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  Number 364 | Noviembre 2011
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Nicaragua

FSLN wins by hook and by crook

There were all kinds of voting centers in these fraudulent elections: terrorist ones, pregnant ones, necrophilic ones, stingy ones, inky ones… By a thousand and one ballot box tricks we get another term of “Orteguismo.” But various dangers are already stalking this new power project.

José Luis Rocha

The FSLN painstakingly planned to win these elections by hook or by crook. And it won them by both… We’ll never know how many votes the FSLN won fairly and how many were pillaged either in the voting centers or in Roberto “Ali Baba” Rivas’ Supreme Electoral Cave with his more than 40 thieves. This scramble reversed the trend of previous elections in two rather startling ways: First, Daniel Ortega, who limped into office in 2006 with only 38% of the vote, skipped away this time with 62%, leaving his former meager percentage to his combined opponents. Even more inexplicably and a-historically, this whopping win, only topped by the same candidate in 1984, in the middle of a war, was significantly exceeded by the votes adjudicated to his hand-picked National Assembly candidates.

Ortega’s still the king

The electoral piñata that so richly benefited Daniel Ortega has a dual mission. On the one hand, it establishes his total control of the State through an absolute majority in the National Assembly, the only branch of government still coveted by the Sandinista leadership after privatizing and administering like their personal companies the executive branch, the judicial branch and the electoral branch, not to mention the offices of Comptroller General, Attorney General and the Ombudsperson for the Defense of Human Rights, increasingly the National Police and, not quite yet, the Army. On the other hand, the sudden—and unlikely but to many unquestionable—increase in Ortega’s sex appeal since the last poll sends a message back to his party, to all restless, potential crown princes and their followers who aspire to succeed the invincible leader: I’m still king; the throne and the kingdom are mine.

In a political party and elsewhere, succession is an important issue. There’s no expectation of abdication, and adulation as a survival mechanism has eliminated all embryonic criticism and self-criticism in the FSLN and, with them, any attempt at the healthy sloughing off of old cells all living organisms need. In such situations, only the Grim Reaper and failed health can exact a change.

That brings us to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ serious illness and the fatal outcome of the Gaddafi saga, international events that unquestionably sent a chill into the patriarchal autumn of Ortega and his circle. It became imperative to send a message to one and all about his political strength.

We don’t know how many,
but we know how: The carrot

Elections the European Union described as “lacking neutrality and transparency” can’t be characterized by “how many votes I got.” We’ll never know how many the FSLN won and how many it begged, borrowed, stole, bought, rented, traded, transmuted or prefabricated and stuffed into the ballot boxes. But we do know that some were obtained fairly and others through skullduggery. What carrots and what sticks were used? What sand is Ortega standing on, firm or quick?

Let’s start with the carrots. Political analysts have excessively made light of the Ortega couple’s “model”—I’ll call it that to give it a status not always accorded the amalgam of whimsical improvisations and eclectic spiritualism that reveres Cardinal Obando on a level with Yiye Ávila, one of Latin America’s most famous and respected evangelist preachers, or Sai Baba, the Indian guru listed by Watkins Review just prior to his recent demise as one of the 100 most spiritually influential people in the world. Analysts tend to label the model as “populist”—as if dealing with an immovable and definitive tombstone inscription—on the assumption that this word can invoke all the political incubi and succubae.

But populism is a very wide-ranging label. It covers Keynesian economic policy and Peronism, agrarianism in Mexico and the New Deal in the US, Ronald Reagan’s “conservative populism” and John F. Kennedy’s “progressive populism,” the governments of Lázaro Cárdenas in Mexico and Getulio Vargas in Brazil, Berlusconi’s “populist Right” and Chávez’ vociferous Left. Leaders both right and left, dictatorships both hard and soft, are painted populist. When used so lavishly and recklessly, the concept loses explanatory utility and political effectiveness.

Regardless of the inclinations and orthodoxy of Ortega’s populism—if there is orthodoxy in populism—it’s very important to be clear about three elements on which its success is based.

