Nicaragua or the United States—The Electoral Dilemma
In early June, the Bush Administration announced that it intends to conduct secret intelligence operations aimed at influencing the Nicaraguan elections next February. One State Department official commented, "We want to keep the Sandinistas guessing."
On February 15, in an accord with the other Central American Ppresidents that included demobilizing the contra forces, the Nicaraguan government agreed to move the 1990 national elections up from November to February. The following month, the US Congress signed a bipartisan accord giving the contra forces a new lease on life at least through the Nicaraguan elections. Though the Bush Administration calls it a tactical shift from military confrontation to political maneuvering, the "humanitarian aid" to the contra forces ensures that the military threat remains. As long as those forces are intact, the Nicaraguan government is forced to keep up its own defense and thus can do little to resolve the worsening economic crisis. Until a massive shift from defense to social spending can be effected, the economy—and the country—are destined to remain in a critical state.
Following the US government's new emphasis on both open and clandestine political maneuvering, the past month has seen important tactical changes inside Nicaragua in the role played by two key pro-US opposition groupings. The first is COSEP, the staunchly anti-government private business association. While the Nicaraguan government works to bring about economic and political unity in the ongoing concertation process, COSEP is seeking to aggravate the economic crisis. As it did during the 1984 electoral campaign, COSEP is again playing an increasingly politicized role on the national stage. Its work is complemented by the Coordinadora, the far-right alliance of parties that boycotted the 1984 elections. The Coordinadora, whose members include COSEP and two rightwing unions, is intent on discrediting the upcoming electoral process and declaring it a fraud even before the polls open in February.
The polarizing activities of the Bush Administration and its Nicaraguan allies are forcing Nicaraguans essentially to vote for Nicaragua or the United States. The challenge for the Sandinista government, then, is to protect the internal and international legitimacy the electoral process has already won, and also, obviously, to win the elections themselves.
The Pro-US alternative: In May a special meeting was convoked in Stockholm by the Swedish government to deal with the continuing economic crisis in Nicaragua. The Nicaraguan government invited a wide range of private producers from across the political spectrum to take part. Any aid obtained at the meeting would benefit the private producers as well as the economy as a whole.
COSEP and Coordinadora start shouting fraud
COSEP announced that none of its members would accept the government's invitation to participate. Nonetheless, several large private producers, including Juan Diego López of Fondilac, a group of dairy farmers affiliated with COSEP, declared publicly that they would go to Stockholm. COSEP reacted harshly, declaring López persona non grata and accused him of breaking organizational discipline. López went to Stockholm, touching off a nasty fight within COSEP ranks, but in the end he was not expelled as threatened. The incident demonstrates COSEP's underlying and eminently political objectives, even when this position goes against the economic interests of its own members. COSEP seems determined to block the ongoing concertation process, hoping to undermine the FSLN’s position before the 1990 elections.
If COSEP's role is to pummel the crippled economy to the mat, the task of the parties belonging to the Coordinadora is to question the legitimacy of the electoral process. In recent weeks, they have begun to lay the foundation for an electoral battle, while hinting at electoral fraud even before the campaign period has officially been kicked off.
The Coordinadora parties held out submitting their slate of candidates to the Supreme Electoral Council until the last minute. When they finally did submit a slate, it was only after more serious infighting in the group over whether to participate in the elections or to discredit them by abstaining. They also denounced the entire electoral process as fraudulent when some parties were initially denied legal recognition—even though it was mainly rival factions of the opposition calling for the denials. The US State Department and contra leader Adolfo Calero in Miami added their voices to the din. All but one party did eventually obtain legal status, bringing the total number of legal opposition parties to 21. (See "Alphabet Soup," and "Just the Facts" in this issue.) The Coordinadora itself has referred to the recently reformed electoral law as "illegitimate," and is demanding a National Dialogue to press for still more reforms. (See "Setting the Rules of the Game," in the June envío.)
Embassy officials and opposition manipulate economic discontentThe $13 billion in economic damages left so far by the contra war has meant an extreme deterioration of this already impoverished and underdeveloped economy. The drastic austerity program begun by the government in January has been partially successful to date, and was able to significantly reduce inflation, which fell to 15.5% for the month of May.
The measures, however, have taken a high social toll, as the general standard of living declines and salaries buy less and less. It thus comes as no surprise that many sectors, unhappy with the current state of affairs, have begun to demand concrete economic responses to their problems. In May, teachers in Region II (León and Chinandega) called a strike after unsuccessfully demanding a salary hike. There are some 35,000 teachers in Nicaragua, most of whom come from the country's working classes. The minimum teachers’ salary (as of May 31) is 140,000 córdobas, which barely allowing them to scrape by. (See "Teachers' Strike" in this issue.)
