Who Won Nicaragua?
On Sunday, February 25, 1990, Nicaraguans went to the ballot boxes and quietly voted out of office Marxist President Daniel Ortega, running for reelection against Mrs. Violeta Chamorro, publisher of the opposition daily La Prensa and head of a fourteen-party coalition known by its Spanish acronym UNO. By this act Ortega’s Sandinista Front, which has ruled Nicaragua for ten years through a combination of guns, guile, rationing, and advanced police technology, lost whatever claims to continued power it once might have had.
Mrs. Chamorro’s victory was all the more stunning for being wholly unexpected. Virtually no one in the international press corps-many of whose members reportedly wept openly as Ortega conceded defeat on election night-saw the story coming. Worse still, no one gave proper emphasis in the first place to the most important single fact about the election-namely, that at stake in Nicaragua was something more than a periodic renewal of authorities. Though this was the second presidential election in Nicaragua since the overthrow of the dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979, it was the first in which voters had a real choice, since in 1984 Ortega obtained the presidency in a virtually uncontested race. The exercise of February 25 was thus a plebiscite in which Nicaraguans were determining the kind of institutions they wanted in the future, much as the Chileans had done the year before last when they refused a new eight-year term to Augusto Pinochet. And Nicaraguans were also expressing their views on the kind of relationship they wanted with the outside world, particularly the United States.
From that perspective, the outcome should have been far easier to predict. At a time when democracy is breaking out in such unlikely places as East Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, it would have been odd indeed if Nicaraguans had opted to continue living under an all-embracing structure of power extending from a party-controlled army and police to block-surveillance committees, and passing through the media, education, the church—indeed, all aspects of national life. It would have been odder still had they preferred to reelect (if, technically speaking, that is the right term) a government which had presided over a 95-percent drop in the standard of living over the past five years, and whose mismanagement and brutality had driven a fifth of the population into exile. Yet precisely that odd result was what almost everyone (including, reportedly, the Bush White House) was expecting.
Just why this should have been so is an interesting problem for future cultural historians to ponder. The ready association of the idea of revolution with progress and popular consent is implicit in the Western liberal vision; it predates the very existence of Marxism, and it will no doubt outlast it. In the case of Nicaragua, once the proposition was accepted that the Sandinista Front represented the antithesis of the past, it was but a short step to the notion that whatever the future might resemble, it had to belong to them.
Only since the other day has “history,” so construed, failed to keep its scheduled appointments. Thus, while Ortega’s defeat surprised the press, it nearly shattered his most ardent supporters, who were in fact not Nicaraguans at all but a permanent complement of revolutionary tourists—Swedes, West Germans, Spaniards, Canadians, Latin Americans, above all U.S. citizens both very young and very old. For these “internationalists” (as they styled themselves), Sandinista Nicaragua was not a small Central American country torn by conflicting political visions and enmeshed in the gears of a complex geopolitical struggle, but rather the final station in the quest for revolutionary utopia-a destination which had eluded every preceding generation since at least 1789. This may explain the frank undertone of hysteria which spread and overtook their number as they gathered the morning after at Managua’s Olof Palme Conference Center, to act out a grotesque parody of the leave-taking ceremony of the International Brigades during the last days of the Spanish Civil War, this time with the charmless Ortega standing in for La Pasionaria.
Dressed (according to the Washington Post) in “T-shirts, blue jeans, and backpacks . . . [as well as] orange shirts emblazoned with Ortega’s campaign slogans, the volunteers raised clenched fists to salute Ortega and belted out the Sandinista party anthem.” Then came a series of testimonials redolent of a revival meeting or a free-form therapy group. An Argentine woman asked to be made a citizen so that she could continue to participate in Nicaraguan politics; a Brazilian film-maker broke down and wept as he said, “The pain is so deep . . . to lose Nicaragua would be to lose life!”; a physical therapist from Santa Monica, California, finally injecting a tart note, declared, concerning the Nicaraguan voters, “I didn’t ask myself what mistake I made. I thought to myself, they made the mistake.” This last comment is particularly illuminating, not only of the spiritual landscape of the woman who made it, but also, as it happens, of the spirit in which Ortega and his associates sought to reshape Nicaragua; and it suggests why they failed.
