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Location: Havana, Cuba

is a blog to give a fresh angle on a fascinating and beautiful Caribbean Island country that, despite being relatively small and with only 11 million people, has been a major player in American and world politics for a half century. I also suggest you try

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Cuba Honors Fidel, Observes Latin America

by Circles Robinson

Cuban President Fidel Castro reached 80 on August 13th but due to his intestinal surgery in late July, celebrations honoring him were postponed for the week ending December 2nd.

The festivities got underway on Tuesday with the dedication of a new university campus in Old Havana, a cultural gala at the Karl Marx Theater, and the opening of an exhibition of works by the acclaimed Ecuadorian artist Oswaldo Guayasamin (1919-1999), a great admirer of Cuba and Fidel.

The date was chosen by the Cuban leader himself to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the landing of the Granma, the vessel that sailed from Mexico to eastern Cuba with an 82-strong expeditionary force in 1956.

The group led by Fidel Castro included revolutionary heroes Ernesto “Che” Guevara, Camilo Cienfuegos and his brother Raul Castro and was destined to put an end to the Batista dictatorship and give Cuba its real independence 25 months after coming ashore.

The Granma, a piece of history frozen in time, now sits visible in a glass enclosure on a wide avenue in Old Havana alongside the Museum of the Revolution, a must stop for visitors to the Cuban capital.

As Fidel continues to recuperate from his operation, a slow process as he has described it, the festivities honoring him include a colloquium titled “Memory and Future: Cuba and Fidel” and the “Todas las Voces, Todas” (All the voices together) concert to take place Thursday evening at the Jose Marti Anti-imperialist Plaza facing the US Interests Section. A host of famous Latin American singer-songwriters will participate alongside Cuban artists.

The celebration occurs just before one of the island’s most important annual cultural events, The 28th New Latin American Cinema Festival (December 5-15) and simultaneous to the Havana Jazz Festival slated for November 30 to December 3.

The final day of the birthday celebration and commemoration of the Granma landing on Saturday includes a military parade to show off some of Cuba’s defense capability and let the Bush administration know that any attempt to annex the island would prove even more costly than the Iraq fiasco.

The date also occurs sandwiched between two major political events for Latin America being closely followed in Cuba and throughout the continent.

On Friday December 1, Felipe Calderon, of the governing National Action Party (PAN), will try to take office as Mexico’s next president, after he “won” a razor thin victory over Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (PRD) on July 2.

Alleging widespread fraud in the vote count, Lopez Obrador’s supporters proclaimed him the “legitimate president” in a massive rally on November 20, and PRD legislators may impede Calderon’s swearing in ceremony at the Mexican Congress.

Then on Sunday December 3, Venezuelan voters go to the polls for presidential elections where Hugo Chavez seeks re-election for a 6-year term. Polls show the charismatic leader and close friend of Cuba and Fidel Castro as a shoo-in to defeat the US candidate, Manuel Rosales.

A Chavez victory will further boost the Latin American integration initiatives being spearheaded by the Cuban and Venezuelan leaders and Bolivian President Evo Morales.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

Nothing to Lose by Ending Cuba Blockade

By Circles Robinson

George W. Bush has bungled policy in the Persian Gulf but the president could make history by ending the ineffective nearly half century US blockade against Cuba, its next-door neighbor to the southeast.

The blockade does more un-American things than any other piece of legislation. It takes away the rights of business people to sell their products and services; prohibits US citizens from freely traveling; blocks academic, scientific, artistic, religious and sports exchange; and even goes to the extreme of punishing companies and individuals from third countries that try to maintain normal relations with companies and institutions in both Cuba and the United States.

On the business side, ending the blockade would bring new billion dollar markets for US agricultural producers and other exporters; would be a boom for US travel agents, shipping and airline companies; and would pave the way for US investment in such strategic areas as oil exploration and the biotech industry.

