Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 103 | Febrero 1990



International Election Observers: Nicaragua Under a Microscope

Rosa Marina Zelaya

Nicaraguans should trust themselves. No one should think that these elections are being supervised. That is part of Nicaragua's black history... I consider the international observers to be invited guests to attend our elections and bear witness to what we are celebrating.
—Rosa Marina Zelaya, Secretary of Nicaragua's Supreme Electoral Council.

All significant political events in Central America since August 1987 can be framed in the context of the Esquipulas peace process, which brought the hope of negotiated peace to Nicaragua for the first time since the US-sponsored contra war began in 1981. Nicaragua's elections, to be held on February 25, 1990, are no exception.

In the fourth Esquipulas presidential summit, held last February in Tesoro Beach, El Salvador, Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega agreed to move his country's presidential elections—originally scheduled for November 1990—forward to February 25 of the same year. He also agreed to invite United Nations and Organization of American States teams to observe the elections. (No other Central American country followed suit, even though all four would hold elections in the ensuing year.) In exchange for these and other commitments on Nicaragua's part, Ortega received the assurances of the other Central American presidents that they would help draw up a plan for the demobilization and resettlement of the contras within 90 days. Honduras was specifically required to play an active role in this process.

Nicaragua is the first sovereign government to request the United Nations to observe its elections. Previously, UN observation has been limited to newly independent countries, usually carrying out their first post-colonial elections. The OAS, for its part, has observed elections throughout Latin America, but it normally arrives on election day, watches the voting, observes the counting process, makes a pronouncement and goes home. In Nicaragua, in contrast, the OAS arrived in July and will stay through election day.

Both organizations will scrutinize every step of the electoral process. Although specially invited, the UN and OAS are not the only observers. Over 20 other groups are already in Nicaragua or planning to come on election day. They come from Europe, Latin America, Canada and the US. Some are organizations that have worked in Nicaragua on other issues for years, some came previously for the 1984 elections, and some are here for the first time. Most have previous experience in election monitoring, but not all.

This month, envío looks at the election monitoring process. In addition to describing the context for observation, we explain who the observation groups are, how they work and problems encountered. We also look at implications of international election observation for the region and beyond.

Why have observers?

The United Nations Mission of Observation to Verify the Elections in Nicaragua (ONUVEN) has implicit in its very name one of the dilemmas raised by international observation of Nicaragua's elections. Are the observers here only to observe and report, or do they also verify, implying the passing of judgment?

For historic reasons easily understood by most Nicaraguans, the invitation to observers was not an easy one to make. National pride still chafes at the memory of the many elections held under US "supervision"—more than once accompanied by US Marine occupation of the country. Given Nicaragua's long history of foreign intervention, one must ask why the Sandinista government should invite international organizations to verify its elections.

In addition to being an element in the Esquipulas negotiations, Nicaraguan government sources say that the decision was made as an overture to the Bush Administration. The Nicaraguans hoped that the new US president would use it to justify steps toward normalizing relations. Just before the Tesoro Beach summit, President Ortega had discussed the idea with government leaders attending Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez's inauguration, and received their support.

Even though that hope was dashed, the National Dialogue held in August between the Nicaraguan government and all the opposition parties sealed the agreement made in Costa de Sol—they signed an accord requesting the UN and the OAS to observe the elections. In the months following, leaders of UNO, the US-backed electoral alliance, have reluctantly reaffirmed that they will respect the conclusions of the UN and the OAS.

No such agreement has been signed with the United States. While Nicaraguan leaders are aware that "free and fair elections" have become the litmus test for democracies around the world, they also know that the US government uses democracy as a shield behind which to hide its interventionist aspirations. The next step for the United States, given the near demise of the contras, would surely be to delegitimize Nicaragua's elections.

Nicaragua can only depend on international pressure for the US to respect the observation reports. Theoretically, if the UN, the OAS and the Council of Freely-Elected Heads of Government headed by ex- President Jimmy Carter all declare the elections free and fair, the Bush Administration will be hard put to invalidate them.

This is not the first time that Nicaragua has turned to international bodies to verify its legitimate processes. The 1986 ruling in the International Court of The Hague declared that the US broke international laws by mining Nicaraguan harbors.

The Nicaraguan government believes that the UN and OAS reports, which are given to the Esquipulas Executive Committee as well as made public, will legitimize the elections internationally. Sofia Clark, of Nicaragua's Foreign Ministry, told envío, "We think that a review of the merits shows that the Nicaraguan government has taken [the elections] very seriously."

The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) is even more effusive. "This is a civic celebration," commented CSE secretary Rosa Marina Zelaya, "one we want everyone interested to participate in and observe. The Supreme Electoral Council is working to have these elections be like 1984; clear, honest, clean and just, elections that make a real contribution to the consolidation of democracy in Nicaragua."