First: whatever they may be, the goals, means and levels of populism aren’t the same as those of demagogy. Demagogy wants to conquer people with speeches. Populism conquers them with deeds. Ortega’s government has made investments that are changing many Nicaraguans’ daily lives.

Second: Many shades of populism are tolerated, forgotten or even clarified by the lack of even a glimmer of more promising alternatives on the immediate horizon. The governments preceding Ortega’s didn’t bother to make the investments he’s making. They underrated them as superfluous, electorally unprofitable and, of course, “populist.” They opted for strengthening the institutional framework and other entelechies. Ordinary people say that the institutional framework, trampled on by Ortega’s populism and defended—so they claim—by his opposition, feeds nobody but the NGO officials who get funding linked to these missions, visions and mandates.

Third: Ortega’s social investments have been selected with neurotic meticulousness to soothe very raw nerves. In the hearts and minds of his supporters and co-believers, they have the power to evoke what for many were “the golden 80s.” The effectiveness of Ortega’s social investments can’t be measured in rational results—whether they’ll pay off in the future, whether they have more benefits than costs or whether they’re the most imperative—but by the mythical evocations they produce.

Social programs that evoke the 80s

What social investments by Ortega’s government were underrated by those preceding him in power? A literacy campaign that didn’t achieve the scope touted by governmental propaganda but, however inflated its achievements, begs the question: Why did no previous government think literacy was important? Seeing the touched-up publicity pictures, many individuals commented nostalgically: “It’s a campaign like in the 80s, with the literacy guerrillas.” Grassroots health campaigns were another reissue: vaccination, water treatment and international medical brigades treating for free conditions that are usually very expensive. “Just like the 80s!” Scholarships to study in Venezuela and Cuba giving Sandinista Youth access to university studies abroad. “We’re back in the 80s!” Brigades of young construction workers who build schools in neighborhoods and villages that have never had them before, in exchange for nothing more than the cost of housing them while they work. “They’re like the coffee brigades but now they’re bricklayers! From production battalions to construction battalions!”

Just to give a little idea of what can trigger people’s gratitude, we note on the overwhelming but by no means exhaustive list of donations and investments the paving of streets and roads in hard-to-reach neighborhoods and towns; Houses for the People; the Roof Plan (10 sheets of corrugated zinc plus a sack of nails to each poor family); land titles in the name of their inveterate occupiers at constant risk of imminent eviction; a Christmas park with free amusements and an exotic ice rink; new Russian buses for public transport in Managua; frozen bus fares in the capital (they haven’t risen in five years and are the cheapest in Central America); heifers, sows, chickens and other gifts from the Zero Hunger Program; loans that seemingly don’t have to be paid back...

Analysts who underrate these achievements’ effect—their real value plus their evocative power—are condemned to a myopic vision of what’s happening in Nicaragua. Although our country is rapidly advancing backward, what do the many poor people care about this time-trip if they can see so many and such tangible benefits? This “Christian, socialist and solidarity” largesse is what pulled the at least 50% of the votes the FSLN probably won fairly.

Those votes didn’t come from Rosario Murillo’s daily stereotyped and reiterated messages, despite the hypnotic, sedated state her tediousness brings on. Nor did they come from Daniel Ortega’s speeches, from his uneven ideas that don’t add up to three. Never before have so many words been used to express so little. They also didn’t come from his skills as a bone collector, gathering together political deadbeats, small-time Coast political hacks who exchange Caribbean forests for a seat in the National Assembly and burnt-out Resistance leaders who together don’t fill half a ballot box. And they certainly weren’t won over by the FSLN’s ideological apparatus, which now looks like a dilapidated radio that only transmits mantra-like litanies and has replaced intellectuals of stature with servile, decadent, obsequious hagiographers, insufferable apologists for the inexcusable.