And you know what; the Republicans wouldn’t lose a single vote by dropping the archaic blockade because the special interest lobby that runs southern Florida politics considers the Democrats to be just short of commies. They will never forgive John F. Kennedy for not nuking Cuba to get Fidel Castro.

When Richard Nixon went to China in February 1972 and met with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong he made a calculated move that showed Republican Party pragmatism. While it didn’t save his presidency (with the Watergate scandal on the horizon), it has received bipartisan support ever since and is the one positive act Nixon is universally remembered for.

Bill Clinton’s decision to put the disastrous war against Vietnam in the past and establish relations in 1995 with the Southeast Asian country has also proven universally popular. In fact, President Bush just visited Hanoi and the whole affair may even push Monica L. out of the US history books.


US Sgt. Carlos Lazo, an Iraq veteran, was barred from visiting his two sons in Cuba. The late Cuban musician Ibrahim Ferrer was denied a visa to attend the 2004 Grammy awards in Los Angeles, in which he won the prize for the Best Traditional Tropical Latin Album at the age of 77. These are just two of uncountable examples that defy all logic.

Likewise, Cuba’s need to make purchases thousands of miles away when the Gulf Coast is only a day or two passage by sea makes no sense whatsoever.

The time worn argument used by the last ten US administrations is that the blockade is designed to force a collapse or overthrow of the Cuban government or get its people to cry uncle. Nothing could be further from reality.

The Soviet Union, beacon of the Socialist world, disappeared but the Cuban revolution did not, despite losing its trade partners and facing a worse-than-1930s depression with crippling shortages and other severe limitations.

Hundreds of CIA organized or supported terrorist acts have not toppled the government led by Fidel Castro either. To the contrary, the country’s institutions have repeatedly shown their ability to cope with difficult scenarios, the latest being the sudden surgery on the Cuban president last July and his prolonged recovery.

The blockade has clearly flunked the test and Cuba is on the rebound with expanded trade and investment with Venezuela, China and Canada.

Now, Bush, like Nixon, could do something positive to go down in history. Otherwise, he will leave office in January 2009 with the only legacy of having needlessly sacrificed so many US and Iraqi lives under the guise of combating terrorism.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Nicaragua’s Ortega: a Tug-of-War Presidency

By Circles Robinson

Daniel Ortega will be riding a two-headed horse into office in Nicaragua next January and it’s anyone’s guess whether the left or right will prevail.

After a ten day delay, the Nicaraguan Electoral Council has finally released the complete preliminary results for the November 5 general election. As expected from earlier returns, Ortega remained on top with 37.99 percent of the vote.

Eduardo Montealegre, the US-backed candidate, finished second with 28.30 percent and the other rightwing candidate, Jose Rizo, a close third with 27.11. Ortega’s Sandinista rival, Edmundo Jarquin had 6.30 percent and Alternative for Change candidate Eden Pastora 0.29.

While the final seat distribution for the country’s one chamber legislature has yet to be announced, voting for the 92-member National Assembly appears to have given Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) 38 seats to 25 for the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) led by Aleman, and 24 to Montealegre’s newly formed Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN). The Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) is expected to obtain 5 seats.

The country of 5.6 million people has a per capita yearly income of around $800, the second lowest in the western hemisphere. Its main exports are coffee, beef and seafood. Foreign firms also export textiles from the modest local free trade zone or “maquila” factories.

With Fidel, Chavez and Bush

Ortega dedicated his victory as an 80th birthday present to Fidel Castro. At the same time his first statements after winning indicate he will try to do nothing on the economic front to rile up the Bush administration and its corporate backers.

Moving Nicaragua closer to the Latin American integration effort led by Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, Bolivia’s Evo Morales and Fidel Castro, as many of his supporters hope, while staying out of the line of fire of the US State Department, is Ortega’s greatest foreign policy challenge.

Ortega hopes his Latin American allies will provide discount oil, preferential trade, health care assistance and scholarships to meet the many expectations of those who thought winning the election meant a rerun of the 1979 revolution.