Of the full dimensions of Mrs. Chamorro’s victory, there can be little doubt. The actual numbers—55 percent to Ortega’s 41—are powerful enough; even General Pinochet did better than that in his own recent plebiscite. But percentages alone do not begin to tell the tale. Those Nicaraguans who have quit the country in disgust, or have been driven out of it for political or economic reasons over the last ten years—estimated at a fifth of the country’s total population—were not present on February 25; had they been allowed to vote in absentia (as are citizens of the United States, Colombia, and several other countries), the Sandinistas would have lost not by fourteen points but by 25. As Charles Krauthammer has pointed out in his syndicated column, this would have exceeded Lyndon B. Johnson’s 22-point victory over Barry Goldwater in 1964.
Moreover, there is good reason to believe that the official count seriously understates the extent of UNO’s support within the country at large. For one thing, more than 90,000 ballots—almost 6 percent of the total—were arbitrarily declared invalid. Preliminary electoral analyses suggest that this minor (but carefully engineered) fraud represented the margin necessary for the Sandinistas to maintain their now-minority representation in the National Assembly; without it they would have had almost no presence there at all. Further, some 241,000 Nicaraguans abstained from voting—apparently fearful that the secrecy of their decision would not be respected, and that they would be subject to reprisals in the event of a Sandinista victory or a coup which overturned the results. It is certain that if they had been planning to vote for Ortega, nothing stood in their way.
Even more interesting are the geography and sociology of the outcome. In Chontales and Boaco, zones in which the Nicaraguan Resistance Army, the so-called contras, have been operating in recent years (with or without U.S. support), UNO won every single municipality—Comalapa, Juigalpa, La Libertad, Santo Domingo, San Pedro de Levango, Santo Tomás, Acoyapa, Villa Sandino, San José de los Remates, Santa Lucía, Boaco, Camoapa, Teustepe, San Lorenzo, Paiwas, El Rama, Muelle de los Bueyes, Nueva Guinea, and El Almendro. This outcome constitutes a formidable challenge to those who argued during the Reagan years that the contras were nothing but a brand of bloodthirsty cutthroats who lacked any base of popular support.
Then there were UNO’s victories at the military base in Jinotega, in a housing complex in Managua reserved for high-ranking officials of the Popular Sandinista Army (EPS), and its near-triumph at the Carlos Arroyo Military Base in Managua, the precinct where the largest single number of military personnel were registered to vote. As for the conscript vote, here too Sandinista indoctrination failed to achieve its purpose. Indeed, all of the large categories of voters expected to support Ortega—urban labor, peasants, the young, ethnic minorities, the poor—turned out for Mrs. Chamorro, often in rousing numbers.
To reach this victory Doña Violeta (as she is known to friends and admirers) had to work her way up a playing field which was sharply—at times radically—tilted against her. The registration process was limited to four Sundays in the month of October, and procedures were announced almost at the last minute to provoke maximum confusion. The Supreme Electoral Council, the body supervising the election, was dominated by the Sandinistas; in none of its nine regional branches did the opposition have a single representative. Breaking all precedents in Latin America, the voting age was peremptorily dropped to sixteen, in an action inspired, apparently, by the belief that young people subjected to continuous, systematic indoctrination in school and army could not but ratify the only government they had ever known.
As if this were not enough, the Sandinista state—that is, the party—controlled both of the nation’s television stations. On one of these, the one whose signal hardly reaches outside the capital, the UNO coalition was permitted a ten-minute slot every three days; for the rest of the time this station joined its more powerful sister-channel in transmitting an uninterrupted drumbeat of Sandinista propaganda. Of the nation’s 25 radio stations, the opposition controlled only five, and only one of these blanketed all of Nicaragua. (As Humberto Belli, the former editor of La Prensa, has observed, this station was off the air as frequently as it was on, largely due to mysterious delays at customs which held up replacement parts for its transmitter.)
Though there are no accurate figures on the amount the Sandinistas spent on Ortega’s campaign, news reports repeatedly confirmed the fact that money was no problem. The regime outspent its opposition ten or fifteen to one, with resources appropriated from the public treasury or supplied by “solidarity movements” in Western Europe, Scandinavia, and possibly, also, the United States. Apparently it was the Europeans who provided the ubiquitous “party favors” that Ortega distributed at rallies-T-shirts, hats, Ray-Ban sunglasses, and other souvenirs, all luxury goods of the first order in a society where the basic elements of subsistence are wanting.