We don’t know how many,
but we know how: The stick


Along with the carrot, the FSLN brandished the stick. Its mass media didn’t hesitate to slander its rivals or exaggeratedly extol its own works. On election day the opposition’s monitors were constantly intimated with total impunity, the consequences of which we’re still reaping in the murder of opponents and flight of rural communities. Public employees were “persuaded” of the personal advantages of voting pink (the ubiquitous bubble-gum hue First Lady Rosario Murillo selected elections ago to replace the more combative red and black of the FSLN flag).

One of the most direct strategies to benefit the FSLN was to force abstention by holding back opponents’ ID/voter cards. But an even more efficient device to promote abstention was to hype an atmosphere of emergency. In the lead up to election day there were clear signs that something serious could happen at any moment: police stations suspended all proceedings the preceding week; the Army General who was Ortega’s running mate increased his public appearances; the FSLN cancelled its campaign closure event; a strange epidemic of swine flu (H1N1) appeared to have cropped up in Nicaragua and no other country in Central America; and in Masaya there were even meetings of the CPC announcing the imminent eruption of the Santiago volcano. Perhaps Ortega’s headquarters were even responsible for the rumors of the President’s health problems at the climax of the electoral operetta to heighten the feeling of catastrophe. All these emergencies prepared the ground for fatalism: there’s nothing to be done, voting is a risk; it’s futile.

But there was even more application of the stick. Let’s look at the most compelling, effective ways the hook and the crook insured success.

Improving the odds in the campaign

The FSLN’s only real rival was the PLI Alliance. But to improve its own odds, the FSLN created or nurtured three now-stunted pseudo-opposition parties: PLC, APRE and ALN. These false rivals, Ortega’s political satellites, crafted speeches to take votes away from the PLI Alliance, assuming all were from the same electoral well. If the 1990 elections were guided by the slogan “Everyone against the FSLN,” in these the guideline was “Everyone against the PLI.”

The upshot of this alignment tactic was the disap¬pearance of the satellite parties, the end of the FSLN-PLC pact and a resounding rejection of Arnoldo Alemán, whose body reflects the rise and fall of his political investments: dangerously obese at the height of his mandate and prosperity, his now big-loss form, devoid of triple chins, anticipated the PLC’s spectacular shrinkage in these elections. Reduced in body and probably in soul, he’s like a dried up orange that the FSLN squeezed to the last drop and has now tossed into the non-recyclable political garbage bin.

The FSLN played its final card against the PLI Alliance in the last stretch: one group of old men and another of dubious militants from the historic Independent Liberal Party (PLI), founded in the 1940s and now fallen on hard times like so many others, swore they had been robbed of their party. With that, the Supreme Electoral Council hung an ominous sword of Damocles over the PLI legislative candidates. The same magistrates who took no time at all to determine the rightfulness of Daniel Ortega’s unconstitutional candidacy, have still not determined who will have the right to represent this party in the National Assembly. But no fear, this will happen once tempers cool and they can safely move this last chip, with magnanimous generosity or severe punishment depending on the turn of events.

Religious manipulation

Meanwhile, the FSLN moved stealthily towards victory, now playing the religious card. The manipulation began with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, now virtually the Ortega family’s chaplain, who has devoted himself to blessing all public events hosted by the presidential couple, in addition to being their personal confessor and officiator at the weddings and baptisms of their growing progeny. He couldn’t nor has he wanted to stop participating in national politics.

Although the unforgettable, far from subtle, viper parable with which Obando persuaded many to reject the FSLN on the eve of the 1996 elections was quite unambiguous, he was even more explicit this time—from the opposite side—in listing the wonders the FSLN has done to benefit the Nicaraguan people and the honor and glory of God. During the three days prior to the elections his laudatory litanies were endlessly repeated, contravening the mandatory campaign silence. Because Obando’s political clout has diminished, it’s more than doubtful what effect his spot had on the voters. But the FSLN motto seems to be “every little bit helps.”