Thus, Nicaragua continues to find itself in a delicate position. Knowing that free and fair elections alone will not end US aggression, Nicaragua is looking toward international verification of them to pressure the US into accepting the results. For too long, the US has been the final arbiter on issues within Nicaraguan politics. With international verification, the US is, theoretically, forced to accept international opinion. On the other hand, no matter how fair Nicaragua's elections are, if the Bush Administration chooses to distort the results, as it is giving signs of doing, the low-intensity war could well continue. It also remains to be seen whether the fact that the UN and OAS verification may force the Bush Administration to accept Nicaragua will outweigh the costs of such a strong international presence in the elections.

Observing or presiding? Striving for objectivity

At a fundamental level, the issue of observers is an issue of sovereignty. As Rosa Marina Zelaya said, Nicaragua would like the international observers to come as invited guests, "to attend our elections and to bear witness to what we are celebrating."

The conflictive international context and the polarized internal one make that nearly impossible, but the next best hope is objectivity and respect. Even that becomes difficult when the history of embedded paternalistic attitudes toward the Third World is taken into account. How is Rosa Marina Zelaya's aspiration that Nicaraguans learn to trust themselves to be achieved when observers from the United States step beyond that role to mediate conflict in Nicaragua, now matter how well-intentioned they might be?

Nicaragua's rules are clear. It has invited observers assumed to be experienced, objective and impartial. They are free, even encouraged, to make recommendations to the CSE, but the CSE is under no obligation to accept them.

Not all groups interested in being observers have been accredited by the CSE. Early in the summer, for example, a group of US congresspeople proposed an official US government observer delegation to monitor the whole electoral process. The Nicaraguan government refused, stressing that the most fundamental attribute of election observers is neutrality. "You can't be supporting the contra war, the opposition, and pretend to be neutral," Sofia Clark explained to envío. The government noted that if the US government showed signs of moving away from bellicose actions—such as transferring funds from the contras' support to their demobilization, or refraining from covert activities to influence the elections—the Nicaraguan government would take reciprocal actions.

The US government did not do so. Instead, President Bush extended the economic embargo, and humanitarian aid to the contras, up for review in November, was not halted despite evidence of human rights violations, offensive military actions and illegal disbursement of the money to contras fighting inside Nicaragua. In addition, Congress approved an astounding $9 million for Bush's chosen opposition coalition and allied non-party groups.

In early December, just after those actions, President Bush, ignoring Nicaragua's message, selected a bipartisan commission of 12 congresspeople to observe the elections in his name. The Nicaraguan government refused to grant the visas, citing the same reasons as before. Foreign Minister Miguel D'Escoto pointed out that "the very fact that Mr. Bush designated that commission is enough to totally discredit it."

Richard Lugar (R-ID) was to head the delegation. One of his aides was quoted in La Prensa as saying, "When the authorities are the ones who choose who can observe elections, that in itself casts a shadow over the elections." The aide did not mention the Nicaraguan government's standards of demanding impartial observers, nor did he seem to worry about the implied insult to the invited observers themselves.

Other US groups have had similar problems of neutrality. Freedom House, a Washington-based rightwing foundation, put forward as its observer Antonio Ibarra, a Nicaraguan-born US citizen with direct links to the contras, according to Nicaraguan government officials. His application as observer was denied, and Freedom House has not reapplied for observer status.

Although there are no official US government delegations, US congresspeople may come as individuals. They are given courtesy passes allowing them to enter registration and voting centers while they are in Nicaragua.

Who does observe and what can they do?

There are two levels of electoral observation in Nicaragua. The first, the official observers, is made up of the UN and the OAS, endorsed and sanctioned by the Esquipulas peace process, as well as Carter's Council of Freely-Elected Heads of Government. In addition, the UN and the OAS signed an agreement with the Nicaraguan government, obliging them to send periodic reports to the CSE. They in turn receive diplomatic immunity. With their large groups of observers and sizable infrastructure, these two organizations are the best able to thoroughly carry out the observation.

"The UN and OAS observers have been given a mandate by the Nicaraguan government to make periodic reports in which they evaluate the compliance and development of the electoral process and make recommendations to the government," notes Sofia Clark. "They serve as an additional guarantee to the contras who may choose to repatriate to Nicaragua, and also to opposition groups here that there will be safeguards for their personal safety, that they have the full exercise of their civic rights."

The second level includes all other groups who have requested or been offered an invitation to participate. According to Sofia Clark, the Nicaraguan government views the primary function of such groups as gathering information from the official UN and OAS observer missions and disseminating it in their respective areas. Their capabilities and their own views of their role vary widely.