In evident violation of the law, the Sandinista party made uninhibited use of government funds, offices, phones, personnel, and vehicles; the latter were repreatedly pressed into service to bring Sandinista partisans to rallies, which explains why Ortega’s demonstrations were always larger than Mrs. Chamorro’s. (The illusion of Sandinista popularity was further reinforced by compulsory attendance on such occasions for government employees and army conscripts.) As the nation’s principal employer, banker, and dispenser of foodstuffs, the government was also in a position to exercise extraordinary pressure on the population—both to demonstrate public support for its candidate and to vote for him on election day.
Not content with the enormous resources of incumbency, the Sandinistas engaged in widespread intimidation of their opponents. According to the Organization of American States (OAS), two weeks into the campaign some 191 opposition candidates for local and congressional office had resigned; by February the number of withdrawals had reached 300. In towns where the local population turned out to greet Mrs. Chamorro or leaders of her coalition, the Sandinistas took to attaching the heads of freshly decapitated dogs to the doors of the most vocal oppositionists.
Throughout much of 1989 the Sandinistas also resorted regularly to physical violence, deploying their bully boys (the so-called “divine mobs”) wherever the opposition dared to assemble in large numbers. This tactic was only abandoned after an embarrassing incident in mid-December at Masatepe, a town about 50 kilometers from the capital. A UNO rally had drawn some 10,000 hardy souls, and the mobs had begun to do their work—but this time, in the presence of an observer delegation led by Professor Allen Weinstein of the Center for Democracy in Washington. Very inopportunely for the Sandinistas, another of the Americans present was Bob Beckel, Walter Mondale’s 1984 campaign manager, who told the New York Times (December 12, 1989) that “what we saw was an outrage. . . . There was no doubt among any of us at the scene that the violence was instigated by the Sandinistas.” Beckel, the report went on, “said that he stood just a few feet away as a Sandinista youth slashed an opposition demonstrator from throat to waist with a machete.”
In the final weeks of the campaign, the increasing presence of foreign observers—particularly the delegation led by former President Jimmy Carter—forced the Sandinistas to use techniques that were, by their standards at least, more sophisticated. For example, when UNO scheduled a rally in the important provincial city of Granada, the Sandinista authorities immediately transferred there an important baseball game that had been scheduled to be played elsewhere. They also eliminated the admission charge to the event, and distributed free beer to the fans. Taking no chances on those uninterested in baseball, they decided to reinaugurate a tourist center in Granada, offering bands and (again) free beer. On the day of the rally, the local authorities announced that meat would be distributed free of charge at six places in the city—this, in a country which had seen empty butcher shops for three to four years. They also called a special emergency meeting of the Transport Workers’ Cooperative so that there would be no bus service to convey people to the site of UNO’s meeting. (The people of Granada for the most part did without baseball, bands, meat, and beer, and walked to hear Mrs. Chamorro instead.)
In contrast to the huge campaign infrastructure of the Sandinistas, the efforts of the opposition candidate and her unwieldy coalition appeared frankly pathetic, and indeed were largely treated as such by the American and foreign press. Though the U.S. Congress (following the 1988 Chilean precedent) had appropriated $9 million for voter education and poll-watching, under ground rules established by the Nicaraguan government, half that amount was automatically given to the regime’s own Supreme Electoral Commission; the rest was largely embargoed by the red tape and bureaucratic delays for which both Communist and Latin American governments are justly famous. Finally, after much pressure from the observer mission headed by Jimmy Carter, in early February some $1.48 million was released to the Institute for Electoral Promotion and Studies, an organization linked to UNO but established only to train poll watchers. In the end Mrs. Chamorro’s coalition received a paltry $900,000—a tenth of the amount originally appropriated—in direct campaign contributions from the United States, and even then at the price of making a matching contribution (through the Supreme Electoral Commission) to her adversaries.
So how, under these circumstances, was it possible for Mrs. Chamorro to defeat Daniel Ortega? The answer to that question comes in large and small sizes.
The large answer is this: the Sandinistas, though failing to create a new Cuba in Nicaragua, ended up paying the political price for having tried. When they seized power in 1979 they proceeded from the not wholly erroneous assumption that international political and cultural conditions were far more advantageous to “socialist construction” in a small Caribbean country than had been the case in Cuba twenty years before. The Soviet bloc would provide the arms, political advice, and police technology to establish a level of repression never before seen, but this time, unlike in the case of Cuba, the West would finance imports of foodstuffs and consumer items, at least until the country was capable of sustained growth on its own. Failing that, the “socialist camp” would step in to provide economic assistance.
