Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 42 | Diciembre 1984



An Inside View of the Elections

Envío team

In March of 1984, Nicaragua’s Government junta appointed the members of the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), which became the fourth branch of government. Their task for the following eight months would not be easy: they were responsible for directing the entire electoral process. No one is more familiar than they with Nicaragua’s recent elections.

A member of envío’s information team interviewed two people who are intensely involved with the preparation of the elections. Leonel Argüello, director of the Nicaraguan Insurance Institute (INISER), was one of the five appointees to the CSE and was in charge of international relations, public relations and the civic educational campaign. Roberto Everstz, a legal adviser to the former Council of State, was the director of electoral affairs. His tasks included the electoral cartography, registration, the organization of training workshops for the more than 40,000 people directly involved in the electoral process and the vote-counting procedures. He is presently writing a detailed official report on the elections.

Effacing memories from the Somoza era

Nicaragua has had a long history of elections. They were organized by the Liberal and Conservative oligarchies, the filibusterer named William Walker, the US marines and the Somozas. However, for many reasons Nicaraguans called the recent November 4 elections “the first ones” in their history.

Argüello: Our first challenge was to overcome the past, to help people forget those bad memories. Were worked very hard at this and tried to do things very differently from the way they were done in the time of the Somozas. The secrecy of the voting, the orderliness, the participation, the nonpartisanism of electoral officials, the vote-counting procedures—all these different facets of the elections were carefully thought out and planned by our technical staff. We did everything possible to wipe away the memory of the Somozas’ elections.

envío: -- What were the biggest achievements in this sense? What were the greatest changes?

Everstz: One of the most important differences was to ensure that there would be no fraud. Therefore, we had to design the counting procedures very carefully. We studied the electoral laws from the Somoza era and found that the polling centers sent their results through a municipal body to the electoral tribunal in each department. From there, they were forwarded to the Central electoral tribunal in Managua. Sometimes this process took as long as three weeks. It is highly probable that the cheating was done in this intermediary process of sending the votes through the municipal bodies. We therefore decided from the beginning that the electoral results would have to go straight from the polling centers to the counting department of the Supreme Electoral Council in Managua. We had no intermediaries. However, we used a double checking system. One telegram was sent to Managua, and an identical one was sent to the zonal Electoral Council. Now that we have received all the official counts, we can compare them with the telegrams: there are no variations. To make things even tighter, we gave each polling center a telegraph code. This code enabled the telegraph workers to see whether or not the telegrams were authentic. One observer, a member of Venezuela’s Supreme Electoral Council, remarked on this code, saying that it could be a useful addition to vote-counting procedures in other countries.

envío: In the Somozas’ time, did the cheating only take place during the counting process?

Everstz: No, there was cheating at very level. The handling of voter registration, for example, played a central role in electoral frauds. Although the government put strong pressure on people so that they would register, there was little pressure to vote on election day. It wasn’t important whether people actually turned out to vote because, once the official voting had ended, the officials at each polling center would “vote” for all those registered voters who had failed to come to the polls. One by one, they would mark the unused ballots until the ballot boxes were filled. Thus, registration information was crucial. The actual number of voters was always “fixed.” To prevent a similar situation, we created personal voting cards. Here in Nicaragua, citizens still have no all-purpose form of identification. Those who registered received voting cards, and only people presenting these cards were allowed to vote. After voting, they turned in their cards to the polling center officials. This provided yet another guarantee of control. The total number of votes was then compared to the number of cards collected and checked against the information in the registration catalogue. That way, any discrepancies were discovered and investigated.

envío: Apart from fraud, what characterized the Somozas’ elections?

Argüello: Coercion. Voting wasn’t secret in the Somozas’ first elections. Citizens had to come to the table and mark their ballots right in front of the electoral officials. Sometimes the officials themselves marked the ballots where the voters told them to. I can’t imagine any stronger form of coercion on an illiterate population. Voting was secret in the last two Somoza elections, but strong-arm tactics remained a part of the process, nonetheless. The ballots were made of transparent onion-skin paper, and votes were cast with a pencil, which made a deep impression in the paper. No matter how you folded the ballot, your choice was always visible. Therefore, as you were leaving the polling center, the electoral officials could signal the guard at the door to give you a special card if you had voted for Somoza’s party. This card was called “la magnifica” (the magnificent); it was pink, the color of Somoza’s Liberal Party, and bore the name of the voter. The card was used to avoid problems with the police, secure help from the National Guard in the case of a neighborhood quarrel, avoid paying fines, etc.

