Interpreting the Nicaraguan elections

by Alejandro Bendaña

September 11 proved to be a devastating blow to the aspirations of Daniel Ortega and the Sandinista Front to return to office in Nicaragua. Coming less than two months before the election, the attack brought with it a US government decision to intervene directly in support of Enrique Bolaños, the governing Liberal Party’s candidate and its former vice-president.

US policy towards Nicaragua over the course of the last decade of the twentieth century now appeared to have returned to the point of departure in 1990—or even long before that date when one recalls the long history of US intervention in Nicaraguan politics beginning with William Walker, the US mercenary who proclaimed himself president in the 1850s, or the US Marine supervision of Nicaraguan elections in the 1920s that provoked furore and the rebellion of Augusto Sandino (himself a former Liberal Party commander). Under the Somoza dictatorship, the US did not show much interest in the illegitimate elections periodically mounted by that regime. And in the 1984 elections, organised by the Sandinista government, then at war with the US-backed contras, Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North took to denouncing the “soviet-style sham” taking place as US diplomats pressured leading opposition candidates to pull out and deny any legitimacy to the electoral process. Still, the FSLN won that election and then went on to lose the next three in 1990, 1996 and 2001.

Although US and external aid dwindled over the course of the later 1990s, the US could not afford to claim “donor fatigue” and simply pull out of Nicaragua, as some of the west Europeans did. Few in Washington realised that the neo-liberal onslaught, while provoking severe social suffering in the population, was also pushing the Sandinista leadership rapidly to make huge ideological concessions in order to get a share of the political and economic pie, as Sandinista business interests, or increasingly influential Sandinistas with major economic holdings, also gained a vested interest in capital-centred stability and the spoils of “liberalisation”.

Sandinista party retreats also had a foundation in the heavy blows suffered by unions and rural labourers as a result of the new economics. The “free market” policies steadily accomplished what the US and the contras could not accomplish by force of arms, or the Chamorro and Alemán governments by force of laws: the reconcentrating of land, wealth and power in elite hands. Without access to credit and repayment facilities and protection from cheap imports—in the absence of a more democratic economic development model—farmers, cooperatives, and small industrial shops shrank in numbers and influence; many shifted into unemployment and/or the informal sector, which in time proved larger than the so-called formal economic sector. FSLN revolutionary and even opposition politics gave way to strategic collaboration with the governing Liberal Party chieftains.

In 1999 the infamous “pact” was signed between the two forces, much to the anger of the United States. Under its terms, Ortega not only secured de facto impunity over charges of sexual molestation brought by his step-daughter, but also constitutional changes that gave the FSLN direct representation in key electoral, judicial, auditor and legislative posts. Most important, the threshold for electoral victory was lowered to thirty-five per cent, and rules were introduced that barred most third parties from competing for office.

After weathering the internal rebellion by base-level militants against the pact, the FSLN went on to pave the way for its return to power. Obviously the governing Liberal Party, also in electoral straits and weakened by corruption scandals, believed it could win a two-party contest by simply resurrecting the age-old scare tactics (particularly if Ortega insisted on being the candidate), hoping to rally all anti-Sandinistas and US-fearing citizens in a single electoral bloc.

The question for both parties, however, was how to convince the United States to accept the risky formula. Alemán’s proposition to the US was the same as the one made to the Nicaraguan electorate: to force a choice between the perpetuation of the rule of Alemán’s tightly controlled Liberal Party and the return of an “unrepentant” and “unchanged” Daniel Ortega/FSLN. The Nicaraguan electorate and the US government with its highly influential donor country representatives had both different and coinciding reasons to be angered with Alemán. Generally acknowledged to have elevated corruption and nepotism to unimagined levels, Alemán had infuriated the US and the donors.

Visiting Nicaragua following the hurricane disaster in late 1998, Clinton made a public point of keeping a physical distance from President Alemán. Successive US ambassadors spoke out forcefully against corruption and mismanagement. Massive amounts were poured into judicial reform and the strengthening of the auditor’s office, only to have both the judiciary and the auditor’s office neutralised by the Alemán-Ortega pact. Never having accounted for the early privatisation of state goods into some Sandinista hands in 1990, the FSLN was also living in a glass house. And no small number of the IOUs in the offices of collapsing private banks were signed by prominent Sandinista party-affiliated entrepreneurs.

For their part, the Sandinistas would bend over backward to convince the US government that they no longer believed in the old anthem calling the US “the enemy of humankind”. Top party officials travelled to Washington to assure the Paris Club that a future Sandinista government would follow the rules of the Washington consensus, including prompt debt repayment and strict adherence to structural adjustment. Following the hurricane, Sandinistas in the legislature joined Liberal Party deputies in giving formal permission for US troops to assist in reconstruction duties. The FSLN supported military agreements giving the US powers to enter Nicaraguan coastal waters in pursuit of drug traffickers. Other petty elements in the US agenda posed no problem, including the denial of visa-free entry permits to nationals from countries suspected of using Nicaragua as a springboard to enter the US. Under the threat of aid cut-offs, FSLN cadres were forced to relinquish homes confiscated in the 1980s but belonging to Nicaraguans who had become US citizens.

By early 2001, with many observers and polls predicting that Ortega would win, the US State Department began paying more attention. The return of Ortega was coupled with the return of key Sandinista haters of Bush Senior’s administration to the administration of Bush Jr. Nicaraguan voters, trained by history, were no fools—trouble between a new Sandinista administration and the US government was bad news—all the more so as the economy reached a crisis of unprecedented proportions, principally the result of a collapse of investor confidence and the price of coffee on the international market. Given the importance of external assistance, the felt need of many Nicaraguans to secure steady access to remittances and relatives in the US and the fear that US hostility would further disrupt life, anticipated US-Nicaraguan relations—or, more exactly, Nicaraguans’ perception of future US-Nicaraguan relations—weighed unduly in influencing electoral choices.

