Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 89 | Diciembre 1988



Sandinistas Surviving In a Percentage Game

Marvin Ortega

There's a generation gap in Managua and it yawns widest between the young and old men in the city's most affluent suburbs. Is this a split between father and son debated nightly at the dining table? Or is it a gulf between two politically very different groups of neighbors?

Young men between 16 and 24 years of age are the strongest Sandinista supporters in the city. Men over 40, living in the same suburbs, are the most opposed. Managua's more comfortable neighborhoods reflect a mix of traditionally wealthy families, some of whose members have stayed on throughout the revolution, and professionals, government officials and military officers, many of whom have moved into houses vacated by departing members of the upper class.

Do these political differences remain under one roof or stretch over backyard fences? We don’t know. This is one of the many divisions exposed by of Nicaragua's first comprehensive, independent public opinion survey. It showed remarkable unanimity in some areas, real divisions in others.

The survey of 1,129 adults in Managua was carried out on June 4 and 5 for the Jesuit-administered University of Central America.* For details on how the poll was conducted see the box below.)

* Some of the material for this article has been drawn from a preliminary report on the Managua poll, prepared by William Bollinger, Daniel Lund and Cristina Montaño of the Inter-American Research Center of Los Angeles and Mexico City and from articles written by Marvin Ortega and Robinson Salazar of the Managua research organization Itztani for a forthcoming issue of Encuentro, the magazine of the University of Central America. Copies of the Inter-American Research Center report, "Nicaragua Public Opinion," are available for $5 from the Central American Historical Institute (CAHI), Georgetown University, Washington, D.C. 20057.

Summary results at a glance

The survey (which is reprinted at the end of this article) revealed that a substantial block of support for the revolution still exists in Managua, despite the economic crisis that has racked the country. There is majority support for the government's foreign policy positions and the Esquipulas peace process, and substantial, although minority, support on domestic issues such as the government's handling of the economy, its political management and the draft.

The levels of support for government policies and programs compare favorably with those recorded for other governments in the region, as does support for President Daniel Ortega. The policies of the United States are roundly disliked while those of Cuba and the Soviet Union earned wide support.

Far more people identified with the FSLN than with any other political party: 28%, compared with 3% for both the Liberals and Social Christians. Total support for all four opposition parties named by the respondents amounted to only 9%. But the biggest group by far was the 59% of those surveyed who did not identify with any political party.

War and peace:
Foreign policy issues

There is more national unity on foreign than on domestic issues. To the open question, "What do you believe is the main cause of the war in Nicaragua?," 47% of those surveyed blamed the United States and/or its contra allies. Only 16% directly or indirectly blamed the FSLN—8% blamed the governing party outright, 6% said the war was due to lack of democracy, and 2% put it to "totalitarianism" or "communism." Only three people blamed the Soviet Union or Cuba.

Similarly, there was overwhelming opposition to further US aid to the contras from every group in society: 85% said no, 9% said yes. True to form, that opposition was greatest among young men in upper- and middle-class neighborhoods (90%), while support for the contras was greatest among older men in the same suburbs (17%).

The survey showed a strong spirit of national reconciliation. People may strongly oppose US aid to the contras but they supported the incorporation of the contras into Nicaraguan political life as a political party. Fifty seven percent of those surveyed said yes, 36% no. There was also support for either total or partial amnesty (83% in all) and for the view that some or all properties confiscated by the Sandinista government should be returned (61%).

A sizeable majority of Managuans (72%) said the government was interested in seeking peace and 52% believed it was living up to the Esquipulas peace agreements, but even before the talks with the contras broke down shortly after this survey, 48% did not believe that the negotiations would achieve peace; 42% did.

Analyzing the results of a group of questions on foreign policy, one finds that more than three quarters of Managuas, even many who are conservative and anti-Sandinista, appear alienated from the United States. Sixty-two percent described US policies in Central America as bad or terrible; only 8% called them good and 17% gave them a fair rating. The United States was most often cited as the country that least seeks peace in the region (33%). When asked what they admired about the United States, 42% said "nothing." Asked what they disliked, 47% named US aggression, war-making or imperialism.

In contrast, the policies of Cuba, the Soviet Union and Mexico toward Central America are widely admired. The Soviet policy was rated good or excellent by 57% and 54% said the same of the Cuban and the Mexican policies. Thirty percent of those surveyed said Cuba was the country most in solidarity with Nicaragua. Twenty-six percent named the Soviet Union.