Both the president of Nicaragua and the CSE can invite observers. Political parties and other Nicaraguan organizations may also request specific observer groups to the CSE, although this has not happened in practice. The government expected the political parties, especially the rightwing UNO coalition, to invite far-right observer groups. Instead, they appear to have accepted the legitimate role of the UN and the OAS.

Both categories are accredited through the CSE, the branch of government in charge of the elections. Once accredited, all observers have the following rights:

* to enter Ballot Receiving Boards (voting centers), to see Electoral Catalogs and Registries;

* to enter regional and national tally centers;

* to receive information from the CSE and Regional Electoral Councils;

* to have access to complaints about electoral procedures logged with the CSE;

* to observe the exercise of political rights;

* to observe poll watchers;

* to open offices.

Wider role than in '84

In Nicaragua's 1984 presidential race, election day was covered by at least 460 accredited observers from 24 countries as well as over 1,000 journalists. All of the observers reported that the voting process was open and fair. However, the political parties that abstained—those in the US-backed alliance called the "Coordinadora," the core of today's UNO—argued, as did the Reagan Administration, that there had been unfair campaign practices leading up to election day.

In 1990, by comparison, the OAS alone will have 300 observers; as one official noted, the biggest limit on observers this time will be hotel space. Having observers present from July through February is designed to limit any such maneuvering by either political parties or the US government.

The UN and OAS have been present at all official election-related activities. An OAS representative attended the National Dialogue between the government and the 21 political parties in August and both UN and OAS representatives were at the first televised debate held in mid-November. The observers will note any irregularities in those processes, whether on the part of the government or the opposition.

During October's registration period, observers had access to every registration center. Some followed the whole process at one center, from filling out papers for the opening of registration day, to carrying and delivering the registration lists to the Regional Council at the end of the day. The OAS, with the largest team of observers, covered 3,084 centers, 70% of the total. Other groups covered fewer centers, but all issued similar reports—that registration took place normally.

During the pre-campaign period and the official campaign that opened on December 4, observers are watching the unfolding political campaign—demonstrations, public meetings, door-to-door canvassing. On election day itself, they will have full access to all aspects of the voting process.

The Supreme Electoral Council and its Regional Electoral Councils are the bodies charged with processing and investigating electoral irregularities. Some Nicaraguans, however, are still subject to the belief that foreigners can best solve Nicaragua's problems, and go to the observers themselves with complaints rather than the CSE. OAS representative Luis Manuel Lizondo told envío that OAS observers direct all complaints to the respective Regional Electoral Councils. Under the electoral statutes, the observers have access to all complaints registered with the CSE and steps taken in response, but they do not normally carry out investigations into the complaints. ONUVEN is categorizing the complaints in a computer database to be able to analyze them systematically.

About the key observers

Providing a description of each of the observer groups already accredited is beyond the scope of this article (see chart for a listing of all groups by country). A number more are currently applying for accreditation, and there will surely be more by election day. We have limited ourselves to describing the unique characteristics and work to date of some of the key groups.

The Organization of American States

The OAS has been playing a significant role in regional reconciliation since soon after the Esquipulas peace process began. In March 1988, Secretary General João Baena Soares served as witness to the Sapoá peace talks between the contras and the Nicaraguan government that resulted in a temporary cease-fire. Since then, he has continued to witness the various meetings that have taken place. Being asked to participate in the observation of the Nicaraguan elections was thus the logical conclusion of over a year of participation in the region.

The OAS team has acquired a fleet of distinctive vehicles, with large OAS lettering and their own license plates. This gives them a high profile, which they consciously seek, whether on the road, during registration or at demonstrations and other political events. Because this is the first time the OAS has carried out such electoral observation, "the organization has had to use its imagination...and its ability to adapt to a new situation," noted Lizondo.

The OAS has observed many elections throughout Latin America, but never before in such detail or with so many observers on the ground. At the initiation of the OAS observer mission, it was estimated that 150 OAS observers would cover the Nicaraguan elections. The OAS had 52 observers during the registration period, but now expects that number to grow to 300 on election day. It estimates that the total cost for the observation process will be $3 million, $1.5 million of which is funded directly by the US Congress.

The OAS and the UN both maintain a strict program of only observing to what degree existing laws are complied with. Both also issue periodic reports through their respective Secretary General in accord with the mandate received from the five Central American presidents. The two organizations maintain close relations, holding weekly meetings to exchange plans and information. During registration, they coordinated efforts in order to cover all the registration centers between the two missions. The OAS differs from the UN in that it maintains permanent members in all nine regions of Nicaragua, whereas the UN is based in Managua and takes periodic trips to the regions.