Everstz: La magnifica was also used for identification and verification. For instance, my mother had to vote because she was a state employee and would have to show her card the day after the elections in order to receive her pay check. It was humiliating, but you had to go through with it.

envío: On November 4, was the atmosphere different from that of elections in the past?

Argüello: Totally different, as far as I can remember. In the Somoza times, everything was disorganized at the polling centers. On the fourth we witnessed respect and order. The citizens received their ballots and a brief explanation of the voting procedure before entering the voting booth. Under the Somozas, this booth was covered with a transparent bed sheet. Now we used a thick blue curtain. Rather than use the old onion-skin paper, we designed the ballots with thick paper donated to us by the Swedes. We also printed an opaque band on the back of the ballots to assure that no one could see how they were marked. Likewise, we replaced the pencils with felt-tipped pens that don’t penetrate the surface of the paper. There are no similarities between these and the Somoza ballots. Roberto Everstz designed the current ballots. Several US journalists told me that they would love to have such attractive ballots in the US. Who knows how many pictures they took of the ballot! The demand seemed so great, in fact, that we decided to give them samples. After marking the ballot, each voter deposited it in the ballot box by him or herself. Before, there were people called party “activists” (although they were really only Somoza party activists), who could move round inside the polling centers more freely than even the electoral officials. Under the pretext of “helping, they would take the ballots away from the voters and put them into the boxes themselves. None of this occurred on November 4. We felt that guaranteeing a secret and coercion-free vote was the key to erasing the bad memories of Nicaragua’s humiliating electoral past.

Everstz: Finally, there was a great difference with respect to participation. In the past, people had little interest in voting, and the government devoted littler energy to facilitating the voting process. The number of polling centers is an indication of this. In Somoza’s last reelection, in 1974, there were fewer than 2,000 polling centers. We’re talking about ten years ago, and the population has of course grown, but this year we used almost 4,000 polling centers, 48% of them in the countryside and 52% in the cities. In the countryside, we located the polling centers in the most accessible and familiar places: health centers, schools, outlets for the sale of basic grains—all places where, over the last five years, people have grown accustomed to solving their problems. There was an obvious eagerness to reach out to the population so that as many people as possible could vote. People voted on November 4 in places where elections had never even been heard of before. On the Atlantic Coast, for instance, no one ever used to vote because the Somozas only set up polling places in the urban centers of Bluefiels and Puerto Cabezas and at the mines.

Starting from scratch: Pre-electoral preparations

Throughout its five years of revolution, Nicaragua has witnessed the creation of many new institutions, laws, values and symbols. When the past is erased, the future must often be invented with severe material limitations. This was the case of the first Nicaragua elections.

Everstz: The CSE emerged from the Subcommission on Electoral Affairs on the Council of State, where the whole electoral law was discussed. I was a member of this Subcommission, and our first tasks were to look for a building that could serve as CSE headquarters, figure out how to import the necessary paper, etc. We started from scratch, and we had a lot of needs because the elections were an extensive undertaking. There were many details: the census, the curtains, the width of the slot in the ballot box, etc. However, we received a lot of support. I remember going all around town with a letter signed by Dr. Fiallos, the president of the CSE. I always received positive responses from the different institutions I visited. The national Foreign Currency Allocation Board, for instance, never said no to any of our requests. The construction Ministry had the CSE headquarters fixed up in less than 45 days.*

*The building that now houses the CSE was one of Luis Somoza Debayle’s mansions. Luis was Anastasio’s brother and was President of Nicaragua between 1956 and 1963.

envío: What was the hardest job during these last eight months of work?

Everstz: The hardest part was determining the location of the almost 4,000 polling centers, which all had to be ready for the registration period in July. The Statistics and Census Bureau helped us out, but the only maps they had were from 1982, when they had planned but were unable to carry out a national census. The maps were not up to date. Since 1982, some 150,000 people have been displaced because of the war. The new settlements in Río San Juan, for instance, didn’t appear on the maps. San Juan del Norte was still on the map, even though there’s nothing there any more except mud. There was no information about the Miskitu settlements. We had a tough job. We went out into the countryside ourselves to investigate because there was no use in trying to do the job behind our desks.

Without prior information, and on the basis of rough estimates, we set about making the maps for the polling centers. We worked on the task from April to June. We even had problems with our own people: some polling center presidents wanted to take their own censuses. They said they had to know how many people were going to register in order to be prepared. The opposition began to use this as propaganda against us, saying that a census was being taken to find out how many people were going to vote for the FSLN. We prohibited the taking of all kinds of surveys, but it was difficult to enforce this regulation. Considering all the hurdles we had to overcome, we feel that the real success of the electoral process was in the registration. Once the registration period had ended, it was easier for us to plan the actual voting.

envío: In what specific areas did you receive advice from the Swedish electoral experts?

