Nicaragua: The Other SideBy: Fred Morris, Guest Scholar for the Council on Hemispheric Affairs
In 2003, Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica, appealed to the Constitutional Court (Sala IV), claiming that the article that prohibited the re-election of a president and vice-president was in violation of basic human rights guaranteed by the same Constitution, which declares that all laws must apply equally to every citizen. The Constitutional Court ruled 5-2 in favor of Arias, who was subsequently re-elected by a suspicious margin in a controversial election.
In 2009, Daniel Ortega, president of Nicaragua, as a result of an election staged in 2006, appealed to the Supreme Court of Nicaragua, asking it to revoke the article that prohibited his re-election, where he used the same arguments as Arias. After studying the case, the Nicaraguan Supreme Court followed the example of Costa Rica and declared the article unconstitutional, thereby opening the way for Ortega to be a candidate for re-election in 2011.
The opposition parties in Nicaragua immediately decried that decision and claimed that it was a “Sandinista trick,” pointing out that the non-Sandinista members of the Court did not participate in the decision (failing to mention that several of them had left the country deliberately, leaving a legal quorum of only Sandinistas in attendance, in order to claim they were not part of the decision). In February 2011, the U.S. Embassy began to let it be known that the November elections in Nicaragua would turn out to be fraudulent. Since that time, the U.S. Embassy and all of the opposing groups in the country have not tired from proclaiming that Ortega’s candidacy had been illegal and that his re-election, if it occurred, would be fraudulent. Interestingly enough, the U.S. Embassy never commented on Oscar Arias’ candidacy and re-election, since he was, and remains, “their man” in Costa Rica. By the way, Arias is currently under investigation for massive fraud during his last presidency. The main accusation against him being that while president, he granted a license for gold mining in northern Costa Rica to a Canadian company in spite of the fact that under the nation’s law, only the Legislative Assembly can grant such a license. It is expected that he will soon be indicted and probably will join the past three presidents in jail, in spite of his Nobel Peace Prize.
As the campaign progressed throughout the year, Liberals and Conservatives never stopped attacking each other, even while formulating a strategy to rid the nation of the Sandinistas. Former president (and convicted embezzler) Arnoldo Alemán, became the candidate for the Conservatives (PLC), while the owner of a radio chain in Nicaragua, Fabio Gadea, became the candidate for the Liberals (PLI). The MRS (Movimento para la Restauración del Sandinismo), made up of ex-Sandinista dissidents, didn’t have enough numbers to be able to legally field a candidate, so it allied itself with the PLI. Enrique Quiñones, former contra leader, launched his own candidacy. He eventually attracted something like 0.33% of the vote.
There was a lot of controversy surrounding the status of international observers of the elections. In 1996, Ortega had lost to Alemán in elections that were flagrantly fraudulent, with boxes of ballots being found on riverbeds throughout the country. However, groups like the Carter Center and the OAS validated the elections, leading the Sandinistas to lose confidence in the standards of international observers. The U.S. Embassy kept hammering at the need for observers to avoid fraud, never responding to Ortega’s question about international observers in the U.S., which has never permitted the presence of or a role for international observers in its own elections, recalling that the fraud in 2000 (Florida) and in 2004 (Ohio) was flagrantly visible to the whole world.
Eventually, Ortega’s government allowed the European Union (EU) and the Organization of American States (OAS) to send observers, plus a group of highly respected Latin American Election Observers. The Embassy insisted that it should be allowed to have “official observers,” but this favor was not granted.
Public opinion polls showed throughout the year that Ortega was widening his lead against the opposition to the point that two weeks before the November 6 elections, CID-Gallup (the Gallup Institute affiliate in Central America) declared that Ortega would attract nearly 53 percent of the vote, that Gadea would attract only around 20 percent, Alemán, 3 percent, with the rest undeclared. The margin of error was stated to be 2.5 to 3 percent, which is what all similar polls identified.
On November 6, more than 70 percent of registered voters went to the polls in elections that were marked by a near-total absence of violence and conflicts. (In Tule, San Juan Province, a group of PLI supporters attacked a voting place and one person was killed.) When the votes were counted, the FSLN (Ortega and the Sandinistas) got 62.66 percent of the votes; PLC 5.67 percent (Arnoldo Alemán); PLI (Fabio Gadea) received 31.13 percent.