Beans and Rice:
Domestic Issues

There is understandably much less enthusiasm for the economy. Seventy-four percent said their family's economic situation was worse than a year before and 80% said the new córdoba issued in February buys less than the old. The government's economic management was characterized as good or excellent by 22%, fair by 36% and 38% called it bad or terrible. Sixty-five percent of those surveyed said the government "wants to solve the economic problems of the population," although 27% thought not.

People's explanations for the country's economic problems appear to have changed. Whereas two years go a clear link was made between economic problems and the US-sponsored contra war (see "How Do the Poor Survive in Managua?" envío, December 1986), that link has become blurred. Nineteen percent of those surveyed named the war, the US economic blockade or US aggression as the country's main economic problem. Others were more likely to list effects rather than causes: shortages of goods (16%), low wages (15%), inflation (14%) and deficient production (13%). Ten percent cited bad government as the main "cause" of the economic problems (as opposed to the larger group mentioned above who criticized the government's economic management, but did not describe it as the main economic problem).

The rating of the government's overall political performance (27% said good/excellent, 41% said fair, 26% said bad/terrible) compares favorably with that of its economic management. It also compares favorably with ratings achieved by other Latin American governments, according to participating pollster William Bollinger. In a poll taken in Mexico City last November, for instance, only 11% of the capital's residents called their national government good or excellent; 33% said fair and 51% said bad or terrible.

Similarly, in Managuans' assessment of Daniel Ortega as Nicaragua's president, his rating compares favorably with other Central American presidents. With 42% calling President Ortega's performance good or excellent, 29% assessing it as fair and only 21% calling it bad or terrible, he was rated more highly than his government as a whole. Compare this with other Central American presidential ratings made in 1987:

Opinion was divided on a number of questions relating to domestic politics. Despite Daniel Ortega's relative popularity, 48% wanted the Nicaraguan presidential election (scheduled for 1990) brought forward. Forty-three percent said “no”.

When asked, “Do you believe the Sandinista government is democratic?,” 48% said no, 40% said yes and 12% did not know or did not respond. But in response to another question, 48% said the government respects the opposition political parties, 39% said no and 14% were "don't knows." Twenty-four percent judged Nicaragua to be the most democratic country in Central America, but many more people (41%) opted for Costa Rica.

There were also mixed results on three issues that have dominated the complaints of the internal opposition. The close relationship between the government, the party and the Sandinista army is described by the opposition as undemocratic, but was strongly supported—57% for, 31% against—by those surveyed. Another opposition bete noire, the military conscription law, was opposed by 53% of those polled and supported by 43%. A third sore spot for the political opposition is the Sandinista neighborhood committees (CDS); 48% of the Managuans surveyed said they should exist and 47% disagreed.

Support for Political Parties

Who are the Sandinistas? Who supports the opposition parties? And, who makes up the big majority who do not identify with either grouping?

The survey results show that the FSLN is a young man's party, older men dominate the traditional opposition parties and women are more likely to not be identified with any political party.

Identification with the FSLN is highest amongst men from 16 to 24 years of age (38%), compared to only 23% for men over 40. The overall figure for men is 30%, for women 27%, and for men and women combined 28%. Support from young men is particularly high in the most affluent barrios, where 62% identified with the FSLN.

There were only small variations in the levels of support from women of different ages. However, among young women, support for the FSLN in the wealthier neighborhoods was balanced by hostility from those who have just settled in the poorest barrios of the city. There, only 10% supported the FSLN and 72% did not support any party. Support for the Sandinistas was also generally weaker among the older women in poorer barrios.

The very small numbers of people who identified with opposition parties (9% of the overall sample) makes it difficult to say anything categorical about the nature of their support. However, in each of the three better-off barrios more than 20% of the men over 40 supported opposition parties.

The largest number of Managuans (59%) did not identify with any party. Women, at 63%, were less likely to identify with any party than men (55%). Women from all age groups were equally represented in this group, with non-identification being greater in the poorer barrios. Among men, there was more non-identification in the middle-age bracket (25-40 years).

Education appears to be the most significant factor in party identification. Support for the Sandinistas rises with education level.

The illiterate part of the population is similarly uninvolved in the opposition parties, but as education levels rise, the pattern of support for those parties becomes much less clear than for the FSLN.

The higher support for the Sandinistas among more educated Managuans also shows up in the classification by occupation. (In this case, only non-weighted results are available.) Support was highest amongst soldiers and draftees (73%), followed by professionals (43%) and teachers, students and white-collar employees (all 38%). Support for the FSLN among blue-collar workers (29%) was just above the overall level.

Much less support existed among women at home (17%), merchants 18%) and artisans who sell their own production (15%). The merchants and women at home were much more likely not to identify with any political party. Artisan/merchants were 78% non-identified, merchants 65%, homemakers 67%.

