Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 101 | Diciembre 1989




Envío team

On October 21, the worst air crash in Central American history occurred when a SAHSA plane crashed in Honduras, killing 132 of the 146 aboard. The Honduran airlines' flight had stopped in Managua where it took on 100 passengers and was minutes from landing in Tegucigalpa when the crash took place.

The passenger list reflected the rainbow of nationalities that have, for one reason or another, been drawn to Nicaragua: British, Chilean, US, Spanish, Czech, Swedish, Soviet, French, Belgian and Bolivian citizens, as well as Hondurans and Nicaraguans were on the plane. But the largest number of victims—62—was Nicaraguan. In a small country, the effects were felt throughout society and across political lines. Obituaries filled the pages of both pro and anti-government newspapers. Victims included an FSLN candidate for the National Assembly from Bluefields, a doctor on her way to represent the Ministry of Health at the American Public Health Association meeting, relatives of opposition politicians and a number of Nicaraguan exiles living in Miami. One of the 14 survivors was Carlos Pellas, a member of one of Nicaragua's best-known entrepreneurial families.

There were unconfirmed reports that 16 of the victims were FBI and CIA agents traveling with passports of different nationalities. Nicaraguan Vice-Minister of Health Carlos Jarquín accused personnel of the US Consulate in Honduras of occupying the morgue and mutilating bodies in their haste to identify their dead. By preventing families of other victims from entering, they violated human rights and prolonged for over a week a painful process that could have lasted two days, according to Jarquín.

Immediately after the crash, the Nicaraguan government declared three days of national mourning and provided transportation to Honduras for victims' families. Nicaraguan rescue crews were sent to the site of the tragedy, and bodies were brought home in Sandinista Air Force planes. The Sandinista government offered legal services to families to guarantee they would at least receive insurance benefits on behalf of the victims.

Speculation about the cause of the crash ranged from human error to mechanical failure to weather conditions and the difficulty of landing at Tegucigalpa's airport, nestled in a narrow valley. Though experts hesitated to place immediate blame, opposition newspaper La Prensa did not. In an October 25 editorial that one local radio commentator called "nauseating," La Prensa asserted that the Sandinistas were indirectly responsible because of the "aerial isolation" in which they had placed Nicaragua. They provoked the US economic blockade and, therefore, the prohibition of state airline Aeronica flights to Miami, argued La Prensa. The resulting pressure on other airlines such as SAHSA to increase flights led to a decline in quality of service and, ultimately, to tragedy, according to the editorial.

This argument found no echo elsewhere and remained as another testimony to La Prensa's determination to make political hay out of any and all events, even tragic ones.

At an October 3 meeting with 300 taxi drivers, Vice President Sergio Ramírez announced that the government would provide 400 new vehicles this year to members of the country's 17 taxi cooperatives. The new cars will help replace some of the 1,800 taxis in the country (1,063 in Managua), many of which have spent over 20 years dodging potholes and look in danger of imminent collapse.

The new cars have already hit the streets throughout the country; some towns like Bluefields now have taxis for the first time. The vehicles are sold under favorable conditions to the cooperatives. No down payment is required and drivers pay minimal interest rates.

The government's offer is one of several responses to demands made by the "workers of the wheel" who went on strike in mid-June, demanding relief from high gas prices; access to tires, oil and spare parts at subsidized prices and freedom to raise fares. In negotiations at the time, the government agreed to offer a 20% discount on tires and spare parts, but said it could not subsidize gasoline. Drivers were freed to negotiate fares with each passenger.

Drivers raised other concerns at the October meeting, including taxes, poor road conditions and the familiar issue of gas prices, which have risen lately to 50,100 córdobas per gallon. In response to their demands, a meeting will be held to evaluate tax policy for taxi drivers. Mayors' offices will be provided funds and equipment for street and highway repair to prevent further deterioration of vehicles. However, according to Ramírez, rising gas prices are a problem that can only be resolved by lowering the overall inflation rate and avoiding drastic currency devaluations that affect the price of imported goods like gasoline. The minister of construction and transportation, who was also present, voiced the concern of war wounded and other disabled members of the Organization of Disabled Revolutionaries, who asked that taxi drivers give special attention to those in wheelchairs trying to hail a cab.

A year after hurricane Joan devastated the South Atlantic capital city of Bluefields, the air still rings with the sound of hammering as the reconstruction continues. Two months after the hurricane, the Emergency Committee made up of churches, international organizations and Nicaraguan governmental institutions became a Reconstruction Committee with three main goals: rebuild the infrastructure, services and material base at least to pre-hurricane levels; guarantee basic foods; and continue to move toward the implementation of autonomy.

