Nicaragua on Stage with Sunday’s Elections
Four battling presidential candidates and one also ran will face off Sunday November 5th in Nicaragua in what observers at home and abroad are calling a crossroads in the Central American country’s future. This first report, in a series to end with the voting results, offers background information on Nicaragua and the presidential contenders.
In its turbulent recent history, Nicaragua has seen an overthrown US backed dictator (Anastasio Somoza 1979); a revolutionary government voted out of office (the Sandinistas in 1990); and three consecutive pro-US governments (Chamorro, Aleman and Bolaños (1990, 1996, 2001).
The main contenders in Sunday’s vote are former president, Daniel Ortega, of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN); economist Edmundo Jarquin of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS); banker Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) and outgoing VP Jose Rizo of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC). There is also the Alternative for Change (AC) candidate Eden Pastora, once a Sandinista commander and later a “contra” leader, who has few followers.
In a country that loves nicknames, an ongoing newspaper and TV cartoon version of the campaign dubs Ortega, “Bachi” short in Spanish for being a high school grad; Montealegre and Rizo are the “raton” (mouse) and “pato” (duck) for their looks and manner and Jarquin is the “feo” or plain faced guy. Eden Pastora is treated as a non-serious candidate and is mostly ignored.
Tuesday is the final day of campaigning with Ortega holding a long and winding caravan through the streets of the northern city of Matagalpa where he has a large following. Jarquin’s supporters will take to the streets of Managua in the evening. On Sunday, Rizo concluded his effort with a huge national rally in the capital and Montealegre did the same in his stronghold of Chinandega.
To understand the dynamics of Nicaraguan politics it is important to note that dictionary definitions of conservatives (averse to change while holding on to traditional values and attitudes) and liberals (open to new ideas favoring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform) do not hold true in the Central American country of an estimated 5.6 million people.
In the 45 years of the Somoza dictatorship (1934-1979) the Liberals were the ruling power, with the feared National Guard and Army used to repress any opposition and maintain a system that privileged a small minority led by the Somoza family, which owned the best of the country’s farmland and industries.
The conservatives, led by historically wealthy families who took their turn at running the country in some of the pre-Somoza years, were the loyal opposition, but their leaders repeatedly settled for a piece of the pie instead of rising up to end the dictatorship.
The Sandinista revolution of 1979 and the years that followed reshuffled the deck. Somoza fled the country (he was killed by a bazooka in Paraguay in 1981). Today, the weakened conservatives have joined the more dominant and feuding liberal factions primarily to battle Ortega’s FSLN, now an economic power in its own right with hopes of winning on the first round due to the Liberals division and increased poverty under the last three governments.
To win a candidate needs 40% of the vote or only 35% if no other candidate reaches 30%. Otherwise a runoff will be held among the top two vote getters.
Meet the Leading Candidates
Daniel Ortega, 61, was born into a middle class family in the gold mining town of La Libertad in the central Nicaraguan department of Chontales. At the age of 18 he abandoned his studies at the Central American University in Managua to join the recently (1961) formed Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN). Sixteen years later, and after much loss of life and most of its top leaders, the FSLN would topple the Somoza dictatorship.
Two of his brothers, Camilo and Humberto, also played important roles in the pre-revolution years that saw Camilo killed. Humberto went on to head the Sandinista Army and since retirement has lived mainly in Costa Rica.
With the fall of Somoza, Daniel Ortega, leader of one of three Sandinista factions, was named the coordinator of the five-member National Reconstruction Government, which also included Violeta Chamorro, the woman who would later defeat him in the 1990 presidential elections.
During a brief couple years of relative peace, Nicaragua underwent an educational and cultural boom and land and industrial reforms began with Somoza’s confiscated properties.
Then, by 1981, the revolution came under fire from the counterrevolutionary army known as the “contra” financed and trained by the CIA. The US Congress approved hundreds of millions of dollars to fund the contras and the Reagan administration also relied on covert sources including drug trafficking to the US and weapons sales to Iran to increase the contras war chest.