The way in which those identified with different parties answered questions in the survey was generally predictable—Sandinista supporters backed the government, the opposition opposed it, and those not identified with any party occupied the middle ground. Take, for example, the reasons Managuans gave for the cause of the war. Overall, 47% of those surveyed blamed the war on the United States, or Reagan's imperialism and aggression, or the contras. But 81% of Sandinista supporters said one of these was the cause of the war compared with an average of 22% for the supporters of the right-wing parties and 36% for the not-identified group.

What is often significant in these results is the position of the middle ground—the big majority who are not identified with any party. These were still more likely to blame the US or the contras for the war than any other reason, and to say that Nicaragua is the Central American country doing the most to seek peace and that the United States is doing the least. They favor the current links between the Sandinistas, the state and the Sandinista army, and give Daniel Ortega an evenly balanced rating as President. Twenty-eight percent of those not identified with a political party describe Ortega's management as good or excellent, 36% said it was fair and 27% called it bad or terrible.

The overall pattern of support for the government's foreign policy and greater concern about economic management carries across party lines. Members of the right-wing opposition parties are more critical of US policies and more appreciative of Cuba and the Soviet Union than might be expected. Among Sandinista supporters, there are significant minorities of critics on a number of issues, especially democracy and economic management.

While 62% of Sandinista supporters said Nicaragua is the country most seeking peace in the region, 11% opted for Costa Rica. Fifty-five percent of FSLN supporters said Nicaragua is the most democratic country in Central America but 21% named Costa Rica. When asked, "Is the Sandinista government democratic?," 77% of those who identified with the Sandinistas said yes, but 17% said no, and another 6% said they didn't know or didn't answer.

Overall, 48% of those surveyed said the Sandinista government is not democratic. Poll director Marvin Ortega of Itztani offers four possible explanations for this result:

— people are not completely satisfied with the democratic openings created since 1979;

— the survey results are a rejection of the model of democracy developed by the Sandinistas;

— the model the Sandinistas have been trying to implement has been affected by the war and its impacts, especially the emergency law and the prohibition on strikes, which limit civil liberties;

— the tension established in the first years of the revolution between concepts of revolution and of democracy, in which revolution was seen as a way to advance society, democracy as a model of bourgeois domination. Many Sandinistas still feel that bourgeois values limit opportunities for many people in a "representative" democracy and contrast this with the popular democracy the revolution is trying to develop.

Ten percent of the FSLN supporters called the government's economic management bad or terrible, 42% called it fair, while 46% of them said it was good or excellent. While the FSLN supporters are concerned about the economy, they obviously still have a much more positive view than others. Of the non-aligned group, 12% said economic management had been good or excellent, 34% said "fair" and 48% said bad or terrible.

How much does political faith govern personal perceptions? We don't know, but, when asked about how the respondent's own family's economic situation had changed in the last year, Sandinista supporters were significantly more optimistic than those identified with the opposition parties. Seventeen percent of FSLN supporters said their situation had improved, 29% said it was the same, and 53% said their family was worse off. Overall, 7% of those surveyed thought they were better off, 18% said they were the same, and 74% said they were worse off. In contrast, the supporters of the opposition parties, many of whom are relatively affluent, think they are doing very badly: only 4% think things have improved, and 85% think they are worse off.

Looking East and West

Managuans' views on the outside world will be particularly displeasing to the US State Department. Many supporters of the rightwing opposition parties, groups that the US has worked hard to maintain, are unimpressed with US policies in Central America. Of the 9% who said they identified with the Liberal, Conservative, or Social Christian parties, 37% also said US policies in Central America were bad or terrible, 32% said they were fair, and 21% called them good or excellent. Forty-three percent of those who did not identify with any party thought US policies were bad or terrible, a view held by 90% of Sandinista supporters.

The State Department might be reassured that almost half the opposition supporters (47%) described as bad or terrible Cuban and Soviet Union policies in Central America. But there was still a group among the opposition who were impressed with the socialist countries: 28% said Cuban policies were good or excellent and 31% thought the same of the Soviet Union's stance. Among those not identified with a political party, 44% thought Cuba's policies were good or excellent, and 47% thought this of the Soviet Union's policies. The results were 88% and 89%, respectively, for Sandinista supporters.

There was a striking correlation between education level and disapproval of US policies and approval of Soviet policies. Sixty-seven percent of those with a university education and 61% with secondary schooling rated Soviet policies as good or excellent. Only 7% of those in these groupings said the same about US policies. The higher the education level the more people thought badly of the US and, in general, the less they thought badly of the Soviet Union.

