WORLD

THE AFTERSHOCK

THE DEFEAT OF NICARAGUA’S SANDINISTA GOVERNMENT SHOCKED THE HEMISPHERE

HOLGER JENSEN March 12 1990
WORLD

THE AFTERSHOCK

THE DEFEAT OF NICARAGUA’S SANDINISTA GOVERNMENT SHOCKED THE HEMISPHERE

HOLGER JENSEN March 12 1990

In the run-up to Nicaragua’s election, President Daniel Ortega looked more like a pop star than the leftist revolutionary who had defied the United States for almost a decade. Gone were the spectacles and military uniform of a comandante of the Sandinista National Liberation Front. Ortega wore contact lenses and campaigned in blue jeans and flowered shirts. And he was apparently so confident of winning that he began calling himself “president-elect” even before the voting began. But the outcome confounded all opinion polls and predictions by many of the 2,500 foreign observers monitoring the fairness of the balloting. The result also surprised the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which had advised President George Bush that a Sandinista victory seemed certain. Three hours after voting ended on the night of Feb. 25, a shocked Ortega learned that he had lost to the National Opposition Union (UNO), a fractious coalition led by his former junta colleague Violeta Chamorro. Early the next morning, looking subdued, the president promised to “respect and obey the popular mandate,” signalling an end to more than 10 turbulent years of Sandinista rule.

UNO’s stunning upset—by a margin of 15 percentage points—led to dancing in the streets of Managua and jubilation in Washington. There, two successive administrations had applied economic sanctions and funded the contra guerrillas in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the only leftist government in Central America. Bush hailed the election result as “another victory” for democracy, following the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. Other American officials predicted an early end to the war in El Salvador, now that the leftist insurgents there can no longer count on Nicaraguan support. But Sandinista control of the 75,000-member army and the interior ministry’s security apparatus will likely lead to a stormy transition. Analysts say that Chamorro will have to reconcile fierce rivalries within her own 14-party alliance before her inauguration on April 25. And Washington faces the difficult task of demobilizing the contras and raising massive amounts of aid to rebuild Nicaragua’s shattered economy, As Senate Republican leader Robert Dole pointed out, it will take “big bucks.”

Apprehensions about the two-month transition period heightened on Feb. 26 when Ortega outlined a list of what he called “untouchables” for the new government. He told an afternoon rally in Managua that the Sandinistas would not allow UNO to cut down the size of the armed forces or purge their commanders. And he pledged that there would be no rollback of the Sandinistas’ land reform program, under which more than two million confiscated acres had been redistributed to about 68,000 peasant families.

Ortega was more conciliatory that evening in a private meeting with Chamorro. The 60-year-old opposition leader, on crutches after fracturing her right kneecap during the election campaign, greeted him effusively at the Managua restaurant that had served as her campaign headquarters. “My beautiful little father, come in because I love you,” she said. “There were no winners or losers in these elections. What I want is that we all work for a reconciliation of Nicaragua.” Ortega hugged her and said that he was “ready to co-operate.” But hard-liners on the nine-member Sandinista National Directorate seemed unwilling to follow suit. Tomás Borge, the powerful interior minister who heads the secret police, said that he would step down after Chamorro takes over but added, ominously, that she would do well to keep him on. “If I am not named the minister, the one who will come out the loser will be the new government, not me,” he said.

Despite an appeal from Ortega to tone down their rhetoric, Sandinista radio and press reports continued to denounce the vote as “fraudulent.” One broadcast declared that the Sandinista Front would continue to “rule from below.” In Managua, residents of several neighborhoods said that the Sandinista leadership had begun supplying weapons to its militant supporters in the event of an open conflict between the outgoing and incoming governments. And there were belligerent demonstrations by young Sandinistas, many of them armed, in the northern towns of Esteli, Ocotal, Somoto and Pueblo Nuevo.

Democracy has no roots in Nicaragua, a wedge of semitropical jungle that has been racked by conflict for 150 years. From U.S. adventurer William Walker, who ran the country like a personal fiefdom in the 1850s, to dictator Anastasio Somoza, who ruled for 12 years until the Sandinistas overthrew him in 1979, political power has changed hands only through violence. The Sandinistas’ anti-American rhetoric, leftist social and economic policies and close ties to the Soviet Bloc brought them into conflict with the United States after Ronald Reagan succeeded Jimmy Carter as president in 1981. By then, Chamorro had already resigned from the Sandinistas’ first ruling junta in disillusionment with the new regime’s failure to call free elections.

Reagan accused Ortega of creating a “Stalinist dungeon” in Nicaragua, repressing the political opposition and joining with Cuba to export revolution. Bush once derided him as “that little man.” Both American presidents spent hundreds of millions of dollars arming and supplying the contra rebels, whose guerrilla war claimed an estimated 30,000 lives in eight years. American trade embargoes and Sandinista mismanagement of the economy created rampant inflation and plummeting living standards, finally achieving what the contras could not do—undermine the revolutionary regime. Ortega, apparently hoping that a Sandinista victory in democratic elections would remove any justification for U.S. support for the contras and pave the way for normalization of relations with Washington, decided to take a gamble. At a Central American presidential summit in February, 1989, he committed himself to an internationally supervised election.

