the implementation of the substantive reforms giving more powers to the legislature for the duration of the Chamorro administration and determined certain decisions that must be made between the executive and legislative branches by consensus.

The country then entered another interminable round of new crises between the two branches in the search for such consensus. An authentic "political market" grew in the National Assembly, where appointments, laws, consensus, dissent and agreements were horse traded. Among the appointments were those of the five CSE magistrates, whose terms had ended in June of that year. Three magistrates with no experience in electoral work were chosen for these posts which require not only honor but also technical experience. To fill this experience gap, Mariano Fiallos was reelected as CSE president, and Rosa Marina Zelaya was reelected as his executive secretary; the two of them had headed up the electoral branch for twelve years. At that time both were FSLN members, although Zelaya went over to the MRS after the split several months later.

The Political Class: Father of the Crisis

Various interests and priorities came together in the constitutional reforms, the election of new CSE magistrates, approval of the 1996 national budget, and the drafting of and debate over the new electoral bill, the property bill and the bill to privatize the telecommunications company (at that time known as TELCOR). By October 1995, when all these new bills were finally being debated, the FSLN found itself with only 8 representatives in the Assembly, since more than 20 members of its bench had formally gone over to the MRS. This does not mean, however, that the FSLN remained pure and on the sidelines of the ongoing and often turbulent negotiations.

Other laws also had to be changed as a result of the constitutional reform, among them the Electoral Law, but in its case the legislators decided to draw up an entirely new one instead. Early passage of this piece of legislation was imperative so that the CSE could start preparing for the most complicated elections in the nation's history--6 simultaneous elections, some 40 parties and over 50 new popular subscription associations, double the number of JRVs from 1990 and the ID voter registration cards. Nonetheless, the bill became a "crutch" in the last months of 1995, only picked up so the legislators could keep moving when their extremely conflictive debates over the TELCOR and property bills--as laws, both now again called into question by President elect Arnoldo Alemán--reached critical snags.

A New Electoral Law for the Wrong Reasons

In the electoral bill, some Assembly representatives sought to close the doors to certain presidential candidates; others had as their only goal specifically blocking the FSLN's electoral possibilities as much as possible; still others just wanted to guarantee some space for their own small po litical parties. All of these motives caused a substantial modification of the content and goals of the original Electoral Law that had brought forth the transparent elections of 1984 and 1990. The new text was adjusted to the political aspirations of the legislators and their parties, while the definite losers in all of this were the voters.

The Electoral Law, which gave the CSE several costly new responsibilities, was finally approved on December 5, after rather than before approving the CSE's electoral year budget, which was virtually the same as 1990's. All of these delays and maneuvers on the National Assembly's part were enormously irresponsible, because they gravely affected the organization of the elections. The gestation of the electoral crisis began in this political whirlwind, which is why the elections turned into an ugly, abused child.

But it was not only the delays. It was also the content of the new Electoral Law. Experts say that there are almost 60 irregularities and vague articles in it. One of these appeared, and has since demonstrated itself to be, particularly serious. In the name of an irrational anti Sandinista ideology and senseless political pluralism, a majority of legislators decided to "politicize" the CSE, throwing overboard 12 years of technical experience, by dissolving the 9 Regional Electoral Councils and their experienced staff of directors in favor of 17 new departmental ones, with all new staff members, chosen from party lists. The new law also gave these CED presidents--politicians more than technicians--the power to name the JRV presidents in their respective departments. It was an incredible demonstration of backwardness by the whole political class, not just their National Assembly representatives, because underdevelopment, more than the lack of roads or telephones, is the inability to accumulate experience.

If the legislators had not chosen politicization over experience and professionalism, people as questionable as Membreño, Blandón and Castellón would not have headed up the electoral process in Managua, Matagalpa and Jinotega. In offering candidates such as these, the political parties, in particular the Liberal Alliance, had even more responsibility for the crisis than their National Assembly benches did.

But if the political class, especially its legislative representatives, fathered the electoral crisis, the executive branch was its ugly stepmother. Inexplicably it did not promulgate the new electoral law until January 26, 1996, nearly two months after it had been passed. And in keeping with such accustomed irresponsibility, it dragged its feet in giving the CSE the corresponding funds for both the ID cards and the organization of the elections. In contrast to the 1984 and 1990 elections, in which, if there was a problem, it was that the state put all other activities on hold to give its total support to the CSE, Rosa Marina Zelaya spent much of her time this year begging for the executive branch's cooperation.