For almost three years the strategy worked brilliantly. Bulgarians, Cubans, and East Germans settled into the Interior Ministry, the army, and the police, and the new regime received $1.6 billion in net capital inflows, mainly from non-Communist sources, including more than $100 million from the Carter administration in the United States. The United States also provided normal bilateral aid—surplus foods and emergency medical supplies, as well as good offices at the World Bank and the Bank for Inter-American Development. Finally, it facilitated an incredibly favorable restructuring of the country’s foreign debt with Nicaragua’s private U.S. lenders.
In those early days, the sheer magnitude of resources from abroad succeeded in masking the fundamental contradiction of the new regime—that its political and economic goals were mutually exclusive. The Sandinistas could either construct a police state modeled on the Eastern bloc or preside over an economy which would be productive and self-sustaining; they could not do both. In the end they opted for the first, placing their hopes in an economic subsidy from Western Europe which, even if not indefinite, would last long enough for them to build an infrastructure of social control that would insulate them from the political costs of scarcity. Along the way they collided with three immovable obstacles.
The first was Nicaraguan society itself, which proved remarkably resistant to Sandinista objectives. In some ways this is not to be wondered at: unlike El Salvador or Guatemala, Nicaragua is not a country deeply divided along class, “racial,” or cultural lines. by regional standards it has (or at least once had) a large middle and lower-middle class; land ownership is (or was) widely diffused; and there is no strong demographic pressure in the countryside. The Church has never been associated with an impervious, unfeeling landed elite. The victorious insurrection against President Anastasio Somoza in the late 1970’s was a political revolution, not a social upheaval, the consequence not of underdevelopment but of development, and a response to the refusal of the dynasty to yield to the sociological consequences of forty years of relative stability and economic growth.
Nicaragua could have become another Cuba, then, only by neutralizing or eliminating the constituent elements of its society: the informal sector (led by the market women of Managua’s huge Mercado Oriental, and its homologues in various provincial cities); the Church, under the courageous leadership of Archbishop (later Cardinal) Obando y Bravo; La Prensa, the nation’s oldest and most respected independent newspaper; the labor movement; and the peasant class. Unfortunately for the Sandinistas, none of these parties had been associated with the Somoza regime; indeed, two of them—Cardinal Obando y Bravo and La Prensa—were at the very forefront of the struggle against the dictatorship. Although the Sandinistas told another story to foreign sympathizers, the Nicaraguan people knew the truth, and the Sandinistas knew that they knew.
True, the Sandinistas did succeed in greatly depleting the ranks of potential opponents. Some 100,000 Nicaraguans—skilled workers, engineers, agricultural technicians, and other people who knew how to organize and produce wealth—were driven out of the country. And those who remained were horribly demoralized. But they were never convinced. In fact, far from winning over new converts, Ortega and his associates merely confected new enemies, including the indigenous minorities of the Atlantic coast, never before active in Nicaraguan politics. These Indian groups were compelled to enter the struggle against Managua, the “white man,” and the Sandinistas (they saw no difference among the three) as a response to the officious Cubans who overran their ancestral lands with tracked vehicles and conscripted their sons for dubious service in an alien army. Many of them eventually deserted to the army of the Resistance.
The second obstacle in the way of Sandinista ambitions was an international environment which, perhaps surprisingly, proved somewhat less favorable to the Sandinistas’ revolutionary project than originally expected. When the Sandinistas came to power the “generation of ‘68” was in positions of responsibility throughout Western Europe, and a new and virulent wave of anti-Americanism was sweeping through foreign ministries, parliaments, the press, the universities, churches, and foreign-assistance authorities. But Nicaragua was merely one cause among many—South Africa, Chile, New Caledonia (in France), the boat people, not to mention wildlife, the environment, and nuclear disarmament. There was thus not enough money in Western European aid budgets to continue the level of assistance which Managua received between 1979 and 1982. Moreover, the increasingly totalitarian aspects of the regime began to bother some Europeans, particularly in the Latin countries—France, Spain, Italy, Portugal—where Ortega’s arrogant political style was not particularly exotic, and was for that reason less enthralling. by 1988, Western European aid to Nicaragua had dwindled to a paltry $50 million, of which $35 million came from a single donor-the unteach-able Swedes.