When asked about the feature they most admired about the US, 24% of those identified with opposition parties said "nothing." The survey also asked about what people most disliked about the US. Comparing the respondents' likes and dislikes reveals a reservoir of distrust toward the US. Many more people (26.5%) were clearly negative about the US than clearly positive (10%). Those who were clearly negative disliked features and liked nothing. Most of their opposite number said there was nothing they disliked and named positive features they admired.

The remaining 64% saw pluses and minuses or were uncertain, but often their dislikes appeared stronger than their likes. For example, 43% disliked aspects such as Reagan's aggressive and war-like policies (the most common) but admired aspects such as the level of US technology and development (also the most common). The latter could be described as respecting the strength of the enemy, as Sandinista supporters, otherwise hostile to the US, admired it particularly highly. Conversely, US democracy and freedom was admired by only 7% of those surveyed, most often those who support opposition parties. Thirteen percent of those who said they disliked nothing about the US also said they liked nothing.

For all their hostility to the US government, the Sandinistas make a strong distinction between it and the people. That distinction showed up in the survey: 6% said they admired the US art, culture or people in solidarity with Nicaragua. Of this group, 69% were FSLN supporters.

Rich and Poor

Reviewing the poll's results by neighborhood, the proxy for class, the large areas of agreement are as interesting as those areas where the classes diverge. When asked to name the country's principal political problem, for instance, there was remarkable unanimity; almost half of all the city's residents, cutting through every barrio, named the US and the war, while only about 15% blamed bad government, lack of freedom or repression, a number also consistent throughout the city.

Opposition to more aid for the contras was similarly overwhelming throughout Managua (85%), and the split over amnesty for the contras (37% for total amnesty, 46% for partial, 9% for none) was again consistent through all kinds of neighborhoods.

There were, however, areas of class division. Three important questions where class is important in people's responses were their views on their own economic situation, on President Ortega's performance, and on whether elections should be moved forward. The poor saw their families becoming poorer much more than did those from wealthy neighborhoods. Of those in the poorest barrios, 85% said their family's economic situation was worse than last year; that figure shrinks with each step up the ladder, until it's only 58% of those in the richest neighborhoods.

When asked about President Ortega's performance, the poor were much more critical. In the wealthiest neighborhoods, 53% rated it good or excellent, and support drops step by step through each neighborhood type, reaching a low of 39% in the poorest parts of Managua.

On early elections, the proportion of those favoring them grew with each step down the socioeconomic ladder—from 34% in the most affluent neighborhoods to 57% in the poorest.

The city's socioeconomic groups also get their news from different sources. The FSLN's newspaper Barricada is read most widely in the upper and middle-class neighborhoods, least in the poor barrios. Readership of the ultra-conservative La Prensa is highest in the poorest barrios; that of the independent but pro-revolution El Nuevo Diario generally increases as the neighborhoods become poorer. Television, not surprisingly, provides news to the upper and middle class areas more than to those in the poorest barrios (22% versus 9%). Radio, the most important news source, has a reasonably consistent rating throughout the city.

Women and Men, Young and Old

There are some clear general trends in the divisions between the views of women and men, of young and old. Young people (16-24) tend to be more supportive of the government and the revolution, while older people (40 plus) are more conservative, no matter which neighborhood or which sex.

As has already been noted, this is particularly visible in the affluent neighborhoods, where the old and the young are two very opinionated age groups—with opposite views. Taking only what older people say when asked "What is the country's principal economic problem?," the trend is quite straightforward: "bad government" is blamed by 25% of those in the richest neighborhoods, and drops steadily to only 7% in the poorest barrios. And older women in the wealthy neighborhoods were even more strongly critical than men—28% and 21% blamed the government, respectively. This compared with 9% and 5% of the older women and men in the poorest barrios, (8% overall there).

Looked at from a strict gender standpoint, men were more likely to name the war for the country's economic woes (21%, versus 15% for women), while women named shortages of goods and inflation (38%, versus 23% for men).

When specifically asked to rate the government's economic management, age proved more of a dividing line than sex, with older people giving the government worse marks than did younger Managuans: 44% of the older people surveyed said the government's economic management was bad or terrible, compared with 29% of the young people. One group that stands out from this pattern is the women from the poorest barrios, who are very critical across all the age groups.

Women are somewhat less involved in the country's political life then are men, and poor women least of all. This shows up in several different ways, among them the greater number of women than men who said they identified with no political party. (Women who did identify with a party, however, were more likely than men to choose the FSLN.) It's also clear in the higher percentages of "don't know" answers and when a range of ratings (for example, from excellent to terrible) was available that women were consistently more likely to opt for a non-committal middle response.

