To Boycott or Not to Boycott?
With Nicaragua's elections still more than seven months away and the campaign itself not yet officially kicked off, the process has already captured the attention of Nicaraguans and Nicaragua watchers like.
The governing Sandinista party's key objective—apart from mounting a successful campaign for its own reelection—is to counter the efforts of the Bush Administration and its domestic allies to challenge the legitimacy of the electoral process. The US government, in turn, is bent on preventing the revolution from gaining further legitimacy by winning another round of honest and open elections. The already divided Nicaraguan opposition is being further rent by the choice of trying to unite and wage a strong campaign or falling in line with US plans.
Come see for yourselvesAware that mere facts are insufficient to combat the international war of images led by the United States, the Nicaraguan government has decided to open up every step of the electoral process to credible international observers rather than invite observers just for election day, as it did in 1984. It has issued formal invitations to the United Nations, the Organization of American States and the European Parliament to send delegations to observe the entire process. The government recently announced that only these three bodies have its authorization to offer official opinions about the course of the elections.
The OAS was one of the first to respond. In a visit to Nicaragua in mid-June, OAS Secretary General Baena Soares' personal representative Mario González said that the regional organization would probably send between 140 and 200 observers—one for each municipality—by the time of the elections. A team of 18 is scheduled to arrive by the opening of the campaign in August.
UN Secretary General Javier Pérez de Cuéllar announced in early July that he would send a mission to observe that the electoral registries are correctly drawn up, present any campaign irregularities to Nicaragua's Supreme Electoral Council and oversee the actual vote count next February 25. Although the OAS and UN missions may function jointly, Pérez de Cuéllar made clear that the UN does not intend to judge the newly reformed electoral law or the legitimacy of the electoral process itself. He was reportedly responding in part to some member nations' fears that to do so could create a precedent for the UN in other national elections.
For 20 days in June, Mariano Fiallos, newly reelected president of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), visited eight Western European countries together with CSE member Leonel Argüello. In a follow-up to President Daniel Ortega's tour the previous month, Fiallos sought support for nine projects totaling $10 million for Nicaragua's elections. The CSE estimates that the elections will cost $25 million, ironically the precise amount Nicaragua will lose this year due to plummeting international coffee prices.
The Scandinavian countries, France and Spain all agreed to help finance the elections and will send missions in late July to determine the forms and quantity of that aid. France's governing Socialist Party agreed to send observers and praised the electoral process to date, a view enthusiastically shared by Spain's governing party. The German Christian Democratic Adenauer Foundation, which funds the Social Christian Party, has announced that it, too, will finance technical aspects of the process through the CSE.
Other international observers have praised the electoral process to date as well. Following a meeting with President Ortega in Nicaragua at the end of June, US Senator Christopher Dodd said that "the legislation being applied here is going very well if you compare it with that of other countries," an opinion generally shared by Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez, who already has an observer team in Nicaragua. Representatives to the Socialist International conference in late June were also favorably impressed, according to FSLN Executive Committee Vice Coordinator Bayardo Arce, who attended their congress in June (see "Nicaragua Briefs," this issue).
Electing the Electoral CouncilThe dream of uniting the bulk of the now 21 opposition parties into a single electoral alliance threatens to become a nightmare. The chief test of unity in June was whether the parties that made up the "Group of 14" coalition could agree to a list of candidates for the five-member CSE leadership, the final authority on all electoral issues. It turned into the chief demonstration of disunity, and revealed the far Right's dichotomy between trying to dominate the electoral process through that alliance and trying to sabotage it.
In the Esquipulas IV accords, the Nicaraguan government had agreed that the CSE board would be balanced rather than maintain the original three-two split between governing party representatives and the opposition. To satisfy this commitment, the government agreed to name an "independent notable" for the fifth seat. The National Assembly would elect the five representatives from groups of three for each seat submitted by President Ortega, who in turn selected the opposition candidates from lists they were invited to submit. The first schism within the Group of 14 appeared in early June when all centrists were excised from the single list the Group had hoped to submit. Both the Social Christian Party (PSC) and the Liberal Party for National Unity (PLUN) broke ranks and sent their own lists to President Ortega. Culling from a final array of 13 separate opposition party lists, Ortega's proposed opposition candidates and their alternates included those from both legal parties and those that had not yet gained legal status.