Everstz: They gave us valuable and respectful advice. They have considerable experience and made many recommendations. They made suggestions that we heeded and that produced positive results. For example, they told us that the final documents should be presented to the head polling center official as quickly and with as little bureaucracy as possible. People can get worn out, they told us, from an entire day of tension and counting, and could become exasperated. This is what they said had happened in Sweden, where a poll worker simply threw down all the material and left for home, fed up with all the bureaucratic hassle. They also recommended that we have all the necessary material printed and delivered to the polling centers ahead of time so the electoral officials would simply have to fill in the blanks. This and many similar practical suggestions were very useful to us.

envío: You also received electoral material from international donors. Would the electoral process have been possible without this aid?

Argüello: Yes, but the campaign might have looked a bit shabby, especially the publicity of the different political parties. The basic donations were paper, sent by Norway, Sweden, and Finland. Previously, newspaper had been limited to a maximum of 6o pages per week because of the paper shortage. Thanks to the donations, the government was able to authorize more pages in July for the beginning of the electoral campaign. Even La Prensa was allowed to print more pages, despite the fact that its editors refused to accept campaign publicity from either the CSE or any of the seven parties. France donated 30 teletypewriters; Finland donated 50 calculators and the indelible ink used to mark the voter’s thumbs; total international aid added up to about US$1.5 million.

envío: Organizationally, the elections were a great success. Everything functioned smoothly, as if carried out by seasoned professionals. What was the key to this success?

Argüello: The key was the effort of some 2,000 or 3,000 full-time workers who helped us with everything. Everyone in the process, some 40,000 people in all, worked well; this includes the electoral police, teachers, clerks, etc.,* all those who directly represented the CSE did an especially marvelous job.

*Training workshops were held between May 20 and July 22 to prepare these electoral workers. The first workshops lasted eight days and brought together some 170 people from all over the country. This was the basic workshop, which trained the majority of the presidents of the electoral zones. Their knowledge was multiplied in 36 regional four-day workshops attended by 1,200 people. This group, in turn, led 375 zonal workshop attended by the total 40,000 people who worked in the process.

envío: And who are these people precisely?

Everstz: Almost all of them are from the petite bourgeoisie. They are small rural landowners, professionals, teachers and housewives. We elected the most honest people, not the most Sandinista; generally they are natural leaders in their communities and neighborhoods. Clearly, we ruled out those who were honest but inactive, since the work required significant sacrifice. The majority were women and revolutionaries.

The nearly 200 individuals who participated in the 92 zonal boards played a particularly crucial role. The majority of these were young men. The actual organizational tasks rested on their shoulders. They were in charge of finding places for the polling centers, choosing people in their communities to work in the different centers, guaranteeing the arrival of all the materials and of returning them to us after the elections, etc. These anonymous individuals did an enormous amount of work. In some cases, ballot boxes had to be transported by mule over hilly roads for 12 hours. The zonal head of Rivas is an excellent example of the kind of people who worked with us. He’s a cheese maker. He gave up his 50,000 or 60,000-córdoba monthly income for eight months to work full time for the elections, receiving only 3000 córdobas per month. He said he was willing to make the sacrifice because he felt he was doing something important. His wife and son tried to fill in with the cheese making while he dedicated his time to the elections.

People regarded it as an honor to work in the preparation of these elections. The zonal head of Tecolostote, Juigalpa and Camoapa used his own car for electoral purposes and paid for the gas himself. He just came in here day to see if we would authorize him to purchase four tires. He didn’t ask for the tires; he only wanted the authorization that would allow him to go to the Foreign Trade Ministry and purchase the dollars for the imported tires. He wasn’t an exceptional case. We’re talking about committed, generous, hard-working people. Perhaps we could have pulled it off without the international aid, but we never would have been successful without these people.

envío: The elections cost over 500 million córdobas. Do you think that this was something of a waste for a poor and war-torn country like Nicaragua?

Argüello: No, it’s been a good investment. In the first place, we hoped that the elections would turn into a widespread national dialogue, and they did, even though some people pretended not to see what was going on around them and chose not to participate. However, there were conditions for dialogue, and there was dialogue.

In the second place, these elections are an obstacle to US aggression. Clearly, any investment towards peace is worthwhile and valuable. In this sense, the cost has really been minimal.

There’s also another issue: the elections have been very educational, as much for those of us working in the electoral process as for the genuine actors in the process, the Nicaraguan people. We couldn’t have made a better investment.