OAS Reports. The OAS released its first report on August 2, in which it summarized all actions relating to the electoral process since February—the decision to move forward the elections and to invite the OAS and the UN, the reforms of the electoral and media laws, and the formation of the Supreme Electoral Council. Since then, the OAS released a preliminary summary of the registration period, as well as a second report in early December.

Both reports to date have assessed the process positively. Lizondo, an Argentine, using soccer games in his own country as a metaphor for the Nicaraguan electoral process, told envío, "I would say that what I’ve seen up to now is no more than the normal effects of any type of friction or confrontation provoked by different positions; in this case political positions, in sports cases team loyalties."

More and more OAS member states are requesting to send government representatives on the OAS mission. Argentina, Costa Rica, Colombia and Trinidad & Tobago all sent electoral experts during the October registration process. Uruguay, Peru and Ecuador will be sending government representatives in the coming months. In the early stages of the electoral process, both Costa Rica and Venezuela took a very active role in the reforms of Nicaragua's electoral law. Costa Rica has continued to have contact with the Supreme Electoral Council concerning electoral issues. Venezuela, however, has withdrawn from much of its early participation. According to Nicaraguan government officials, the Venezuelan advisors made expensive and sophisticated technical recommendations for the electoral reforms, most of which Nicaragua expressed willingness to implement. It noted, however, that the financial costs would be beyond their capabilities without outside aid. Early Venezuelan assurances of financial aid to the electoral process were never fulfilled. Its own economic and political problems forced it to back off from its active participation.

United Nations Mission to Verify the Elections in Nicaragua (ONUVEN)

ONUVEN brings a unique perspective to election monitoring in Nicaragua, because of its previous election observation experience in newly emerging countries. In those countries, especially in Africa, the UN has been in charge of developing the entire electoral process—the role the Supreme Electoral Council plays in Nicaragua. Having been in the Electoral Council's place gives UN observers a good understanding of what the Electoral Council should be doing and how it can deal with problems that arise. "The feeling is that they're doing a very professional, very balanced job," commented ONUVEN spokesperson Angelica Hunt. .

Like the OAS, ONUVEN travels around the country in highly conspicuous white jeeps, with ONUVEN painted in blue letters, and telltale short wave radio antennas. Based in Managua, the observers and their numerous assistants and advisors travel back and forth to the regions "just to get a bird's eye view" of the current situation.

UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuellar appointed Elliot Richardson, former US prosecuting attorney, to be his personal representative in ONUVEN. While the Mission operates full time in Nicaragua, Richardson comes for periodic visits. Richardson's presence as special contact appears to respond to US pressure to have a direct influence in ONUVEN's report. Richardson, however, reported after the last registration day that the greatest threat he saw to the electoral process was the presence of the US-backed contras.

UN Reports. ONUVEN's December report, its second released thus far, is particularly detailed, covering the CSE's continuing work, the registration period, the development of the electoral campaign and the issue of media communications.

As with all the observers envío interviewed, ONUVEN's general impressions of the electoral process are quite positive. Angelica Hunt noted particularly the level of communication between the Electoral Council and the political parties.

"We were very impressed with the registration process—it was a monumental feat of organization," Hunt told envío. She personally visited registration centers each of the four Sundays, and said that of the problems she and other ONUVEN observers noted, "we attribute the majority to lack of experience."

It is only in its review of the media that ONUVEN found cause for harsh criticism. Its December report called the revised media law of April 1989 "a positive advance" and noted that "freedom of expression is total" in the print media. But it saw the content of the expression both there and on TV and radio as mirroring the country's political polarization. "It is not just a question of biases in the selection of facts..., but that those facts are distorted to such a degree that the same event is unrecognizable when one tries to follow it through the different media." ONUVEN focused on television in this report, though it promised a systematic review of radio after the formal opening of the campaign. As we detailed in the Update section of the January 1989 envío, ONUVEN criticized not the fact of a state TV monopoly, but its lack of impartiality—a criticism it leveled just as strongly at UNO's "Independent News."

Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government

Three years ago, ex-US president Jimmy Carter, in coordination with other current and former heads of state, formed the Council of Freely-Elected Heads of Government at the Carter Center in Atlanta, Georgia. Since then, the Council has sought to promote democracy and peace in the region. This has included observation of the 1987 Haitian elections, last year's plebiscite in Chile, elections in Panama, and currently the Nicaraguan elections (the Council will not observe any of the other Central American elections being held in the next year).

The Council has appointed a group of 20 observers for the Nicaraguan elections. This includes Council members such as Raul Alfonsín from Argentina and Michael Manley from Jamaica, and a bipartisan group of US leaders, including Daniel Evans (former senator and governor from Washington State) and Bruce Babbitt (former governor of Arizona). The group is both international and bipartisan.