After intense debate, the National Assembly elected the new CSE board on June 7. Mariano Fiallos and Leonel Argüello, president and vice president of the CSE during the 1984 elections, were reelected as the FSLN representatives. They had overseen a democratic process unprecedented in Nicaraguan history and praised for its honesty by more than 400 observers from 21 countries. Fiallos was reelected CSE president by a vote of 73 to 3 (only 61 of the 96 legislators in the National Assembly belong to the Sandinista bench).
Elected to represent the opposition was Amán Sandino of the Democratic Conservative Party (PCD), which ran second in the 1984 elections with 14% of the vote, and Guillermo Selva of the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), which came in third with 9%.
Most speculation had centered on the fifth seat; many said that in today's polarized Nicaragua there was no such thing as an independent notable. Perhaps there is not. Rodolfo Sandino Argüello, elected to the controversial position by an overwhelming 80 votes, is a lawyer, currently dean of the Law Faculty at the Catholic Central American University, and a member of no political party. During the Somoza period, however, he belonged to the fraction of the opposition Conservative Party that gave the dictatorship its veneer of legality. He was also a member of the Supreme Court of Justice during those years, a position he still held at the time of the revolutionary triumph. He is and was then recognized for his proven personal honesty.
Ernesto Salazar was chosen as Sandino Argüello's alternate. Salazar is currently on the board of FAGANIC, the cattle ranchers' association affiliated with the rightwing business association COSEP, and a past vice president of COSEP itself. He is also the brother of COSEP's venerated martyr Jorge Salazar, a businessman accused of purchasing arms for the contras and killed in 1980 in a shootout with members of state security.
The opposition's immediate reaction to the National Assembly selection was generally quite positive. Even those parties grouped in the ultraright Coordinadora joined the more centrist parties in publicly supporting the CSE's composition, although there was some grumbling about the particular choices selected from their list of candidates. Praise for Rodolfo Sandino as the notable was virtually unanimous. Only the far-left Popular Action Movement (MAP-ML) disagreed, condemning the CSE board as made up exclusively of Sandinistas and contras.
But within days, the parties in the Group of 14 switched their line. The coalition issued a statement—parroted hours later by the US State Department—that the CSE favored the FSLN four to one. The communiqué only recognized the impartiality of Guillermo Selva, and demanded that the CSE be restructured in a "truly balanced fashion." Bush claimed that the CSE members "were imposed unilaterally by the Sandinistas." Rodolfo Sandino Argüello, apparently trying to make light of the insult to himself and Amán Sandino, quipped that Bush had perhaps become confused by their last names.
Divide or conquer? Ever since the beginning of the electoral process, there have been growing schisms between the Coordinadora, with its boycotting positions, and the centrist parties that seem willing to test their strength in the electoral contest. The latter have been strongly critical of the FSLN's 10-year record in government but have expressed themselves with somewhat more independence from the United States.
Although they have not coalesced into a formal coalition, the parties currently making up this center include the Democratic Conservative Party, which has already named its presidential pre-candidates for selection within the party; the PLIUN, a progressive split from the Independent Liberals; and Erick Ramírez's Social Christians, which, after all the PSC splits in recent years, has the Christian Democratic International's official support. It and the PLUN were expelled from the Group of 14 for their mutiny regarding the CSE candidates.
Given such defections from what was originally known as the Group of 15, it has become an embarrassing name. This month the shrinking group began calling itself UNO (National Opposition Union), an identification that is not without its own embarrassments. While a bourgeois anti-Somoza coalition created at the end of the 1960s was called UNO, it was also the name of the armed counterrevolution's political facade between 1985 and 1987, when the Reagan government began trying to clean up the contras' international image.
UNO's current namesake is controlled by the Coordinadora parties, which are in turn dominated by leading figures in COSEP, the strident business organization with extremely close ties to the US Embassy. None of the tiny rightwing parties in the Coordinadora participated in the 1984 elections. The other parties clinging to UNO—the Popular Social Christians, the Socialists, the Independent Liberals and the Communists—all did participate. They are now in subordinate positions in the alliance. PLIUN leader Alfonso Moncada recently told El Nuevo Diario that these parties are only in the group "for their own interests, and at a given moment will have to be excluded because they are not reliable allies to the project."
The crack that emerged in the course of the CSE elections widened with the next step in the electoral process—sending lists of party candidates to the CSE for the nine Regional Electoral Councils. The FSLN and four leftist and centrist parties sent theirs on time; the Coordinadora parties refused and the parliamentary parties linked to it asked for a postponement so they could decide whether to submit lists or not. Each new step in this early pre-campaign period is thus widening the gap between boycott and participation.
