Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 95 | Junio 1989



Nicaragua's Electoral Process—The New Name for the War

Envío team

Since the Esquipulas IV accords were signed at the Central American summit meeting in El Salvador in mid-February, the Nicaraguan government has dedicated much of its efforts to carrying out its part of the bargain. The incoming Bush Administration, after recovering from its shock that its regional allies had given new life to the peace process, set about cutting off its oxygen supply once again. In that effort the main tool of Bush's predecessor, the armed contra forces, have been at least temporarily replaced by political and economic reactionaries inside Nicaragua. Nicaragua's economic crisis and its upcoming elections are the new name for the war.

Nicaragua's Government—determined to comply

In mid-April Nicaragua's National Assembly reopened debate on the electoral law passed last year, taking into account many of the criticisms offered by the opposition parties in bilateral meetings with President Ortega both before and after the Esquipulas IV accords were signed. The legislature also approved a law governing the media and ratified the new date of February 25 for general elections, 10 months earlier than originally scheduled. President Ortega had agreed all of these to in the Salvador meeting. Also in compliance with those accords, and despite widespread opposition in Nicaragua, 1,894 ex-National Guardsmen serving prison sentences, some for up to 30 years, were released on March 17. This leaves only 39 Somocista prisoners, whose crimes were so heinous that the National Assembly was unwilling to pardon them. President Ortega has since announced that even these cases will be reviewed again.

Present at the release of the Guardsmen were President Ortega and Minister of the Interior Tomás Borge for the government; Bishop Bosco Vivas representing Cardinal Obando y Bravo, head of the National Reconciliation Commission; and Joao Baena Soares, Secretary General of the Organization of American States, which had reviewed the cases of the prisoners as part of the Sapoá agreement last year. Baena Soares called the pardon a contribution to "the peace process in Central America and to the objective of reaching stability and national agreement in Nicaragua." President Ortega, reflecting the sentiment of a significant segment of popular opinion, called it "a bitter but necessary pill."

In further search of this national agreement, President Ortega went beyond the stipulations of Esquipulas IV. He informed the cardinal that 10 priests expelled in 1985 during a period of intense conflict between Obando and the government could return to Nicaragua. He also authorized the reopening of Radio Católica's news program and of the Commission for Social Promotion (COPROSA), an agency of Obando's archdiocese shut down on legal technicalities in the same period. A third step was the reconvening of the National Reconciliation Commission, which had been suspended pending the five times postponed presidential summit meeting.

Another important move in the concertation, as the national unity effort is known in Nicaragua, was a meeting between private farmers and the state in mid-April in which the government announced significant economic measures to encourage planting. (See "Inflation Drops, Planting Begins" in this issue for a detailed analysis of those measures.) This package was made possible by the effectiveness of the government's anti-inflation policy in recent months. Inflation has dropped from a monthly rate of 120% in December to 12.3% in April.

The Sandinista government agreed to and promptly implemented all these measures favoring greater political pluralism and a mixed economy because it appeared that the eight-year war was about to end. What had so shaken the Bush Administration in the Esquipulas IV meeting was the one concession Nicaragua received for all of its promises: the agreement by the Central American presidents to design a plan for the demobilization of the contras within 90 days, and then put it into effect.

But in fact, two events revealed that Nicaragua would not receive the one guarantee it was promised in Esquipulas IV. The Central American nations failed to approve a final plan for demobilization or to agree on a date to put it into effect. New aid was passed by the US Congress to keep the contras alive until after the Nicaraguan elections.

The Bush Administration—determined to defeat

The Bush Administration has taken its time tooling its own policy toward Nicaragua. As discussed in previous issues of envío, this policy has had to come to terms with a number of complex and competing concerns. On the international level, it needed to take into account the Soviet Union's new posture and the logic of peace that is increasingly guiding the resolution of regional conflicts. The administration has also had to thread its way between the geopolitical concerns of its predecessor and the increasingly pressing geo-economic concerns of the US establishment.