The Council was invited to observe the elections by President Ortega and the Supreme Electoral Council, as well as the UNO opposition alliance, and has been well received throughout Nicaragua. Carter himself came to Nicaragua in September, accompanied by Raul Alfonsín, and returned in December. Rafael Caldera, former president of Venezuela, observed the final registration day in October. Another delegation will arrive in January, and the entire observer group will spend the week before and following the elections in Nicaragua. In addition, Jennifer McCoy, the Council's representative in Managua, continues day-to-day observation—meeting with political leaders, going to rallies and so on.

A significant portion of Council funding to observe the Nicaraguan elections comes from the US Congress, much of it through the NED. No reports will be issued until after the elections, although a press conference is held at the end of each official visit.

Reconciliation the Goal. Unlike the UN and the OAS, the Council consciously chooses to participate in the electoral process. According to Jimmy Carter, during his visit in September, "We are neutral with regard to all the political parties and candidates in Nicaragua, but we are partial to the democratic process."

The Council's representative in Managua, Jennifer McCoy, explained to envío that "we are hoping to promote more reconciliation among the groups within Nicaragua, to overcome the historic polarization and conflict in the country." She said that the Council hopes to be able to encourage a move toward "peaceful resolution of the conflict and also an ability to govern no matter who wins the election."

This direct participation could be viewed as compromising the observation process, but McCoy sees the two roles as complementary. By promoting reconciliation and democracy, she argues, the electoral process can only be less polarized and therefore more fair and open.

Carter has won worldwide respect for his approach to international issues, particularly for his ability to mediate between opposing forces. As both observer of the electoral process and participant in the reconciliation process, however, he walks a fine line. This is the first time he is attempting to both mediate and pass judgment. Whether he can resolve the inherent contradictions in his role remains to be seen.

European Parliament

President Ortega invited the European Parliament to send an officially accredited delegation. They have agreed, but only individual party delegations had come as of November. Among the list of observers, only a small number are from Europe. According to Sofia Clark, this is due primarily to European confidence in the United Nations.

The Friedrich Ebert Foundation, a West German Foundation that has been working in Nicaragua for ten years, has been coordinating most of the European delegations, which come from the Social Democrat Party, the Socialist International, as well as other members of the European Parliament. Because the delegations come for short periods and do not maintain a permanent presence in Nicaragua, they depend on the UN and the OAS for much of their information.

Europe has been the focus of Nicaraguan searches for funding to back the current economic austerity program, but almost all funding is on hold until after the elections. Nicaragua thus has a stake in having Europeans observe the election process or at least to accept UN observation conclusions. Given a positive analysis of the electoral process, Europe may feel less pressure to hold back on economic aid.

It is interesting to note that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher has sent her own personal observer, David Browning. Great Britain appears to be the only European country wanting to check over the UN evaluation.

Center for Democracy

Based in Washington, the Center for Democracy is headed by Allan Weinstein, former interim president of the National Endowment for Democracy and is funded by USAID. It was invited to observe the Nicaraguan elections both by the Nicaraguan government and by UNO in April and was one of the first observers to set up shop in Nicaragua. Allan Weinstein observed the August National Dialogue between the government and the political parties.

Despite the invitations from both the government and UNO, the Center's actions have been suspect from the beginning, primarily due to Weinstein's history with the NED and the Center's reputation as a rightwing organization. A December incident confirmed this. The Center sponsored 10 US Congresspeople to observe a UNO rally in Masatepe. The Congresspeople, who flew immediately to Costa Rica to hold a press conference at the Central American Presidents' summit then in progress, blamed Sandinista supporters for an outbreak of violence at the demonstration. OAS observers later said they could not be sure who started the violence (see below), and a 14-page Center report issued four days later insinuated that the OAS observers either did not accurately report the incident or did not see all that the Center observers did.

The Center's biased judgments are no surprise to those who have watched the Center and its president, Allan Weinstein. Weinstein worked initially with NED, the same organization channeling $5 million of US Congress funds for "democracy" in Nicaragua. The Center is now an active, if clearly biased, participant in the Nicaraguan electoral process, and the AID money is being put to use at the interests of the State Department.

The Center is not one of the "International Observers," on the level with the UN, OAS and Carter's group. It has, however, claimed to be such as recently as December 30, when it distributed a press release describing a meeting held with contra field commanders to discourage any violence (see In Brief). The press release listed the Center as one of four international observer groups, though it has no such status. In fact, as a result of the December Masatepe incident, the Frente Sandinista has decided to cease relations with the Center, though the CSE still considers it as an invited and registered observer, with all the rights of an observer group at the second level.