As for the hostility of the United States (or rather, the Reagan administration), this proved something of a double-edged sword, upon which, to follow the metaphor, the Sandinistas never got a very good grip. Sandinista ideology required that the archetypical American be Ronald Reagan, or at least the Ronald Reagan of left-wing caricature. There was a practical side to this as well: Reagan’s antipathy guaranteed an outpouring of sympathy in Western Europe, and also in certain circles in the United States. But—here’s the rub—most of the Americans with whom the Sandinistas were well-acquainted resembled George McGovern. And this posed a serious problem of cognitive dissonance. Which was the real United States? Which the real American people? The Sandinistas never knew, and in their uncertainty they continually misinterpreted and misunderstood not only Reagan’s policy but also the motivations of his critics.
Put another way, U.S. foreign policy was one thing, U.S. domestic politics another. The debate over military aid to the contras—one of the longest and most bitter in recent legislative history—was not, pace Ortega, about the relative virtues of the Sandinista regime, but about the relative wickedness of the Reagan administration. This helps explain why, precisely at the moment of Ortega’s greatest victory in the U.S. Congress—the decisive cutoff of military aid in 1987—his stock began to decline on Capitol Hill. For once the U.S. abandoned the contras to their fate, the burden of proof for political good conduct was pushed from Reagan over onto the Nicaraguan president and his associates. When the Bush administration in its turn decided not to resume the costly fight for military aid, the political landscape in Congress shifted even further against the Sandinistas; almost overnight, Bush and Baker obtained the bipartisan consensus—in this case, to support the opposition in elections—which had eluded their predecessors.
However baffling Washington may have proved to the Sandinistas, nothing could have prepared them for the outbreak of Gorbachev’s revolution in the Soviet Union. On a practical level, this had the effect of unleashing forces within Eastern Europe that were disinclined to go on carrying Moscow’s water for it in the Third World. On what may be called the political level, glasnost and perestroika, by exposing the deficiencies and shortcomings in the socialist model, also undermined the Sandinistas’ most precious asset, namely, the unshakable conviction of having cast their lot with the winner in the East-West struggle. During the last weeks of the election campaign, both Vice President Sergio Ramirez and Comandante Bayardo Arce tried to minimize the ideological fallout of recent events in the Soviet Union by claiming (falsely) that they, the Sandinistas, had actually favored perestroika avant la lettre.
The third obstacle to the construction of a police state modeled on the pre-Gorbachev Soviet bloc was the Sandinistas’ inability to carry out their revolutionary project without having recourse to elections—in 1984, and again this year.
To be sure, for their supporters and apologists abroad the elections only served to demonstrate that the Sandinistas were not Marxists at all, but pragmatic populists, nationalists, liberation Catholics, “anti-imperialists”—anything but what Ronald Reagan (and the Sandinistas themselves) said they were. But if the Sandinistas had been, let us say, pragmatic populists, they would have convoked elections in 1979 or 1980, when they could have won hands down. They refused to do so out of a deep repugnance for the “bourgeois” notion of representative government (Interior Minister Tomás Borge called elections “periodic raffles”), and also because once people are conceded their right to the ballot box, even under circumstances very favorable to the rulers, they cannot easily be denied repeated return engagements under conditions which may be considerably less opportune.
The Sandinistas were pushed into elections, then, against their better judgment—in 1984, because in no other way could they hope to undercut the Reagan administration’s policy of supporting an armed resistance which was by then gathering strength in both the northern and southern parts of the country. Six years later, in a country utterly bankrupt and with the Soviet empire in full retreat, the Sandinistas saw elections as serving a slightly different purpose—humiliating the Bush administration, forcing it to demobilize the contra army, and inducing a resumption of heavy aid flows from Western Europe.
Both times, the electoral strategy proved very risky. In 1984, the Sandinistas won, but only by rigging the result and thereby failing to achieve the legitimation the elections were being held to bring about. In 1990, legitimation required a credible opposition candidate, an army of international observers, and above all, a campaign which would bear striking similarity to the “bourgeois raffles” the Sandinistas had always sworn to avoid—and they lost.
So much for the large answer to the question of how it was possible for Mrs. Chamorro to defeat Daniel Ortega. The small answer is that Mrs. Chamorro, given her paltry resources and lack of organization, ran a more effective campaign than anyone had the right to expect, while Daniel Ortega squandered all of his apparent advantages of incumbency.