FSLN leaders also experienced history and were painfully familiar with the distorted and externally conditioned Nicaraguan electoral paradigm. Reaching out to sceptical elements of Nicaraguan society and reaching out to the US were one and the same. Sandinista red and black banners gave way to pink, the clenched fist to flowers, Ortega’s Pancho Villa mustache to a pencil one, shirt sleeves to suits with ties, the discourse of resistance and anti-neo-liberalism to one of love and God. The Sandinista platform was in essence no different from the Liberal Party’s, promoting free enterprise, the market, adherence to macro-economic discipline, and fast integration into the Free Trade Area of the Americas scheme, including the Panama-to-Puebla scheme, helping to make maquiladora sweatshops the showcase of the Nicaraguan economy. Bankers and big capitalists were promised control over key economic and banking portfolios in a Sandinista-led government. The Sandinista ticket became known as the Convergence option as shifty figures from Nicaragua’s past, including from Somoza’s National Guard, and right-wing figures, once fierce critics of the FSLN, were promised government posts. Huge US flags decorated the closing campaign rally.

But waving the flag was not enough for Washington. The US also needed to be convinced that the Sandinistas and Daniel Ortega had “changed”. Some had hoped that a new post-Cold War US could afford to keep its mouth shut during the election. After all, if loyalty to neo-liberal economics was the certification demanded in return for US acquiescence, then the FSLN had earned it—particularly in the sorry light of Alemán’s record of failing to tighten the belt around corruption and fiscal deficits.

In mid-2000, Sandinista leaders took to explaining to Nicaraguans that the US had changed, that the Cold War was over, and that any US government would work with any Nicaraguan administration that was the product of a free election. However, the election of George W. Bush and the appointments of Otto Reich, John Negroponte and Elliot Abrams, among others, all raised doubts. The US assistant secretary of state and the US ambassador took to speaking out, albeit indirectly, on the importance of remembering history, including the uninterrupted liaisons of Sandinista leaders, particularly Ortega, with Castro and Qadhafi.

The problem for the US was less an ideologically self-hamstrung FSLN and more its leader. With a stranglehold over the party, Ortega had steadily rid himself of serious opponents, skilfully playing up his populist standing with a rank and file desperate for social change. But the US neither forgave nor forgot, particularly under George W., whose father probably recalled bitter personal encounters with a furiously anti-US Ortega. In all, the old anti-imperialist continued to be a symbol, against his own will perhaps, and an emblematic figure. Ortega’s election would have been a symbolic defeat for the US and the historical record of both Bush administrations. That the symbol had shed any radical content did not matter to the US.

After September 11, symbols became paramount. While US officials had not been shy before that date in reminding Nicaraguans of Ortega’s friends in the world, the Liberal Party candidates took up the theme with a fury, putting up banners and slogans pleading with Nicaraguans “not to elect terrorists”. The US ambassador in Managua toned down his criticism of governmental corruption and mismanagement while becoming more partisan on every possible occasion. State Department officials in Washington echoed the line, as did Secretary of State Colin Powell, in meetings with Nicaraguan officials in Washington.

After September 11, Ortega and Alemán outdid themselves in professions of solidarity with the US and condemnations of the terrorist attack. Both remained silent on the killing in Afghanistan. A few days before the election, Ortega went so far as to enlist Antonio Lacayo, the ex-strongman of the Chamorro government, fervently pro-US and neo-liberal, offering him the post of foreign minister. Lacayo’s first task: to send a message to the US and the electorate that Nicaragua, under the Convergence/Sandinista government, would stand “shoulder to shoulder” with the US in the war against terrorism, and that all outstanding problems would rapidly be addressed.

In the wake of the third successive Sandinista electoral defeat, some sympathetic analysts came to the conclusion that the FSLN could have won had it fielded another candidate, less tainted or frightening than Ortega. The conclusion is too simplistic, or perhaps the reading of voter reasoning is. While it is clear that many voted against Ortega, it is not clear that they were voting against an innocuous program, or against the possibility of a resurrection of a true social and political alternative. It would be dangerous, from the standpoint of the continuing construction of the alternative, to conclude that alternatives are not viable as long as the United States conditions politics and economics, let alone elections, in Nicaragua. Unfortunately, the FSLN was also conditioned by the US, yet received no reward in return.

The Sandinista machinery had seriously miscalculated, believing a makeover campaign would allow it to have its cake and eat it too: to keep the support of the poor and gain that of the rich, to have Ortega as its leader and acquire respectability in the eyes of the US, and therefore in the eyes of crucial voting blocs of the Nicaraguan electorate. Some argued that the machinery had no choice, since it was under Ortega’s tight control after having resisted internal challenges from both right and left. At the same time, the absence of a credible left outside or inside the FSLN made it difficult for Sandinistas to argue and educate around class, capitalism, non-authoritarian politics and neo-liberal globalisation.

Nicaraguans lost their fear of the United States once and paid dearly for it, and perhaps continue to pay for it as the painful memory of war affects the political psyche. For others, the self-inflicted shame of a party that tolerated the piñata-privatisation [the transfer of state property to individual Sandinistas during the transition to the Chamorro government], that refused to force Ortega to face the allegations of his step-daughter and fellow Sandinista militant, and the cold-blooded power sharing with the corrupt Alemán regime are even more contentious obstacles lying in the way of a revolutionary renewal. One can only believe with certainty, from a socialist Nicaraguan or a global transformation perspective, that the core libertarian and anti-imperialist values that inspired Sandino, and which once inspired the Sandinistas, are still present and will continue to surface in unsuspected and enduring ways.