Will the Elections in the Coast Be Anything to Celebrate?
The Caribbean Coast will elect new regional governments
on Sunday, March 5. What, if any, results can be forecast?
What do those running the eight campaigns see as the issues
and how can they best be addressed?
Six national and two regional groupings are running in the fifth election of autonomous governments in Nicaragua’s two Caribbean regions. The national ones are the FSLN and the PLC, each with small allied groups; the Christian Way; the new Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance-Conservative Party (ALN-PC); the slightly older Alliance for the Republic (APRE); and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS). The two coast parties are Yatama, which has candidates in both regions, and the Movement of Coast Unity (PAMUC), which is running only in the north, where it is 3 short of the 45 Regional Council slots.
No information, integrity or political interestThe morning after the elections, four or five of these political forces will probably be fairly content, if not outright enthusiastic about the results. It’s highly likely that the new governments of the North and South Autonomous Regions (RAAN and RAAS, respectively) will have the same party profiles they’ve had this term. If that holds true, three forces—the PLC, FSLN and Yatama—will claim victory. At least two others might also have reason to celebrate, because even if they don’t get a single one of the 90 seats split between the two Regional Councils, they could pull enough votes to increase their fundraising success and even feel cocky enough to predict a sure win in November’s general elections. And some professional leeches of Nicaraguan politics will be happy to discover they can continue enjoying the impunity that their proximity to power ensures for their “powder white” and “timber green” businesses.
But will the people of the coast have any reason to celebrate? One sure bet is that most of those competing to control the Regional Councils in the name of their particular ticket neither have nor want the information, integrity or political determination needed to allow coast people finally to govern according to their own interests. Quite the contrary, the candidates want power to consummate the pillaging of the coast’s immense wealth and subject the different ethnic groups that have survived on their own lands to the orders of people living in opulence in Managua who presume to know what is and isn’t right for the impoverished people on the coast.
“The coast has its dream and we know where we want to go,” says Alta Hooker, rector of the University of the Autonomous Regions of the Caribbean Coast of Nicaragua (URACCAN) and one of the northern region’s most prestigious intellectuals. “But for that to happen, there also has to be interest from the country, so the Regional Councils can really function, even if we don’t always understand the things they propose.”
Valdrack Jaenske, a coast-born jurist now working for the United Nations, adds that a consensual agenda has been hammered out in the Caribbean, but “what doesn’t exist is that agenda’s insertion into a national decision-making process.” Perhaps that’s why there’s so much discrepancy among the party leaders when it comes to sorting out what the coast people’s main problems are, how they can be resolved and by whom.
What should “governance”Politicians seem to agree that the main problems of both Caribbean regions grow out of their populations’ poverty and historical abandonment. Most then presume that the solution lies in building highways to unite the Caribbean with the Pacific and in “integrating” the region’s peoples, annulling the Autonomy Statute in the process.
look like in the Caribbean Coast?
More surprising yet is that while both the Caribbean and national political classes, and even institutions such as the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) or the coast’s civil society itself, always list “good governance” as a major need, they typically place this concept in the institutional sphere, defining it as the adequate functioning of the political structures. As the UNDP states in its 2005 human development report on Nicaragua’s Caribbean region, “Governability involves the exercise and strengthening of the autonomous institutionality and its articulation with the state in accord with the interests of the indigenous peoples, ethnic communities and the whole of coast society. Good governance refers to articulation among the different levels of power and the community, municipal and regional autonomous authorities…”
Paradoxically, the same UNDP report offers mind-boggling figures about the poverty affecting the Caribbean population. Over 400,000 people are without drinking water; even the two main cities—Bluefields and Bilwi—have neither potable water nor adequate sewage systems. “Approximately 40 percent of the urban population of the RAAN and the RAAS defecates outdoors,” while the latrines in the 42 percent of the homes that have them are in bad condition. Only 160,000 people have access to electricity... And so it continues for each of the living standard indicators. Doesn’t resolving these extremely serious problems have anything to do with “good governance”?