Fiallos' Resignation: an Unattended Warning Bell

After a long and futile fight with the Assembly to get some of these errors and loopholes corrected before it was too late, Mariano Fiallos resigned the CSE presidency in a surprise move right after the new law was published. He expressed his rejection of numerous aspects of the law, but especially the one politicizing the CEDs.

"Only an appropriate administrative structure can guarantee the transparency of the elections," he explained. "This current structure is not appropriate and I cannot work within it." It was that "inappropriate" structure within which the 1996 elections took place, elections that he had already warned could not be transparent.

Fiallos' resignation sparked a political upheaval. It appeared that the elections would fall into a black hole, and might even be suspended. US ambassador John Maisto leaned very heavily on Fiallos to reconsider. Many others pressured as well.

Four days later, Fiallos withdrew his resignation, but not for free. In exchange, he requested that the National Assembly, with the full backing of the CSE, reform 15 articles of the Electoral Law. The executive supported Fiallos in requesting these reforms.

But the request was never given any attention. The Assembly representatives were already frenetically preparing their own electoral campaigns, since many of them were running as candidates for president, Assembly representative, mayor. They were also jealous of certain political aspects of the law and remained oblivious to--or perhaps guiltily conscious of--its technical problems.

With his unswerving eye on the electoral horizon, Fiallos resigned again on Feb ruary 13, this time "irrevocably and irretrievably." The unreformed law, he said, "is an obstacle to the electoral process," and he had reached the conclusion that with it, "I cannot successfully carry out my responsibilities as CSE president."

Fiallos' dramatic resignation, which had put in bold relief the combination of technical, legal and financial limitations facing the electoral process, was a warning bell for all society. The combination of incongruities and political and legal nonsense was such that, through action or omission, all Nicaraguans could end up participating in a "fraud" or watching it impotently and perplexed.

This is what in fact happened, not only on October 20 but also during the recount. It even happened at the end, when political leaders of all stripes negotiated the "residual" votes--Nicaragua's nearly perfect system of proportional representation--to assign Assembly seats. The "fraud" thus ended where it began: in the top political echelons and in the National Assembly.

Rosa Marina Zelaya's Management Style

At Fiallos's recommendation, Rosa Marina Zelaya, up to then executive secretary of the CSE, was elected in April to replace him as president. Like Fiallos, she had proven experience since the 1984 elections, though hers was mainly in the technical aspects of the process.

This change had a major effect on what happened later. Whether due to political mistrust, or to a fear of delegating final responsibility for any aspects of the electoral process to the other inexperienced magistrates, or to a simple preference for centralizing management in her own hands, all bucks--whatever their denomination--stopped at her desk. With each new setback in meeting some obligation of the electoral calendar, though seldom her fault, more bucks piled up, unattended, on her desk. It reached the point, according to several of the organizations providing outside technical or financial support, that she became "mono programmatic," giving each new major crisis her full and competent attention, but at the cost of letting other things slide--sometimes until they reached crisis proportions as well. This loss of the CSE's already weak simultaneous control of all aspects of the electoral process, helped stir up the waters of the electoral river in which the most nimble fishermen caught the most fish.

Zelaya managed the mounting technical problems, the continual calendar setbacks, the endlessly growing budget requirements, the politicization that was already seriously affecting the electoral process, and even the often unfair personal and political attacks on herself with an eye first and foremost on public damage control. She had the last word on any issue that came up, trying always to project the image that there was nothing to worry about because the process was going to be perfect. Meanwhile, inside the four walls of the CSE, the crises multiplied and grew.

The political attacks on the CSE president, particularly by the FSLN, and even more particularly by its most radical spokespeople, revolve largely around her membership in the Sandinista Renovation Movement. She is also married to Jorge Samper, chief legal adviser to the MRS bench in the National Assembly in recent years, MRS campaign manager in Managua and, after the controversial and anything but transparent recounting of residual votes, an elected National Assembly representative for the MRS. The merciless MRS criticisms of the FSLN before the elections and after the crisis appear to be its main source of identity, although the same can in no way be fairly said of Rosa Marina.

How much weight in the electoral crisis and in this management style did Rosa Marina Zelaya's close links to and sympathy with the MRS leadership really have? Opinions of people very close to the Supreme Electoral Council lean in a different direction: "The Council that ran the 1996 elections was marked by arro gance, which prevented it from accepting its errors, faults and limitations with humility and in time to correct them. De spite the accumulation of proven anomalies, it continued to be insensitive and not to admit them, right up to the end. This Council thinks it's perfect and can do no wrong. It's also a Council that doesn't know how to work as a team. Preparing elections is not the task of one person, no matter how perfect that person is or believes him/herself to be. It is a collective labor that all should participate in."