First of all, Doña Violeta was (and is) a far more appealing candidate to Nicaraguans than to Americans, particularly American journalists, and most especially American women journalists. (The prize for condescension in this genre must surely go to Myra McPherson of the Washington Post, whose sneering profile of Mrs. Chamorro appeared, appropriately enough, in the paper’s “Style” section a few days before the election.) It is true that she comes from an “artistocratic” background, and by Nicaraguan standards is moderately wealthy. But she has considerable personal charm, and there is nothing phony or pretentious about her. Her message was powerful by its very simplicity: “No los aguantamos!” (“We can’t take them any more!”), which is precisely the language the average Nicaraguan housewife used to express her frustrations every day as she vainly foraged empty marketplaces for eggs, cooking oil, soap, toilet paper—things that had never been unobtainable in the “old” Nicaragua.
Mrs. Chamorro’s other message was equally simple: “I am against the draft.” This was a devastating challenge to which the government could devise no effective answer. It could invoke the threat of an American invasion, the myth of Sandino, the virtues of service to the state, the cult of sacrifice. But it could not credibly promise Nicaraguan youth a normal life, since the very notion ran against its priorities, its values, and its temperament, as well as its most immediate political needs.
There was much levity in sophisticated cultural circles in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Denver, and elsewhere when it was reported that Mrs. Chamorro “spoke with her husband every day,” since the poor man had been murdered by unknown assailants in 1978. Her remark was another way, however, of saying that she believed in God—hardly a liability in a deeply religious nation, where people commune with their departed in their prayers, and where the cult of the Madonna, and the notion of women in redemptive roles, are a part of popular culture.
Second, the fact that Mrs. Chamorro was identified as “the candidate of the United States,” far from being a disability, was perhaps her greatest asset. Contrary to the impression studiously conveyed by the American academics who inhabit our op-ed pages, most Nicaraguans (and most other Latin Americans) actually like and admire the United States, and wish to intensify the relationship as much as possible. This is not to be wondered at: over the past decade they have had the opportunity to see what the Soviets could offer them, and they much prefer the “ugly American” to the “ugly Bulgarian.”
So strong is the appeal of the United States to Nicaraguans that Ortega even found it necessary (in a somewhat twisted fashion) to compete with Mrs. Chamorro for the role of the leader who could “deliver” Washington’s resources and support. Throughout the campaign he repeatedly insisted that once he prevailed the United States would be obliged not merely to recognize his government but to offer a huge “indemnity,” variously estimated by Sandinista officials at between $1 billion and $3 billion. In the final days of the race, the Nicaraguan government was even appointing a “commission” to study the exact size of the indemnity and determine its future distribution.
Third, in spite of the many differences among the fourteen parties of the opposition, they managed to agree upon a single economic program, drawn up by Francisco Mayorga, one of the most respected economists in the country. Mayorga became something of a cult figure in Nicaragua after January 18, when in the only televised debate of the campaign he devastated his Sandinista opponent, Mundo Jarquin (who happens to be Doña Violeta’s son-in-law).
Fourth, the U.S. invasion of Panama in late December, far from hurting the opposition in Nicaragua, was perhaps crucial to its victory. There was a certain parallelism at work here: in both countries, military governments were staging elections as a way of turning back U.S. hostility; both countries were visited by large observer missions under Jimmy Carter; and both campaigns were conducted under less than optimal circumstances for the opposition. For those sympathetic to UNO, the implicit reasoning went like this: were the Sandinistas to engage in egregious fraud—as General Noriega did in Panama—President Carter would no doubt denounce them and after a short interval the Yankee Marines would come to put things right. The reasoning was naive, and even wrong, but it stiffened the resolve of Nicaraguans to vote, and dissipated much of the climate of fear.
Finally, Ortega lost because, like Pinochet in Chile, he was so convinced of his lead that he felt he could afford a relatively open and honest election. Someday perhaps someone will reveal the full details behind the use of polls in Nicaragua, and particularly of one poll commissioned by the Sandinistas from the Borge organization in Costa Rica (no relation to the Interior Minister of the same name). When a particularly accurate survey by this company revealed that the regime was probably going to lose, it was simply suppressed—much as was an unfavorable poll conducted by a think-tank in Chile sympathetic to Pinochet in 1988.