Development of the coast:Former Sandinista commander Luis Carrión, now part of the political leadership of the Herty 2006 Alliance that is running candidates on the MRS ticket in the Caribbean, believes that one factor influencing the ever lower participation in the coast elections is “a widespread perception that the regional governments aren’t very effective.” Buttressing his argument is the fact that voter turnout in the Caribbean regions is at its lowest during elections to choose regional authorities: abstention in the last regional elections (2002), was a whopping 62%, but dropped back down to 47% in the municipal elections two years later. “There’s distrust,” says Carrión, “because there have been many accusations of corruption against the regional governments. If there’s a higher percentage of participation this year it will be because . the hope of a change has been raised, the hope that the participation of new political forces could make a difference.”
“I don’t find this in any party”
While Carrión refers optimistically to “new forces”—the alliances headed by presidential aspirants José Antonio Alvarado (APRE), Herty Lewites (Herty 2006 Alliance) and Eduardo Montealegre (ALN-PC)—Valdrack Jaenske defines the problem in a more realistic framework: “How are people going to believe in the Regional Councils when the National Investment Plan talks about 400 million córdobas in the RAAN and 387 million in the RAAS, yet only 15 million of them pass through the Regional Councils? The Regional Councils are irrelevant! And I’m not just talking about managing funds; they’re also irrelevant in the decision-making process. The coast’s development is a national issue, not just a regional one. The priorities we set in the coast must get incorporated as a national decision. The state doesn’t have a coherent logic regarding coast development. There’s enormous dispersion. Each ministry and each cooperation agency does what it wants. The Regional Plan isn’t a coast plan, it’s a country plan. And I don’t see that on the agenda of any of the parties. Let’s hope that after the elections, when things are clearer, those elected will take up this challenge.”
Yatama: “We know the problems”According to UNDP’s 2005 Human Development Report on the autonomous regions, “the regional political parties have been unable to consolidate a permanent social base, have had an electoral logic and have not maintained themselves within the regional political and electoral scene.”
Yatama (which stands for Organization of Mother Earth’s Children, or Yapti Tasba Masraka Nani Asla Takanka in Miskitu) has been something of an exception, albeit with ups and downs. When it ended its war against the Managua government in 1989 and returned to run in the first elections for autonomous government the following year, it won one seat short of an absolute majority in the RAAN, against 10 other parties. It never came even close to that in any subsequent election, until the 2004 municipal elections, when it won three of the most important mayoral slots. It is unquestionably the main regional force, above all in the north, and it will probably grow significantly in the south as well in these elections. As Brooklyn Rivera, Yatama’s principal leader for the past 15 years, explains, “Our strategy, unlike the other large parties that come from Managua to divvy up the wealth and make promises, is to work among the people, to make them aware of their rights, their future, to defend and promote their interests.” Rivera, who headed one of several indigenous military groups fighting the Sandinistas in the eighties, has in recent years been a firm ally of the FSLN, on whose ticket he will run as a National Assembly candidate from the RAAN in the November elections, although the two parties will be competing against each other in March.
Rivera recognizes that Yatama has its largest social base in the Miskitu, Sumu-Mayangna, Rama and Garífuna communities. “The peasants who are coming in or have already been in the Mines area for some time identify more with the national parties,” he says, adding that “there are municipalities that are totally made up of mestizo peasants, such as Tortuguero, La Cruz del Río Grande and Paiwas, and we don’t have a chance there. But in Waspan, Prinzapolka, Bonanza, Puerto Cabezas, la Desembocadura del Río Grande, Pearl Lagoon and Corn Island, we have greater possibilities.” While the last two areas he mentioned are in the RAAS and are predominantly Creole, his thinking was clearly focused more on the RAAN and the indigenous populations.
Rivera believes that the demarcation of indigenous territories is still the greatest latent problem in the Caribbean region. Although Law 445, which deals with that issue, was approved nearly two years ago, very little has been done to implement it. “The land belongs to the communities and has always been theirs,” explains Rivera. “Our ancestors had those lands even before Nicaragua was formed.” In his view, the coast population’s lack of legal security makes the communities vulnerable and threatens their very existence “because more and more peasants are arriving from the west, central and Pacific areas and are occupying the lands, cutting down the trees, altering the entire ecosystem of the regions and further impoverishing the communities. Our communities have coexisted with nature, and get their food from it. There’s an urgent need for legal security, because for us the land isn’t a good to be exploited; it’s part of the environmental harmony, part of the communities’ very life.”