Domestically, the new Republican administration has had to deal with the Democratic victory in both houses of Congress and the rancor stirred up by eight years of quarreling over US policy towards Nicaragua. Although the different views jag across party lines to some degree, they have caused divisions between Democrats and Republicans and between Congress and the White House that threaten other, more serious policy goals.

The ultraconservative current, very powerful within the Republican Party, still has not wavered in its objective regarding Nicaragua: nothing short of the defeat of the Sandinistas. To that end they remain committed to a military strategy and tactics based mainly on the counterrevolutionary forces. Allies such as the opposition parties and Catholic hierarchy within Nicaragua, or "friendly governments" in Latin America, particularly in Central America itself, are seen by this group as mere supports to help create the conditions within which this military dream can be realized. The "Santa Fe II" document* is one of the key expressions of this position.

*"Santa Fe II: A Strategy for Latin America in the Nineties," was written by L. Francis Bouchey, Dr. Roger Fontaine and Lt. Gen. Gordon Sumner, Jr., and edited by Dr. David C. Jordan for the Committee of Santa Fe. Its predecessor, "A New Inter-American Policy for the Eighties," authored by the same four and edited by Lewis Tambs in 1980, became a major policy guideline for the Reagan Administration.

The neoliberals, based mainly in the Democratic Party, are interested only in forging representative democratic structures in Nicaragua and guaranteeing that the country pose no military threat to US interests in the rest of the region. They could coexist with the Sandinistas, were they to win a "free" election, as long as they are sufficiently domesticated along these lines. Toward this end, the neoliberals want a shift away from the military emphasis of US policy. They would agree with the assessment, released in early March of this year by the General Accounting Office, a congressional investigative body, that the Reagan policy of diplomatic, economic and military pressure against the Sandinistas was "generally ineffective" with "negative effects on the region as a whole."

A third current, made up of traditional conservatives, has now found its champion in President Bush and Secretary of State Baker. This position is by no means equidistant between the other two, but rather a more pragmatic variant of the ultraconservatives.

Working through all these tensions, Secretary of State Baker has succeeded in forging a new policy. With the signing of the bipartisan accord on March 24, after weeks of negotiating, the administration achieved a working consensus around that policy. While administration officials claim that the new goal is to "contain" rather than overthrow the Sandinista revolution, all indications are that what has changed is the emphasis on the means, not the end itself.

Forging a Bilateral Consensus

The new Bush team has been much more adept than Reagan's in making the necessary concessions to reality. Recognizing both the defeat of the contra forces and Nicaragua's economic crisis, the bipartisan accord concedes to the neoliberals lip service to the Esquipulas agreements and commits the US to provide no military support to the contras while the agreements remain in effect. To mollify the ultraconservatives, it agrees to provide nonmilitary aid to maintain the contras in Honduras as a reserve force prepared, if necessary, to continue the war after Nicaragua's elections next February.

While this accord did not satisfy the extremes in either of those currents, it was signed by congressional leaders of both houses and both parties just before the existing contra aid package of $27 million was to run out. And on April 14 the new $66.6 million bill was passed in the House by 309 to 110 and in the Senate by 89 to 9. It provides $49.7 million directly to the contras for their maintenance through February 1990, up to $7.7 million for transport, $5 million for operational expenses and $4.2 million for civilian victims of the war, to be disbursed by Nicaragua's Catholic hierarchy.

When the general lines of the aid proposal were first revealed in early March, Democratic liberals strongly criticized the fact that aid would go to sustain the contras as a military force rather than for their demobilization, as agreed to by the Central Americans. "The Central American presidents are taking real risks for peace," said Representative George Miller (D-CA), "and we are taking none." In subsequent negotiations, virtual veto powers were ceded to Congress come November, should the contras resume offensive actions. Senator Edward Kennedy (D-MA) called this a "satisfactory accommodation of our concern." But this in turn angered conservatives. The arrangement is "one more example of Congress and congressional committees trying to manage the details of foreign policy," argued Robert H. Bork, a conservative constitutional scholar.

