Politics in Nicaragua

(Remember: the views expressed here are my own and do not reflect the position of the Peace Corps in any way, shape, or form. Okay, on to the post.)

Sunday November 6th is election day here in Nicaragua. There is a great deal of uncertainty about what this will mean for the country and for our work as English volunteers. We don’t know if school will be canceled due to political unrest afterward or if things will go on as normally scheduled. Here’s the lowdown: There are three major-party candidates; current president Daniel Ortega for the Sandinista party, ex-president Arnoldo Alemán for the Liberal Constitutionalist Party, and Fabio Gadea for the Independent Liberal Party. According to the Nicaragua Wikipedia page, citing recent Gallup polls, Ortega will have 44% of the votes, Gadea 32%, and Alemán 13%. I don’t really know the substantive differences between their policy proposals because neither of the two major newspapers make it out to my town, and even when I do track one down they are not very balanced or particularly well-reported. In this post I’ll give a brief overview of the historical context, and then describe some of the issues surrounding the current election.
Daniel Ortega was one of the Sandinista revolutionary leaders who helped overthrow the military dictator Somoza in 1979 and rose from the junta to be the president by the late 80s during the end of the ‘Contra'(counter-revolutionary) war. The US was supporting the dictator in the 70s(because the Sandinistas were communists) and they funded virtually all of the ‘Contra’ war during the 80s to fight against the revolutionary government(When congress cut off the funding that Reagan was funneling to the war, his administration sent money illegally through intermediaries. This was revealed in the Iran-Contra scandal). While the revolution was very popular domestically in the beginning, the revolutionary leaders made some serious errors during the Contra war, like trying to force farmers onto communal farms and relocating indigenous people suspected of sympathizing with the Contra forces. These problems along with crackdowns on the press and regime critics led to the surprise defeat of Ortega by Violeta Chamorro in 1990. There were accusations that the Sandinistas used their remaining time in power to rob the public coffers before Chamorro took over. What followed was a messy decade and a half of politics, a shift towards a more market-based economy, and continued corruption (especially by Arnoldo Alemán, who was convicted on corruption charges and sentenced to 20 years of prison until the verdict was overturned under Ortega in 2009).
In the current election Ortega is accused of running illegally because there is a provision in the constitution that prohibits any person from being president more than twice (Ortega was President in the late 80s as well as now). My understanding is that when the case was brought to the supreme court of justice, they ruled that these sections of the constitution did not apply. I’m not sure what the justification was, but the decision was made in a political maneuver by excluding non-Sandinista judges. Other accusations have surfaced about unequal issuing of voter identification cards. According to La Prensa, the anti-Ortega newspaper, members of the Sandinista political party were receiving their ID cards, which are necessary to vote, much faster than anyone who did not belong to the party were. It’s unclear how widespread this was or how much of an effect it will have on the ability of opposition voters to vote. Another issue was the ability of the opposition parties to file the paperwork for all of their municipal candidates to get on the ballot.
International election monitoring is another cause of concern for onlookers. I don’t understand these details all that well either, but from what I read the rhetoric from the Sandinistas was accusatory about international ‘interventionists,’ as they were labeled, entering the country and lending support to the opposition parties. The United States embassy will be observing unofficially because their proposal was either rejected or they were unwilling to accept the limitations imposed on those applying to be official observers. There will be international observation from some European countries, I believe, as well as a few approved international NGOs, but after widespread accusations of fraud in the previous municipal elections many people do not see this resistance to being observed as a good sign.
The opposition to Ortega is split between Alemán and Gadea and there are suspicions of foul play here as well. Some people suspect that because of the pardon that Alemán received from Ortega’s administration he’s cooperating to split the opposition and give Ortega the plurality that he needs to win re-election. This collusion is referred to as ‘The Pact.’ Indeed, it appears that Ortega will have an easy victory, though this will likely mean a considerable amount of unrest from the opposition parties who have been making these accusations throughout the run-up to the election. In any case, it will be an interesting next couple of weeks.
I have no concerns for my safety, and Peace Corps is taking plenty of security precautions. We are not allowed to leave our sites for a couple of weeks to avoid traveling in major cities and to stay in communities where we are well known and safe. We receive almost daily updates on the political situation from our security coordinator and the US embassy and I have experienced absolutely zero ill will as a US citizen. I don’t have strong opinions about the election personally, partly because of my ignorance of the context and partly because who am I, as an imperialist American, to judge? I’ll try to learn more about the context in the coming days and give an on-the-ground appraisal of what I see, though I am limited in what I can say publicly if it would have a negative impact on the ability of the Peace Corps to work in the country. I’ll stick to non-controversial observations only.
If you’re interested in learning more about the history and politics of Nicaragua since the early 1970s, I highly recommend Steven Kinzner’s book, Blood of Brothers. It’s extremely well-written, balanced, and informative, through it was written in 1991 and thus does not deal with the modern political environment.


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