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THE world breathed a sigh of relief when Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega and President-Elect Violeta Chamorro embraced last Monday. Nicaragua's freest and fairest election ever seemed to go off smoothly, indicating that world leaders may soon be free of any entanglement with the country's civil war. President Bush even congratulated Ortega last week on "the conduct of the election and on his pledge to stand by the results."
But we should not give credit to the Sandinistas for running a fair election. The actions of the Nicaraguan government prior to the election indicated anything but genuine dedication to the democratic process. Only a people devastated by economic troubles and increasing political repression could have overcome the attempts by the Sandinistas to undermine the election.
ORTEGA'S meeting with Chamorro was a good public relations stunt, an ostensible sign of national reconciliation. But it could not obscure the Sandinistas' prior contempt for the opposition and reluctance to listen to popular sentiment.
Many news reports created the impression that the Nicaraguan government had no more than the usual incumbent advantage. The resources of the two candidates seemed roughly equal, especially considering the U.S. government's $4 million donation to Chamarro's National Opposition Union (UNO) coalition.
But the funds translated into only about $2 million for UNO, and $2 million in taxes for the Sandinistas. Thus the Sandinistas themselves benefitted from UNO's U.S. backing. And this irony provides only an inkling of their unfair advantages.
The Sandinistas marshalled all the resources of the government to further their political ambitions. (In the U.S., government resources cannot be used for partisan campaigns.) Ortega used army trucks to transport people to pro-government rallies, and government workers painted campaign signs and distributed campaign literature, according to the Organization of American States (OAS). State television and radio broadcast anti-UNO propaganda regularly.
The Sandinistas raided the government's 40 percent of the nation's assets and high tax revenues to finance its lavish campaign. In contrast, UNO could only draw upon meager funds, as even once-wealthy families had been impoverished by inflation that peaked at 10,000 percent.
These Sandinista abuses would be illegal in most democracies. But anti-UNO violence and direct intimidation of the opposition also ran rampant.
Former President Jimmy Carter's monitoring organization said in late January that 300 UNO poll-watchers had been intimidated into resigning. Similarly, more than 100 opposition candidates had resigned by mid-December because of Sandinista intimidation, the OAS reported. The military played a part in intimidation too, as defense minister Humberto Ortega stated his intention to "neutralize" those "encouraging the Yankee invasion" of Panama, a reference to UNO.
Other abuses included death threats, kidnappings, arrests and imprisonment for distributing UNO pamphlets and even setting UNO members afire.
And on February 23 the Center for Democracy, the first monitoring organization invited to observe the elections, said in an open letter that the Sandinistas had attempted to stonewall international observers. The letter cited the government's refusal to allow two dozen Democratic and Republican observers into the country and its denial of entry to several Central American governments' representatives.
BUT even last-ditch efforts such as these were not sufficient to suppress the true feelings of the Nicaraguan voters. Chamorro's campaign focused on assuring Nicaraguans that the vote would be secret and fair. Ironically, the lavishness of the Sandinista campaign may have also hurt its chances.
"Perhaps the glitziness of the campaign backfired on the poor population. The t-shirts, gifts and rallies made the people react against" the Sandinistas, said Ken Wallach, Executive Vice President of the National Democratic Institute--one of the Democrats' observers at the election.
The most crucial role was played by international observers who guaranteed a free election at the request of nearby Central American countries. After years of civil war supported by superpowers, the Nicaraguan people can, for once, thank outside forces for interest in their country.
Those Americans who backed the Sandinista regime found it difficult to fathom Ortega's loss. Up to the time of the vote these supporters ignored the facts and glorified the party's egalitarian theories. If they had seen how the Nicaraguan government gradually lost touch with those it originally represented, perhaps they would have foreseen Chamorro's victory.
The voters' rejection of the Sandinistas stemmed in large part from the party's abuse of power and a "sense of oppression" on the part of the Nicaraguan people, said Wallach.
This oppression could have stemmed from the presence of Ortega's military of 150,000 soldiers, supposedly formed to combat the 15,000-strong Contra resistance. Ortega also used the war against the Contras to excuse censoring La Prensa, harassing non-Sandinista priests and bishops and dislocating an indigent tribe from its ancestral homeland.
Many observers blame the United States for Nicaragua's economic troubles and say the election was ultimately decided on economic grounds. In part it was. But ill-planned "reforms," mostly in the form of nationalization and collectivization are just as much to blame for the devastation of the Nicaraguan economy.
In the end, the Sandinistas became almost as abusive of their power as the Samoza regime. Self-described "neutral" human rights groups such as Witness for Peace, however, explained away or simply ignored abuses by the Sandinistas in their haste to catalog violations by the contras.
NOW Violeta Chamorro has an opportunity to re-form her country on a more democratic and more free-market model. The privatization of state assets and the allowance of discourse, political dissent and religious activity will breathe new life into her country.
If Chamorro respects the will of the people and does not try to cast them into an ill-conceived and pre-conceived mold, she will bring them the peace her country has not known since before the Samozas took power. And with peace will come prosperity and human rights that Nicaragua has never fully known.
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