White House officials had convinced the Democrats that Secretary of State Baker would pursue timetables for Nicaragua to move toward democracy with "carrots and sticks"—or, to use the curious language of the bipartisan accord itself, "incentives and disincentives." One such incentive was the suggestion that the United States might relax economic sanctions and even possibly offer modest economic assistance to Nicaragua if the Sandinistas kept to their part of the bargain. But perhaps to satisfy the still smarting conservatives, the administration, despite Nicaraguan compliance with all its new commitments, applied the "disincentive" instead. On April 21, a week after contra aid was approved, Bush announced that he would indefinitely prolong the economic blockade, due to expire on May 1. He also signed additional protocols with Honduras for the continuation of joint US-Honduras military maneuvers.

As Congressman George Miller had recognized in early March, "This is little more than a continuation of the Reagan doctrine." The Bush Administration strategy, similar to that of the Nixon Administration during the Allende period in Chile, appears to be to promote economic collapse in Nicaragua and to isolate the country internationally. To accomplish the latter it is already working together with the extreme right in Nicaragua to discredit the upcoming electoral process. If the White House succeeds in its destabilizing aims, and can maintain the incipient consensus for its policy within the United States, it could create a situation similar to that existing in Chile by 1973. The culmination of that effort was a US-backed coup by Chile's own military; in Nicaragua, lacking that option, it could lead to a direct invasion by US forces, backed by the contra reserves.

Nicaragua's US Allies—determined to destabilize

None of the steps taken by the Nicaraguan government have mellowed the position of those Nicaraguans who have hitched their wagon to the US star. Even with freeing of the National Guardsmen, the contras have refused to free the continually growing number of prisoners of war and kidnapped civilians, despite the provision of a detailed list with names, dates and even places of detention. For its part, the rightwing big business umbrella organization, COSEP, refused President Ortega's invitation to send a delegate to a mid-May meeting of European countries called by Sweden to discuss economic support to Nicaragua, and sanctioned one of its members, the head of the private milk company FONDILAC, who attended the Stockholm meeting on his own. Taking a major step beyond mere boycott, COSEP jeopardized the possibilities for assistance to other private producers by sending a letter to the meeting urging that no aid be approved for Nicaragua.

Given the logic of the Bush-Baker position on Nicaragua, this intransigence by the contras and COSEP comes as no surprise. Nor is it surprising that the extreme rightwing political parties organized into the alliance with COSEP and rightwing trade unions known as the Coordinadora followed suit. Just as COSEP is the economic link inside Nicaragua between the bourgeoisie, the contra forces and US plans, the Coordinadora is the political link. In the 1984 elections, the Coordinadorad parties abstained, providing President Reagan the excuse to discredit the electoral process and step up the war. Once again, the Coordinadora is playing a central role in the new strategy against the revolution. There are few more graphic expressions of its willingness to do that than the comment of Enrique Bolaños, a leading figure in COSEP and a possible Coordinadora candidate in the presidential elections. According to Bolaños, the Sandinistas, given their political and economic difficulties, are asking the opposition to throw them a lifesaver; what they should be thrown, he counsels, is an anvil.

This willingness to sink even their own economic and political well-being in the process, to say nothing of their country's, also characterized Chile's right wing during the US destabilization of that country. It helps explain their unbridled hostility in the discussion of the media law and reforms to the electoral law, in which polarization of the debate became more important than the laws themselves. (For a detailed discussion of these laws, see "Setting the Rules of the Game: The Reformed Electoral Law" in this issue and look out for an article on the media law an upcoming issue.) In an act of public defiance that would have been scandalous had it occurred in the United States, La Prensa and opposition leaders burned a copy of the media law in a demonstration and vowed to ignore it. The Coordinadora's immediate objective is to delegitimize the new laws internationally—even though the majority of the concerns expressed by the opposition were included—in order to call the electoral process into question from its very outset and, while they are at it, pressure the Sandinistas to make additional concessions.

Opposition Unity—An Impossible Dream?

A concurrent, more domestically oriented objective of the Coordinadora is to forge as big an opposition alliance around itself as possible. Ideally, this would include the more moderate parties that participated in the 1984 elections and thus hold seats in the National Assembly. The current fruit of this effort is known as the Group of 14, which for the past year and a half has maintained a precarious unity. That unity will be put to the test in coming weeks when the parties begin to make a series of crucial decisions regarding the elections. (See electoral calendar, in box.)