Rivera puts the resolution of this and all other serious social problems affecting the Caribbean communities at the top of his list of priorities. To that end, he recognizes that “the poor, including the indigenous peoples, have to occupy the arenas of local power in order to serve our people. We know the problems, we love the people, we love our lands. We’re the ones who can change things; and if we can’t, nobody else will.”
The PLC’s Rayfield Hodgson:In these elections the crucial thing is the candidate, not the party. The limited universe in which the elections take place helps each voter know quite a lot about who’s who among the 21 aspirants to occupy the three seats in their particular electoral district in the RAAS, or the 24 in the RAAN, where an additional party is running. Rivera explains that Yatama’s candidates “come from the communities themselves,” following a period of consultation, work and organizing. “After that, there’s interaction among a group of communities from a geographic area we call a territory, which could include 15, 20, up to 30 communities. Each territory then holds an assembly to elect our organization’s three official candidates there.”
A typical winning candidate
Rayfield Hodgson, two-time governor of the RAAS (having won this time on the PLC ticket and in 1994-98 on the ticket of his own regional organization, the PIM), has a very different strategy for success. He eloquently explains how he plans to win his electoral district, made up of three traditional neighborhoods of Bluefields: “I’ve been campaigning for years. There are three secondary schools, one primary school and two preschools in my district. I’m trying to make all the schools free and put them under state control. That will mean giving a free education to two thousand students. And I think that’s a strong, strong campaign. I don’t believe that anybody else can do that.” And he’s right: only the incumbent governor has the authority to even contemplate such a thing.
“My strategy,” he continues, “will be based on one-on-one visits, because no other formula will work. People select the person they trust. I’m a pastor in a church with 700 members; I direct nearly 2,000 students and my last name is Hodgson in a district where half the population is a Hodgson. It’s tough to beat me in one of these elections. So my strategy is to go to my relatives, go to my church, go see the students. I’m also bringing in foreign investment. I have a one-week trip in mid-February to Europe and the Middle East, because I’m attracting a company that wants to build a refinery, another that wants to explore for oil, one that’s going to build a deep-water port in the region, another that wants to build a cement plant, another that’s going to invest in African palm, another that wants to invest in a floating hospital for the outlying communities…”
It doesn’t seem to have harmed Hodgson’s reputation any that the Comptroller General’s office has found him guilty of corrupt acts during his previous term, or even that Alemán himself has publicly repudiated him. He knows the PLC needs him. “I have good coordination with people from my party in Managua.” The most convincing of his many declarations is his particular appreciation of the characteristics needed to win elections in the Caribbean. “We sometimes think of people with intellectual capacity, with a university degree, even a PhD. But people don’t choose candidates like that; they opt for people who’ll help them. I remember an election in which we had a ticket with two PhDs and a university graduate, and people voted for two housewives.”
“Now because of drugs;In his view the main problem in the South Caribbean is lack of jobs: “People live off the transfers they’re receiving from abroad. A few still live off fishing—but fishing is going pretty badly—and others from subsistence crops.” Hodgson believes that the responsibility for the coast’s scant development lies with the central government, which has stigmatized coast people as dangerous. “In Sandinista times they said we were separatists; that was the policy during Daniel’s 11 years. Then came Violeta Chamorro and she said the same thing. Then Arnoldo and still the same. Now we have Bolaños and we’re in the same shape. They’ve never changed because it seems that policy is directed by the army, by the Ministry of the Interior. Now they say we’re drug dealers. But there’s more drug dealing in Managua!”
before because we were separatists”
According to Hodgson, who is running for a third term as governor of the RAAS, tourism is the economic activity that will save the Coast. “But,” he says, “we haven’t been able to develop it because the media keep insisting that we’re a trampoline for drugs, when Costa Rica, Panama, Honduras, Guatemala, Belize and Florida have the same luck with ‘things’ that float their way. There’s no laboratory in the coast, no crops, and all the drugs found in the coast are on their way to Managua, which is where they are absorbed, not here.”