One issue not raised in these comments, all made by men, is the gender factor. Curiously, in this country in which the most underdeveloped aspects of Latin American macho culture still proudly dominate, not just one but two branches of government are headed by women. One of those women, President Violeta Chamorro, is too grandmotherly to come under personal attack and, besides, no one believes that she truly runs the executive office anyway. The other, Rosa Marina Zelaya, left no confusion about who runs the CSE. Is she really arrogant and insensitive? Does she truly think herself perfect? Or could it be that she donned such impenetrable armor to weather the blows of the political infighting, both in and outside of the CSE? To ward off the criticisms about problems that were not of her making in the first instance and that no one could have controlled under the circumstances? Those who criticize her so strongly seem to forget in doing so that these problems were bequeathed her by a man who resigned the position she dared to step into precisely because he knew they could not be brought under control. If there are indeed elements of truth to this interpretation, her greatest fault would lie in losing sight of the line between armor and flesh and blood, between doing her best and daring to appeal to understanding in others.

It is true that people do not make history. But it is also true that when institutions are still weak and the laws are empty and incoherent, the personality of those leading the institutions or interpreting the laws becomes determinant. This is one of the lessons left by the electoral crisis.

Ingenuousness or Disorganization?

Almost every individual and every institution lost something in this electoral crisis. The biggest loser is all of Nicaragua: its institutionality, its legality, its entire population, especially that 20% of young voters who voted in 1996 for the first time. The erosion that this crisis has produced in the citizenry's confidence in institutions, laws, democratic mechanisms, and also in many of their leaders, leaves a dangerous and sad tally. The injury will not be healed by trying to hide it.

The smaller parties may have lost who knows how many unrecovered votes to the garbage heaps and latrines--enough in any case to retain their legal status? Even the winning Liberal Alliance was a loser, because its victory will always be questioned by the evidence of foul play or by lingering doubt. The "unstained" red flag that the Liberal Alliance identified itself by throughout its campaign ended up spattered with dirt. But assuming that the main political objective of the series of anomalies and illegalities was to break the technical tie and prevent the FSLN's return to power, the FSLN ends up the greatest losing party in the electoral crisis.

How have the losing Sandinistas behaved? In their conversations and speeches, the positions range from those who, with unwavering indignation, claim, "We won the elections, including the presidency, but the Liberals, with the complicity of many others, stole our victory," to those who more realistically say, "We'll never know what we won because everything was too murky."

How much responsibility does the FSLN have in the lack of transparency or in permitting this "robbery"? Many Sandinista leaders insisted during the days of the crisis they and the base went into the final stage of the elections very naively, without even considering the possibility of fraud. Although this seems just short of incredible, it has some logic to it. The 1984 and 1990 elections, and even the Atlantic Coast elections in 1994, had a positive impact not only on the population, but also on the FSLN leadership.

The Sandinistas won in 1984, they lost and accepted it in 1990, they lost on the Atlantic Coast in 1994 and once again accepted it. They and all of society came to understood that this was how the electoral mechanism works: sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. In 1996 the Sandinistas prepared more to win than to keep from being robbed, with some ingenuously excessive confidence in the process and with considerable negligence after many years of weak work with the base.

The FSLN's disarticulation disorgani zation in these years accentuated any naivete, matching it with carelessness. The most faithful were chosen as FSLN poll watchers rather than the most capable. People without political ill will were chosen, but they were also without experience and few were trained well to carry out their difficult task. Many of them demonstrated little dedication: some showed up late at the JRVs, some were bought off by their Liberal counterparts and some acted irresponsibly with the electoral materials.

Afterwards, in the middle of the crisis, the Sandinistas showed more ability to denounce fraud and fight for every vote in the recount than to organize themselves to document that "fraud," broaden their legal defense in other arenas through the support of civil society organizations or creatively mobilize their base to deal with the crisis.

Challenge, Question, Don't Recognize

The FSLN leadership evolved its legal demand as the anomalies accumulated and to some degree were made public. First it declared that it "did not recognize" the preliminary results being given by the CSE. Later, it asked for a review based on the tallies. Overwhelmed by the unmanageable anomalies that the review demonstrated, it formally requested, with over 600 folders of documented evidence, the annulment of the entire elections in Managua and Matagalpa, and of numerous JRVs in several other departments. Later, although after the time period stipulated by the law, it also requested that the elections in Jinotega be annulled.