The actions in León and Chinandega quickly spread to other areas of the country, with parties affiliated with the Coordinadora pushing for the strike actions. Though the demands put forth by the opposition were legitimate, the means they used were beyond the pale. The parties acted in open collaboration with two US diplomats who offered both moral and financial support to the teachers, and took part in a large meeting held by the teachers. The two diplomats were Joel Cassman, economic adviser to the US Embassy in Managua, and Kathleen Barmon, head of labor affairs for Central America, based at the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. The Nicaraguan Foreign Ministry expelled the US officials, citing the Vienna convention provisions prohibiting diplomats from interfering in the domestic political affairs of their host countries. Given that Nicaragua can surely expect more open meddling in its domestic affairs as the electoral campaign heats up, the government considered it important to respond swiftly to such provocation, as it did last July in the similar case of Ambassador Richard Melton.
The manipulation of the teachers' discontent with the economic crisis by the ultraright opposition and the United States in an attempt to gain a foothold in the upcoming elections may well be a foreshadowing of coming months. Discontent will no doubt continue, and the government will also continue to negotiate insofar as it is able. Such open involvement on the part of the US Embassy may not be repeated, but the dollars will surely keep coming.
The contras keep the war grinding onAlthough its intensity has diminished drastically in the last two years and the US maintains that the contras are calmly sitting on the sidelines in their Honduran camps, the war in Nicaragua continues to drag on. (See "In Brief" section in this issue.)
The ongoing military activity by the contra forces is not in contradiction with the Bush Administration's tactical shift towards economic and political warfare. In addition to keeping the contras in place for any eventual reactivation of open military assistance, the military activity is an important contribution to political destabilization in the rural areas and, most critically, to economic destabilization throughout the country.
The Nicaraguan government's austerity measures as originally conceived contained significant cuts in defense spending. While cuts of 40% were made in the Ministry of the Interior, planned cuts in the Defense Ministry haven't been fully carried out. They cannot be as long as there is a permanent, active contra presence inside the country and an unwillingness on the part of the US government to accept the dismantling and demobilization of the contra forces as called for in the February accords. Nicaragua's military budget is still over 50% of the government budget, a serious obstacle to the country's economic health.
Central American allies block EsquipulasThe Esquipulas regional peace process, like the Latin American Contadora effort before it, has fallen into a cycle: the governments of the area feel enough autonomy at times to sign an accord, but then lack sufficient independence to carry it through. Thus, each initiative is followed by a step backward. The Esquipulas IV accords signed on February 15 refer almost exclusively to Nicaragua. Nicaragua offered, among other things, to move the date of its 1990 elections up and pardon nearly 2,000 ex-National Guardsmen. For their part, the other Central American Presidents agreed to draw up a plan for the demobilization and repatriation of the contra forces.
The bipartisan accord passed and signed by the US Congress in late March is in direct contradiction to that agreement. To resolve the contradiction betwen what was agreed to by the Central American Presidents and that agreed to by the US Congress, the Nicaraguan government is trying to emphasize the language in the bipartisan accord on "humanitarian" aid stating that "those funds shall also be available to support voluntary reintegration or voluntary regional relocation assistance." This could open the way for Central Americans to sign the demobilization plan drawn up last month without openly challenging the Bush Administration.
The Central American Presidents, increasingly dependent on the US government for economic assistance to deal with mounting domestic problems, sided with the United States. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, who has long been touted by the US as the official spokesperson for the entire Central American region, was cited by several congressional representatives in letters to constituents explaining their support for the bipartisan aid package. "Arias says it's ok," was the essence of their defense. Arias is besieged by domestic problems and increasingly vulnerable to US pressure as its economic support becomes ever more important. His shift from key promoter of the Esquipulas peace plan to what amounts to nothing less than continued war in the region is particularly dangerous because of his positive reputation among US press and public officials.
Alfredo Cristiani, El Salvador's new, ultraright President, has tried to draw a parallel between the contras and the FMLN forces fighting in El Salvador. He agreed to the demobilization of the contra forces, but conditioned it on a similar demobilization of the FMLN. Cristiani is calling for this "symmetry" scheme to be taken up at the Esquipulas V meeting, originally set for May and now scheduled for July. From Nicaragua's perspective, tying the demobilization of the nearly defeated, US-sponsored contras to the powerful, popularly based FMLN would be a false symmetry indeed.
These, then, are the ingredients of the Bush Administration's pre-electoral recipe for Nicaragua: accentuate the economic crisis, make use of it on behalf of the most ultraright opposition, discredit the electoral process from the outset, keep the contra forces alive and active to prevent any cut in Nicaragua's defense budget and derail the regional peace process.
The pro-Nicaragua alternative: President Ortega's three-week tour of eleven Western European countries in April and May was both an appeal for economic aid and a crucial diplomatic offensive. The Nicaraguan government hopes to shift much of the international debate about Nicaragua from the United States to Western Europe. It also hopes that Western Europe will take a greater role in calling for regional compliance with the Esquipulas accords and thus give a measure of autonomy to Central America in its dealings with the US.
