Observing the Nicaraguan Elections: How the U.S. Has Overstepped its Bounds Once Again

0 Flares Filament.io 0 Flares ×

On November 5th, the Nicaraguan people
went to the polls in huge numbers
and voted for a new President, Vice President,
and deputy representatives to various
legislative bodies. After the ballots
were counted in this historic election,
Daniel Ortega was declared the next president
of the small, impoverished Central American nation.
This election was particularly significant because Ortega
was president of the country after the Sandinista revolution
in 1979, and has made several unsuccessful bids to
regain power since.
Along with 15 others, I traveled to Nicaragua on October
29th with a non-partisan group called Witness for
Peace (WFP). This group formed during the 1980s when
U.S.-backed Contra forces were trying to defeat the Sandinista
movement in a bloody war that left tens of thousands
of Nicaraguans dead. WFP delegations observe and
report about the effects of U.S. policy in several Latin
American and Caribbean countries. A delegation was
formed to observe the Nicaraguan elections this year
because of rampant and clearly threatening U.S. intervention
in the democratic processes of the country. We had
the opportunity to meet with representatives from the four
major political parties, the U.S. Embassy including the
ambassador, the Supreme Electoral Council, civil groups,
and rural and urban Nicaraguan organizers before conducting
observation on Election Day.
The U.S. has a long history of involvement in Nicaragua.
In 1912, the U.S. sent 2,500 Marines into the country to
ensure that presidents favorable to U.S. interests would be
installed. Resentment to such intervention was fierce, and
in 1933 a peasant uprising led by Augusto Sandino, for
whom the Sandinistas were later named, forced the
Marines out. While U.S. forces were technically removed,
they trained and outfitted the Nicaraguan National Guard
to continue with the U.S. strategic mission. The guard was
led by Anastasio Somoza Garcia who, the next year,
orchestrated the assassination of Sandino. In 1937, he
began the Somoza family dictatorship that lasted over forty
years. Power was passed through various Somozas, and all
were brutal and repressive to the poor. When international
aid poured into the country after the 1972 earthquake
that killed thousands, the Somoza regime pocketed most
of it and today many of the damaged areas remain devastated,
including parts in the capital of Managua.
National and international support for the Somoza dictatorship
declined, and in 1979 the Sandinista rebel army
took power. A massive literacy campaign was launched,
unproductive land was redistributed among the peasants,
and a constitution was drawn up. Ortega came into power
with great support, but soon the
U.S. put a trade embargo in place
and financed the Contra forces,
many of whom were former National
Guard members. The economy
was crippled and thousands were
dying. In 1990, the people were
tired of war and the Sandinistas
were voted out of power. It was the
first democratic power exchange in
Nicaraguan history.
Corruption has been frequent
among Nicaraguan officials and
those with a stake in corporate
interests. The poorest people have
always lost, and international lending
institutions, like the International
Monetary Fund, have taken
advantage of the country’s desperation
to enforce strict Structural
Adjustment Programs (SAPs).
These include prioritizing exports;
cutting state spending on social
services like schools and hospitals; and privatizing state
companies like electricity, which has been disastrous for
the poor. Privatization of water resources has been
attempted, but the Nicaraguan people fought so strongly
against it that the project has been stalled.
Today, 80% of Nicaraguans live on
less than $2 per day, 43% on less
than $1, and 12.5% on less than 50
cents, according to World Bank statistics.
The country is the second
poorest in the Western Hemisphere
after Haiti. Illiteracy is on the rise
again and access to education and
decent health care is poor.
People were ready for a change,
and it was the possible return of Sandinista
power that the U.S. administration
feared enough to use undemocratic
and manipulative tactics in an
attempt to sway the 2006 elections.
Meddling started early, in 2004, with
U.S. Ambassador Barbara Moore trying
to influence political leadership
selection through meetings with
right-wing forces. Paul Trivelli
became the Ambassador to Nicaragua
in 2005 and continued the same line
of interference. In April of 2006, he offered to finance primaries
of the more right-wing political parties if they would
result in the choosing of only one presidential candidate,
therefore increasing chances to defeat Ortega. When the Liberal
Constitutional Party (PLC), which held power before the
current president, refused to back away from its candidate,
Trivelli criticized the party as “…not in the category of democratic
parties…” After meeting with
Eduardo Montealegre who left the
PLC and formed the Nicaraguan Liberal
Alliance (ALN), Trivelli referred
to Montealegre as the “democratic
choice” for president.
Our delegation had an opportunity
to meet with representatives of
the four main political parties: the
ALN, the PLC, the Sandinista
National Liberation Front (FSLN),
and the Sandinista Renovation
Movement (MRS). It was clear why
the current U.S. administration was
behind Montealegre’s party.