Ortega was elected president in 1984 in the country’s first post-revolution elections with two thirds of the vote. Smelling a sure defeat, his chief opponent dropped out of the race as part of the strategy of stepped up hostility from the White House which claimed the Sandinistas were a threat to US national security. The vote occurred two days before Ronald Reagan’s reelection.
The young revolution tried to walk the line of a mixed economy that allowed private enterprises to continue but included a strong state presence in the productive, commerce and banking sectors.
On the religious front, Ortega’s 1985-1990 government promoted liberation theology in the predominantly Catholic country earning the animosity of the Vatican. Three liberation theology priests held key cabinet posts. Poet Ernesto Cardenal was the Minister of Culture, his brother Fernando Cardenal the Minister of Education and Miguel D’Escoto the Foreign Minister.
Nicaragua was guided under Ortega’s presidency by a 9-man national directorate of the FSLN on which he was also the coordinator.
Faced with a relentless effort by Reagan and later Bush Sr. to destroy the revolution, Ortega and the Sandinista leaders entered into peace talks and agreed to have new elections moved up to February, 1990. Contrary to most predictions of an easy FSLN victory, Ortega was defeated (55-41%) by the US backed Violeta Chamorro, wife of the late (1978) crusading anti-Somoza newspaper editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro.
Many Nicaraguans had grown tired of the David vs. Goliath war that besides the deadly contra attacks included a US commercial and financial blockade and rampant four-digit inflation. A distancing between the revolutionary leadership and part of the general population that had supported the uprising against Somoza was another factor credited with giving Chamorro her surprise victory.
Chamorro took office on April 25, 1990 ending the ten and a half year period of the Sandinista revolutionary government. Shortly after, the US dropped its blockade and the contras began to turn in their arms.
Ortega has been the secretary general of the FSLN ever since and this election is his third try to make a comeback. In 1996, he was defeated 51% to 38% by Arnoldo Aleman. In 2001, he ran again and lost 56% to 42% to Aleman’s vice president Enrique Bolanos. Then the FSLN won a considerable majority of the country’s mayors’ offices in 2004, sparking his hope that 2006 would mark a return to power.
Ortega’s running mate is an old foe, Jaime Morales Carazo. The former contra leader played a key role in the negotiations leading to the 1990 elections and was also the campaign manager of Arnoldo Aleman during his successful 1996 campaign.
Edmundo Jarquin, the other Sandinista candidate
Edmundo Jarquin, 60, is the other Sandinista candidate for president under the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) which broke off from the FSLN in the mid-1990s claiming an ethical decay of the party’s leadership. He had been the vice-presidential candidate of former Managua mayor Herty Lewites who died suddenly of a heart attack on July 2.
Jarquin was born in the northern town of Ocotal. His father was a small businessperson and his mother a school teacher. The feo, or plain looking one as he is called, was told by his mother that he would go nowhere in life off his looks and better get a good education.
The candidate began his political career at an early age as an intern at the Diriamba teacher training institute in 1960 where he witnessed the “November 11 Movement” uprising that Herty Lewites was a part of.
A close collaborator of publisher Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, he wrote in his book “Pedro Joaquin Juega!” that his contact with the heroic experience of this handful of anti-Somoza fighters had a profound effect on him and from that time on, he dedicated himself to the struggle against the dictatorship.
Lewites went on to be the Sandinista Minister of Tourism after 1979 and was elected on the FSLN ticket as mayor of Managua in 2000. His popularity as mayor led to his deciding to challenge Ortega for the party’s presidential candidacy, a move that earned him expulsion from the FSLN, and his decision to run on the MRS ticket.
Jarquin began his law studies at the Central American University, concluding at the University of Chile where he also obtained a masters degree in economics two months before the September 11, 1973 US promoted coup against Salvador Allende, which forced his return to Nicaragua.
Reunited with Pedro Joaquin Chamorro he helped forge a far-reaching alliance of political parties and anti-Somoza organizations. Jarquin was a professor at the Central American University and later became the executive director of the Institute for Human Advancement; which he helped found in the 1960s.