It is possible, also, that the Sandinistas believed much of their own propaganda, refracted back to them as it was by foreign media hugely sympathetic to them. The most blatant case was that of the CNN “correspondent” in Managua, a devout, even a fanatical, Sandinista—if in this case understandably so, since her uncle was the late dictator Anastasio Somoza.
Once the results of the February 25 voting were known, an interesting phenomenon occurred here at home: American liberals and radicals, who had worked together to defeat President Reagan’s policy in Nicaragua, suddenly split apart.
The liberals, by now none too keen on the Sandinistas and no doubt genuinely pleased with the results, rushed to appropriate for themselves the full credit for Mrs. Chamorro’s victory, or to share it with certain approved foreign leaders. Almost anyone but the contras or President Reagan was congratulated for this fortuitous turn of events: President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica and his peace plan (which set the stage for the elections in the first place); other Central American presidents, whose “pressure” was said to be “the biggest factor in moving Ortega to a more acceptable position”; former House leader Jim Wright; Jimmy Carter. Lawrence Pezzullo, who served as Carter’s first ambassador to the Sandinistas, went further than most, insisting that the Reagan administration’s policy had actually perpetuated the life of the regime. The writer Paul Berman, whose reporting on Nicaragua before the elections in the Village Voice was of a high order of sophistication and accuracy, nonetheless presumed afterward to instruct “White House Republicans” on the lessons of the election: “Distrust your own instincts. Call on Jimmy Carter, the thinking person’s Richard Nixon. Forswear imperialism. Go multilateral. Ignore polls. Remember that peasants are other than geopolitical pawns.”
It bears recalling in this connection that until almost the morning after the election these same liberals, or their colleagues, had been arguing that Nicaragua was an unimportant country for the United States, and that the political outcome there, though it would be regrettable, was something we could and should “learn to live with.” At play here was no sympathy for the Sandinistas but an acute repugnance for the use of force in world affairs, particularly when employed by the United States or its allies or clients; a tone-deafness to ideology; and a legalist-positivist notion of international affairs (all countries are equal, or we should act as if they were). For the sake of these particular causes, the Nicaraguan peasants would have proved dispensable enough.
To believe, however, that Marxist regimes fall because people primly disapprove of them requires something approaching complete political illiteracy; in the case of Nicaragua, it also demands historical amnesia of monumental proportions. As it happens, virtually all of Paul Berman’s “suggestions” were actually tried in Nicaragua—and by none other than “the thinking person’s Richard Nixon” himself, Jimmy Carter. He—Carter—forswore “imperialism,” abandoning an unsavory client (Somoza) even though the alternative was clearly distasteful and even menacing. He “weht multilateral,” in this case via the Organization of American States, withdrawing his ambassador from Managua in the final days of the Somoza regime in exchange for promises from the Sandinistas which, once victorious, they did not keep, and which no member of the OAS but the United States ever thought they should be held to. “Distrusting his own instincts,” Carter also provided aid to the Sandinistas, in spite of which they proved to be exactly what Ronald Reagan said they were. It was Reagan, by the way, who “ignored the polls”; for if all he had been interested in was political advantage, he would have accepted the advice of his liberal critics and let Sandinista Nicaragua be “Nicaragua” now and forever.
For radicals, the task of sorting out the results has proved significantly more difficult; not since the Hitler-Stalin pact has the Left had to reverse ideological gears so quickly. Literally up to the day of the election, its chosen task was to convince Washington to accept the (presumed) results of the Nicaraguan elections. For example, Larry Bensky, correspondent in Managua for Pacifica Radio, assured readers of the Nation that “the government is almost sure to be reelected.” In the light of subsequent developments, his supporting arguments are worth citing at length:
First, the Sandinistas have no credible opposition. . . .
Equally important is the fact that lots of people agree with the Sandinistas’ principal argument—that the country’s economic problems are not the government’s fault but are largely a result of U.S.-instigated aggression by the contras. They agree, too, that the Sandinistas deserve reelection because it is they who led the fight that has resulted in the contras’ defeat, if not disappearance. Now, for the first time the government has a chance to show what it can do in peacetime. . . .
And then, there’s “Daniel” . . . he’s grown up, and at the age of forty-four, strides the stage from side to side like a revival preacher, building cadences and holding audience attention no matter how oppressive the heat and the dust . . . he tells rural crowds they’ve really never had it so good. . . [the message] plays well with a long-suffering population. . . .