Hemisphere Initiatives

Formed in June 1989 by a group of US specialists on Latin America, Hemisphere Initiatives does not maintain permanent offices in Nicaragua, but has brought delegations almost monthly since June. Among its members, George Vickers, a professor at New York City University, observed last March's Salvadoran elections as well as Chile's plebiscite in 1988. A large number of HI's members observed Nicaragua's 1984 elections with the Latin American Studies Association delegation, whose thoroughly researched report received little attention in the US.

Hemisphere Initiatives has, in just six months, disseminated an impressive array of readable information about the Nicaraguan elections. Senator Christopher Dodd has distributed its information throughout the Senate, and similar actions have been taken in the House.

The HI reports concisely summarize key issues in the electoral process. The first, published in August, ranges from the composition of the Supreme Electoral Council to registration. Subsequent updates have covered opposition views on the electoral process and foreign funding of the internal opposition, among others.

In its first report, Hemisphere Initiatives states that "the Bush Administration appears to be pursuing a two-track policy of encouraging opposition unity while simultaneously challenging the credibility of the whole electoral process." The October update details the US organizations giving funds and the Nicaraguan organizations receiving them.

HI Opinion Poll. By Nicaraguan law, any organization may take an opinion poll. The only limitations are that with every poll the methodology must be made available. Most of the polls taken in Nicaragua since June give Daniel Ortega a significant lead over Violeta Chamorro. Those by La Prensa and a Costa Rican firm, however, gave Chamorro more support than Ortega.

The State Department, obviously, uses the statistics that it supports, discounting other polls. HI attempted to deal with this bias by contracting a well-respected Washington firm, Greenberg-Lake, to conduct a poll. By using a firm well known in Washington, it hoped to change Capitol Hill's trend of accepting without question polls conducted by rightwing organizations. As one HI member said, "a poll we can trust makes us more comfortable discussing other polls."

The results were no surprise—Ortega received 44% and Chamorro 27%. This, however, raises the age-old question. Once again, Nicaraguans find that, in order to defend themselves, they have to find a non-Nicaraguan to verify what they already know. The HI poll said nothing that other Nicaraguan polls had not already said.

Other groups

The Canadian Committee For Peace and Democracy In Nicaragua. The Canadian government has not sent an official government observer delegation, but a coalition of non-governmental organizations, church-related groups, unions, human rights and solidarity groups has formed. Nine Canadian non-government organizations with programs and staff in Nicaragua are also members. According to Scott Eavenson, representative of the committee in Nicaragua, it plans "to monitor the whole electoral process and to distribute as much objective information as possible in Canada about the Nicaraguan elections."

Meyer Brownstone, head of Oxfam Canada and a professor at the University of Toronto, heads the committee's observation team. A practiced electoral observer, Brownstone observed the 1984 elections, and in November traveled to Namibia as a non-government observer of those elections. Brownstone spent ten days in Nicaragua during the registration process, and plans to return for the elections. Other Committee members will spend time in Nicaragua during the campaign.

The committee's first report, published after the registration period, noted the success of the registration, but highlighted three obstacles to the full realization of elections: continuing contra attacks, interference by the United States in the electoral process and lack of adequate funds to carry out the elections. A second report will be issued after the elections themselves. In addition, three Canadian citizens resident in Nicaragua gather all pertinent electoral information and send it to the committee every two weeks. The information is distributed to 300 "receiver groups" in Canada.

Sister Cities. Sister cities are in a similar position to the Canadian Committee. Over 30 US sister cities plan to send delegations to observe the elections. While some of the groups will have observer status, all will be able to travel to communities with which they are familiar and already have relationships. It is expected that they will also distribute UN and OAS information in their respective communities in the US.

Limits to impartiality

Almost all observers interviewed by envío felt that their role has had a positive impact on the electoral process itself. The true nature of this new type of "intervention," however, has yet to be fully examined.

Many issues extraneous to the elections themselves influence the way observer groups work. There have been moments, for example, in which some observers, unaccustomed to playing a secondary role in international affairs, have moved to exceed their mandate. In most cases, they have been persuaded to work in coordination with the CSE, not in advance of it. The Center for Democracy even went so far as to request television space for spots to promote voting. The CSE responded that it is in charge of civic education, not the observers.

The question must also be asked whether, in the polarized situation between Nicaragua and the United States, the space exists to be an impartial observer. Factors such as diplomatic pressure from the United States can also affect an organization's functioning. The OAS has long suffered from domination by the United States, also a member; it now faces pressure because of its position that the electoral process is going well. Both OAS and UN reports on the elections, even though limited to reporting on government compliance with existing laws, are receiving little or no press coverage in the United States.