One of the more problematic issues is approval by the Council of Political Parties of at least 11 applications for accreditation by multiple splits of the already existing parties. Bickering has already begun over who has the right to the name, colors and emblems. Political observers in Nicaragua consider that the possibility of maintaining unity is very remote, given the ideological differences and personalist rivalries that crisscross what could soon be 23 accredited parties in Nicaragua.

If such unity is not achieved, the vast array of parties will likely coalesce into three main groups, one of which will certainly center around the Coordinadora itself. That group could also include the numerous traditional political figures such as Fernando Agüero* who are responding to US pressure that they leave their positions with the contras and return to Nicaragua. Nicaraguan Resistance leader Alfredo César said that the Bush Administration was cutting its $400,000 monthly subsidy to the contra leadership by more than half and eliminating funding of all contra political operations to encourage them to return to Nicaragua and take part in the February 1990 elections.

*Fernando Agüero, a member of the traditional Conservative Party, was accused of leading a mass demonstration in 1967 then abandoning it when the National Guard arrived and fired into the crowd, killing up to 300 people. In recent years, Agüero has been a political adviser to the contras. Other contra political figures who have already returned, or announced they are preparing to return, include Alfredo César, who headed the Southern Opposition Bloc within the Nicaraguan Resistance and more recently the Center Democratic Coalition; José Dávila and Azucena Ferrey, formerly of the Social Christian Party; and those in the Democratic Nicaraguan Movement (MDN), Alfonso Robelo's party.

A second bloc would take more centrist positions. At the head of this is likely to be either the Democratic Conservative Party, which took second place in the 1984 elections but is now badly divided, or the faction of the Social Christian Party (PSC) headed by Erick Ramírez, which has the backing of the Christian Democratic International and has moved away from the Coordinadora positions. The more progressive split from the third-place Independent Liberal Party, known as the PLIUN, and the Popular Social Christian Party (PPSC), which took fourth place, would also probably join this bloc.

Many of these leaders have expressed opposition to the continued existence of the contras through the elections. "The real freedom fighters are here inside the country, in the political opposition and in the unions," PPSC General Secretary Mauricio Díaz told The New York Times. "If the contras are kept viable, we run the risk of losing this chance for change." Another opposition leader, who asked the Times that he not be identified, recognized that the prospect of renewed military aid gives the contras a personal stake in the collapse of the electoral process. "It is a dangerous game," he said, "because everyone knows that our loss is the contras' gain."

The third bloc would be the FSLN itself, still far and away the largest party in Nicaragua. If such a line-up takes place, it remains to be seen where some of the tiny parties at other points on the political spectrum—for example, the Socialists and Communists, who have so far allied themselves with the Group of 14—will place themselves. One possibility is that those of the far Left—the MAP-ML and the Revolutionary Workers' Party (PRT)—will form their own fourth bloc and present a platform to the left of the FSLN.

In any event, it is a foregone conclusion that, given the Coordinadora's likely failure to unite the opposition or even a significant part of it around itself, it will not be a graceful loser. Depending on the circumstances that best suit its purposes, it can be counted on in that event to either pull out before the elections, as it did in 1984, charging inadequate conditions to conduct a "free and fair" campaign, or wait until afterward and claim voting fraud.

This in turn would open the doors for the US Congress to renew military aid to the waiting contras following the elections, thus taking the next step in the "chileanization" of Nicaragua. "If we don't succeed in reaching a national accord through these elections," predicted Augustín Jarquín, who heads a PSC faction still firmly within the Coordinadora, to a New York Times reporter, "there is a good probability that the military activity will be revived."

That forecast is given credibility by the situation in Panama, where the Bush Administration is setting another precedent for direct military intervention in response to charges of electoral fraud, in cases of its choosing. Such cases, it should be noted, do not include friendly countries like Paraguay or Haiti.