Meanwhile, Ortega, who dropped his opposition at the last minute to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) in October 2005 allowing it to pass in silence, reassures the US and the business sector that the accord is here to stay. Many of his low-end supporters who protested against CAFTA maintain it will favor US corporations over local producers.

Ortega’s supporters are expecting an employment boom, reduced electricity rates, low interest loans to small and medium businesses and farmers, increased salaries, especially for teachers and health workers, and a return to free education and health care.

On the other side of the coin, wealthy business sectors and some of the “Contra” leaders that supported Ortega are hoping for increased foreign investment, a stable currency, low inflation, good relations with the United States, a prudent distance from Venezuela and Cuba, a non-politicized army and police, and total respect for private property, meaning no land occupations or confiscations likes those used in the 1980s to redistribute the country’s wealth.

Resolving the nation’s energy crisis would be popular with all sectors. The daily brownouts are reigning havoc in the country’s productive, commercial and service sectors as well as inconveniencing the general population. To do so, means obtaining greater generating capacity and implementing energy saving practices.

Does Daniel Ortega Have a Clear Mandate?

Some analysts are saying that Daniel Ortega’s return to power is the result of a united front against imperialism. Other’s see Ortega’s politics having gone from left to right during his 16-year obsession with returning to the presidency.

Winning with only 38% of the vote and a minority of the legislators is far from the mandate of an armed revolution (as when Ortega coordinated the Reconstruction Junta after the fall of the Somoza dictatorship in 1979) or even the 67% he obtained in his first election to the presidency in 1984.

It’s important to note that when Evo Morales won the Bolivian presidency last December it was with 53% of the vote. Lula just won re-election in Brazil with over 60%. Tabare Vasquez won in Uruguay with 51% and Hugo Chavez won his first term under the new Venezuelan constitution in July 2000 with 59%.

For the president-elect to get legislation passed or his budgets approved he will need 47 votes. With the FSLN having only 38, negotiations are expected to maintain Ortega and Aleman’s PLC allied for the coming five years.

The “pact,” as it is called, was sharply criticized by candidates Montealegre and Jarquin for having treated the nation as a pie for divvying up according to party loyalties. Ortega defended it saying the two were the largest parties. While the voters gave the PLC and FSLN 98 percent of the votes in 2001 they still managed to get 65 percent in 2006. Between them they are expected to hold 63 seats of the 92-member legislature, a two-thirds majority.

How Ortega Won

There were three main factors that led to Daniel Ortega’s victory.

The first, a law pushed through by the president-elect and former president and corruption convict Arnoldo Aleman that made it possible to win the presidency with only 35% of the vote if no other candidate is within 5 percentage points.

Second, was the division among the two rightwing candidates, Aleman’s choice Jose Rizo, and the US candidate Eduardo Montealegre.

The Bush administration carried out a high profile but unsuccessful campaign to get Rizo to drop out of the race so Montealegre could beat Ortega, Ronald Regan’s old nemesis, in the first round.
US Ambassador Paul Trivelli led the two-pronged attack that also included a fierce scare campaign against Ortega with threats of doom in US-Nicaraguan relations and a blockade on family remittances and aid programs. Trivelli’s warnings were boosted by statements from several Republican congress members and high level US government officials.

In the end, the two right wing candidates won over 55 percent of the vote, similar to the 56 percent garnered by the current president Enrique Bolanos when he easily beat Ortega in 2001.
The last key factor was Ortega’s ability to maintain a solid bloc of support independent of the sharp criticism over the ethical and political stances he and his party’s leadership took over the last 16 years.

The loyal “Danielistas” --as they are called by Sandinistas, who abandoned the FSLN and campaigned for MRS candidate Jarquin, clearly felt the ends justified the means to defeat the rightwing liberals and the ever-present US meddling. Now, since that has occurred, they expect Ortega’s government to take a left turn.