Relations between the CSE and the political parties…
the first electoral campaign experience

Seven political parties participated in the November 4 elections. Three parties, all members of the Nicaraguan Democratic Coordinating Committee (CDN), boycotted the elections, claiming that there were insufficient conditions. The CSE was responsible for dealing with these groups on a daily basis.

envío: Were relations tense between the CSE and the CDN?

Argüello: No, I would say that our relations with some CDN parties were always cordial, especially with the Social Christians and a few of their officials, in particular. They asked for all kinds of documentation so that they could hold their own training workshops. Even though they weren’t going to participate in the elections, they were involved in everything and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity as a civic development exercise for their membership. One of them made the personal confession to me that they were actually hoping to enter the race at any given moment. We gave them all the help we could and indirectly urged them to come and register at any time, even though the official deadline had expired. Unfortunately, they didn’t register. Relations with the Social Democratic Party were always cold, but only because they wanted them to be. They never came here to inform us of anything and never responded to any of our invitations. The Constitutionalist Liberals (PLC) made frequent visits and even presented us with a letter saying they were going to register for the elections and requesting a meeting at which they would hand in their list of candidates. However, they withdrew this request at the last minute.

envío: You experienced all this intrigue from a very unique point of view; do you feel that these parties behaved in the way they did because of pressure from the big businessmen who comprise COSEP?

Argüello: Yes, there was pressure from COSEP and also from another force. The Social Christians were clearly divided over whether or not to participate. We know this for a fact. I can personally attest to having spoken with members of the Social Christian International, with Italian Christian Democratic senators who told me they had urged the PSC to register for and participate in the elections if they thought that minimal guarantees existed. They told me this during my trip to Europe, where I made presentations regarding our electoral process to various organizations and governments.

envío: And the PLI? Did Dr. Godoy’s last-minute decision surprise you?

Argüello: We maintained normal relations with the PLI throughout the process, but the only fly in the ointment was its decision to withdraw, which was a serious political blow. Of course, I suppose that the problems with the CDN were even worse, since Cruz received so much coverage from the international new agencies.

Everstz: Here in the CSE, Dr. Godoy remarked several times that he had a card up his sleeve. He even said this to the office secretaries. PLI members told us that they didn’t know what this card was. Yes, the PLI’s decision was a surprise to us, especially since it came practically on the eve of the elections.

envío: What impressions do you have of the other six parties?

Argüello: I would say that the members of the PPSC (Popular Social Christian Party) were the best organized. They were the only ones who provided us with their complete radio and television schedules. I would say that they had the best and most-coherent publicity campaign. They never made any last minute changes, and they did everything in a smooth and organized way. Their presentation of alternative revolutionary changes without ideological changes worked out very well. On the other hand, the small leftist parties were more demanding. The Communist Party members, for instance, maintained an almost constant presence here in these offices and were always demanding something. But you have to hand it to them: they really made us work hard. All the parties should have been so demanding.

Everstz: We should also add that they themselves were very hard workers. For example, if donated paper arrived in big rolls and had to be cut prior to printing, they didn’t mind at all. They would just take the roll and start cutting. They even did a lot of transportation. They used some of their members’ cars to look for paper as far away as Corinto. This deserves recognition. The members of the Democratic Conservative Party (PCD), on the other hand, wanted everything done for them. I guess they’re accustomed to special treatment. Of course, those PCD members with whom we had to deal were supporters of the abstentionist tendency and thus tried to make life difficult for us.

envío: And what about the FSLN?

Argüello FSLN members are unsurpassed in their lack of respect for authority. The FSLN was the least obedient of the seven parties. On the very first day of the campaign, the first of August, they painted campaign graffiti all over our walls here at the CSE, and we had to order them to paint over it the following day. However, even though they sometimes offended us, they were generally efficient in correcting their mistakes and overzealousness. When the first complaints began to come in, I took it upon myself to write personally to Bayardo Arce so he would take the proper measures. Within a few days, he wrote a very strongly worded memorandum to all the party members in which he ordered them to behave more respectfully. At the level of the state, attitudes were different. The Interior Ministry personnel helped us the most; they were always obedient.

Everstz: Yes, the rank-and-file Sandinistas gave us the most problems. But this is only logical and we expected it. They’ve been ruling the streets for five years now, and tensions were unavoidable. This was one of the key problems we foresaw in our first preparatory meetings, and were concerned about how to handle it. Given their excessive power and lack of education, problems were bound to occur. But the Sandinista leadership and the governmental authorities gradually remedied all these problems. Tomás Borge was extremely critical of rank-and-file behavior in some of his speeches, and Carlos Núñez was even more so.