Throughout our meeting, the ALN
party members said things that
were nearly verbatim what U.S. citizens
have heard countless times
from Bush administration officials
regarding terrorism threats and
fighting terrorism abroad before we
have to fight it at home. They spoke
graciously of Ronald Reagan and his policies in
Nicaragua, such as supporting the Contra fighters. They
are eager for the Central American Free Trade Agreement
(CAFTA) to move forward and swear that it will help
small farmers despite all the evidence to the contrary for
Mexican farmers after NAFTA took effect.
U.S. Embassy spokesperson Kristin Stewart has publicly
connected Daniel Ortega with terrorist groups and stated
that “if a foreign government has a relationship with terrorist
organizations, like the Sandinistas did in the past, U.S. law
permits us to apply sanctions. […] Again, it will be necessary
to revise our policies if Ortega wins.” A few from our group
were able to ask Ms. Stewart directly about these statements.
She verified that the quote was correct, and fended off criticism
by saying that she was free to say what she wanted
about the issue. She then defended her contention that Ortega
was linked to terrorists by stating that a suspect in the
1993 World Trade Center bombing was carrying 5 fake
Nicaraguan passports. Further connections were not offered.
Such interventions were openly criticized by at least
one U.S. official, Congressman Jose Serrano of New
York, who issued a press release condemning the interference
of U.S. representatives in the Nicaraguan elections
and urging neutrality. In reference to Embassy
spokesperson Stewart’s remarks,
Serrano stated, “Electioneering is
not the proper role of an Embassy
or its spokesperson.“
The U.S. Embassy reports that
$12 million came from the U.S. to
Nicaragua “for technical support
programs for the elections.” The
money went to many areas including
civic education. We met with a
group called Movement for
Nicaragua that worked with campaigns
to get out the vote, register
voters, and distribute voting documents.
At their offices we were
given comic books of Nicaraguan
history, and on looking through
them were interested to find a
severely skewed depiction of history
vilifying Ortega and the Sandinista
government. This was not the
only example we heard or saw of
USAID money being used to pass
out propaganda with such a partisan view of history.
Perhaps the most vicious threats were those of two U.S.
congressmen, Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) and Dan Burton
(R-IN), who suggested that the U.S. look into blocking
remittance money being sent to Nicaragua and cutting aid
to the country if Ortega were to win. Remittances are
money sent from Nicaraguans working in the U.S. back
home to their families. For Nicaragua, this money brings
more into the economy than exports. And on a human
level, it is what allows many families to survive.
The lead-up to the November 5th elections was not without
justified criticism. Ortega and former PLC president
Arnoldo Aleman, bitter rivals politically, signed a law in
1999 known as The Pact that secured their continued control
of the government and lowered the percentage of votes
needed to win the election, thus giving Ortega the advantage
he needed to win. The Pact also is reported to protect
both from further investigation of criminal charges: against
Aleman for stealing millions from Nicaraguan coffers and
against Ortega for sexual abuse charges from his stepdaughter.
Campaigns were dirty and vicious. It was said
that voting documents were being withheld from some
people on a partisan basis. For these reasons, observation
for the election was essential and overwhelming. There
were approximately 17,000 observers on November 5th,
or 1.7 per polling location. National and international, partisan and independent, there were an unprecedented
number of eyes on the voting process.
When election day came, our group was dispersed to
eight different municipalities, both rural and urban, to
observe voting centers. We watched the process from the
initial counting of blank ballots in the early morning to the
final count at the end of the day. Our group concluded that,
while some irregularities were seen, these irregularities
were not driven by partisanship and nothing intentionally
fraudulent was witnessed. Most polling centers had multiple
party observers who were on the lookout for fraud and
could make challenges to the process throughout the day.
Few challenges were witnessed by our observers. We did
see eager and massive participation by the Nicaraguan people.
Most centers were accessible to the elderly and disabled,
with election officials assisting these people as needed.
The conclusions of our WFP delegation seemed to correlate
with those of other international observer groups
with whom we compared findings: that the voting process
on November 5th was free, fair, and transparent.
Now the results are final and Ortega will soon resume the
Presidential post. So far the U.S. has taken a “wait and see”
approach to the new government-elect. As decisions are
made, it will be important to remember the history and current
economics of the country that we are discussing. International
assistance is critical for the survival and advancement of
the Nicaraguan people, and we all must participate in seeing
that humane and dignified U.S. policy is carried out.

This entry was posted in International. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.