Questions about the Ortega Presidency

How much of the tab is Venezuela willing to pick up to fuel the Nicaraguan economy and fund its social and economic development? During the 1980s Nicaragua received considerable direct and indirect assistance from the Soviet Union, but it was insufficient to stabilize the country’s war-torn economy. Inflation had reached a whopping five digits by the fateful Election Day in 1990, when Ortega was defeated by Violeta Chamorro (54-40 percent).

The Bush administration is bogged down in Iraq and Afghanistan and with conflicts simmering with North Korea and Iran. Likewise, the White House has stepped up its hostility towards Cuba and Venezuela. A vital question is whether those foreign policy involvements and the new Democratic Part majority in the US Congress will give Ortega breathing room to seek help from those leaders who Washington considers its enemies.

Internal Issues

Nicaragua analysts are now wondering who will win the tug-of-war and get the lions share in a country of slim pickings. With the country’s limited resources, few believe everyone, rich and poor, can be pleased at the same time.

If Ortega doesn’t meet his promises to provide jobs, land and better salaries, a big question is whether his government would use the Police and Army to repress urban protests or rural land occupations. Protests over the cost of public transportation and utility rates are another source of possible conflict if the new government is not able to deliver on its campaign promises.

Another issue is how real is Ortega’s born-again relationship with the Catholic Church and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the leading internal enemy of the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s?

Will a new conservative religious outlook from Ortega and Rosario Murillo, his powerful wife and campaign manager, effect the nation’s education and health policies as occurred in the recent banning of therapeutic abortions for women whose lives are in danger?

Will the church’s call to abstinence become the official Ortega government’s HIV-AIDS prevention campaign?

These and other questions should receive answers in the coming months.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Ortega Gets Second Chance in Nicaragua

By Circles Robinson

Daniel Ortega has won Nicaragua’s presidential election on the first round, says the largest national election observer group Ethics and Transparency.

In a comprehensive quick count involving returns from over a thousand of the 11,274 polling stations, Ortega, of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), garnered 38.49 of the vote compared to 29.52 percent for Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance, said Roberto Courtney, executive director of the election watchdog organization.

The unofficial report from Ethics and Transparency makes it clear that Ortega’s margin of victory was sufficient (more than the 5 percent required) to avoid a runoff.

Ortega was Nicaragua's president from 1985-1990.

Jose Rizo, candidate of the Constitutionalist Liberal Party, winner of the last two presidential elections, had 24.15 percent according to Courtney.

Edmundo Jarquin of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) polled only 7.44 percent and Eden Pastora of Alternative for Change 0.40 percent, estimates Ethics and Transparency.

In 2001, Ortega lost to the current president Enrique Bolanos 56 to 42 percent, but in the next five years a division among the right wing Liberals opened the door for an FSLN victory.

Ortega’s running mate is Jaime Morales Carazo, a former “Contra” leader who joined the apparent president-elect in his successful campaign of “peace, love and reconciliation.”

The vote indicates that the FSLN will have a minority in the National Assembly but the figures on seats to the 90-member legislature have yet to be released.

The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) gave its last report at 3:30 a.m. and had Ortega ahead of Montealegre 40.04 to 33.29 with 14.65 percent of the vote tallied.

CSE President Roberto Rivas is expected to make a new announcement with a far greater percentage of votes later this morning.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Election Uncertainty Permeates Nicaragua

By Circles Robinson

Nicaraguans are early risers and many will line up before the polling stations open Sunday morning to vote for a new president, 90 National Assembly members and 20 seats on the Central American Parliament.

All the pre-election polls have Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) on top and approaching the 35 percent he would need to win on the first round of voting if no other candidate reaches 30 percent. Otherwise he would need at least 40 percent to avoid a runoff to recapture the presidency he held from 1985-1990.

According to the Electoral Council, some 3.4 million voters are qualified to vote at the over 11,000 voting tables set to receive them.

Youth participation could be significant in determining the outcome and many civic organizations have worked hard to get young people to exercise their right to vote. The voting age in Nicaragua is 16.