Argüello: At first, for instance, there were problems with the voter-registration card. Some CDSs began to ask people for their voting cards as identification for guaranteed food supplies. People justifiably made complaints to us about this. It was at this time that we added the offense of registration card abuse to the code of electoral ethics and widely publicized the fact that the card was to serve only for voting. This was enforced, and abuse decreased. We are currently trying two people who pretended to be CDS leaders in an attempt to take advantage of their neighbors.

envío: A great deal has been said internationally about the excess of Sandinista “mobs” during the campaign. What’s your evolution of this?

Argüello: Problems with “mobs,” if that’s what you choose to call them, were minimal. Virgilio Godoy’s statements to the effect that over 30 of the PLI’s 40 rallies were plagued by such mobs are simply not true. The PLI did have a few problems, but those responsible for them were sanctioned. As far as the PLI was concerned, almost anyone could have been part of a mob. One such mob accusation turned out to be the case of a drunk who had overhead someone lashing out against the FSLN, jumped onto the stage, and supposedly threatened a PLI speaker. But he was drunk, and the problem was that there were no policemen present to throw him in jail. In any event, it should be said that the intensity of the quarrels declined as the campaign wore on. Here at the CSE, we created a complaints department to deal with the various daily concerns of the different parties. At first, complaints were coming from everywhere: radio, newspapers, etc. Things began to improve after Bayardo Arce’s memorandum on August 17, and by September and October, the complaints had dropped off to a trickle. Of course, there were a few serious incidents: for example, the case of a drunken soldier who shot his gun at a truck full of PLI members and regrettably wounded one of them. He was court-martialed and sentenced to four and a half years in jail. Significant progress was made over the three-month period. In the final months of the campaign, PCD members made a formal complaint concerning one of their rallies in Jinotepe. They said they had been attacked by Sandinista mobs, but when we went to investigative we found that the Conservatives had started the scuffle. They had thrown fruit-juice bags at Sandinistas who were shouting “People’s power!” The Sandinistas responded by throwing other objects, and the event ended with both groups going at it with sticks and stones. We frequently received extremely general complaints: “A man in olive green did such and such a thing.” When we asked for the exact time and place and a description of the individual in order to bring charges against him, the complaint would end in silence. The PLI members generalized a lot. When we asked them to be precise, they responded that we weren’t following up their complaints, but it’s impossible to punish someone about whom you have no information. The Communists were the most efficient about making their complaints. At one point, a Communist was thrown in jail for putting up campaign propaganda in the factory where he worked. The Communist Party came to our offices immediately, and we sent out one of our lawyers straight away. Within two hours, the man was free. We then made a formal complaint to the Ministry of the Interior, and the arresting officers responded that the Communist in question had incited to strike. We had to remind them that strikes had been legalized once again in August, and they accepted their error. I think at first we were really a bit uncertain about how strict we should be and whether to take strong measures. But the demands of the Communists and their criticism, which included accusing us of not being independent, helped us to straighten things out. The criticism helped us do our jobs better.

envío: What roles did you play? Were you teachers, judges, witnesses, referees?

Argüello: We were teachers more than anything else. Thank God, our role as referees was limited.

Everstz: Some have said that our limited role as referees represents a failing of the electoral process. I suppose people believe that a perfect election is full of disorder and conflicts. We didn’t have that here. They say the elections failed because there was no opposition, but what they really mean is they failed because no blood was spilled, not because there was no opposition. There was opposition, and it was often fierce.

envío: Did the parties campaign in as principled a manner as you had hoped?

Everstz: Some campaigning involved simplistic attacks on the weakest points of both the FSLN and the revolution itself. The opposition parties’ main themes consisted of attacks on the military and the problem of shortages and distribution of supplies. One might say that these parties didn’t really present a coherent alternative program to that of the FSLN. In this sense, we didn’t have the campaign we had hoped we would. However, we mustn’t forget that this was the first real electoral campaign in our history. Previously, electoral results were the product of political agreements between the parties rather than of the final voting tally. There was no need for electoral campaigning because everything was arranged ahead of time: 70% of the seats would go to Somoza and 30% to the Conservative Party, with which the agreements had been reached. Why campaign? It made no sense to campaign. We’ve just experienced the first campaign in which the different parties actually had to compete for votes.