In the assessment of how well the respondents understood the questions put to them, women were clearly less politically informed than men (and perhaps less well educated in general), with the percentages worsening among older and poorer women. Compared with a global rate of only 6% judged to understand either "less than half" or "very few" of the questions, fully 18% of the women in the poor barrios fell into these categories; 91% of their sisters from the most affluent neighborhoods understood all or most of the questions.

An interesting sidelight to this lower level of political knowledge and participation among women is that they are much more likely to get their news from television than are the men of their neighborhoods (22% of the women surveyed listed TV as their main source of news, compared with 15% of the men, a pattern consistent across all neighborhood types).

Another clear pattern is that, while support for the government generally falls off as one moves down from the more affluent to the poorer barrios, this trend is much more pronounced among women. Sixty-four percent of the young women who live in the wealthiest neighborhoods, for example, rated President Daniel Ortega's performance as excellent or good, compared with 29% of the young women in the poorest barrios.

Turning to responses on questions of domestic policies, one finds women and men split along predictable lines according to their varying roles and positions in society. Women saw their economic situation worsening more than men did, with women in poor barrios and men in affluent neitghborhoods at the two extremes when asked how their current economic situation compared with last year.

The Sandinista neighborhood committees (CDS), which have, at their best, organized access to government-supplied subsidized food and neighborhood self-help efforts, were not surprisingly more supported by women than men in all types of neighborhoods (54% of all women surveyed supported the CDS system, compared with 46% of the men). Nonetheless, the fact that only a bit more than half of the women interviewed were positive about the only organization designed to involve people at a neighborhood level signals a real failure. The low participation of women—poor women and those at home, particularly—in the country's political life may highlight a more general failure of FSLN mass organizations such as the CDS and the women's organization, AMNLAE, to reach them.

Looking at the more abstract questions about Nicaragua's democracy, the general patterns hold true. When asked what they thought about the relationship between the FSLN, the state and the armed forces, for instance, young people, especially young men, were more likely to support the current arrangement than were older people, while women were about twice as likely as men to say they didn't know. A full third of the older poor women surveyed answered "don't know," compared with an overall figure of 11%.

The results of the question about whether the date of the presidential elections should be brought forward may provide an interesting reflection on which groups feel they want an opportunity to have their voices heard. Once again, women in the poorest barrios stand out, with 74% of these young women wanting early elections; 29% of the young men in the middle-class suburbs said yes. In a curious result, young people wanted an early election more than their elders (54% to 42%), perhaps reflecting the fact that many of them have never yet had a chance to vote.

The question on the draft law likewise had some surprising results, with men of draft age more supportive of it than older men (51% to 45%). Support generally falls off as one moves through the neighborhoods from rich to poor (from 51% down to 37%), with pockets of exceptions—young men in the poorest barrios are the law's biggest supporters, for instance.

Women consistently oppose the draft through every age group, with the opposition rising as economic status falls. Young women are also more opposed than older women, which may reflect effective FSLN campaigns aimed at mothers whose sons are in the army. There is little social support for the young men's partners.

Moving to foreign policy issues, young people are more likely to blame the US or the contras for the war, with those in affluent neighborhoods taking this position most strongly. On the question of whether the US should give more aid to the contras, support reached its high water mark at 17% among older men in rich barrios, while 90% of the younger men in those same upper- and middle-class neighborhoods said they opposed contra aid—a generation gap indeed.

And though poor women have, as we have seen, been very critical of the government, on this question they are quite clearly in support: only 5% said the contras should receive more money, even less than the survey's overall average of 9%.

Conclusions: Nationalist Nicaragua

The poll results confirm that, while there has been a falling away of support for the Sandinista government, the plans of the Reagan Administration to overthrow it have been based on false hopes or a foolish misreading of the Nicaraguan people. The survey underlines the strong nationalistic sentiments of Nicaraguans. National sovereignty, for so long denied, is to them no abstract notion. Apart from a hard-core tenth of those surveyed, there was little affection for the United States or respect for its policies towards the region. The rejection of the US extended in a broad band through the ranks of opposition supporters and those who do not identify with any political party. It climaxed with the 85% of Managuans who unequivocally opposed any further aid to the contras.

Support for the Sandinistas has declined. About a third of those questioned consistently supported government policies or backed the government's performance. This is dramatically less than the two-thirds vote for the Sandinistas recorded in the 1984 elections although it should not be assumed that the Sandinista vote would be as low as one third if an election had been held in June. The Sandinistas still have the Nicaraguan political field largely to themselves, recording nine times the party identification of their nearest rivals, who are themselves severely fractionalized. Even if all the opposition groups could mount a united campaign, three times more people identified with the Sandinistas than with all the opposition parties put together.