Around a thousand international observers are expected from the Organization of American States, the European Union, the Carter Center, Witness for Peace as well as CEELA, the Tikal Project, the Quito Protocol and the Permanent Conference of Latin American Political Parties. They will join the thousands of national observers trained to oversee the elections.

Have Times Changed?

In 2001, Daniel Ortega and Enrique Bolaños went into Election Day virtually even at around 40 percent each in the polls.

However, the turnout was large and the current president captured most of what were considered undecided or no opinion votes to defeat Ortega 58 to 42 percent.

Ortega campaigned in 2001 on the failures of the first 11 years of post-revolution governments to address the increasing poverty and worsening social services in the country.

Bolaños used images of the “contra” war, Ortega’s friendship with left wing leaders and the economic hardships of the 1980s to remind voters of where Ortega would lead them.

In the end, the past carried more weight than the present.

Now, a big question is whether that will hold true in 2006?

Four way race

This time around its 4-way race, making the panorama very different than the polarized elections in 1990 when Ortega lost to Violeta Chamorro or to Arnoldo Aleman in 1996 and Bolaños in 2001.

Ortega’s leading competitor in the polls is the US backed candidate, Eduardo Montealegre, a wealthy banker who held top posts in both the Bolaños and Aleman administrations. He is running on the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance ticket.

Running third in the polls is Jose Rizo, a lawyer and coffee hacienda owner who was Bolaños vice president. Rizo is the candidate for the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), which took Aleman and Bolaños to the presidency.

The fourth major candidate is Edmundo Jarquin, an economist from the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), which spilt with Ortega in the mid-1990s.

All Eyes on Ortega’s Chances

Since Ortega’s core vote is considered loyal and likely to vote, an overall low turnout would favor his chances of winning on the first round, avoiding a runoff with the runner-up in which he would be at a disadvantage.

A factor that could influence Ortega’s results is his rapprochement with Cardinal Obando y Bravo and the Catholic Church and the FSLN’s lead role last week in the repeal of the therapeutic abortion law, on the books for over a hundred years.

Will he gain votes from worshipers of the country’s majority religion or lose those of Evangelicals fearful of the Catholic Church dominance in an Ortega government’s public education system?

Another question is how effective was Montealegre’s last minute scare campaign about a return of Ortega and his controlling family remittances. The candidates’ ads were buttressed by statements to the media supporting him from US ambassador Paul Trivelli and threats from several members of the US Congress.

To what degree Ortega’s campaign of peace and reconciliation was convincing, as well as his decision not to appear in any public debates or forums, are other questions the voters will answer on Sunday?

Rizo, Montealegre and Jarquin

Jose Rizo is banking on a huge rural turnout of loyal PLC supporters that helped Bolaños win in 2001. But will it offset his low showing in the polls in urban areas?

His bus-in finale in Managua, the largest single concentration of the campaign, was a sign that he can not be discarded.

Eduardo Montealegre’s chances depend on the success of his strategy of convincing PLC voters that he is the only one who can stop Ortega from winning on the first round. His profoundly negative campaign against Ortega and his belittling of Rizo will either bare fruit or fall short.

Edmundo Jarquin could benefit from coming out unscathed by the persistent negative campaign advertising where Rizo and Montealegre ruthlessly attacked Ortega with the old images of the 1980s, and then each other for having divided the anti-Sandinista vote.

Jarquin used a limited amount of negative advertising targeted against Ortega for his pact with Aleman, and against Montealegre for his ties to the last two governments.

Daniel Ortega should accumulate the vast majority of rural Sandinista votes but could lose Managua and other Pacific cities to Jarquin or Montealegre.

Rizo should gather a large majority of rural Liberal voters but faces an uphill battle against Montealegre for a share of the anti-Sandinista ballots in the cities.