After announcing that it would request the annulment of these elections, the FSLN called Managua residents to a demonstration on November 8 to "defend the vote" and commemorate the 20th anniversary of the fall in combat of FSLN founder Carlos Fonseca. The announcement of this rally made the right wing tremble once more. While it again claimed to fear that violence would be unleashed, it appeared to be hopeful that some kind of violence would actually happen, in order to disqualify the FSLN's legal allegations.

Legality and Legitimacy

There was no violence that night in the plaza, just sadness. By that point of the crisis, many people had gotten lost in the thicket of figures and legal arguments, and already sensed that very little or nothing would change. The elections would not be held a second time--with what money? The results would not be altered--there wasn't enough proof or willingness. The new political alignments, of which there were already signs, would define Nicaragua's new political map.

That night in the plaza, Daniel Ortega announced to Sandinista applause: "If the CSE does not respond to our demands for annulment, we reserve the moral and po litical right to question the legitimacy of the elections. We are obliged to denounce what is not legitimate even if the Supreme Electoral Council makes it legal."

The CSE did not respond to the demand to annul the elections. On November 22, it announced its definitive and unappealable results, proclaiming the elected leaders. Daniel Ortega and his brother Humberto gave the first FSLN responses. Daniel evoked history: Somoza had also carried out legal elections, but his government was not legitimate. The international community knew this but tolerated him for 40 years, until finally Somoza was delegitimized. He announced that the FSLN would differentiate between legality and legitimacy and would present a "Proposal for Governability." This doc ument was made public four days later and offers 14 points considered urgent in preparing an agenda for governability in Nicaragua.

Humberto Ortega's response came in the form of a ponderous personal document with many meanings. It requested the electoral branch authorities to resign as the first step to reach the governability that the country has always needed, but needs even more now, after the electoral crisis.

And the US Role?

Did the US government play any role in what happened? There has not been enough analysis of this question. A history of over a century of interventions indicates to us that doing so would not be excessive. The still fresh history of these last 20 years makes this concern imperative.

Through its ambassador, John Maisto, who came to Nicaragua in 1993, the Clinton administration played a very active role during Nicaragua's institutional crises of 1994, 1995 and 1996--when politicians were already factoring the elections into their calculations. A diplomat who knows how to act in crises, Maisto was in the Philippines when Marcos fell, in Chile when Allende fell, in Panama when Noriega fell.

He fit into Managua well. He was present at every political meeting, formal and informal, and from the moment he got off the airplane he felt he had the right to give his personal opinion about everything that happened. He always said that "Nicaragua's crisis should be resolved by Nicaraguans," but never missed a chance to tell Nicaraguans how the US government thought those crises should be resolved.

The 1996 elections would be important for the US government: the "second step" toward Nicaragua's transformation from the revolutionary 1980s to a "market democracy" and to "stabilizing" Nicaragua in this new model. Maisto's great challenge was to see that those elections were held. How they were held, at what cost or whose cost, seems to have been of secondary importance to him.

For months, Maisto turned every key within reach so that the electoral machinery would not stop. "When there was any glitch, any problem, whatever it was, Ambassador Maisto went to the CSE to visit Doctor Zelaya," recount CSE work ers. "Maisto was her great support, her backbone in every crisis."

On October 7, in his last speech in Nicaragua before leaving for a new post, Maisto summarized his philosophy of the previous three years: "I am often asked which candidate the US supports. I'm going to give a definitive response to that question: my government does not have a candidate. We fervently support the process and we expect to work with the government that the Nicaraguan people choose in free, fair and transparent elections." Then, faithful to his interventionist tendency, he defined the lines over which that government that we Nicaraguans would choose should not step.

Denationalization of the CSE?

Through AID, the United States responded to the Nicaraguan government's call with $9 million dollars to support the elections. Of that, $1.2 million went to the official Organization of American States observer mission, and another $1.5 went to five US based observer organizations. The remaining part subcontracted for the CSE the technical services of the Consulting Center for Electoral Promotion (CAPEL), a group recognized for its professionalism and experience which is part of the Interamerican Institute on Human Rights (IIHR), also financed by AID. Other countries offered much more.

It should be noted that 20% of the $6 million generously offered by the United States to contract CAPEL's services came off the top to cover CAPEL's office overhead and consultants in Nicaragua. These consultants earned $250 a day to "help" the CSE, as well as receiving $150 for living expenses.