Ortega seeks political and economic legitimacy in Europe
The European tour was successful in that European countries accepted Nicaragua's invitation to send international observers to witness its election process, beginning with the very first days of the campaign. Nicaragua wants this because while many observers came for the 1984 elections, most were only in the country for a few days before and during the elections, while many complaints lodged by the opposition centered around events that had occurred weeks or months earlier.
In the economic arena, what Nicaragua needed from Western Europe was the hard currency to back up its economic measures, particularly a recent easing up on credit to spur production in key agricultural areas.
The European trip was a breakthrough for Nicaragua in many ways. Daniel Ortega was met with high-level official receptions throughout the continent, and the trip seemed to signal that Nicaragua has gained a new measure of legitimacy in Europe. "Being received at all in West Germany would have been almost unimaginable two years ago," commented one Nicaraguan official. The absence of Ronald Reagan and his obsessively anti-Nicaraguan stance from the international scene, the rising star of Mikhail Gorbachov and his continuing peace initiatives, and Nicaragua's new austere economic policies are all factors contributing to the warm welcome Ortega received in Western Europe.
Europeans agree to observe electionsThe European Parliament, Socialist International and Christian Democratic International, along with delegations of Irish and Belgian parliamentarians, all accepted invitations to participate as observers in the electoral process and expressed approval for the steps taken to date (including reforms to the electoral and media laws). As the Europeans were lauding the electoral law, the US Library of Congress Research Service published a report characterizing the law as open and fair.
The tour's economic results were also positive. Seventy-one delegates from 17 countries (the European Community, Japan and Mexico) took part in the First International Conference on Nicaragua's Economic Situation, along with four financial organizations, including the International Monetary Fund. West Germany sent an observer. Great Britain, the United States and the World Bank did not participate.
Conferences of this sort are normally called by multilateral financial institutions to discuss possible measures for a country about to adopt IMF-required adjustments. In this instance, however, the Swedish government called the conference to discuss assistance to Nicaragua's economic program already underway.
Nicaragua received immediate short-term aid of $49.7 million, enough to back up its economic measures for the time being. The IMF expressed its approval of the economic reforms underway, which serves as a green light for some countries to consider assistance. In another unusual move, a second conference dealing specifically with Nicaragua was scheduled for the last quarter of 1989, and all countries expressed interest in a range of actions, including restructuring existing credit programs, forgiving debts currently held by Nicaragua and extending donations.
Revive the economy and calm the economic discontent
Although the severe economic measures taken earlier this year, characterized by a move towards the free market and a rationalization of the economy, have failed to involve the country's popular classes, they have had some positive results. By the end of May, inflation was still dramatically lower than last year, and positive tendencies were noted in many of the key traditional and nontraditional agroexport crops, with the notable exception of cotton.
A reactivation of the country's essential basic grain production seems to be underway, which means that the population's food needs will be met if the country is favored with a good rainy season. However, the social consequences of the measures are also high in this area: a deep crisis in the poultry, pork and dairy industries and a serious recession in the country's light industry.
The coming months are sure to bring continuing economic problems for the government, problems that are virtually beyond resolution in the near future and that could be very destabilizing in an increasingly tense pre-election political climate.
What's at stake in FebruaryThe political situation to date indicates that the elections next February 25 will essentially be between the United States and Nicaragua. Inside Nicaragua, voting for the United States means voting for the Coordinadora—in other words, for a return to the past, to the Somoza era.
The Somoza regime represented one faction—the Nationalist Liberal Party—of the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie. In this sense of the term, "somocismo" is the Somoza family, the National Guard, the Liberal bourgeoisie. But there is another, broader meaning: the system of domination in effect, with solid US backing, for 45 years in Nicaragua after the 1934 assassination of Augusto César Sandino.
The option put forward by COSEP, the Coordinadora (made up of parties that traditionally supported Somoza), La Prensa and the armed counterrevolution is nothing less than the attempt to restore this system of domination by one class in Nicaragua with US support. Before 1979, the US assisted not only Somoza and the National Guard, it supported both factions of the Nicaraguan bourgeoisie. Today these two factions have divided up their work. The strictly somocista, National Guard-linked faction, headed by top contra leader Enrique Bermúdez, stays behind the scenes, in a rearguard position, while the other faction carries out "civic," political tasks aimed at achieving what Bermúdez in brute military terms was unable to carry out.
The Bush Administration's shift towards political warfare—trying to make the economic situation intolerable and looking for every possible way to challenge the legitimacy of Nicaragua's electoral process—hinges on the activities of its key old allies inside the country: the Coordinadora parties, COSEP and La Prensa. It remains to be seen whether the more centrist parties and progressive business interests will line up firmly behind this alternative. It nearly lost two members from the Group of 14—the PSC and the PLIUN—in the debate around candidates to the Supreme Electoral Council. What is clear, however, even in these early stages of Washington's "new" policy, is that the war is by no means over. It is merely shifting emphasis and using new, often dangerous, tactics with the prime goal of creating a degree of economic and political destabilization that would put the government's very survival at stake.