Another mystery are the voters returning from Costa Rica and even the United States to cast their ballots. The majority of these votes are expected to go to Montealegre and Jarquin, but their numbers are hard to gage. Likewise, hundreds of medical students were flown in from Cuba who will most likely vote for Ortega.

What is certain is that the makeup of the next legislature will be greatly different with significant ALN and MRS benches joining the PLC and FSLN legislators.

Fear to commit

Another factor affecting the validity of the polls and possibly distorting the outcome are those Nicaraguans unwilling to declare their preferences if they are contrary to the political party holding the city halls where they live, key to local employment and participation in community projects.

MRS supporters are less likely to state their preference in towns or cities with FSLN mayors. The same goes for ALN supporters where the PLC governs. What nobody knows is whether the numbers involved are significant?

Like many hotly contested elections the key will be voter turnout in the areas where each candidate has their strongholds and then the ability of the parties’ poll watchers to defend their votes during the tallying process.

Nicaragua Candidates: Strengths and Weaknesses

by Circles Robinson

An eerie silence hovers over Nicaragua on Saturday, the day before the polls open for its general elections. The feeling is similar to the day before a hurricane is about to strike, when everything seems so calm but people are anxious or fearful as to what is going to happen.

Previous Nicaraguan presidential elections have all shown that the opinion polls can be considerably off and many people are uncertain what is going to occur inside the voting booths. Some 17,000 national and a thousand international observers are on hand to supervise the voting and tallying.

Voters will choose from among two Sandinistas, former president Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and economist Edmundo Jarquin of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS); and two right wing Liberals, Eduardo Montealegre of the newly formed Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), and Jose Rizo of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC). Eden Pastora, a former Sandinista turned “Contra” commander, is the fifth candidate for the Alternative for Change Party, but he is not considered a serious contender.


For the third time Daniel Ortega is trying to regain the presidency he won in 1984 and lost in 1990 to Violeta Chamorro.

A sharp division among the right wing Liberals and a new law allowing a candidate to win with only 35 percent of the vote if no other has 30 percent have given Ortega a golden opportunity. He has led in all the opinion polls obtaining between 30 and 34 percent.

Ortega’s greatest strength lies in his having maintained a well organized loyal support base throughout the country willing to overlook any criticisms of him and the party leadership no matter how serious.

While Nicaragua has shown some macro-economic growth, 3.1 percent during the last 5 years, the country has clearly stagnated and poverty and desperation have increased. For many of the country’s poor the bottom line of 16 years of neoliberal governments is negative.

Ortega’s “pilgrimage” to the people, as he and his wife and campaign manager Rosario Murillo described their effort, played well to the poor urban and rural inhabitants hoping for employment or credit and for greater access to education and health services.

The FSLN won a majority of the country’s mayor’s offices in the 2004 municipal elections, greatly strengthening the party’s ability to provide jobs and implement projects with its seal.

Ortega and Murillo also believe the alliances forged with some of the leaders of the “Contras” that fought the Sandinista revolution in the 1980s, including VP candidate Jaime Morales, and reconciliation with Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the revolution’s most virulent internal enemy, will garner new votes. In fact, on the last day of the campaign, Ortega virtually declared himself the winner.

For those that actively participated during the years of the revolutionary government, and in the stories they’ve told their children, Ortega personifies nostalgia for the revolution and an attempt to bring up the living standard and educational level of the poor.

Nonetheless, he also embodies the hardships that Nicaraguans faced under his leadership as a result of the war with the US backed “Contras” and what became an unpopular obligatory military draft.

Shortages and rationing, in part caused by the US blockade, rampant inflation, and conflicts with the Catholic Church, the press and the business sector are other things associated with the candidate that are constantly used by his opponents.

Despite him leading in the polls, 60 percent of the population consistently says they would not vote for him under any circumstance.

It remains to be seen if the former president and his party’s leading the way to repeal the country’s therapeutic abortion law just before the election will gain or lose him votes.