Perhaps the FSLN campaign of presenting PLI Alliance members as inveterate abortionists was more effective, despite their presidential candidate Fabio Gadea’s reiterated repudiation of all forms of abortion. Praying to God for life and the criminalization of therapeutic abortion, the FSLN falsified the positions and presented as official doctrine certain personal declarations by militants of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), allied to Gadea. The intended effect was a tacit confrontation between Catholicism and the PLI Alliance. Some priests added to this effect, emphatically warning the citizenry against abortionist candidates, inopportune declarations that the FSLN celebrated and used as another piece in Ortega’s indefinable policy of saving fetuses and killing men, facts and rights.

Did this manipulation of the abortion issue win the FSLN any votes? It seemed rather to be part of a long-standing ploy: stir up the waters for better fishing. Since 2006, the criminalization of therapeutic abortion has unquestionably formed part of the carrot given to a Church rooted in the sexual morality of ancient history.

The image of Catholic orthodoxy and Ortega’s orthodoxy joining to play out a relationship between Catholicism and the Left was what Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton must have been trying to reflect in his Un libro levemente odioso (A Slightly Obnoxious Book), where three Communists talk of their experiences with the sacred-party and the militant-Church. The first doesn’t agree that Catholic orthodoxy is stricter than Communist orthodoxy: “They expelled me from the Communist Party long before they ex-communicated me in the Catholic Church.” The second added: “That’s nothing. They expelled me from the Communist Party after they excommunicated me in the Catholic Church.” The third concludes with what was an unlikely case when Dalton wrote the story, but could well describe present-day Nicaragua: “Pah! They expelled me from the Communist Party because they excommunicated me in the Catholic Church!”

Pregnant, illiterate, bulimic,
psychopathic, necrophilic JRVs…

All of these preliminaries would have been useless agitation without the decisive, well-orchestrated actions by thousands of FSLN militants on election day itself. A cabal of the literary world’s best known rogues, rascals and tricksters would have needed a hundred years to invent and implement all the fraudulent tricks that exceeded even those of Mexico’s PRI.

If there are a thousand and one ways to commit fraud, then that was the number of assaults on the ballot boxes made by FSLN-dominated vote reception tables, known in Nicaragua as JRVs. My random record is a pale reflection of the total.

On November 6, we saw terrorist JRVs: voting carried out in an atmosphere of emergency meant to instill a sense of imminent danger, risk to life or death. They started the day by expelling the PLI Alliance’s monitors.

We saw JRVs with pregnant ballot boxes: those arriving stuffed with Sandinista votes before the voting table opened for business. In the count, through a miraculous multiplication of votes, some of these boxes even ended up with more marked ballots than the total number of voters on the JRV roll.

We also saw JRVs whose bulimic ballot boxes swallowed down many votes for the opposition then vomited them back up. Crack-of-dawn JRVs that opened before 6am to get the drop on monitors and observers who would surely want to see if their ballot boxes were empty. And pedophile JRVs that allowed under-16s to vote.

Then there were the illiterate JRVs, which paid no attention to procedural regulations because there were no written guidelines or because they slipped one over on untrained opposition monitors. And computer-illiterate JRVs, reportedly a third of the total, which made free with bad to worse counting procedures.

According to European Union observers, 20% of the total was Mandrake JRVs, which converted opposition votes into null votes with a wave of their magic wand. The “legal” version of that JRV was pickier: it only annulled the PLI vote if the X was slightly outside the circle.

Pettifogging JRVs—28% of the total—turned people away who were not on their electoral role, even when their ID certified their residence in the area where the polling place was and the law thus allows them to vote there. The psychopathic JRVs lived in a reality different from the one in front of them so their tallies didn’t reflect the results.

The lazy JRVs only counted the used ballots, not the unused ones to see if the two totaled the number officially received. Needless to say their ballot boxes and those of the crack-of-dawn JRVs were very prone to pregnancy. The VIP JRVs only admitted those on their voting list chosen by the regime. The second-table JRVs accepted votes for Ortega from those who had already voted elsewhere, while the refill JRVs received the ballots of those—generally FSLN monitors—who voted right there two, five and up to eight times. The ballot boxes of the necrophilic JRVs gulped down votes from the deceased while those of the Western Union JRVs received votes from emigrants who had left the country and probably didn’t know someone had voted in their name.