In its communiqué discrediting the CSE elections, the UNO called again for a National Dialogue. The first such dialogue, initiated with the Group of 15 after the 1987 Esquipulas II accords, exasperated the government when the opposition parties, after wasting months quibbling over who could participate and what the agenda would consist of, suddenly issued an ultimatum demanding the immediate approval of 17 constitutional reforms or else they would abandon the talks. UNO's new agenda is similarly confrontational. In addition to demanding yet another round of reforms to the electoral and media laws, it calls for immediate suspension of the draft, demobilization of draftees and general amnesty for all contra prisoners—this despite continued US support to the contras.
On his return from the inauguration of Argentina's new President, Carlos Menem, on July 8, President Ortega announced during a stopover in Venezuela that the National Dialogue would be reopened "with the parties that sign up to participate in the elections," and that its objective would be "to draw up proposals for the CSE having to do with regulations pertaining to application of the electoral and media laws. Responding to that decision, Venezuela's President acknowledged that " a very wide opening has been produced for the opposition to date in Nicaragua."
Does NED stand for CIA?Nicaraguan government charges that US interference was converting the country's elections into a choice between revolution and counterrevolution took on new relevance in June. On June 11 The New York Times reported that the Bush Administration was pressuring Congress to permit secret CIA activity in support of Nicaragua's "democratic opposition" in the elections. In mid-month the US Senate approved a confidential plan by the National Endowment for Democracy for some $3 million to finance that opposition; two days later the money was approved by a joint subcommittee, half reportedly to be distributed though the NED and half for the OAS observer team. It was in the midst of this string of events that the Coordinadora parties did their about-face on the CSE composition.
In the ensuing days, the Nicaraguan media debated the theme of sovereign elections in general and NED interference in particular. In the maelstrom, any distinction between overt and covert aid to the US-backed opposition sank below the water line of public opinion.
In contrast, much attention was paid to such distinctions in the debate in the US Congress. But few voices argued principle—i.e., what "legitimate" overt interference in another country's elections might consist of—over practicality. Representative Jim Moody (D-WI), writing to the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence to oppose including CIA activities in the Nicaraguan elections in the committee's upcoming CIA authorizations bill, argued pragmatically that "a large-scale CIA campaign would not remain covert for long, and, once disclosed, would compromise the integrity of the electoral process." By this logic, the integrity of the process would not be compromised if the interference were never discovered.
A June 23 hearing with Under-Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs Bernard Aronson by a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on the same subject revealed a similar avoidance of the real issue. Senator Tom Harkin, who proudly claims authorship for sending $2.2 million through the NED and AID to the Chilean opposition in the elections during the Allende government, argued that the committee would have "no control" over covert money going to "disorganize, determine the result of the elections." The argument is valid insofar as the President is only required to inform the two congressional intelligence committees of any "significant anticipated intelligence activity"; the committee's approval is not required. But disorganizing elections need not be covert activity. When Senator Harkin indignantly reminded Aronson that "we know the CIA has promoted demonstrations by the Nicaraguan opposition," he did not mention that US Ambassador Richard Melton overtly did the same last year, or that in May of this year two members of the US mission in Honduras were expelled from Nicaragua for overtly promoting a teachers' strike. Nicaraguans have lived through eight years of war funded by the US government at times overtly and at times covertly and they discern no significant differences.
Senator Harkin did, however, get the final word: Harkin: ...I would like to end by reading this article from La Prensa: "What more could Daniel Ortega want than to cry out to the world that the CIA is helping the opposition and that the democratic opposition is a kind of civilian contra that has sold itself to imperialism?" Are you in disagreement with this?
Harkin: Are you in disagreement with La Prensa?
*All quotes are retranslated from Spanish. An extract of the transcript appeared in Barricada on June 30.
On June 29, the US House of Representatives failed to quell the debate. Calling Nicaragua's electoral laws "inadequate to assure just elections," it killed an amendment prohibiting covert CIA assistance to the Nicaraguan opposition by a vote of 298 to 118. Another round of amendments is expected when the Intelligence Committees submit their appropriations bills in the coming weeks.
Reactions to the House vote among the Nicaraguan opposition ranged from bravado to low profile. The bravado award went to the PLI's Juan Manuel Gutiérrez, who responded to a Barricada interviewer: "I don't see what's so bad about the CIA channeling the funds, just because it’s a US intelligence agency." In contrast, Adán Fletes, leader of the Democratic Party of National Confidence, when asked if his party would accept funds from the CIA, responded, "I don't think anyone here wants to commit suicide."