Dora María Téllez:The perspective in the Herty 2006 Alliance is different. MRS president Dora María Téllez believes that the most important problem for the majority of the Caribbean population is abandonment. “These people have been abandoned by the central government and also by the regional authorities.” In her opinion, “the councilors have stopped representing their communities and instead represent their party’s caudillo. And that caudillo isn’t interested in the coast. He’s interested in the other part of the country and in other things. Our Council members are going to sign a pledge to each community based on building a participatory program there. And the leaders of the political forces in this alliance are going to sign that pledge as well.”
The candidates represent their party’s caudillo
The Alliance is “asking the coast population to give us a vote of confidence and a majority in the Regional Council to have the power and thus the ability to change things in the region. We also want them to give us their vote in November, with a majority in the National Assembly and the presidency, guaranteeing a government that, together with the regional councilors, will be able to change things definitively.” The main projects mentioned by Téllez are the highways linking Puerto Cabezas (Bilwi) with Río Blanco and Bluefields with Nueva Guinea.
APRE: Projecting its presidential choice APRE, the party created by the Bolaños government just before the 2004 municipal elections, only to bomb, has very confusing criteria in the coast, perhaps because its main aim seems to be maximizing the projection of its presidential candidate, José Antonio Alvarado.
The party’s electoral overseer, Carlos Ortuño, says its candidates are “duly representative people from these communities, who are the best because they’re linked to teaching, to producers, or to health volunteers living permanently in the zone.” Asked what they would do to resolve the hunger, he responded, “We have contingency plans to attend the population, above all requesting support from international cooperation. The government of Nicaragua can’t resolve the region’s hunger problem… Dr. Alvarado has been visiting and learning about the Atlantic Coast from a very early age and it moves his soul to see such disastrous poverty.”
Ortuño admits that the electoral race will be hard-fought and views the PLC as the adversary to beat: “Remember that Dr. Alvarado was the PLC campaign chief in the coast’s first regional elections and he established the party structures in the furthest corners of the Caribbean coast. Now he has visited the leaders who accompanied him at that time and he’s going to have their support.”
Liberal Alliance: “Eduardo Montealegre has a very different vision”Former contra Salvador Talavera is currently president of the Nicaraguan Resistance Party and one of Liberal banker Eduardo Montealegre’s most loyal allies in the ALN-PC, which the latter formed to pull votes away from the PLC. He is very proud of the work he says they’re doing to select good Council candidates. “Modesty aside, we’re the only ones holding primaries in the literal sense of the word,” Talavera explains. “Every one of our 90 candidates was selected in the communities, many of them leaders who weren’t even nominated by the parties in our alliance. It surprised me to see how many people running for some political party lost to the consensus candidate put forward by the community, whom no one had previously identified.”
Salvador Talavera agrees that the poverty on the coast is the main problem to be resolved, and confesses that he had no idea just how profound it was there. “Our strategy,” he states, “has mainly been based on the fact that Eduardo has a very different vision, not just of how to do politics in this country, but that people themselves must provide the solutions to their own problems. Eduardo has not only been coherent in his discourse, but the population has been grateful for his dedication in visiting them. Even during the Christmas festivities, Eduardo went around visiting people, accompanied by his family, giving out toys, medicines, words of encouragement to tell them that there are also responsible politicians willing and determined to incorporate them into his government program.”
Talavera is optimistic. He says he has toured the whole region and “the only organizational presence is the ALN’s. We’ve found our way into the heart of the Caribbean people. There’s no place in the Caribbean coast where the ALN isn’t represented by some of our symbols, be they photographs of Eduardo Montealegre, caps, t-shirts, stickers or some other ALN insignia, and people defend us fervently.” Talavera is sure his group’s participation will help significantly reduce the traditional abstention.
The FSLN has a new campaign strategyThe FSLN has considerably changed its strategy for these elections. Typically, contingents of activists would land in January of each electoral year to “guarantee” the vote, and Daniel Ortega himself would go from community to community with the same objective. Voters would be bombarded by party publicity, showered with t-shirts, caps and all manner of graphic propaganda. Although the party’s results have been improving with each regional election—so that it is now co-governing with Yatama in the RAAN—the truth is that ever since 1994, the PLC has always pulled more votes, won more Council members and had a greater presence on the coast, particularly in the RAAS.