The combination of the harsh economic measures taken since the June survey and the large majority of people who did not identify with a political party must offer hope to the opposition. But that hope is tempered by a closer look at this group. People in poorer barrios, particularly women, are more likely not to identify with a political party or to be critical of the government's performance. These people sympathize with the goals of the revolution but have seen fewer of its benefits and are now bearing the heavy economic burdens of the war. People still identify the war as the country's major political problem but are less likely to link it to their own economic difficulties. The older, more affluent men who dominate the opposition parties are unlikely ever to appeal to poor people, especially poor women, in Managua. But the survey's results also show that this large group of Managuans has not been reached by the mass organizations of the revolution and that to do so now is a large and urgent task.

Methodology and mechanics

On June 4 and 5, a Saturday and Sunday, 1,129 people in 70 Managua neighborhoods took part in the first independent public opinion poll in Nicaragua since 1979. The interviews took place in people's homes, face to face.

Those who took part were 16 years of age and older; while 18 is a more common polling minimum, in Nicaragua the age for voting and military draft is 16, and almost half the population is younger than 16. There were quotas for age and sex so that the distribution of those questions matched that of Managua.

The city was divided into five neighborhood types, chosen to represent the various social and economic classes, and the poll was then taken in 240 homes randomly chosen from each. The random sample was made using data from the National Institute of Statistics and Census (INEC), adjusted after comparisons with other sources such as the Ministry of Internal Commerce (MICOIN), which issues food ration cards to all households.

Using equal numbers from each type of neighborhood meant comparisons between them could be made. When it was time to make citywide analyses, the neighborhoods had to be weighted to reflect their true relative sizes. The wealthy neighborhoods, for instance, contain only 4% of Managua's population, so their results were given less statistical weight than "progressive" neighborhoods (type four), where 37% of the city's population live (more on these neighborhood types follows).

The poll was taken under the auspices of the Central American University (UCA), who with an independent and non-profit research center, Itztani, has formed the Nicaraguan Institute of Public Opinion (INOP), which plans to conduct other nationwide, surveys. The Inter-American Research Center (Los Angeles) and the Centro Interamericano de Investigaciones (Mexico) contributed technical and financial support.

The UCA is Jesuit-founded and administered, part of a Central America-wide network. While all universities in Nicaragua are part of the state-supported National Higher Education Council, the UCA is viewed as the most politically neutral. The Jesuits support the objectives of the revolution, while having a reputation for independent and critical thought. UCA publications are frequently critical of the government, and the Jesuits are well known for insisting that the public's views be taken into account when making public policy.

Itztani was founded last year by a group of social scientists who describe themselves as "committed to the democratization and peace processes in Nicaragua and Central America." Many come from the UCA or the Center for Economic and Agrarian Reform Research (CIERA).

The Centro Interamericano de Investigaciones is based in Cuernavaca, Mexico and with the Inter-American Research Center in Los Angeles has coordinated a series of public opinion surveys on US foreign policy in several Central American countries.

About objectivity

Those who conducted the poll went to great lengths to ensure demonstrable objectivity. As Bill Bollinger, one of the authors, said, "Realizing that any such poll in a country like Nicaragua would be viewed with skepticism abroad and by some groups in Nicaragua, the project directors bent over backwards to ensure that the survey was not biased in favor of the Sandinista government."

The random selection process was outlined in advance for an attorney and notary public who notarized the process and the selection of the neighborhoods.

The first draft of the questions was reviewed by Nicaraguan and foreign scholars, and several drafts were pre-tested in Managua, simplifying and changing questions as a result. Last year's Central American surveys by the Inter-American Research Center and Centro Interamericano de Investigaciones also helped; wording which had caused problems in those surveys or which US polling specialists had criticized as possibly biased was dropped from the Managua survey.

The term ”contras” was taken out of an early Managua draft, to be replaced by "Nicaraguan Resistance." And in the view of one of the project's directors, "At least one question may have been stacked against the Sandinista government." Bill Bollinger explained that, in discussions among the poll sponsors, it was pointed out that to the question, "Do you believe the Sandinista government is democratic?," many Nicaraguans tend to reply "yes and no," "it depends," or other such ambivalent responses. However, the poll director, Marvin Ortega, steadfastly held to the view that "if there is any doubt in a respondent's mind about Nicaragua being democratic, his or her answer is ‘no.’” Thus, Bollinger concluded, “respondents were forced to answer a yes or no referendum, with no middle ground responses accepted.” It would be a hard test for most governments.