Argüello: I think the members of the FSLN’s National Directorate had a somewhat utopian vision of what the electoral campaign would be like. They wanted the campaign to be based primarily on the different political programs, but they forgot about reality. Reality is something you feel, something that hurts: the difficulties involved in obtaining food supplies or the pain of sending your sons off to war. It’s only logical that the campaign turned out as it did. To expect otherwise would be to believe that people aren’t human. Another weakness was the limited time the parties had to campaign. Three months isn’t really enough time to present an entire program or to win many votes, and elections are all about winning votes. Winning voters requires repeated emphasis on the arguments most easily felt and understood by the people.

envío: You insist that the elections were a process of civic education. Do you also believe that they were a process in revolutionary education?

Argüello: Yes, because they also educated the party leaders. These elections were held within the framework of a Liberal democratic model, but took place in the context of a revolution. They were important because they demonstrated widespread support for a cause, but perhaps their biggest success was the large number of votes for parties other than the FSLN. There has been dissidence and it has been expressed. In terms of the history of the revolution, we can now say more clearly that the conceptions developed back in 1978 were on the mark. It was thought that one of the basic premises of this revolution would have to be political pluralism. This premise has now been institutionalized even further.

Nicaragua under a magnifying glass:
Observers and journalists from all over the world

From the beginning, the Nicaraguan revolution has captured the hope, assistance, expectations and curiosity of the whole world. In the course of the revolutionary process, there have been certain explosive times when international witness have flooded Nicaragua, wanting to see, hear and touch in order to relate their criticism and praise. November 4 was one of these times. Like a magnet, the elections attracted over 400 international observers from 24 countries and more than 1,00 journalist were sent from the four corners of the globe.

envío: Many people have said that elections were above all “a product for export.” Did those of you involved in the electoral preparations orient them toward a domestic or an international audience?

Argüello: We placed the greatest emphasis on the process inside the country. Above all we wanted to promote the civic education of members of the electoral bodies and the population as a whole. That’s where we focused most of our attention and made our greatest expenditures. Another aspect that concerned us was to ensure adequate guarantees for the voters. As we’ve already said, more than anything else, we wanted to erase the past, which is naturally still alive in the memory of our people although outside the experience of non-Nicaraguans. We oriented these elections toward our domestic population.

envío: Perhaps no other elections in recent times have had as many witness, observers, invited guests and journalists. How do you interpret this excessive foreign presence? Did it seem like outside interference or too much supervision?

Argüello: We appreciated this presence. We said from the beginning that there would be nothing to hide in these elections and that they would be open to the Nicaraguan people and to the world. That’s why we used so many invitations to countries that are our friends, to international institutions, etc., so they would come and see. Moreover, for the first time in history, a revolution that took power through a war and that is carrying out fundamental structural changes held elections whose framework was derived from a traditional Liberal model. This was bound to draw interest because it had never occurred before. Another element that explains all the attention is the fact that the revolution had been losing international credibility. One of the ways for us to recover that credibility was by clearly showing what we’re doing and not hide anything: showing the political tools that we’re developing for the purpose of promoting pluralism. I believe that the Nicaraguan Political Parties Law is the most pluralist in Latin American history. It’s so pluralist that experts in constitutional law would probably say it could lead to excessive splintering and therefore be detrimental in the long run to the development of democracy and the consolidation of a unified government.

envío: The observers were allowed to go anywhere. They were even permitted to witness the vote-counting process and to enter polling centers. Why was this the case?

Argüello The idea arose because we realized there would be a relatively small number of party monitors in each polling center. According to the law, every party had the right to nominate two party monitors for each of the 3,892 polling centers. However, when the time came to present the nominations, there were less than 1,000 from all the six parties opposing the FSLN. Not even the FSLN nominated party observers for all the polling centers. We decided that the observers could act as witnesses and enter polling centers all over the country. This would enable them to provide direct accounts of what they were to see. A member of the Venezuelan Supreme Court told me that in Venezuela the people serve as witnesses to the actual vote-counting process. There are no closed doors. Instead, the people are asked to enter the polling centers. Nothing’s hidden. Because of our lack of experience, this would have been difficult to do. It would have caused great disorder. However, we hope to do it someday.

envío: What most interested the observers? What did they ask about the most?

Everstz: They were all, to a greater or lesser extent, interested in talking with members of the political parties, both those that had registered and those that had not (the Coordinadora parties). They had complete freedom to do this. One of the issues that interested them was that of political guarantees. In relation to the actual election day, they were clearly interested in being present in the polling centers. So, our decision to give them free access to the polling centers corresponded to a request they would have made anyway. Some observers were political scientists and had many technical questions. For example, they wanted to know how many people were registered, how many were registered in each department, details about the electoral law, etc.

envío: Were they really impartial observers?