This year, the FSLN campaign has been very different, almost invisible. Each designated candidate has campaigned house to house throughout his or her district with a small support group. Leaders’ visits have virtually disappeared. There have only been a couple of public activities involving national leaders or those from Bluefields, although it is planned for Daniel Ortega to participate in the campaign closure in at least four sectors of both regions.
Francisco Buitrago, deputy FSLN secretary in the RAAS, says they’ve put together a “credible programmatic platform and brought a message to the most dispossessed classes of the coast population.” That platform defines extreme poverty, stability and governance, and corruption as the main issues. The FSLN, says Buitrago, is committed to “forming a consensus government with possible alliances with Yatama and other political forces that will respond to the parliamentary agenda the coast population is demanding.”
Will a dark FSLN figureThe FSLN’s campaign chief in Bilwi, Eddy McDonald, says that the lack of jobs is the population’s main problem in the north. He questions the slow progress of autonomy and insists that only “a truly leftist government” will provide the guarantees and conditions for the Regional Councils to decide on economic, social and political issues.
govern in the RAAN?
He stresses that the FSLN candidates were all selected by internal primaries. “We got the best and the brightest, without downplaying the quality of some parties, which also got some good cadres. We have expressed our viewpoint with the idea that this should be a joyous electoral process and may the best one win.”
What McDonald doesn’t mention is perhaps the most relevant aspect in relation to the FSLN’s candidates and political strategy in the Caribbean, particularly in the north. Unquestionably the most popular of all coast politicians across the political spectrum is former Bilwi mayor Guillermo Espinoza, who was forged by years of work in the Sandinista Youth organization. But Guillermo Espinoza has one serious flaw: he doesn’t keep quiet when he disagrees with decisions taken by the local, regional or national party structures.
As a result, the structures gave the order to “smash him” in the primary elections. But he is so strong that they couldn’t, and they actually had to register him as the top candidate for electoral district 6, one of Bilwi’s three districts. Espinoza therefore ought to be the obvious choice for governor, or at least president of the Regional Council’s Executive Council, which are the two most important posts in the autonomous governments.
But that won’t happen. As part of the agreements between Yatama and the FSLN for governing in the RAAN, both posts will rotate between them, and in the new period ushered in by March’s electoral results, it’s the FSLN’s turn to choose the governor. Its official candidate is a real winner: Rigoberto González, accused of raping a 15-year-old girl, which led to his removal from his post as Siuna judge in June 2002. Three months later he fled the municipality and his case went unpunished. He’s now the FSLN’s top candidate in electoral district 7, also in Bilwi.
Since moving to Bilwi, Rigoberto González has become a very successful lawyer and is now a “respected” man of great wealth. His favorite clients are people accused of drug trafficking or money laundering. He’s known as the man to hire if you want to go free and get your case definitively dismissed. In private, local FSLN leaders say he financed his whole campaign “and is also paying the expenses of the three party candidates on the seaboard.”
The beachfront communities both north and south are where the army and police constantly detect the most drug trafficking activities, where the most crates of drugs wash ashore and where the greatest number of sumptuous residences have been built in the past ten years. The three candidates whose campaigns González is financing (Eduardo Suárez Renales, Kelvin Evans Morris and Adolfo Menocal Amacio) are well known for leading a very comfortable life, which they say is a product of their “great effort as small-scale fishermen.”
Some predictions...The electoral coefficient needed to win varies by district, but also by abstention. The greater the abstention, the better the results for the FSLN and PLC because their supporters are highly disciplined. The great hope of the “emerging” forces” headed up by Lewites and Montealegre is to win at least a quarter or at best half of the electorate that normally stays home during the regional elections.
In 2002, the 45 Council seats in the RAAS were split among the PLC (29), FSLN (14) and Yatama (2), with those in the RAAN following the same order: PLC 18, FSLN 15 and Yatama 11, with PAMUC also taking one there. This year, according to different Caribbean sources, only the same three forces have any real chance of governing in either of the autonomous regions.
