Election Watch: Opposing the Sandinistas the "Civic" Way
Vía Cívica—“Your voice is heard, your vote decides"—calls itself a patriotic, civic, non-partisan get out the vote organization, yet it is closely tied to the US-supported Nicaraguan opposition, UNO. What is publicly known about Vía Cívica, without even digging deep, clearly implicates the organization in US destabilization efforts masked as promotion of democracy. Funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), its leaders represent every sector of the UNO-supporting opposition—unions, business associations and professional organizations. Vía Cívica leaders even call pro-UNO La Prensa "ours," making the UNO-Vía Cívica connection themselves.
Formed e for the elections Vía Cívica announced its formation at a press conference in mid-August of this year. Since then it has received extensive publicity in La Prensa, especially for its civic activities and role in student movements. Its leadership includes representatives from the opposition business association COSEP, opposition labor unions and the independent teachers' associations led by members of anti-Sandinista parties. In addition, Joaquín Mejía, a member of vice presidential candidate Virgilio Godoy's Liberal Independent Party (PLI), is on the board of directors. Other board members include representatives from the Rotary Club and the Lion's Club, both rightwing business associations. In Nicaragua's polarized atmosphere, a board of directors made up of organizations that overwhelmingly support the UNO ticket makes it hard to view Vía Cívica as anything other than partisan. Gilberto Cuadra, another Vía Cívica leader, is also a leader of COSEP, the business association that pushed to have Enrique Bolaños nominated as the UNO presidential or vice presidential candidate. Some political observers believe that Vía Cívica was originally formed to be COSEP's political arm, in an attempt to strengthen the COSEP faction within UNO.
Joaquín Mejía, in particular, blatantly crosses the line between Vía Cívica propaganda and UNO campaigning. He often gives radio advertisements on Radio Corporación, a pro-UNO station. At times, he speaks for both Vía Cívica and UNO within the course of several hours. On November 9, for example, in a morning Vía Cívica spot, he congratulated Nicaraguans for having registered to vote and encouraged them to use that vote "for the future of your families" in February's elections. Hours later, on the same radio station, he spoke on behalf of UNO explaining the coalition's complaints about the current system of free television time for political parties.
In some ways, Vía Cívica resembles what one would imagine a civic organization to be. Throughout October's registration period, members distributed bumper stickers and t-shirts with the Vía Cívica pro-registration slogan; "Your voice is heard, your vote decides." They conduct educational workshops in high schools with students over 16 (legal voting age in Nicaragua) to encourage participation in the electoral process. Students who have participated in the workshops are quoted in La Prensa commenting that "our mission does not have any political end," and that they will encourage people to vote "especially in these difficult times."
The principal of a high school in Corinto, however, told envío that she would not allow Vía Cívica to give workshops in her school because she judged the content to be overtly political, accusing the organization of urging a vote against the FSLN. It is illegal to carry out political campaigning in state institutions, including public schools.
On both Radio Corporación and the Catholic Church's Radio Católica, non-partisan Vía Cívica radio announcements encouraging people to vote for "liberty" are often followed immediately by pro-UNO advertisements. The shift from one to the other is not always noticeable.
US funding: Democracy or destabilization? Vía Cívica finds itself in the midst of the debate over whether or not the US Congress is actually "funding democracy" in Nicaragua. In its 3-1/2 months of existence it has already received at least $220,000 (some say $340,000) from the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), a National Endowment for Democracy (NED) institute. Of the $5 million voted by the US Congress to go through NED for the Nicaraguan elections, a sizable amount is sure to go to Vía Cívica. Vía Cívica president Dr. Carlos Quiñónez, when asked by envío about funding sources, mentioned IFES but denied knowledge that it is a NED institute. He also said he did not know if any of the new NED money would go to Vía Cívica.
Nicaraguan laws are very clear about the procedures through which organizations, political or otherwise, may legally receive funds from abroad. The laws have been on the books for years (recent modifications of the electoral law now allow political parties to receive foreign funding, but laws for all other groups remain the same). Funds must be registered with the Ministry of Foreign Cooperation and deposited in the Central Bank, where they are then available to the organizations.
Vía Cívica faces a problem because it has not even applied for legal status in Nicaragua, and thus does not legally exist. When questioned, Quiñónez said that Vía Cívica had sent letters to the Supreme Electoral Council but had not applied for legal status. He did not give a reason for why they had not applied. Without being a legally registered organization, there is no way that Vía Cívica can legally receive funds. Thus, all funds it has received to date have been illegal. The Nicaraguan government has made it clear to NED representatives that there will be no problems if all donations are made publicly and legally, but given NED's general reluctance to release detailed accounts of its operations in foreign countries and the issues of legality surrounding Vía Cívica, there are sure to be not-so-open financial relations between the two organizations.
Given US hostility to the Sandinistas, is it possible for US funds to be used for "non-partisan" activity in the Nicaraguan elections? NED money, through its various institutions, is channeled to La Prensa, to UNO television spots, and to activities such as training leaders and strengthening the civic opposition. The people and organizations profiting from the NED money are the same ones who support UNO, thus the line blurs quickly between non-partisan and partisan political activities. NED, with its various institutes and fund channeling mechanisms, is a poor cover for US policy objectives in Nicaragua. "Funding the democratic process" translates into "building up the UNO campaign."
Vía Cívica on the Ground In September and October Vía Cívica workshops focused on promoting voter registration. Now that registration is over, the workshops are concentrating on four themes: democracy; the vote itself, including the three ballots the voters will be presented with and vote control; municipalities; and electoral ethics and citizen's civil rights.
Much of Vía Cívica's work parallels the tasks of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), the government body in charge of carrying out the elections. When asked by envío whether Vía Cívica's activities interfered or conflicted with the CSE, Quiñónez replied that Nicaraguans need as much civic education as possible, and thus their work is parallel to the CSE's. He noted that the Catholic Church and the CUS opposition labor union have also formed organizations to promote civic education.
In comments about the CSE, Quiñónez made it clear that Vía Cívica does not challenge any of the CSE's work. He expressed general satisfaction with October's registration process and confidence that the events leading up to election day and the election itself would be honestly and openly managed by the CSE. It was odd, therefore, that Quiñónez also explained Vía Cívica's plans to conduct parallel vote counting on election day. He said he does not expect Vía Cívica's results to differ from the CSE official vote count, planning instead for Vía Cívica's to confirm the official results.
Vía Cívica plans to have two members at every voting center, hoping to mobilize 8,000 people. These members will conduct an exit poll in order to tabulate the parallel vote count. Quiñónez noted that only 500-1,00 polling centers will be used, in order to get results within hours of closing the polls. The Supreme Electoral Council is currently defining regulations to guide all poll-taking between now and the elections, and the issue of the legality of exit polls will likely be addressed in those regulations.
Vía Cívica's claims of non-partisanship are contradicted by its Board of Directors, which consists solely of UNO members or supporters. With the vast majority of its funding from a NED institute, and therefore from the same US Congress that is funding both the contras and UNO, it is no surprise that its patriotism equals support for UNO. Vía Cívica helps the NED spend $5 million in a country of over three million people in just over a three-month period. The democratic process that the NED hopes to encourage assumes an UNO victory and civic, "non-partisan" organizations such as Vía Cívica are a key way to spend money fostering only the kind of democracy that appeals to the State Department.