Is Nicaragua’s Electoral Race Between Trivelli and Chávez?
The deadline for registering parties and alliances was midnight, May 11. That’s when we learned US Ambassador Trivelli’s pressures had failed:
despite everything, the anti-Sandinista forces are running divided
between PLC Liberals and ALN neoliberals, each with their allies.
But the Sandinista forces are also running divided, between
Daniel Ortega, supported by Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez,
and Herty Lewites, hope of the Left and independents.
Washington seems to have finally grasped that Arnoldo Alemán still controls the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC), thanks to his skilled handling of Nicaragua’s corrupt politics and the fact that his political leadership is recognized by both its base and its other leaders. Washington also knows that the PLC machinery is more likely to defeat Daniel Ortega in the November elections than that of the new Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), whose presidential candidate, neoliberal banker Eduar¬do Montealegre, is the US preference over PLC choice José Rizo. Still hoping to get the best of both worlds, the State Department dispatched Paul Trivelli, its ambassador to Nicaragua, on one frenetic last-ditch mission to unify the Right behind its ideal formula: Monte-alegre accepted as the PLC candidate, thus benefiting from its electoral machinery, with the other “democratic forces” (democratic being the US euphemism for anti-Sandinista) climbing on the bandwagon, i.e. the ALN, the Conservative Party, the Nicaraguan Resistance, Christian Way and APRE, creation of the Bolaños government.
Running against the clockMonths of trying to force Montealegre down the PLC’s throat by publicly demeaning Alemán, denying members of his family and close political allies US entry visas, making endless declarations about obsolete caudillos and perverse pacts and financing civic groups to repeat the same messages came to naught on April 2, when the PLC convention accepted Alemán’s choice as its presidential candidate: former Bolaños VP José Rizo. Undaunted, Trivelli sweetened his tone and returned to the fray, working right up to May 11 to persuade Montealegre to hitch up with the PLC and Alemán to cede power within the party and retire from politics in exchange for dropping the corruption charges against him in both the United States and Panama.
Only three days after the PLC convention, Trivelli launched his most shameless and desperate proposal: organize primary elections involving all the rightwing parties to elect a single candidate who would guarantee Ortega’s defeat. The United States would finance this election and send a technical team to organize it. It would also establish the conditions under which it would occur: the place, the participants, the number of voters and the observers. Trivelli claimed that this plan responded to “formal and informal, public and private” requests from the country’s politicians.
Knowing himself to be the US favorite and therefore confident of the results, Montealegre immediately accepted. The PLC, as anybody in their right mind could have guessed, refused. Still undaunted, Trivelli continued his efforts.
The US interference in Nicaragua’s electoral process drew justified protests from some quarters, but the government defended it. Foreign minister Caldera, for example, argued that as long as Nicaragua receives some $500 million in international cooperation, the countries providing it “can set the conditions under which it is given.” What he didn’t say is that the European Union is the largest bilateral donor and no ambassador of any EU country is saying or proposing the same as Trivelli. The United States is no longer even among the top four countries aiding Nicaragua.
The Right remained splitOn April 17, the date Trivelli set for activating his proposal, he met publicly for the first time ever with the top PLC leadership and Alemán’s wife-spokesperson, even permitting a photo op. The PLC let Trivelli know that Rizo’s candidacy was “untouchable, unquestionable and nonnegotiable.” In a meeting with Montealegre the next day, Trivelli implicitly confirmed Washing-ton’s support by calling him “the anti-pact candidate.”
He continued his pressures and negotiations but neither Alemán nor Montealegre backed down. In any ALN-PLC alliance Montealegre wanted nothing short of the presidential candidacy and control of the slate of legislative candidates since both the United States and Nicaragua’s polls have convinced him he will be the next President of Nicaragua. Alemán, in turn, wants both his freedom and control over enough legislators to control the National Assembly. He also has no intention of giving away any control of the PLC because he has presidential aspirations for 2011.
Trivelli is further In addition to failing to unify the Right, Trivelli’s interference is further polarizing the Nicaraguan electoral scene. And ironically this only favors the Ortega-controlled FSLN and the Alemán-controlled PLC. Binding the electorate into a legal—and emotional—bipartite system was one of the objectives behind their pact in 1998, an objective that has not varied. While keeping the electorate emotionally caught up in the Sandinismo/anti-Sandinismo rivalry, the pact’s two chiefs hammer out agreements, share businesses and divvy up top government posts.
polarizing the elections
Trivelli’s declarations draw Sandi-nista sectors toward the Ortega pole in the name of a rhetorical defense of sovereignty and the anti-imperialism they have learned by very real example. On the other side, they draw Liberal sectors toward Alemán in the name of loyalty to their offended leader, so maltreated by haughty foreigners.