Everstz: They were very involved in everything. We even saw them help carry election materials. There was an interesting case in Region I (northern Nicaragua). A number of observers spent the night watching the vote counting. The following day, some of the participating political parties arrived and began to question the president of the Regional Electoral Council because they didn’t agree with the results that had been coming out. The observers’ response was so strong that two of the three apologized after listening to their account.

Argüello: The observers were virtually unanimous about how clean the electoral process was. Even those who are very critical of Nicaragua, like the Democratic Conservative Union, composed of rightwing parties (most of whose members came to say that the elections had been a farce because there weren’t sufficient political guarantees concluded that the electoral process was completely honest. They had no criticism to make of it.

Everstz: I would also like to emphasize that it was the first time in our history that we’ve had serious observers. The same observer would come to every election during the Somoza years. He was from the Dominican Republic and represented the OAS. He always installed himself in the Grand Hotel during the elections and afterwards signed the famous declaration saying that everything had gone perfectly. Our openness to observers was a real experience for us and a contribution to the other countries.

envío: Did you have a similar experience with the journalists?

Argüello: The circumstances in which we held the elections, in the context of a war, piqued the curiosity of the journalists. The questions most commonly raised were how many deaths had there been and how many battles. They were much less interested in the fact that we had been able to carry out a civic education campaign than in the impact the war had on the elections. This explains why more than 1,000 journalists representing news media from all over the world came to Nicaragua. They came from as far away as India.

Some came with open minds; some came with their minds set against the elections. They came in order to witness and later to slander the elections. But this in itself created an interesting atmosphere. For example, on November 4, at approximately 1 pm, Dr. Fiallos called a press conference. Journalists from Latin America, North America and other countries came. A Latin American journalist said to the president of the Supreme Electoral Council: “I haven’t seen many people voting in Managua; I’ve only seen skimpy lines.” A journalist from The Washington Post answered him: “Listen, what you’re saying is just not true. I’ve been all over Managua, and I would estimate that more than 50% of the population has voted already. Maybe you woke up late…” Dr. Fiallos didn’t have to say anything else.

It’s important to emphasize that with the international press coverage even when the reality of the situation didn’t succeed in changing people’s preconceived ideas, no one spoke of a fraud. Well, actually a Costa Rican journalist from La Nación mentioned the word “fraud,” even though he didn’t explain what it consisted of. He just insulted us by claiming there had been cheating in the elections. Some people have spoken of the elections as a “farce” but generally not as a “fraud.” They simply haven’t been able to.

envío: Some foreign journalist wrote about an apathetic atmosphere and unhappy people who were coerced to vote…

Everstz: That was their interpretation of the atmosphere of respect. In the training workshops, we had insisted very strongly on this respect. The seriousness was the fruit of 40,000 people’s labor: that of the electoral functionaries and thousands and thousands of potential voters. We insisted on formality and seriousness. The vote was to be paramount. After witnessing the seriousness of the voting process, one of the Swedish observers commented that he had the impression of being in his own country.

Argüello: People were even more disciplined than we had expected them to be. It even surprised me. It was the same atmosphere as during the voter registration period. There was a real consciousness about the enormity of the moment. It was almost as if the people had entered a temple. They didn’t speak. And all this seriousness was contagious for those waiting in line. Even we were impressed.

The results: Surprise and satisfaction

The election results were a disagreeable surprise for those who, prior to the elections, had argued outside Nicaragua that the elections would be merely a plebiscite (i.e. with no real opposition) or that a “totalitarian radicalization” would emerge from the elections marking the end of pluralism. The results silenced those who had called the Nicaraguan elections a “farce.” The results surprised everyone in Nicaragua. They were received with joy and interest. They accurately reflected the political reality in which the new society is being constructed.

envío: How do you evaluate the abstention figures?

Everstz: We think that perhaps half of those who voted on November 4 did so for the first time in their life. The majority of the peasants above 30 years of age had voted before. During the Somoza years, the field supervisors put tremendous pressure on the peasants, who had to present the magnifica if they wanted to circulate freely. There was less pressure and, therefore, more abstention in the cities. In the November 4 elections, the opposite occurred. In Managua and the more developed areas of the country (on the Pacific Coast), the participation was higher. The historical trend was reversed.

Argüello: Who abstained? Well, a lot of people had to be relocated between July and November, between registration and the elections, because of the aggression. Many of these people were unable to return to where they had registered. Unfortunately, we don’t have precise figures on this situation. In regions V and VI, which showed the greatest indices of abstention, the war has escalated notably in the past few months. The army had to form a series of defensive circles around the voting centers to keep the counterrevolutionaries away, and these special measures prevented many soldiers from voting. In Region I, we were told of a military unit with over 1,000 soldiers who showed up unexpectedly at a polling center to vote. They hadn’t been taken into account previously; no one had known they were in the area, so there weren’t enough ballots for them. Just making a rough estimate, I’d say that of the 25% who abstained, 40% were prevented from doing so by the war. The rest were people who decided not to vote, and these are the true abstainers.

envío: How do you evaluate the results for each of the political parties?