In the midst of tensions and inquiries to discover the "fraud," Sandinista radio stations made public on October 31 the tape of a cellular telephone conversation between two Costa Ricans: CAPEL's Managua coordinator Eduardo Núñez, and AID official Victor Rojas. When the content, and especially the tone of that extensive conversation was revealed, political tension rose to the extreme. The conversation made clear that they feared that the cloud of electoral anomalies in Managua could become unmanageable. They discussed the urgent need to find a solution to the crisis through a particular interpretation of the Electoral Law.

The consultants did not speak of having planned fraud or of covering it up, but hearing them talk in a foreign accent about Nicaragua's internal problems was enough for the collective imagination to turn them into the "brains" of the fraud. Above all, because CAPEL and AID were behind them and behind these two was the US government.

Various people who know the CSE well have suggested that, since the Electoral Law disarticulated the CSE and weakened its necessary control over the different levels of the electoral process, CAPEL's active participation in preparing the 1996 elections may have been a "denationalizing" factor for Nicaragua's electoral branch. CAPEL, in contrast, claims that the CSE did not accept some of the more sensitive tasks that it offered to help design, such as transport of the electoral results.

Looking at CAPEL

CAPEL was founded in 1983, during the years when repressive "national security" military regimes--all of them firmly supported by the United States--were disappearing in Latin America and the continent was moving towards "democracy." Its goal is to support electoral processes throughout Latin America.

CAPEL first came to Nicaragua for the 1990 elections--"to spy on us," says one old CSE technician; "and Doctor Fiallos advised us to be reticent with them." So they were. But, after the 1990 elections and its results, CAPEL strengthened its links with the CSE and even invited Fiallos to be on its board.

In 1996, CAPEL set up its office in Nicaragua in April. "In 1990 they came to stick their noses in things; now it was clear that they came to run things." They achieved this to a certain degree. CAPEL wanted to influence the content of training workshops given by the CSE; it was stopped. CAPEL tried to question the abilities of CSE technicians; it got somewhere. CAPEL took over some CSE projects and ideas; it was not stopped. One of the most "shady" people mentioned in the cellular phone conversation, Argentine Daniel Zovatto, CAPEL director for twelve years until August 1996 and now an IIHR consultant, was known in the CSE as "Doctor Zelaya's shadow," because of his friendship with and influence over her.

Electoral Interventions

Not suggesting any role by the US government--through any of its branches of power--in the electoral crisis and in its resolution in favor of Alemán and cover up of the lack of transparency, would be to renounce the right to think from the experience that history gives us. It would be a sin of naivete.

If the United States violated international law by sponsoring the war in Nicaragua for years in the name of democracy, if it promoted consumption among US blacks of a drug as destructive as crack to finance that war, one does not need to be "communist" to imagine how much it must have participated in our electoral crisis, acting, as always, in the name of democracy.

The 1996 Nicaraguan elections should be a cause for reflection among those who maintain some decorum in this indecorous world, which only knows how to speak of money. The countries in the South, short on resources but long on needs, and with politically strong grassroots movements, are in a brand new vicious circle. We need democracy to advance; democracy needs elections as a test; elections need money and ever more resources to be carried out. How do we break this circle with our own resources and decisions, with sovereignty and self determination?

For the US government, the time of military interventions in Latin America appears to have ended. But the "market democracies" that its ambassadors are promoting throughout the continent require ever more electoral interventions. Could this have been the case in Nicaragua?

An Impossible Task

Nicaraguans now know that putting together the puzzle of the electoral crisis is no game, no fun task. It's also not possible. Too many pieces are missing, lost or hidden. And time is not on our side; the Immaculate Conception and Christmas holidays are upon us.

Even with all the pieces, we don't know for certain the image we're trying to put together; fraud from below? from above? with what pattern? patterns? who ran it? or was it not run by anyone, rather just sort of "happened," free lance style, in the climate of pre electoral national crisis? was it a fraud blessed by someone from within? or from without? a sophisticated low intensity fraud? or one so poorly done that it left tracks everywhere? a fraud decided early on? or at the last minute only to break the famous technical tie? a fraud committed with criminal intent? or by omission of responsibility? a primitive fraud? or that modern fraud that leaves no tracks, a computerized fraud? a combination of mathematical inconsistencies? or just political inconsistency?

We've brought together some of the pieces in these pages. The challenge to know, to want or be able to put them together remains open.

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