All this feeds emotional nationalism and a superficial defense of sovereignty in which no one stops to think, for example, that we can’t yet be sovereign or even a nation with the Caribbean coast the way it is; if the Río San Juan “is ours” but the Río Coco and its indigenous residents have been abandoned to rats and floods. No one stops to think that a territory where five hundred thousand live very well—some extraordinarily well—and over four million live in squalid conditions can hardly be called a nation.
Being sovereign implies a well-integrated common territory. And being a nation implies sharing not only that territory but also aspirations and beliefs, a common interpretation of our own history and a minimum social consensus that makes the state and society function, orienting both toward a basic equity. None of that can be found in today’s Nicaragua. Was there ever a time that it could?
Chávez: Counterweight to TrivelliEver since Alemán’s 2002 conviction on corruption charges, when he refused to relinquish his control of the PLC, the resulting division of the anti-Sandinista Right has been the centerpiece of Daniel Ortega’s electoral strategy, what be believes could ensure him a first-round victory in November’s elections. The general opinion is that in a race like the one that took shape as of May 11, with four major options (Rizo-Ortega-Lewites-Montealegre), Daniel Ortega could possibly win in the first round, but would definitely lose if it went to a second.
Given that a divided Right isn’t enough guarantee for Ortega, the FSLN has found a counterweight to the US pro-Montealegre intervention: support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez. A few months ago Chávez donated all the materials the Sandinista-headed municipal governments needed to launch their “I can do it” literacy crusade. Next he included Nicaragua in his “Operation Miracle” project, which will cure some three million Latin Americans of reversible blindness over the next decade. By April, 75 Nicaraguans had already regained their sight thanks to free surgery performed in Venezuela and that number will reach 1,000 by the end of 2006. Chávez also sent Nicaragua 10 tons of urea for fertilizer, to be sold at a very low price to small producers and cooperatives through a Sandinista business. And finally Chávez is creating a company together with the Association of Municipalities of Nicaragua (AMUNIC), which includes all 153 mayoral offices—87 of them, including Managua, in FSLN hands—to sell 10 million barrels of oil a year at very favorable prices. While Venezuela produces that amount in two and a half days, it is equal to Nicara-gua’s entire annual consumption, and thus raises all manner of logistical, competitive and other questions that the stunned nation is only beginning to imagine.
“Daniel, I want you to win”Chávez’s attractive “package” responds to very concrete needs. Could its counterpart have been the central government rather than the FSLN? Bolaños’ magnificent relations with the US government would never have allowed it, and Chávez’s intentions would never have sought it.
Hugo Chávez is an XL-size caudillo by virtue of both his steamrollering personality and the fact that he governs a country sitting on the world’s largest oil reserve. Chávez is a power today, and he delights in using that position to challenge the United States. He does it employing words that are sometimes inappropriate and sometimes fair, but always provocative; and he does it with oil and other initiatives aimed at forging the long-dreamed-of and much-needed Latin American integration.¬
On April 23, during a visit by Daniel Ortega to Caracas, Chávez made his choice in Nicaragua’s elections explicit, providing strategic reasons: “Daniel, I’m not going to say you’re going to win, because they’ll say I’m meddling in Nicaragua’s internal affairs, but I want you to win…. Nicaragua is very important: its projection toward both the Pacific and the Caribbean, its size, its capacity for impact on Central America, its history, Sandino, his ideology. We’re preparing ourselves for Nicaragua to be a part of ALBA’s advance.” (Chávez launched ALBA, the Bolivarian Alternative of the Americas, as an alternative to the US proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas—ALCA in Spanish.)
Two days later, in a formal ceremony in Caracas’ Miraflores Palace carried by various Nicaraguan television channels, Chávez and Ortega looked on as the Venezuelan petroleum company (PDVSA) and AMUNIC, represented in the Venezuelan capital by 53 FSLN and 12 PLC mayors, signed an agreement to sell Venezuelan oil in Nicaragua.
A few days later, now in Havana, Ortega announced that joining ALBA is part of his government program. And after a few more days, once back in Nicaragua, he announced that part of the revenue from the Venezuelan crude would provide the seed capital for a development bank that would finance small-scale producers.