The voyeur JRVs angled the voting booths to prevent secrecy so monitors could slip up behind voters to spy on and intimidate them. The “migra” JRVs treated opposition supporters like foreigners, denying them the right to vote, basically denying them citizenship.

The stingy JRVs applied the indelible ink applied sparingly on the thumbs of Sandinistas in case they planned to vote again elsewhere while the squid JRVs bathed the whole digit in ink if the voter’s residential area was known to be predominately pro-PLI Alliance. Lax JRVs—the majority—didn’t use the forms and codes that legally act as security locks so tallies can’t be altered. The tortoise JRVs handed in their results very late.

The cheaper-by-the-dozen JRVs received several ballots for each FSLN member—delivered days before in occulto latent, or shrouded in obscurity, which, as Plautus said, is often the way with the greatest talents. The sacred ballot boxes were exclusively guarded by FSLN monitors because the opposition’s monitors were barred, thrown out later, bought off or frightened.

In the end, almost all were riddle ballot boxes because the Supreme Electoral Council said Abracadabra, how many votes have we here? And, as if by magic, up popped the answer: nearly 63%.

What will happen with this power binge?

The saying that “you can fool some of the people all of the time, and you can fool all of the people some the time, but you can’t fool all the people all the time” has been attributed to Abraham Lincoln, among others. But with its practices the FSLN seems to prefer George W. Bush’s version: “You can fool some of the people all the time, and those are the ones you want to concentrate on.” Its supporters, those who didn’t participate in the electoral theft, swallowed the story, and in fact are now more convinced than ever, that the vox populi—of course, vox Dei—has proclaimed Ortega’s government the best in history and rewarded it with a vote harvest. Meanwhile, Sandinista militants are prepared to crack open any heads opposing recognition of their bumper crop.

Delegitimacy can erode relationships. The European Union issued a preliminary report recording the anomalies witnessed by its observers, but Nicaragua won’t be excluded from the inter-State system, the backbone of international relations. The EU won’t break relations with the FSLN regime. It’ll make its report, then take a pragmatic view. Often the European Union as a whole weighs less than any of its parts.

The US journalist, Malcolm Beith, warned us that Washington has turned—and will continue to turn—a blind eye to Ortega’s authoritarianism. The only ones to fight against and curb what Dora María Téllez called Ortega’s “power binge” will thus be Nicaraguans. But, unfortunately, a large sector of the opposition is expecting foreigners and ecclesiastics to give what Spanish poet Miguel Hernández, champion of the Republican cause, described in 1936 as “a hard slap, a cold blow, an invisible and homicidal cut or a brutal push.” PLI politicians crave a thunderous statement declaring the elections illegal, but how many of those who won a parliamentary seat will rush to take it, anxious to receive their monthly salary of US $5,000 to feed their personal and party coffers? What is the cost of delegitimizing the coming National Assembly, born of fraud? Approximately US$12 million: the salaries of the opposition representatives for the next five years.

Will the opposition decide it’s preferable to allege political pragmatism, take up its seats and send the bill for de-legitimization to the EU and US diplomats? Fabio Gadea, however, renounced the seat legally assigned to him for coming in second in the presidential elections. It was an outstanding act of dignity by the ultra-conservative, consistent and honest Gadea, and it set a more than plausible precedent in the annals of Nicaraguan politics.

