e-mail us
Nicaraguans reject Sandinista leader’s bid to retake power

Managua, Nicaragua

Ever since the U.S. Marines ran this country for three decades, Nicaraguans have loved baseball and the specialized language of the sport. When it finally became clear who had won the Nov. 4 presidential elections, the commentary on the street about candidate Daniel Ortega, who had just lost his third presidential election in a row, was, “Se ponchó!” The once-mighty Ortega had struck out.

His opponent, Liberal Party candidate Enrique Bolaños, won an estimated 55.8 percent of the vote to Ortega’s 42. 8 percent. Bolaños is a successful businessman who was an outspoken critic of Sandinista policies during the 1980s. During the years the Sandinistas held power, he was arrested and stripped of various properties and businesses.

Bolaños’ comfortable margin of victory was unexpected, as was the transformation of Daniel Ortega during the campaign.

This wasn’t the same candidate Ortega who, after winning a 1984 election, lost subsequent contests in 1990 and 1996. This time around Ortega became a gentle flower child rather than a revolutionary who robbed banks to finance the insurrection. The red and black banners of the Sandinista Revolution that toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 were replaced by soft pastels and banners stating, “Love will grow,” “Love is stronger than hate,” and “With love we will build the promised land.”

Yet the New Age mantras couldn’t disguise Ortega’s obsession with returning to power. Ortega knew he couldn’t make it there alone, however, so he crafted the National Convergence, a coalition of 11 smaller parties that joined with the Sandinista National Liberation Front, FSLN, to present a united alternative to the six years of cronyism and corruption the country has suffered under President Arnoldo Aleman. Appearing in pink shirts at campaign rallies, Ortega selected for his vice presidential candidate a corruption fighter who had been jailed by both the Sandinistas and by Aleman. Ortega brought former contra rebels and relatives of Somoza into the fold and said he’d appoint an evangelical pastor as head of the police and security forces. The U.S. flag appeared at his campaign stops.

For months it seemed to be working, and polls showed Ortega consistently ahead of Bolaños, who had been Aleman’s vice president before he stepped down to campaign for president. Although seen as personally honest, Bolaños did little to step out of Aleman’s shadow until the waning days of the campaign. The difference between the two major candidates was mostly style and background. Their platforms weren’t notably distinct. Ortega offered a vision of national reconciliation and progress based on bringing disparate political forces together under the umbrella of the Convergence. Bolaños ran as Someone Other Than Ortega.

Under the terms of a 1999 pact between Ortega and Aleman, third parties had a difficult time qualifying for the ballot. The Conservative Party managed to squeak in, and for a while its candidate, Alberto Saborio, drew enough votes from Bolaños to leave Ortega well ahead of his opponents.

Effects of Sept. 11

And then came the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, which served Ortega’s opponents -- including officials in the U.S. State Department -- with the perfect campaign tactic: the Osamafication of Ortega.

U.S. Ambassador Oliver Garza has worked behind the scenes for months to sabotage Ortega’s campaign and helped to pressure the Conservative Party candidate to resign, leaving a weaker candidate at the head of that party’s ticket. This interference was relatively tame, given the U.S. record in the region. The State Department refused in June to provide covert funding for Bolaños’ campaign when former contra leader Adolfo Calero took the Liberal Party candidate around Washington. (The U.S. government did provide $6 million to help run the elections.)

Yet in the wake of the terrorist attacks in the United States, all subtlety was lost. Garza appeared at a campaign rally with Bolaños and warned about Ortega’s links to international terrorists. Garza threatened dire consequences for U.S.-Nicaraguan relations should Ortega win. Liberal Party television spots showed Ortega with Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat and Libyan leader Moammar al-Qaddafi. Jeb Bush, the brother of President George W. Bush, wrote a Miami Herald opinion piece supporting Bolaños. Liberals reprinted it in Managua papers under the headline “The brother of U.S. President George W. Bush supports Enrique Bolaños.”

It all amounted to “electoral terrorism,” according to Miguel D’Escoto, the Maryknoll priest who served as Ortega’s foreign minister in the 1980s. Even former president Jimmy Carter, in Managua to monitor the elections, condemned the U.S. interference.

“The U.S. government tried to intimidate and bully Nicaraguan voters,” said Jennifer DeLury, an activist here with Witness for Peace, a church-sponsored solidarity group. “The message was, ‘Don’t vote for Daniel Ortega or you’ll suffer the consequences.’ Especially coming from a government that waged a vicious war here, it was totally inappropriate and no way to foster democracy.”