After the Sandinistas triumphed he was the Minister for Foreign Cooperation (at the time known as the International Reconstruction Fund of Nicaragua, FIR). He was the Nicaraguan ambassador to Mexico (1984-1988) and to Spain (1988-1990). Between 1990 and 1992 he was a member of parliament for the FSLN. He was a founding member of the Sandinista Renovation Party (MRS) that split off from the FSLN in 1995.
From 1992 to 2006 Jarquin worked with the Inter-American Development Bank as a specialist in the areas of governance and development.
With Lewites’ sudden death, the MRS decided to make Jarquin their presidential candidate and popular singer-songwriter Carlos Mejia Godoy accepted to be his running mate.
Rizo and Montealegre represent the divided Liberals
The Liberals are grouped around former president Arnoldo Aleman, and Eduardo Montealegre, who served as a top ranking minister in the last two governments of Aleman (1996-2001) and Enrique Bolanos (2001- ).
Since Aleman is currently serving a 20-year sentence for digging deep into the state coffers, although free but with travel and political restrictions, his Liberal Constitutionalist Party named Jose Rizo, the outgoing vice-president as its candidate. Both Rizo and Montealegre have ties with sectors of the Catholic Church although Aleman is now reportedly an evangelical.
Rizo, 62, was born into a well-off family tied to coffee production in the northern Nicaraguan province of Jinotega. His father was a deputy for many years of Somoza’s Liberal Nationalist Party. Rizo graduated as a lawyer from the Central American University in Managua and operates a large coffee hacienda in his native Jinotega.
Rizo took part in the rebirth of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party after its candidate Arnoldo Aleman was elected Mayor of Managua in 1990, when the US backed opposition coalition took Violeta Chamorro to power.
Over the years, the PLC candidate has held many posts in his party including the national presidency and during Aleman’s government he was in charge of INIFOM, the organization dealing with municipal governments.
Rizo was elected vice president in 2001 accompanying current President Enrique Bolaños. However, without resigning he distanced himself from Bolaños, Aleman’s VP, after the president betrayed Aleman and decided to prosecute him for corruption charges.
Jose Antonio Alvarado is the PLC vice presidential candidate. He served as education, health and defense minister at different periods of the Aleman and Bolaños governments.
Eduardo Montealegre, 51, is another familiar face in Nicaraguan politics during the last two administrations having served in several key posts.
Born into money, he studied economics in the United States at Brown University and later obtained a masters degree in business administration at Harvard.
His professional career began early at the Central Bank of Nicaragua under Somoza in 1976. Two years later he was the manager of a private banking corporation.
As the 1979 revolution nationalized the banking sector to promote a more socially oriented development Montealegre took up residence in the United States.
In Miami, the home of many Nicaraguan self-exiles, he was the vice-president and president of several private financial institutions include the Latin American Financial Services Corporation (LAFISE). By 1990, he was the vice-president of the board of the Central American Bank (BANCENTRO) based in Costa Rica.
Montealegre returned to Nicaragua in 1991, as the general manager of BANCENTRO, when the post-revolution banking system under Violeta Chamorro began a process of privatization.
Aleman made him the minister of the president in 1998. He then held the post of foreign minister in 1999 and 2000 until he resigned to make an unsuccessful bid for the PLC presidential candidacy, losing out to Enrique Bolaños.
However bygones were bygones and upon taking office in January 2002, Bolaños gave Montealegre the powerful post of finance minister. He later changed jobs becoming the presidential secretary and cabinet coordinator.
Like Lewites within the FSLN party, Montealegre had hoped to run for president in 2006 under the PLC but since all doors for a primary election were shut by Aleman’s supporters, he formed the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) to carry out his challenge.
Montealegre’s running mate is Fabricio Cajina from the central department of Boaco and political secretary of the Conservative Party, which is not presenting its own candidates in this general election.
Part two of this series will delve into the leading campaign issues and strategies used by the different candidates.