The dangers of the morning after

What will the FSLN do with all its now-unlimited power? Consolidate 21st-century socialism, as some of its supporters hope against hope and believe against all evidence? The FSLN isn’t even proposing tax reforms to reverse the regressive nature of present-day fiscal policy. It trumpets its love of the poor while embracing the wealthy Pellas family and holding shares in Unión Fenosa (the much-criticized Spanish transnational company in charge of distributing electricity in Nicaragua). The FSLN, Nicaragua’s champion of 21st-century socialism, is a veritable transnational Robin Hood: it is robbing rich Venezuelans to give to Nicaragua’s poor and to its own merry comrades in the forest. This fiesta can last as long as someone else is willing to pay for it, but the Godfather is sick and there are many wolves in the woods eager to snack on Little Red-and-Black Riding Hood.

Let’s count off the dangers to the Nicaraguan version of 21st-century solidary socialism that could materialize in the next five years and change things for the FSLN. The first is the Godfather’s health. As soon as Hugo Chávez abandons the presidential chair or the world of the living, rentier socialism, which lives off Venezuelan oil, could suffer a serious reversal. Given the improbability in such a case that a replacement godfather will emerge who is as generous and content with meager compensations, the subsequent belt tightening policies would bring us back to the hardly new and even less popular 20th century socialism.

The FSLN would have risen to power only to experience a resounding fall and would have to enormously increase the public debt, the only way to maintain a minimum of social policy with a maximum of personal wealth until the end of its mandate. To offset the black hole that Chávez’ absence would leave in the FSLN’s finances, other options are trafficking in drugs or in the dead, which is what suppressing popular unrest would come to.

The second danger, particularly affecting the FSLN’s upper echelons is that a party that leaves so little room for the new generations to take over can’t last forever. Today’s burgeoning youth can’t be expected to settle indefinitely for being irregular fighting battalions, paid crumbs to trash the opposition. Without a party meritocracy system, the FSLN will have no incentives or ways to insert the new generations, an enormous problem for a party that puts so much emphasis on expanding its army of militants. Instead of being a living organism renewing its cells, the FSLN will experience the disorderly and lumpy growth characteristic of cancer tumors.

The third danger comes from the very heart of the system: the increasingly paranoid presidential couple. The systematic purging of old cadres, penalized for minor mistakes or as the result of runaway delusions of persecution, will deprive the FSLN of certain of its most expert and faithful—although not necessarily most decent—militants. Alienating those who built this party’s organizational framework is even more serious and could prove costly for the authoritarian populist project, or whatever it calls itself. All manifestations of social unrest will penetrate like a poisoned dart, triggering even more paranoia. The enemy will be felt to lurk around every corner, in every fellow citizen, even in every co-believer. Despite warnings, the presidential couple won’t change and can’t avoid this fate.

The Sandinista leadership must know that the more they are identified with the presidential couple, the worse it is for them and for the FSLN. The possibility of further exploiting the party apparatus requires it not being reduced to a useless shell by the ambitions of those governed by the principle of “After me, the deluge.”

The fourth danger is the inevitable clash of Murillo’s lyricism—not altogether unlike the ethereal ravings of Mao at his worst—with the realism of the FSLN’s business sector. This will take place when the first and third dangers become fait accompli, burrowing into the party’s credibility and its real possibilities of continuity.

The fifth danger is the personalities and lesser characters who, when the ship begins to go down, will look to varnish their shabby public image to give themselves a patina of propriety. Shouldn’t we expect such an attitude from those wishing to leave a better memory of themselves to a Nicaragua that has seen them plunge into the ridiculousness of bubble-gum pink, the criminal red of the blood of those murdered in San José de Cusmapa, and the black of the deep hole of electoral fraud?

If we don’t stop you...

The FSLN can rightly boast of having managed both the cleanest and the dirtiest elections in Nicaragua’s history: those of 1990 and 2011. The Sandinistas lost the clean ones and Ortega’s machine won the dirty ones. Pragmatic resignation and weariness are now expected of Nicaraguans. But, unless we stop him, the President, Tirano Banderas’ finest apprentice, could resort to officiating over the dead to put on his feast of goats and autumnal patriarchs.

José Luis Rocha is a researcher for the Jesuit Service for Central American Migrants (SJM) and a member of the envío editorial board.

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