Realizing their lives could be endangered when suffering a complicated pregnancy, Ortega’s female supporters have been presented with a serious dilemma. With others, his embracing conservative church doctrine may prove popular.

The power sharing pact with Arnoldo Aleman and the PLC, justified as an act of stability; his stepdaughter’s accusations of sexual abuse, dropped in the Nicaraguan courts due to the statute of limitations; and the unexplained enrichment of some FSLN leaders after the Party lost power in 1990, are some of the causes why Ortega lost the backing of most intellectuals that once supported his government.

While the Bush administration and some Republican members of congress are already rattling their sabers, Ortega hopes a non confrontational stance on the Central American Free Trade Agreement and putting several business leaders in key economic posts will calm the waters if elected. His campaign has repeatedly preached peace, love and reconciliation.

Fernando Suarez a 52-year-old laborer said he supports Ortega because “Those that have governed since 1990 have been disappointing despite having governed in peace time. Daniel is different because he’s always been on the side of the poor. The other candidates are all the same with the same free market programs that mean more poverty, less employment and little participation. If the Frente (FSLN) wins there will be jobs and people won’t have to emigrate.”

Suarez said a second Ortega government would resemble his in the 1980s in so far as health and education and differ in that the FSLN won’t be governing by itself but in an alliance.

Oscar Icaza, a 29-year-old merchant, said he backs Ortega “because he represents the poor and is the only real leader among the candidates.” He added, “The US doesn’t have the moral authority to teach us about democracy; Venezuela doesn’t condition its aid, the US does.”

A 21-year-old student, who preferred not to be identified, said she is going to vote for the first time. She said she will vote for Ortega, “firstly because my family instilled revolutionary values in me and I believe the FSLN is the only party that is revolutionary. The MRS is opportunistic not revolutionary.”

The young woman commented on the foreign intervention in the election campaign: “It’s good that the US interferes because that way the people can see US politics for what it is. As far as Venezuela, I don’t call that interference, its solidarity, and that’s a different thing.” She added: “I believe that we Sandinistas are intelligent enough to not repeat the errors of the past.”


Eduardo Montealegre, 52, is the youngest candidate and comes from an upper-class family with extensive banking interests. He has the support of La Prensa newspaper and Channel 2 TV, leaders in their respective media.

Montealegre has consistently appeared second in the election polls that also show him to be a relatively easy winner over Ortega if there is a second round between them. This has been his strongest selling point.

Like the MRS candidate Edmundo Jarquin, Montealegre has built his campaign on attacks of the pact between Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Aleman.

The candidate plays to the many poor that believe it is only the wealthy and successful who can create jobs for the unemployed.

Montealegre has solid support from the business community and their chief organization COSEP, the Superior Private Enterprise Council. He also has the endorsement of the United States, whose ambassador, Paul Trivelli has continually intervened in his favor stating he is the only candidate who can defeat Ortega, a priority for the US.

On the down side, Montealegre has been a familiar face in government holding top ministerial posts in both the administrations of Arnoldo Aleman and Enrique Bolanos. He is accused of personally benefiting from government bond sales that greatly increased the country’s internal debt. His promises of more and better employment ring hollow to some because of his close relationship with the past two presidents under whom poverty increased.

Adriana Sediles, a 20-year-old executive secretary said she supports Montealegre “because he has many friends in the business sector willing to help him to create employment. Those who historically create jobs here are the business people not the government.”

Sediles sees nothing wrong with the Bush administration taking sides in the campaign. “The US is right to get involved because if Ortega wins he is going to declare war. Chavez is interested in Nicaragua to convert it into another communist ally. If Daniel wins he will copy the same model of the 1980s.”

Roger Blandon, a 30-year-old salesperson, says he supports Montealegre “because he has progressive ideas.” Blandon notes: “The other candidates are shameless; they have already been in power and didn’t do anything. These elections are even more important than those in 1990 because now we know that if Daniel wins there will be no way to stop him.”