The UNO coalition, hastily assembled only six months before the election, was united only in its desire to unseat the Sandinistas. The 14 opposition parties were weak, disorganized and built not around issues, but personalities. They chose Chamorro, publisher of the opposition newspaper La Prensa, as their presidential candidate largely because she did not belong to any party. That, they hoped, would prevent any single coalition component from gaining ascendancy. Throughout the 12-week election campaign, government rallies dwarfed UNO gatherings. Polls by outside groups consistently showed that the Sandinistas would sweep to victory, and Ortega himself maintained that defeat was “not possible.”

It was, perhaps, that confidence that led to one of the cleanest and fairest elections ever held in Central America. Other than a controversy over improper use of Canadian aid, foreign observers reported few irregularities. Grain and canola oil in containers stamped “Canada” had been distributed by Sandinista officials in Masaya, a small town 40 km from Managua, a day before the election in an obvious attempt to influence voters. But there was no apparent intimidation, no violence and no tampering with ballot boxes as Nicaraguans flocked to the polls. By the time the voting was over, at 6 p.m. Sunday, nearly 90 per cent of the country’s 1.7 million registered voters had cast their ballots—and it took only three hours for the verdict to emerge.

By 9 p.m., preliminary counts at selected voting stations convinced Ortega that he had lost. A Nicaraguan who was in the Sandinista campaign headquarters said that “there was just total shock” when the results came in. “No one could move or think,” he said. At 11:30 p.m., Ortega informed leaders of the foreign observer teams that he was ready to concede defeat. Ex-president Carter, who led the American delegation, said: “He took the initiative, and I’m sure he had thorough discussions with the other comandantes. There was never any question about whether they would accept the results of the election. The only discussion was working out the step-by-step.”

At 2 a.m. Monday, when 60 per cent of the results were in, Ortega asked members of his cabinet to go to the Olof Palme Convention Centre for his concession speech. But the only ones who showed up were his foreign minister, Miguel D’Escoto Brockman, and the Sandinista campaign manager, Bayardo Arce. Notably absent were Borge, the interior minister, and the president’s younger brother Humberto, the defence minister.

Nicaraguans, who had stayed awake most of the night awaiting the results, heard Ortega’s brief statement on a government radio broadcast. Some Sandinistas wept. Others wandered forlornly around a huge bandstand that had been erected outside their campaign headquarters for the victory party that never materialized. Government supporters clashed with UNO celebrants in several Managua neighborhoods but many were simply too stunned by Chamorro’s landslide to voice their objections. Said one British diplomat: “It wasn’t that we didn’t think Violeta could outpoll Daniel; it was just that we couldn’t imagine him out of power.”

Ortega’s defeat rekindled one of the most divisive foreign-policy debates in Washington. Conservative Republicans claimed that it vindicated their support for the contras. Liberal Democrats said that the election proved the merits of negotiation over military action. But the White House swiftly reassured the fledgling democracy. In a message clearly aimed at the contras, Bush said that there was “no reason at all for further military activity from any quarter.” Other senior administration officials disclosed that the 3,000 rebels still operating in Nicaragua and another 10,000 based in neighboring Honduras had been told to “cool it.” Marlin Fitzwater, the White House press secretary, also announced that the lifting of economic sanctions “will be a matter of first consideration.”

Ortega responded to those gestures by declaring a unilateral truce. Promising that combat operations would be halted at once, he made it clear that demobilization of the contras was one of his conditions for handing over control of the army to the new government. Chamorro supported Ortega’s call for demobilization but also ruled out any limits on her power—and she did nothing to lessen Sandinista concerns about her desire to reduce the size of the Nicaraguan army. At a March 1 news conference, Chamorro said: “We are going to have a very small, democratic armed force, and not what there is at the moment. Humberto Ortega is going to leave,” Chamorro said, adding that she would appoint her own defence minister.

The contras themselves seemed undecided what to do. One report from Honduras said that they would keep their army intact until Chamorro is inaugurated. Another said that they would lay down their arms if they received amnesty. At week’s end, contra spokesman Alejandro Acevedo announced that they had requested “immediate talks” with Chamorro, while also negotiating with U.S. special envoy Harry Shlaudeman, whom Bush had sent to Honduras.

Another round of negotiations was under way in Managua, where Chamorro’s son-in-law and campaign manager, Antonio Lacayo, began discussing the transition with Humberto Ortega. The appointment of Lacayo, an American-educated businessman, as transition chief did not go down well with Chamorro’s coalition partners, who accused her of favoring the eight senior advisers in her shadow cabinet over the 14 party leaders in her alliance. Such bickering will not make it easier for UNO to traverse the formidable obstacles that still litter Nicaragua’s road to democracy. Having defied all odds by beating the Sandinistas, the president-elect could find her coalition falling apart before she even takes office.