Although both groups are making a commendable effort to maintain their neutral objectivity, signs of caution can be seen with regard to several sensitive themes that have an impact on the elections. Thus, when asked about the effects of US campaign funding, either legal or illegal, UN spokesperson Angelica Hunt said simply, "One could say one welcomes any financial support that strengthens the democratic process."

Another factor is the source of a group's funding. While the Carter group members are both international and bipartisan, dependence on Congressional funding can be noted in former Venezuelan president Rafael Caldera's press statement after observing the last registration day. Avoiding direct mention of the contra military threat to registration centers, he said only, "We have been informed that in certain areas of the country, many people still couldn't register for reasons of security or others." And while spokesperson Jennifer McCoy told envío that the Council is concerned that US money enter the country according to Nicaraguan laws, she added that it would be difficult to track any money entering illegally.

On the other hand, by expanding to include issues considered outside the mandate of missions such as these, Hemisphere Initiatives and the Canadian Committee hope to highlight the outside forces that could distort what all agree has been a relatively smooth process up to now. Hemisphere Initiatives says it can analyze the effects of US policies and actions on the Nicaraguan elections because it does not receive funding from either the US government or the Democratic or Republican party.

CSE judged fair: A unanimous call

On several issues no one is waffling; two such are the registration process and the role of the Supreme Electoral Council. The OAS, Carter's Council of Freely-Elected Heads of Government and ONUVEN all have nothing but praise for the CSE, from its various decisions to its handling of the registration period to its role in candidate resignations. Both ONUVEN's October and December report dedicate a significant portion to the makeup and actions of the CSE.

According to the Electoral Law, three of the five members were to come from the governing party and two from the opposition. President Ortega later agreed to name an "eminent person" not connected to any political party to one of the Sandinista slots. After the five had been named, UNO and President Bush claimed that the non-UNO opposition member (from the Democratic Conservative party) as well as the independent member (Dean of the Central American University Law school, Rodolfo Sandino Argüello) were Sandinista sympathizers, and therefore the Council was actually pro-Sandinista 4-1.

Addressing this charge, ONUVEN analyzed the 103 decisions made by the CSE after investigating complaints, from June through September 7. They concluded that "the decisions referred to show the Council as open-minded and flexible, and its decisions seem rather to benefit the opposition parties." Despite total support from all observation groups, UNO continues to question CSE independence. ONUVEN notes that UNO criticism of the CSE damage the electoral process, and has called on all parties to support it. UNO, however, has not ceased challenging CSE authority.

Masatepe: A decisive incident

A violent melee at an UNO demonstration at Masatepe on Sunday, December 10 proved to be a watershed for the observation process. Until that point observers were primarily just that—they observed and commented, but did not participate in the electoral process. Masatepe provided a forum by which the observers began to take on a more active role. While no foreign observation representative will admit to being a participant in the electoral process, the Masatepe incident showed otherwise.

According to witnesses, violence broke out there between 10-15 Sandinista onlookers and 200 UNO supporters. Jeering became rock throwing which led to the stabbing to death of one person, the wounding of a dozen others, the destruction of two houses (a Sandinista campaign headquarters and the house next door) and the overturning and burning of a UN agency vehicle.

Observers at the demonstration included the OAS and the Center for Democracy, which took a congressional delegation. After additional investigation, the OAS issued a report saying it was impossible to determine who began the incident, but that the violence had been clearly planned at some level. In contrast, the 12 congresspeople immediately flew off to Costa Rica, where they held a press conference at the site of the Central American presidents' summit, then in session. There they vehemently claimed that the Sandinistas had begun the incident and incited the violence; they failed to mention that most of the physical destruction was carried out by UNO-supporting youth.

Onlookers immediately questioned the chronology of events. The demonstration had been pushed forward a week—some suggest intentionally—thus coinciding with both the presidential summit and the congressional visit. The congresspeople, in turn, had just enough time to attend the event and then fly to Costa Rica. Their hasty and one-sided condemnation of the Sandinistas directly contradicts the more carefully researched and detailed OAS report.

Within Nicaragua, the Center for Democracy version was soon discounted, especially after the OAS one was released. Weinstein himself, in an apparent attempt to cover the Center's initial report, stated in Managua that neither side was to blame. Some congresspeople, too, have changed their position. Jimmy Carter, who came to Nicaragua the week following Masatepe, noted in a press conference that one of those present told him he was confused and couldn't tell whom to blame. At best, the congresspeople were imprudent; at worst, they were participants—willing or not—in a set-up. In either case, the Center for Democracy has lost the credibility it once had with the government.

For his part, Carter had planned a visit to Nicaragua in mid-December, but pushed it forward several days because of the incident. Eager to play an active role in the reconciliation process in Nicaragua, Carter met with regional and national leaders of the government and the opposition, both to clarify the facts and to work out ways to prevent any more violence in the electoral process.