Those who visited homes to carry out the survey were carefully chosen, well paid and intensively trained. They participated in simulated interviews and the Managua pre-testing. After day one of the survey, there was further training.

The interviewers were allowed no discretion in deciding which house to survey or whom to interview. They introduced themselves as from the UCA because it is well known and generally regarded by the public as the most politically neutral of Managua's universities.

In the two weeks after the survey, verification teams visited an average of four homes in each of the eighteen neighborhoods surveyed. They checked that the interview had indeed taken place, how the interviewer had come across, and had a general political discussion with the person who had been interviewed to make sure the survey answers were on track. Two foreign scholars accompanied the verification team for some of the follow-up work.

Fear and Mistrust on the Survey Trail

A common charge of both the US Administration and the Nicaraguan political opposition is that the Nicaraguan people live in fear of their government. Opposition parties often explain their own low levels of support as reflections of high levels of repression. It's a credible argument on the Central American isthmus, with its history and present experience of death squads and state terrorism.

Those who conducted the Managua poll took this concern seriously, wondering, in the words of Bill Bollinger, "Would some people, particularly opponents of the Sandinista regime, be too inhibited or regard the survey as a government spying operation?" The poll included questions for the interviewer to answer immediately after each interview, assessing how well the respondent understood the questions and whether they had shown confidence, distrust or even fear.

The results showed the concerns unfounded, and are quite striking when compared with similar assessments made during other Central American polls. First, the rate for refusal to be interviewed was 10.6% on day one, dropping to less than 5% on the second day, very low by Central American standards. Overall, 88% of those interviewed showed no fear. Of those who identified with the Sandinistas, 92% answered openly, while those who identified with the opposition parties were marginally more confident—94% showed no hesitation in answering the survey. Those who identified with no party were the least confident, but 85% still responded without fear.

In Honduras, by contrast, in a survey carried out by the National University's Journalism School, only 38% of those surveyed answered without fear. In another measure of political anxiety, the Hondurans were asked if people in their country were afraid to publicly express their political views; 65% answered yes.

In Managua, interviewers reported that during many interviews their biggest problem was that people wanted to expand on their answers, explaining and justifying their views.

Is Polling Prohibited in Nicaragua?

The US media regularly report that the Sandinista government outlaws independent opinion polling, and this is indeed the first since the 1979 revolution. Although the laws against polling may well still be on the books, those who conducted the poll took the view that "the new Constitution, which guarantees the freedom to collect and disseminate information, supersedes the prohibition. Furthermore, it is the understanding of everyone involved in this polling project that through the Esquipulas peace accords the Sandinista government has committed the nation to a democratization process that implicitly will allow for independent public opinion polling" (Inter-American Research Center preliminary report).

Those views were tested at each stage of the project. Many government officials were aware that the UCA and Itztani were preparing to take a poll, and none interfered. While the National Institute of Statistics and Census is responsible for granting any permission to poll, and never gave such a permit, they gave their help, including up-to-date statistics and maps. On the weekend the survey was being taken, the interviewers ran into neighborhood officials, including leaders of the Sandinista block committees (CDS). None challenged the right of the UCA to conduct the survey and none attempted to obstruct the work in any way. Several, in fact, helped to find the targeted housing tracts in Managua's infamously ill-marked streets.

Some of those randomly selected for surveying were government, party or military officials—none questioned the researchers about their legal right to conduct the poll.

The Sample Neighborhoods—Who was polled?

The survey was grouped into five types of neighborhoods, which served as a rough proxy for socioeconomic status. Roughly |the same number of interviews was carried out in each. These results were then weighted according to the percentage of the city's population living in each type of neighborhood.

In the exclusive residential neighborhoods, street life revolves around the garden hose. In generally quiet, tree-lined, paved streets, residents or their employees water well-tended lawns or wash cars. These could almost be middle-class suburbs in California. There are spacious houses with lots of natural light and many houses have water storage tanks.

As the neighborhoods become poorer there are more people in the streets, children play and neighbors joke and gossip. The houses in the middle-class suburbs are smaller but neat, well-kept concrete houses. More than half the houses have cars although some of these are work vehicles. Community organization is generally good.

Houses in the traditional neighborhoods are more working-class tract houses, cement and wood construction with glass windows. Pastel-colored rows of houses are often arranged along pedestrian ways. Not all streets are paved. Most older neighborhoods in this grouping have telephone service; most others do not.

With 73% of the city's population between them, the traditional neighborhoods and the poorer "progressives," as they are called in this survey, which are in a process of progressive self-construction, make up the core of Managua. The latter have no, or very few paved roads but government programs in the early years after the revolution concentrated on these areas, providing water, electricity and some paved roads.