Judging by the polls, the strategy worked. Bolaños ate away at Ortega’s lead and in the last week topped the pollsters’ charts.

Depressed coffee prices, reduced orders for clothes from assembly plants, and declining family remittances in the wake of Sept.11 will afflict the Bolaños administration from the start. How much power Bolaños will really have, with Aleman -- who gets a seat in the National Assembly as a former president -- coordinating his handpicked slate of Liberal deputies, remains to be seen. He may be overshadowed and outmaneuvered by Aleman, the only politician in Nicaragua with a higher negative rating in the polls than Ortega.

Ortega’s old nemesis

In addition to opposition from the U.S. government, Ortega suffered the naked hatred of his old nemesis, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Managua.

Obando, who termed Ortega a “snake” at the close of the 1996 campaign, continued to get even with Ortega for the fierce church-state tiffs of the 1980s. At a Mass three days before the balloting, with both Ortega and Bolaños in attendance, the cardinal lambasted the former guerrilla leader with an appeal to family values.

“When we vote, we should ask ourselves whether the candidate supports marriage, and a family based on marriage, instead of the tendency to equalize true marriage with other forms of union,” declared the cardinal.

Ortega attended the Mass with Rosario Murillo, the woman with whom he has lived for decades, though they are not officially married. Obando y Bravo also reminded listeners that Ortega faces unresolved accusations of sexual abuse from his stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez.

Ortega insists that Narvaez’s charges are without merit, and his most intimate associates, including Murillo and Fr. D’Escoto, have backed him up. Although Ortega’s parliamentary immunity has prevented the case from going to court, the scandal refuses to dissipate. In July it flared up when Narvaez and D’Escoto traded accusations in Confidencial, a Managua weekly. Narvaez says D’Escoto knew of the alleged abuse and told her it was her Christian duty to tolerate it. D’Escoto denies her accusations.

Bishop Bosco Vivas accompanied Bolaños in his closing campaign rally in the city of Leon. Amado Peña, a priest in Managua, claimed Ortega “would destroy the country” as president.

“Lots of people here have a simple faith and look to church leaders like the cardinal to be their guides,” said Miguel Vijil, a Catholic activist who served as minister of housing in Ortega’s government in the 1980s. “Unfortunately, the bishops are not thinking of the poor in Nicaragua today, but rather still harping on their difficulties with the Sandinista Front in the 1980s.”

Several pollsters, including CID Gallup senior analyst Fred Denton, claimed the negative campaigning against Ortega had a lot to do with Bolaños’ last-minute ascent in the polls.

Yet Paul Schmitz, the Roman Catholic bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Bluefields, told NCR that what he termed the U.S. government’s “heavy-handed tactics” and the aggressive politicking by church leaders “didn’t have that much to do with how the vote turned out. People voted from their experiences, and Daniel Ortega was too old a face for them.”

Gustavo Parajon, a Baptist pastor in Managua, also said the scare tactics had little impact. Parajon has been mediating between the Aleman government and a group of former contras who claim the government has failed to keep its promises of land and housing to demobilized combatants. “These people are very angry and frustrated with the government, but they still voted for Bolaños,” Parajon said. “The memories of the ’80s still have a lot to do with how people vote. The Sandinista Front still suffers from the voto de castigo”-- the punishment vote.

DeLury, who monitored the campaign throughout the country, said the scare tactics used against Ortega had mixed results. “It worked with some people who were worried about the return of violence and hardship. Yet others simply refused to be bullied by the Catholic church or the U.S. government.”

Whatever the reason for Ortega’s lackluster showing, the Sandinista leader conceded with just 5 percent of the vote counted. Vijil, who years ago split from Ortega and helped form the Sandinista Renovation Movement, gave the former president his due. “Although he’s obsessed with his quest for power, he’s committed to doing it democratically,” Vijil told NCR. “More than any other elected politician we’ve had in this country, Daniel has a democratic spirit at heart.”

“Although we Sandinistas don’t want to lose, we’ve grown accustomed to it,” acknowledged Lidia Quezada, who runs a small store in the front room of her adobe home in Ocotal. “We’ve just got to keep on struggling.”

The new president inherits a country that enjoyed considerable economic growth in the ’90s, but it was development that left the majority poor even more marginalized. Although new malls and McDonald’s restaurants have sprung up in recent years, the 70 percent of the population living on less than two dollars a day can only look and not buy.

Paul Jeffrey is a freelance writer living in Honduras.

National Catholic Reporter, November 16, 2001