Everstz: One of the leftist parties argued that the elections had “moved Nicaragua to the right” especially the high percentages received by the Conservatives. Personally, I believe that to say this is to forget that we have 150 years of Conservative history behind us and that it’s impossible to discard the famous “historical parallels” (Conservatives and Liberals). For example, a Dutch observer told me of having spoken with a militia member who had voted for the Conservative Party. Everyone in his family had voted that way. The family had always been Conservative, and he had to be loyal to the family’s political tradition. The Conservatives also received many votes from small farmers. The Conservatives did very well in Region IV, the birthplace of Conservatism, with a high number of traditional small farmers. The Conservatives have received assistance and financing from the revolution, and they haven’t been negatively affected by the Agrarian Reform, but they are very attached to the idea of private property. The Conservatives won their highest percentages in Region V, where there are many large cattle raisers with strong roots in the Conservative tradition. There are even still some Conservative political bosses in this region.

Argüello: It really surprised me that the Conservative Party won so many votes. I didn’t realize that Conservatism was so deeply rooted. Instead, I had thought that the current division among the Conservatives would take votes away from them. I had imagined that Clemente Guido’s PCD would be seen by loyal Conservatives as a minority faction, since the other Conservatives, the PCN, had kept the official party seals and continued to support the traditional Conservative leaders. But things turned out differently.

envío: What about the PLI, which ended up in third place?

Argüello: |I was sure that the PLI would come in second, and I think that’s what would have happened if Godoy hadn’t withdrawn. I think they would have received between 200,000 and 250,000 votes.

Everstz: Many of us thought that. The PLI’s indecision weakened its support. But it is interesting to see in the votes won by the PCD and the PLI the strength of the country’s political roots, the “parallels.” The Liberals and Conservatives are still alive. This is an important lesson for everyone, even for the winning party. It’s a lesson about our heritage and about our national political identity. We can’t forget or avoid it.

envío: Do you believe that all the political parties were surprised by the results?

Everstz: Yes, I think they were. The leftist parties were very surprised. That’s why their first reaction was somewhat critical of the Supreme Electoral Council. Their reaction came from their surprise. However, after this initial reaction, they realized that the results accurately reflected the reality of this country. As for the Conservatives, I Could read the enthusiasm on their faces. They had won more votes than they expected. There was also some surprise within the FSLN because it won less than expected. There was great surprise and joy in the PPSC. It’s a young party, far removed from the Conservatives and Liberals. In spite of this, its results were more than acceptable, and the party members were surprised. The keys to their success were probably their moderation and the role Christianity played in their programs. If the Coodinadora had participated, it might have obtained about as many votes as the PLI and come out in third place.

envío: Could one also look at the elections as a vast opinion poll?

Everstz: Yes, indeed. And with this information at our disposal, we’re now entering another phase of the revolutionary process. I was watching the program “Face the People” the other day. Daniel Ortega was meeting with cultural workers, and one of them asked him to issue a decree protecting the plastic arts in Nicaragua. Daniel responded that the worker would have to present the request to his elected representative so it could be discussed in the new National Assembly. I think the discussion regarding the drafting of the Constitution in the next two years is going to be a great educational process for the people. In the Assembly, the different political forces will maintain the power they won at the polls, and, because of this, the discussion about the Constitution will be very interesting. There will be the Liberal-Conservative traditions, the FSLN with its majority position, as well as other forces. The Constitution will be discussed at many levels at the same time. It will be a beautiful learning experience.

Argüello: The “surprise-law” system, which has characterized the revolution thus far, will disappear. Its continuation would have been incompatible with the development of a well ordered nation. The elections have been a great step towards institutionalization in Nicaragua.

envío: Are you satisfied?

Argüello:Very satisfied with everything, even with the reaction of our enemies. We’ve commented on the fact that, in these days of military emergency, even the US state Department and Reagan’s ultra-rightists have had to change their story. They began talking about an “electoral farce” and then had to invent the Mig story so people would stop talking about our elections. Simply stated, they weren’t a farce. Newspapers all over the world had been filled with stories about the Nicaraguan elections, but suddenly, on November 7, they dropped the elections and began to write about the Migs. The US reaction was a clear demonstration of the honesty and freedom displayed in our electoral process. How could we not be satisfied?

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