The fishing and lumber industries, the region’s primary productive activities, have received substantial financing from Norway, Sweden and Canada. Though they are currently functioning at low levels, they are being reconstructed with more modern equipment and at greater capacity than before the hurricane. The fish processing plant in El Bluff is expected to be fully operational by January 1990; the plant in Corn Island, several months later. A new, modern lumber mill is expected to be in operation by the middle of next year and a large industrial carpentry shop by November.

Though many houses have been rebuilt or repaired, there is still a shortage. The regional government continues to buy and distribute zinc, nails and wood with its own funds. The Cuban government has finished 55 of the 1,000 houses it expects to complete by the end of 1990. The Reconstruction Committee has formed a special sub-committee to coordinate the efforts of several churches and organizations that have promised housing.

School started as scheduled in March throughout the region, though some schoolrooms were still being rebuilt. The hospital in Bluefields is almost completely reconstructed, though there is still a $200,000 deficit for specialized machinery and equipment. Three health centers have been rebuilt; another is still under construction; and two more are operating in provisional locations. Bluefields' existing water system has been rebuilt. In addition, five new wells have been dug and 100 others were provided with water pumps; 18 new storage tanks have been installed around the city.

The city's electricity system had to be entirely replaced. The new generator has a greater capacity than the previous one and there is more street lighting now than ever before, but only about 60-70% of private homes have been reconnected to date.

In order to guarantee basic foods, the government distributed huge quantities of seeds to farmers to promote continued basic grain production. Also, the World Food Program provides food to 24,000 people, prioritized by need. Farmers near Bluefields, whose fields suffered the greatest damage, could not plant this year, and many, instead of simply receiving food donations and remaining without work for the season, received food and tools in return for their labor on community projects. Six new schools were built in this way. This kind of project encourages everyone's participation in the reconstruction and avoids creating the lethargy and dependence that can result from charity donations.

The autonomy project has continued advancing. The February 25 elections include, on the Atlantic Coast, voting for the regional autonomous government. Manuel Ortega, executive secretary of the regional government, cites people’s organization and grassroots participation as one of the positive outcomes of this natural disaster. The need to cooperate and take action after the hurricane means that the people of Bluefields are more organized than ever before, an important element for the effective implementation of autonomy. Also, says Ortega, coast peoples have grown more confident in their ability to confront problems, one of the challenges of autonomy. The government, too, has gained enormous experience in carrying out projects and has earned a good reputation with international organizations and supportive governments.

A recent poll on the Nicaraguan elections by CID-Gallup, the Costa Rica-based affiliate of the Gallup polling organization, rated support for opposition presidential candidate Violeta Chamorro at 40% against 29% for FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega. These results were in sharp contrast to those of other recent polls, including those funded by opposition parties, which have consistently found Sandinista candidates winning two to one over those of the US-backed opposition coalition UNO. The release of the CID survey results was timed to maximize their political impact. The announcement was made in Costa Rica on October 27, the eve of the Latin American Presidents' summit, also attended by George Bush.

While little is known about the methodology used to carry out the CID poll, experts immediately questioned its objectivity. For example, 12% of those approached refused to answer the questions, a percentage much higher than the 6% who turned down pollsters in two other recent surveys.

CID-Gallup’s history makes the results of the recent poll all the more suspect. In 1986, Reagan publicized the results of a CID poll showing that 90% of Central Americans supported contra aid shortly before a contra aid vote in Congress. In response to reporters' questions, Gallup in the US issued a statement the company was not responsible for CID's results and did not control or own the Costa Rican enterprise. CID itself said the US Information Agency (USIA) had paid for the survey and that CID was not authorized to release information concerning methodology or results. The USIA, the White House and the State Department all refused to reveal technical details that would have allowed the legitimacy of the results to be verified. It was later revealed that only those with a seventh grade education or more, a fraction of the population of Central America, were surveyed. The question about aid to the contras was only asked if previous questions indicated support for the contra cause.

According to a May 1988 article in The Nation, it is regular USIA practice to commission surveys from international affiliates of Gallup. Results are then shared with the State Department and the CIA and used for political ends, despite the fact that law prohibits the USIA from influencing public opinion in the US.

The poll's findings, with Violeta Chamorro far in the lead, have already begun to appear in the US press. In part, this may be an attempt to justify the $9 million approved by Congress for the Nicaraguan elections, much of which will go to Chamorro's UNO coalition. More ominously, the survey could be used by the Bush Administration to cry fraud should the Sandinistas win in February, as other polls show they are likely to do.

As the deadline for finalizing lists of candidates approached, numerous nominees for national and municipal office resigned from opposition party slots. On November 9, for example, El Nuevo Diario reported 11 from the UNO, 9 from the PRT, 7 from the PSC, 3 from the PSOC and 1 each from the MUR and the PCDN.