The "settlements" house the most recent migrants to the city and are the poorest. They have grown in two phases since 1981. For the first ones, the progressives, built between 1981 and 1982, the government was able to provide some services. Since then, it has been virtually unable to assist. All roads are dirt; water facilities are shared and electricity is pirated from overhead wires. In both the settlements and the poorer progressives, firewood sellers and the blue smoke of cooking fires are often seen. Here buckets of water and the communal spigot, not private garden hoses, dominate activity on the streets.


At the time the survey was taken, the peace talks with the contras were in trouble, but both sides were still making hopeful noises in public. The talks, bogged down for weeks, seemed to leap forward in Managua between May 26 and 28. But on that last day, as a definitive cease-fire agreement seemed close, the contra representatives refused to extend the discussions and left. They were due back in Managua on June 7, but were known to be locked in a bitter fight over the leadership of ex-National Guard officer Enrique Bermúdez.

There had been several contra attacks on civilians in the days preceding the poll. The Nicaraguan army had caught two Honduran soldiers fighting with the contras inside Nicaraguan territory, and President Daniel Ortega once again asked the Honduran head of state to clean the contras out of his country.

On domestic issues, agricultural producers were optimistic. Credit had become more freely available in May, inputs were available and rains had begun late but were steady. The first planting season was proceeding well. The government had introduced its new municipal law into the National Assembly, bypassing the National Dialogue, which was stalled after the opposition walked out to protest the ongoing construction and automotive workers' strike. In that dispute, the disaffected workers had recently concluded a hunger strike.

The monthly inflation rate had started to fall, dropping from more than 100% in February to 31% in April and 20% in May. Perhaps most significantly, the sweeping economic measures of mid-June were yet to come.

International Polling—Reader Beware*

The survey group's strenuous efforts to be demonstrably objective were, in part, a response to the way polling has been manipulated by the United States. International affiliates of US polling organizations have undertaken secret public opinion polls all around the world for the United States, a practice begun with the cold war. The US Information Agency (USIA) hires the organizations and gives them their brief, then uses the information to influence world opinion or feeds it selectively to local media.

*The information for much of this section comes from "Encuesta Gallup al gusto de Reagan, para justificar la ayuda a la contra," an article by William Bollinger and Daniel Lund in Proceso, Semanario de Información y Análisis, Mexico, May 2, 1988. The same article appeared in English in The Nation on May 7, 1988.

In 1986, for instance, President Reagan cited Central American surveys by the respected Gallup organization to support his campaign for more funds for the contras. The great majority of Costa Ricans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans and Hondurans supported the US war against Nicaragua, and polls proved it, Reagan alleged: "In some countries, more than 90% of the people support what we are doing." US Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick used the argument in a bitter attack on Bruce Babbit, then a presidential aspirant proud of his fluency in Spanish and his familiarity with Latin American affairs. Citing the Gallup statistics, she ridiculed the Arizona governor in The Washington Post, saying he was out of step with Central Americans in his opposition to contra aid. Philip Habib, Reagan's special ambassador to Central America, likewise referred to the Gallup poll as proof that "the majority of Central Americans, in the first place, condemn the situation in Nicaragua, and, in the second place, support aid to the contras."

The catch was that none of this information could be verified. USIA is forbidden by law from carrying out propaganda within the United States, so the poll results were not published there. (This also raises interesting questions about the White House use of the Central American survey.)

The results of USIA-undertaken surveys are often declared classified, and the Central American survey was no exception. The most that US journalists found out was the admission of Reagan's spokesperson Larry Speakes that the 90% was "exaggerated." They were not told, for example, that the polls had been limited to those who had at least seven years of schooling or that the crucial question about aid to the contras was asked only of those who previously said they were aware of US support for the "Nicaraguan Resistance."

Wording, of course, is extremely influential. In an April 1986 CBS/ New York Times poll, only 25% of the North Americans surveyed supported military assistance to groups trying to overthrow the Nicaraguan government," while in that same month a Time/Yankelovich poll found 58% agreed that "the US should support the Nicaraguan rebels to block the spread of communist influence to other Central American countries."

Gallup's tendency to produce the answers its clients want has gotten them into trouble from time to time. Even though research of the UCA group in El Salvador over the last two years has shown a steady fall in support for the Christian Democratic government, Gallup polls showed Duarte's party with a healthy lead over the right-wing ARENA opposition—right up to ARENA's victory in 68% of the country's municipalities, including San Salvador, earlier this year.

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