On Friday evening, all the political parties were to meet at the Supreme Electoral Council offices to sign an accord guiding behavior at future political rallies. The accord first renewed a call for contra demobilization, then went on to prohibit the sale or consumption of alcohol at rallies, prohibit any type of weapons and give the police an increased monitoring role. Much to Carter's chagrin, UNO negotiators abandoned the meeting before the signing, leaving Carter with no reconciliation document to wave.

At his press conference the following day, Carter noted that the CSE planned instead to issue a directive with the force of law regarding political rallies, covering the same areas already mentioned. When asked why the parties did not sign the document as had been expected, Carter refused to admit that UNO had walked out on the negotiation process.

His reluctance to do so illustrates the contradiction in trying to be both observer and negotiator of reconciliation. When Carter participates in a reconciliation negotiation, he loses his ability to make objective comments as an observer. By criticizing UNO's actions around the accord, he could lose his leverage as negotiator.

A model for the world?

The varied nature of these groups makes clear the unique context of the Nicaraguan elections. Nicaragua has opened its doors to the international community to observe its elections in the midst of a continuing war and multifaceted aggression from the United States. At the same time, the standards Nicaragua is holding itself to are much higher than in any other Central American country. Given all the outside influences, the variety of observer groups allows all the issues to be dealt with in one way or another. If the way is positive, on balance, Nicaragua could once again be the cutting edge of a new way to do things.

The high participation of member countries in the OAS observer mission elevates the role of the OAS as an election observer in Nicaragua. This opens the possibility for it to play the same role in the rest of Latin America, which has had a long history of election fraud and violence. The Nicaraguan government views this as a positive sign for the democratic process in all the Latin American countries. If the OAS mission goes well, non-arbitrary, common standards could develop, rather than the unfair scrutiny Nicaragua suffers today. Honduras' elections on November 26, 1989, and Costa Rica's and Guatemala's this year, are receiving significantly less attention than Nicaragua's. Even El Salvador's elections in March of last year were not subjected to similar official international observation.

Angelica Hunt of the United Nations also emphasized to envío the positive impact that Nicaragua's openness in these elections could have for future elections around the world. "It's a rather nice example of the UN charter coming full circle," she commented. "Finally, the international service unit of the UN is being used for what it was meant for." Hunt explained that the UN charter covers both the rights of sovereign states and the adherence to international standards set by the UN. Nicaragua, by inviting ONUVEN to observe the elections, has invited the international community into its borders. Similar openness in other countries could contribute significantly to the movement of democracy.

Whether Nicaragua can be a model for future election observation programs throughout Latin America and elsewhere, or will remain the most-observed country and be held accountable to much higher standards, remains to be seen. If the Bush Administration can succeed in squelching UN, OAS and other reports, as it is already doing, it may be able to put forward its own accusations of either fraud or unfair election practices. Given that the United States has not respected the UN International Court decision condemning it for mining Nicaragua's ports, there is no guarantee that it will listen now to UN and other election observers. Alternatively, as the largest (and most gravely in arrears) bankroller of both the UN and OAS, the US may exert more direct pressure than it has done so far. Not only the credibility of Nicaragua's elections, but also that of international election observing hangs in the balance.

Observers Accredited by the Supreme Electoral Council December, 1989

Official Observers
1. Organization of American States (OAS)
2. United Nations Observer Mission in Nicaragua (ONUVEN)
3. Council of Freely-Elected Heads of Government / Carter Center, United States

Invited Observer Groups
4. Witness for Peace, United States
5. Center for Democracy, United States
6. Veterans for Peace, United States
7. European Parliament, Europe
8. Hemisphere Initiatives, United States
9. Casa Nicaragüense, United States
10. Maryknoll Order, United States
11. National Central American Health Institute, United States
12. International Council on Adult Education, United States
13. Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), United States
14. Latin American Studies Association (LASA), United States
15. Global Center for Education, United States
16. International Center for Dialogue, United States
17. Committee for Peace and Democracy in Nicaragua, Canada
18. OXFAM Canada, Canada
19. Spanish Embassy in Nicaragua, Spain
20. Friedrich Ebert Foundation, West Germany
21. Konrad Adenauer Foundation, West Germany
22. Swedish Embassy in Nicaragua, Sweden
23. Prime Minister of Belgium, Belgium
24. World University Service, Denmark
25. British Embassy, Great Britain
26. Center for Electoral Promotion and Advice (CAPEL), Costa Rica
27. Colombia House of Representatives, Colombia

Source: Supreme Electoral Council, Managua, Nicaragua.

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