To forestall any accusations of electoral fraud or mismanagement, the Nicaraguan government has invited international observers to oversee every step of the process, not just election day. Among those invited was the United Nations, which in fact sent a representative to Nicaragua to witness the debate around the electoral law. It is hoped that as the campaign progresses that presence will grow. A similar request has been made to the Organization of American States and during President Ortega's current visit to at least 10 European countries, he made the offer personally to the member countries of the European Community and to the European Parliament. In an attempt to legitimize the contras and link them to the electoral process in Nicaragua, the Coordinadora met with the contra leadership, headed by FDN military leader and ex-National Guard colonel Enrique Bermúdez, in Guatemala on April 10. Among the opposition persuaded to go along was the Communist Party of Nicaragua. The rather bizarre idea of the talks was that from Honduras the contras—the essence of the Somocista dictatorship—would play the role of "guarantor of democracy in Nicaragua."

The core of the group attending the talks was the Coordinadora itself. Other parties whose representatives went along made various disclaimers about their participation when they returned, some even claiming that the positions taken were individual and not that of the party itself. The Coordinadora parties made no such apologies.

In the first days of May, Violeta Chamorro, widow of La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, assassinated on the instructions of Somoza in January 1978, visited the United States with her daughter Cristiana. Chamorro is mentioned in Nicaraguan circles as the prime presidential candidate being considered by the Coordinadora. While her visit was not covered by the US media, El Nuevo Diario reported that in Washington she met with ex-Under Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Elliott Abrams, his yet-to-be-confirmed successor Bernard Aronson and a representative of the National Endowment for Democracy to discuss US strategy toward Nicaragua. She is also reported to have met directly with President Bush, which is being interpreted by the Nicaraguan opposition as US endorsement of her candidacy. Her visit caused such polemics inside Nicaragua that even her own son, Barricada editor Carlos Fernando Chamorro, personally signed an editorial—a highly unusual practice—accusing the La Prensa directors who made the tour of selling out their country.

Central America— autonomy to the winds

After demonstrating some autonomy in the signing of the new Central American accord in February, the US government's allies in the region are now being corralled back into more conservative positions. As Costa Rican President Oscar Arias enters his final year in office, his National Liberation party is badly divided. Its candidate for the upcoming elections is a member of the party's old guard, despite Arias' attempts to favor the new generation of activists. He lacks the votes even within his own party—some say due to his own political ineptitude—to ratify the proposal for a Central American Parliament, to which he agreed in Esquipulas. The Social Christian Unity Party candidate Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier, running for the third consecutive time, is ahead according to recent polls.

Faced with a 25% inflation rate last year, Arias has sought international aid to take the economic issue out of the opposition's hands in the campaign. This has narrowed his margin of independence from the United States; particularly noticeable is his gushing praise of the US bipartisan accord, despite its violation of the Central American agreement regarding the demobilization of the contras. "This is a very happy day for me," Arias said while in the United States in early April seeking debt relief. "Today, the new Administration is telling me it wants to give diplomacy a chance." On the eve of his departure for the US he contrasted US "humility" in its Central American dealings with what he called Nicaragua's "inflexibility" regarding the demobilization and relocation of the contras.

Arias got so carried away in his charges of Nicaragua's "noncompliance" with the peace accords that President Ortega was moved to write to him from Scandinavia, where Arias had received the Nobel Peace Prize, to remind him of the steps that Nicaragua had taken and to appeal to his maturity in not encouraging those favoring intervention. Arias has since been much more tactful, but relations between Costa Rica and Nicaragua became tense again in recent days when Costa Rica's ambassador in Nicaragua, Farid Ayales, was accused of working actively with the opposition parties. The Nicaraguan foreign ministry sent a note calling attention to the fact that he had violated the Vienna accords by exceeding his proper diplomatic functions. US Ambassador Melton was expelled from Nicaragua last year for similar reasons.