Some of the dropouts are either from tiny parties or were so far down on their party lists that they had virtually no chance of winning and may have decided that the campaign simply wasn't worth it. Others had political reasons for withdrawing. Juan Pablo Ruiz Reyes from Corinto had been on the UNO slate of National Assembly candidates. When his party, the PPSC, left the UNO coalition, he decided to resign his candidacy, though other PPSC members chose to remain on the slate. Explained Ruiz, "The UNO is advised and financed by the government of the United States, which has stained the Nicaraguan people with grief, and that is why I made the decision to resign."

Sandinista newspaper Barricada reported on November 12 that 12 members of the National Conservative Party (PNC) in Region V left the UNO. Guadelupe García, who was the PNC's Secretary of Organization for the region, said the UNO "are bourgeois types who have never identified with the people...the only alternative to defeat the FSLN cleanly is the Democratic Conservative Party." Lucas Urbina, head of the PCDN in Chontales, Region V, accused UNO of "undermining the base of my party, buying off militants with juicy sums of money." Witness for Peace long-termers working in the region commented on the sudden and unusual appearance of Mercedes Benz cars in Juigalpa, as well as a number of very expensive parties taking place at selected UNO houses during the registration weekends.

One of the opposition's main demands has been access to the media for campaign purposes. In August, during the National Dialogue, the government agreed to give the political parties half an hour of prime time each night on Channel 2, one of two state-owned stations. The program is divided into three ten-minute segments that are assigned to different parties in an order determined by lottery.

But the parties complained that Channel 2's signal was weak and did not reach as many viewers as the other station, Channel 6. In a November 3 letter to Ivan García, director of Sandinista Television (SSTV), Supreme Electoral Council president Mariano Fiallos expressed his concern that Channel 2 continued to have a deficient range, and that its effectiveness was thus severely limited.

In response, SSTV began a series of debates to be broadcast three hours weekly (from 6 to 7 pm Monday, Wednesday and Friday) on Channel 6. The first debate took place Friday, November 10. Introductory presentations by President Daniel Ortega and CSE president Fiallos added an extra half hour to the program causing it to run into the very popular evening soap opera hour.

SSTV director García moderated the exchange of political views. Representatives of the UN, OAS and former President Jimmy Carter's observer group were present as witnesses to the event. Every political party was present except for UNO, which cancelled half an hour before the show after previously agreeing to attend. Instead, they issued a new demand: half an hour to present their own news program.

In this first debate, each party was given three minutes to make an initial presentation. This was followed by a series of questions from a panel of journalists representing a variety of ideological perspectives. Each party had two minutes to respond. Friday evening's questioners were journalists from the Sandinista TV System and Radio Noticias (a rightwing station), the head of the journalism school at the Jesuit Central American University and the president of the Union of Nicaraguan Journalists. In future debates, each party will have 20 minutes to respond to questions from a rotating panel of representatives from the news media. Three parties will participate each night.

The opening debate was a lively event. Many of the party representatives sharply criticized the Sandinista government, as President Ortega calmly took it all in. When tempers flared—as they did when the PRT's Bonifacio Miranda attacked Fernando Agüero (PSOC) and was responded to in kind, the journalists present openly enjoyed the show, while García restored order. The mud slinging so often associated with US campaigning, however, was not a significant factor in the debate. The following comments illustrate the broad range of views expressed.

Bonifacio Miranda, Revolutionary Workers’ Party (PRT):
“The situation for Nicaraguan workers is extremely difficult, while a handful of capitalists are enriching themselves under the protective shadow of the FSLN…. Don’t vote for the contras, or the FSLN.”

Eduardo Molina, Democratic Conservative Party (PCDN):
“I ask each of you not to vote for communism. There’s communism in the UNO and there’s communism in the Sandinistas.”

Carlos Agüero, Social Conservatism party (PSOC):
“We can’t speak of the class struggle in a simplistic way; we are all Nicaraguans. Evolution is better than revolution.”

Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN):
¨The Frente is the only responsible force in the country that can assure peace and stability in Nicaragua; it is the only party that can preserve the changes, that can defend national sovereignty.”

Nicaragua’s voter registration took place during the first four Sundays of October. Despite certain areas where contra activity prevented registration centers from opening, the process was considered successful by all concerned, from the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) to the political parties to international observers.

Seventy of the 4,394 registration centers were closed at one time or another during the four Sundays for reasons ranging from lack of materials to heavy rains, but the majority were closed because of contraactivity. The CSE had hoped to reopen 66 of those centers in the war zones that had been affected, but the recent increase in contra activity has prevented that. Depending on the demobilization process, the registration centers may be able to open again.

The following is information gathered by the CSE regarding registration by region. Council president Mariano Fiallos estimates that the 1,749,061 Nicaraguans registered represents over 90% of eligible Nicaraguan voters.

Just the fact

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