CID-Gallup announced on Thursday, November 10, that these results were almost exactly what they had predicted, the differences having come from the “undeclareds” at the time of the last polling. CID-Gallup also proudly announced that it has never failed to call the winner in a Central American ballot dating back to the late 1980s.
In spite of that, the opposition groups began protesting, calling the election a “massive fraud.” However, there seems to be no objective reality to their claims. Only 18 of the 12,860 polling places were called into question for irregularities, which represent only 0.13 percent of all the polling locations. While the PLI claimed that it had copies of the “minutes” of some 4,000 polling places that “proved fraud,” it never managed to present even one of those.
Claims were made that the IDs for voting were not presented to non-Sandinista voters, but, again, no evidence was presented and, in fact, people were even allowed to vote with their old IDs if they did not have a new one.
The PLI also claimed that 20 percent of its poll watchers did not receive credentials and that 10 percent were not allowed into the polling places to observe. However, according to the Electoral Law, which was passed under the regime of former president Enrique Bolaños (2001-2006), credentials for poll watchers must be presented to the parties or alliances that are participating in the election, in order to be in line with the law. It is noteworthy that the PLI alliance, which is making the complaints, handed in their list of observers after the legally established date had passed, and with significant inconsistencies in the data coming from more than 18,000 of its observers. This would appear to indicate one of two things: either a deliberate attempt to blame the supposed lack of accreditation on the CSE, in order to delegitimize the process, or as an indication of its inability to prepare a list of nearly 26,000 poll observers it had been allocated. Each party printed on the ballot was to present its list of 25,940 poll watchers for accreditation, representing two poll watchers for every polling place.
If some of their poll watchers didn’t obtain their credentials, it was not the fault of the CSE, but rather, that of the PLI itself, and the 10 percent who allegedly were not allowed into the polling places were persons who had shown up without the proper credentials. If they had been allowed in as observers without the proper credentials, that itself would have provided a firm basis for claims of irregularities.
The OAS observers complained about a “lack of transparency” without ever defining what that term meant, though they added that they had seen no irregularities that would have changed the final results. The EU made the same complaint, but also agreed that any anomalies that they observed would not have changed the results.
None of the opposition groups have presented any evidence of fraud to the Supreme Electoral Council, as required by law, except public and very raucous denunciations of “fraud.” This follows the pattern of denunciations of fraud in the 2008 municipal elections, where the U.S. Embassy and opposition parties claimed “massive fraud” in the elections, but never presented any specific evidence to add weight to their charge.
A well-known group called Ethics and Transparency (ET) also decried a “lack of transparency,” but also neglected to say what that meant in concrete terms. The spokesperson for ET, Carlos Tunnerman, had been an active and respected Sandinista figure during the 1980s, serving as Minister of Education and then as the Sandinista ambassador in Washington. However, when the Sandinistas lost the elections in 1990, he was stripped of his ministerial positions and soon re-appeared as an anti-Sandinista. ET does not disclose its sources of funding, but it is well known that USAID and the very controversial National Endowment for Democracy (NED) are principal sources of financial support for ET.
NED is all but totally funded totally by the U.S. Congress and has been notorious for the financial support it has given to right-wing groups in more than 80 countries around the world. Notably, it has provided several millions of dollars of funding for anti-Chávez groups in Venezuela.
In the 1980s, the Reagan-Bush administration spent more than a billion dollars training and arming the contras in efforts to overthrow Sandinista rule, a campaign in which more than 30,000 Nicaraguans were killed. After the invasion of Panama in December 1989, and just three weeks before the February 25, 1990 Nicaraguan elections, President George Bush held a press conference in Washington to announce the “return of democracy” to Panama. In concluding his remarks, President Bush said, “I hope the people of Nicaragua are paying attention.” The U.S. Embassy in Managua allocated at least USD ten million -and conceivably twice that amount- into the campaign chests of Violeta Chamorro, in violation of both U.S. and Nicaraguan law. The people of Nicaragua eventually voted for an end to the war and elected the U.S.-backed candidate. Once the results were announced, the Sandinistas stepped aside without any violence and accepted the Chamorro electoral victory.
In 1996, losing to Arnoldo Alemán in an openly fraudulent election, the Sandinistas did not resort to violence.
The opposition forces, and the U.S. Embassy, vigorously joined forces, claiming that the Sandinistas have “rigged the process.” But no mention was made that the electoral laws were put in place during the government of Enrique Bolaños. It was under those procedures that the Sandinistas won the elections in 2006, and again in 2011. Any “rigging of the system,” if that was the case, was done before they had come to power.
The Chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), a rabid anti-Castro Cuban-American, denounced this year’s elections before the final results were in, declaring them fraudulent and calling for the U.S. not to recognize an Ortega victory. The State Department later issued a statement calling into question the results of the election and the validity of the FSLN government. It should be noted that the State Department raised no issue about the widely condemned elections in Honduras in 2009 after the military coup that exiled the elected president, Manuel Zelaya.
Virtually every country in Latin America refused to recognize the results of those elections and only after substantial lobbying by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the U.S. able to secure the re-admission of Honduras into the OAS.
In the days following the ballot, there were increasing confrontations between the defeated opposition groups and the National Police. Some of these melees resulted in serious injuries on both sides, and several fatalities. On Saturday, November 12, the PLI convoked its followers for a mass protest in Managua, demanding that the government annul the elections and hold new ones. Pro-Sandinista activists insist that there has been a clear effort under way to provoke confrontations that would require significant repression by the police. To date, a national consensus exists believing that the security forces have behaved professionally and have not allowed themselves to be provoked.
The United States has been actively promulgating the “fraud line” throughout the hemisphere. The largely conservative media in a number of Latin American countries have been denouncing the elections as questionable since Monday, November 7. The New York Times reported on the elections from Tegucigalpa, Honduras, not bothering even to send a reporter to Nicaragua, and repeated denunciations of fraud by oppositions groups, including declarations that “Sandinistas voted two or three times,” without any supporting evidence. The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal repeated similar sentiments. On the other hand, it comes as no surprise that Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro praised both the electoral process and the results.
Luis Yánez, Chief of the Mission of Observers of the European Union, was categorical in his affirmation, stating, “As for me, I want to be clear. If the question is whether Señor Ortega and the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) won the elections, or lost, I ask, What is the definition of the famous word “fraud”? For politicians, fraud is to make the loser the winner and the winner the loser. In this case, it is indubitable that the FSLN and Mr. Ortega won these elections.” (El Nuevo Diario, November 9, 2011).
But the cries of fraud continue, unabated. Sergio Alvarez, National Attorney (fiscal nacional) of the PLI, declared to the Managua press on November 20, that between 450,000 and 500,000 votes had been stolen by the Sandinistas, without offering any credible evidence of such a massive theft. The date for presenting specific charges of irregularities in the election to the CSE already had passed. Alvarez then proceeded to state, “We cannot be hasty in finding proof and present it in an arbitrary manner, without being sure this proof is truthful. We are in the process of gathering and validating information in order to be critical and just in our evaluations….We will continue a process of permanent denunciations of all of these arbitrary acts.” (Nuevo Diario, November 20, 2011)
It would appear that, once more, the U.S. is defining democracy in an arbitrary and self-serving approach. It does not like Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas, therefore their massive electoral victory on November 6 must have been fraudulent. Besides, denouncing Ortega in Miami can only be good for the shifty political scene, be it for the Republicans or Democrats. The simple fact that the Ortega administration has done more for the poor majority of the country in the past four years and ten months than any government in the history of the country is irrelevant to Washington. The fact that the people, including many in the countryside who have been “liberals” for decades, voted for the Sandinistas is impossible on its face for the U.S.
The fact is that the Sandinista government has built more than 1,800 kilometers of paved roads in the countryside, provided schools for all the children, who were unable to attend classes under the previous governments; built hundreds of free health clinics throughout the country, provided a pregnant cow or sow to some 100,000 head-of-household women in the countryside, made interest-free loans available to the same group; given out nearly a million corrugated steel roofing sheets to poor families, and, at the same time, enabled the business sector to be more profitable than at any time in the country’s history.
Instead of crying fraud forever, the US and the opposition parties need to accept the fact that the Sandinistas won, and relate to Ortega’s government as the legitimate government of Nicaragua.
This article was written by COHA Guest Scholar Fred Morris, who was resident correspondent for ABC-News in Costa Rica from 1977 to 1989. He also was the founder and editor of Mesoamerica, a monthly newsletter published in Costa Rica (in English) from 1982 to 1989. He has been living in Nicaragua for the past three years. In 1974, while living in Brazil and working as a missionary for the United Methodist Church, he was kidnapped and tortured by the Brazilian military because of his close association with Catholic Archbishop of Recife, Dom Hélder Câmara.