Honduras, with a $3 billion foreign debt, is also in no position to maintain its moment of relative autonomy. Last year it had to pay $325 million in service on that debt, an amount equaling half of its annual exports. Given that untenable situation, President Azcona announced that Honduras could not continue payments on its debt. That brought in its wake pressures from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund that Honduras implement a new economic policy. US economic support becomes critical in postponing these measures, which could bring the same public response unleashed by similar ones in Caracas, Venezuela, in early March. This increasing vulnerability to the United States has led Honduras to cave in to the urgings of US envoy Robert M. Kimmit, the new Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs, who visited Azcona in mid-March, that the contrasbe allowed to stay on Honduran territory another year. As a first reward, the United States will hand over the new contra aid monies in dollars to the Honduran government, which will provide it to the contras in lempiras.

To this unencouraging Central American portrait must be added the electoral triumph in El Salvador of Alfredo Cristiani, candidate of the ultra-right ARENA. Cristiani, who takes office on June 1, promptly announced that he could not possibly prepare in time for the next presidential summit meeting, scheduled originally for May to discuss a concrete proposal for demobilizing the contras. He proposed that it be postponed until July, which of course coincides with the 10th anniversary of the Nicaraguan revolution, thus putting President Ortega in a difficult position.

Then there is the increasing weakness of the Cerezo government in Guatemala which, under siege by conservative forces there who have promoted various military coup attempts, can no longer afford to play its role of "active neutrality" in Central America.

The international panorama, however, is not as bleak as its Central American component would make it appear. One of two brighter spots is the position taken on Nicaragua by Mikhael Gorbachev in his recent visit to Cuba. While there he affirmed the Soviet Union's continuing support for Nicaragua, condemned the US bipartisan accord and called for effective fulfillment of
the Esquipulas IV accords. Gorbachev also indicated his interest in a meeting with President Ortega later in the year, either in Moscow or in Managua. It would be his first visit to Nicaragua. In a meeting of the Cuban-Nicaraguan economic commission several weeks later, Cuba announced that it would forgive Nicaragua's $50 million foreign debt to that country.

The second bright spot is President Ortega's month-long trip through Western Europe, which will culminate in the meeting called by Sweden in Belgium to discuss economic assistance for Nicaragua. The two-part aim of the trip is political support for Nicaragua's electoral process, and a minimum of $40 million in economic aid to back the recent measures taken to encourage agricultural production.

These goals appear to have been met. Nicaragua netted an initial US$55 million from the Stockholm meeting, plus pledges from individual countries. In addition to outpourings of popular solidarity in each of the countries visited, a number of heads of state, most notably Spain's Felipe González, have responded favorably to Ortega's explanations of the electoral process and to his invitation to send observers. Nicaragua won these indications of European support despite US efforts to the contrary. While in Europe, Ortega charged that the Bush Administration had made phone calls to European leaders and sent an envoy to the region to persuade US allies not to aid Nicaragua or send electoral observers.

Despite these positive signs of European support, Nicaragua prepares for elections in a difficult context. With Esquipulas IV, Nicaragua has to all intents and purposes completed the process of democratization and economic opening that began with Esquipulas II: removing the restrictions that in themselves were the responses to war. But the war itself has not ended. The contras still attack within Nicaragua and exist as a threatening presence in Honduras. The Bush Administration has already begun to use the electoral process as just another destabilizing tool. Nicaragua’s challenge will be to find the way, despite these obstacles, to hold free and fair elections.

Election calendar

April 25 – August 24
q The Council of Political Parties approves or rejects the 13 or more existing applications by parties and party factions seeking legal recognition by May 15 (the deadline has since been extended);
q The parties send their lists of candidates to the president of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) board and their proposals to the CSE for heads of the Regional Electoral Councils and voter registration and polling centers. They also name their own poll watchers for each of the nearly 4,000 polling places;
q Public demonstrations may be held with prior authorization, and propaganda may be disseminated encouraging voters to register.

August 25 to December 3
q Public demonstrations may be held with only prior notification;
q Use of Channel 2 for campaigning;
q Public financing for campaigning becomes available;
q Signatures for independent candidates must be collected;
q Registration of candidates with CSE.

December 4 to February 21, 1990
q Full-scale electoral campaign;
q Design of electoral ballots.

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Nicaragua's Electoral Process—The New Name for the War

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