What carries more weight?Chávez is unquestionably trying to influence the Nicaraguan electorate’s self-image, projecting a promising future with oil, fertilizer, sight for the blind and all the rest, even though Ortega might have problems with the United States if elected President. Ambassador Trivelli is trying to do the opposite, projecting a national crisis if Ortega were elected, referring to the now-approved Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States, the already pledged Millennium Account funds and even the possible blocking of remittances from the tens of thousands of Nicaraguans living and working in the United States or the deportation of undocumented Nicaraguans...
Will the media boost provided by the Venezuelan donations—especially the oil deal, which won’t be felt any time soon—attract as many votes for the FSLN as Ortega and Chávez are hoping? We won’t know for a few months which will carry more weight: US intervention, with its long-felt influence on Nicaraguan history, or this brand-new Venezuelan intervention. What we do know, however, is that this year’s elections will be shot through with actions, pressures and images from outside actors.
Chávez’s intervention also polarized the electoral scene, and like Trivelli’s, it favors both caudillos, not just Chávez’s favorite. Ortega will make rejection of US intervention a focal point of his campaign, while both Montealegre and Rizo will focus on anti-Chávez fears. Both will appeal to emotional nationalism.
Outside powers There’s a lot of outside power on the electoral stage, generating hope for oil in some and fear of reprisals in others. The scene is rife with other fears as well: fear of the “unknown good” that leads some to prefer the “devil we know.” And then there’s the fear of making another mistaken choice.
and fears of all kinds
Interpreting what happened in 1990, when she surprised the world by beating the FSLN, former President Violeta Chamorro is calling on Nicaraguans to “conquer fear, defeat it.” But what fear is she referring to? What should we be most afraid of in these elections? US enmity toward Daniel Ortega , given that “it will surely do something to Nicaragua if Daniel wins”? Who doesn’t fear the already proven folly of the ruler Trivelli represents? Or should we be more afraid of Ortega’s return to power, a possibility now “fueled” by Chávez?
Montealegre is arguing that “fear of Ortega” shouldn’t scare people into climbing on the PLC bandwagon. But both he and Rizo are trying to stir up fears of the “regional and hemispheric threat” that an Ortega victory and a Chávez-Castro-Ortega axis could pose in the Caribbean as the Chávez-Evo Morales axis advances down through South America.
For their part, some FSLN-run municipal governments are starting to intimidate and blackmail anyone they see leaning toward former Managua mayor Herty Lewites’ presidential candidacy on the MRS Alliance ticket.
Lewites is projecting himself as the only political and electoral option independent of US might. Trivelli doesn’t even mention him. Lewites isn‘t riding on Chávez’ coattails and isn’t ignoring Ortega’s betrayal of the ideals of Sandino. His campaign is also the only one not financed by big Nicaraguan and Central American capital, which since May 11 has been coming under US pressure while trying to decide on its own whether to support Montealegre, its favorite, or Rizo, who stands a better chance given the PLC machinery, even if Alemán remains in the driver’s seat.
Rocks, not monstersIn The Odyssey, Homer played on the fears of those who venture into unknown seas, giving literary life to two sea monsters, Scylla and Charybdis, both of which terrified sailors who came within range of their terrifying fauces. Since then, being “between Scylla and Charybdis” has been a synonym for being “between a rock and a hard place,” trapped in a difficult and dangerous situation. Between Trivelli and Chávez? The determining influence of foreign powers on Nicaragua’s history—with the United States far, far in the lead—helps explain the country’s political culture, which is comfortable accepting, even requesting, the Trivelli-Bush power-mongering to help win what they don’t believe they can win on their own.
That eternal outside influence—represented today by international cooperation as a whole, however generous and disinterested it may be or claim to be—helps explain not only the resignation in the face of outside powers but also the attraction of packages like Chávez’s. We’re too accustomed—by past and recent history and by today’s reality—to feeling that we can’t go it alone, that the power to pull us through has to come from afar.
But Scylla and Charybdis were nothing more than two rocky outcrops in the straits of Mesina, which separates the tip of mainland Italy from the island of Sicily. They were mere natural obstacles that could be maneuvered around as long as one didn’t imagine them to have several heads, gaping mouths and intimidating howls. Once understood for what they were—chunks of rock sticking out of the sea—rather than blowing them up out of all proportion through fear and myth, they lost their threatening aura.
We will only learn what it means to be citizens of a sovereign nation and to vote without fear once Nicaragua understands itself for what it is and what it can become navigating the globalized seas of today’s world; once it learns that control of its history is in its own hands, not those of gods, fate, monsters, the empire or foreign powers; once the population breaks with its culture of resignation and fatalism and starts navigating its own course. Will November 5 finally be that time?