If the traditional abstention pattern of around 60% is repeated, the current distribution of seats will remain basically the same, with some small changes. In the RAAN, for example, Yatama could well be punished for its poor management of the three municipal governments it won in 2004 and its deficient administration of the regional government. The FSLN is expected to at least maintain the same number of seats if not pick up a few more, and it is almost certain that PAMUC will keep its one seat. In the RAAS, it is highly probable that the FSLN and Yatama will register an important increase in votes, while Lewites’ Alliance might pick up a couple of seats. Christian Way and APRE have little chance of winning any seats in either region.
In both regions, the real question is what impact Montealegre’s ALN will have among the liberal groupings. Many think he won’t win any seats away from the PLC, but could sufficiently dent the PLC’s vote quotient to prevent it from hanging on to all the seats it won four years ago, effectively splitting the Liberal vote to the benefit of other parties. Other, more optimistic analysts calculate that Montealegre’s alliance could take at least a third of the Liberal vote and therefore win a few seats.
But if, as some have begun to predict in recent months, the coast population gets back out and votes, participation anywhere close to 80% could favor the alliances of both Montealegre and Lewites, thus drastically changing the distribution of seats in the two regional parliaments. Whether this would produce any change in policy on the coast as opposed to new faces doing business as usual remains to be seen.
Anomalies, under-recording and voter cards:Problems derived from different statistics on the real size of the population in the two Caribbean regions and the inconsistencies of the national electoral rolls—disputed data about who is registered; who can vote with their voter card; the names of deceased people and emigrants still on the rolls—as well as controversies about the distances between voting stations, their location and the number of voters assigned to each have created a “technical” nightmare as the elections draw nearer.
Are they just technical disputes?
One set of “simply” statistical data best illustrates the reigning disorder. In the RAAN, different institutions display a discrepancy of up to 21% in their official population estimates, with the Nicaraguan Institute of Census and Statistics (INEC) claiming a total of 254,873 in 2005, while Civil Defense and URACCAN put the same figure at 294,185 and 308,438 respectively. The problem is the same in the RAAS, where INEC calculates the total population for that same year at 371,975 and URACCAN at 429,552.
Noel Campbell of the Center for Civic and Autonomous Human Rights (CEDEHCA), adds that a related problem is the “under-recording of the inhabitants of both Caribbean regions.” He says that CEDEHCA promoters found over 25,000 people in the RAAS alone who had never had a birth certificate and thus didn’t have a voter-ID card for these elections. “They didn’t exist legally,” says Campbell.
The majority of these people are under 30 and CEDEHCA did all the paperwork for them to receive an identity document. Meanwhile, a source linked to the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) in Managua acknowledged that “activists of the two major parties [FSLN and PLC] in both regions have filed for thousands of birth certificates then for voter-ID cards for these people.” With all these data, who knows how many new voters there will be on March 5 and how many of them will show up?
To these anomalies and uncertainties are added the worsening crisis between the CSE’s three Liberal magistrates, loyal to former President Alemán’s PLC, and the three Sandinista magistrates, loyal to the FSLN structures. Until recently CSE president Roberto Rivas, who answers to Cardinal Obando, tended to help tip the scale in favor of the PLC.
Rivas’ rupture with the PLC has been visible since January, perhaps as a result of the détente between Obando and the FSLN’s Daniel Ortega. This has allowed the Sandinista magistrates to control a substantial part of the CSE structures, starting with the ID and computation departments. Still worse for the PLC, Rivas voted with the Sandinistas to permit former PLC member Eduardo Montealegre to call his grouping the Liberal Alliance (ALN) and use the PLC’s red flag for his ALN-Conservative Party electoral alliance. The only distinguishing mark is a white emblem in the center, which represents obvious electoral confusion with Alemán’s party.
This infuriated the Liberals, who refused to attend over a dozen CSE sessions called by Rivas in January, hoping to force an internal realignment of the forces in the electoral branch. They have even threatened to prevent the regional elections, which are really 30 simultaneous elections, since the vote counting and election of Council members is independent in each of the two region’s 15 electoral districts (each of which elects 3 members to its respective Regional Council).
William Grigsby Vado is a Nicaraguan journalist.