Everyone is aware of the power of U.S. media hawks to swoop in on wings of disinformation and discredit the electoral process, although the presence of observer delegations from twelve countries and three multinational entities—more than 2,000 people in all—will make this more difficult than usual.
How the Bush administration will greet a Sandinista victory of any magnitude is an open question . . . hard-core contra supporters . . . may try to set the Bush administration’s feet in concrete against any kind of accommodation with continuing Sandinista rule.
Against the background of confidence of this magnitude, Ortega’s defeat was an unprecedented ideological disaster—worse, far worse, than the liquidation of the Paris Commune, the Shanghai Communist regime, the Second Spanish Republic, or the Allende regime in Chile. For this defeat was the product not of blood and iron, of fascist generals plotting against democracy, of dark conspiracies by foreign-intelligence agencies or multinational corporations, but of a democratic election whose purity the Left had gone out of its way to certify in advance.
It was not possible to claim that Mrs. Chamorro’s victory was a fraud; instead, more tortuous arguments would have to be employed. And they were: overnight, all of the “advantages” which Bensky had attributed to the Sandinistas were turned on their heads. Alexander Cockburn laid down the new line in the Wall Street Journal (March 1, 1990):
Is it a triumph for freedom and democracy that a country goes to the polls with its population clearly admonished that a vote for the Sandinistas means the certainty of continued war and continued embargo, whereas a vote for Chamorro the U.S. client means the likelihood of economic relief and the suspension of contra attacks?
Without missing a beat, the faithful picked up the ball and ran. “The Nicaraguan people have spoken,” claimed Mayee Crispin, national coordinator of the Nicaraguan Network, “and clearly their vote means that they wish to end the suffering caused by ten years of U.S. aggression.” William Sloane Coffin of SANE/FREEZE put it more directly: the Nicaraguans “voted with their bellies and not with their hearts.” Asked by a journalist whether it was possible that the people “had voted for capitalism and democracy over Communism,” Sister Maureen Fiedler of Quest for Peace said, “I don’t think the average campesino understands those words. This was simply a vote for peace, a vote for food.”
Some went even further. According to Laurence Birns of the Council for Hemispheric Affairs, Mrs. Chamorro’s victory had nothing to do with Nicaraguan politics; somehow it was all done by remote control from Washington: “I am filled with an inner rage that the corner bully won over the little guy.” But perhaps the drollest contribution came from the leader of an observer delegation sent by OXFAM/Canada. Dr. Meyer Brownstone told the official Sandinista daily Nuevo Diario (February 28) that according to documents to which his group supposedly had access, “the amount of money spent by the United States on the UNO campaign is astonishing.” More astonishing, however, was what Dr. Brownstone went on to say: that his delegation was “not able to detect any visible signs as to how UNO spent the millions of dollars it received from the U.S. administration. ”
In order to prop up these variously bizarre versions of what had happened it was necessary to resuscitate the contras, presumably just defeated by the Sandinistas, as a menace of the first order; to revise yesterday’s analysis of the economic situation, which we were told had only solidified popular feeling behind the government; to reinvent the notion of a U.S. military solution so imminent that the Nicaraguan people voted out of fear of it; and to credit the Bush administration, yesterday on the verge of being humiliated into lifting the economic embargo after an internationally endorsed electoral exercise, with unsuspected depths of political intransigence.
No doubt by this time next year still more lurid interpretations will be making the rounds of American campuses and churches, and appearing in “documentaries” on public television. But the damage has been done, and there is no way the ideological outcome can be reversed. They have lost.
The Sandinistas have lost even if they renege on their agreement to hand over the police and the army to the new government. They have lost if they subvert and overthrow Mrs. Chamorro. They have lost if they convert themselves into an ordinary political party, run for elections in the future, and win—for by doing so they will have accepted the “bourgeois” rules of the game, and this will make them no different from (and no more appealing to the Left than) the populist political parties of Argentina, Chile, Peru, or Brazil. They have lost, because their myth has been destroyed.
Regardless of what Mrs. Chamorro does or fails to do, of whether Nicaragua prospers or not, of whether or not the United States provides sufficient aid, history will not change. The Nicaraguan people—including, of course, those who took up arms as contras—said no to Communism, no to planned scarcity, no to the militarization of youth, no to subversion as national purpose. They have won back their country, and in so doing have driven a stake into the heart of the Marxist vampire. Others can celebrate their victory, but the credit belongs to them—to them, and to those who believed in them and in their cause.