Blandon says he likes Montealegre’s promise of “more and better jobs”. He also maintains what the US is doing in the campaign “is making a recommendation, but not buying votes like Chavez with oil.”

Carlos Vicente Garcia a 30-year-old radio operator says he supports Montealegre “because he is the only candidate that can beat Daniel Ortega.” Garcia says the ALN candidate has more economic resources and knows what it takes to make money. “The others are just an image of going backwards.”

“The elections are a life or death matter because if the candidates of the pact (FSLN and PLC) win, the country will sink,” comments Garcia adding, “Montealegre’s promise of economic stability is magnificent and he’s the only one offering it.”

Chiming in with the Montealegre advertising campaign to spark fear of Ortega, Garcia notes, “If Ortega wins it will be a terrible return to the dark night and war.”


Jose Rizo, 62, lawyer and coffee hacienda owner, is the candidate of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) that won the last two presidential elections with Arnoldo Aleman in 1996 and Enrique Bolanos in 2001, when Rizo was elected vice president. The right wing candidate also held an important post in the Aleman government.

The strong PLC party machinery with a national presence and capable of mobilizing hundreds of thousands of people, mostly rural, is Rizo’s strongest credential is his effort to be the candidate that can beat Ortega.

Rizo’s biggest weakness is that he was hand picked to be the PLC candidate by Arnoldo Aleman, convicted of misappropriation of funds and other forms of corruption, who hopes to have his 20-year sentence dropped after the election.

Rizo tries to portray himself as having distanced from Aleman and Bolanos, and emphasizes that his was a co-founder of the PLC and has always been a reliable party man.

At his massive campaign finale last Sunday in Managua, Juan Pablo Martinez 37, from Tuma-La Dalia, Matagalpa said he was sure Rizo is going to win.

Terencio Brizuela, 43, an ex-Contra from Rio Blanco, Matagalpa said he supports Rizo because “I was told that otherwise Ortega would win.”

Esmenegildo Gutierrez, 54, from Boaco said he too was in the plaza, “because I don’t want Daniel Ortega to win again. If he wins he will take us to hell.”

Evenor Duarte, 33, from Jinotega said he wasn’t surprised by the enormous crowd, estimated at 300,000. “I’m not surprised, this is a big party. In my family there were three more who wanted to come but for a lack of transportation couldn’t.” Duarte added, “I’m actually a Conservative, but I’m going to vote for Rizo so neither Daniel or Montealegre win.”


Edmundo Jarquin may be fourth in the polls but his candidacy has drawn considerable attention, mounting the first serious challenge to Ortega’s grip on Sandinista voters and appealing especially to students and professionals.

The candidate took over for former Managua Mayor Herty Lewites as the MRS presidential candidate when Lewites died suddenly of a heart attack on July 2. Jarquin stresses his reputation as a prestigious economist, capable of steering the country forward.

The MRS campaign has sharply attacked the pact between Ortega and convict Arnoldo Aleman for divvying up the state powers and submerging the country in stagnation, as well as the FSLN leadership which he believes deviated from the principles of the Sandinista revolution.

His running mate, Carlos Mejia Godoy, the country’s most popular singer-songwriter, and the vast majority of the artists and intellectuals that supported Ortega in the 1980s have over the last 15 years abandoned the FSLN and are now grouped in the MRS and making themselves heard.

Ernesto Cardenal, former minister of culture, Sergio Ramirez, Daniel Ortega’s vice president, authors Gioconda Belli, Fernando Silva, Sofia Montenegro, Claribel Alegria, Guillermo Cortes, Michele Najlis, Daisy Zamora and Monica Zalaquett and popular comedian Luis Enrique Calderon and singer Luis Enrique Mejia Godoy are just some of those who abandoned Ortega and are supporting Jarquin.

Several of the top leaders of the Sandinista revolution including Henry Ruiz, Monica Baltodano, Victor Hugo Tinoco, Dora Maria Tellez, Victor Tirado Lopez and Luis Carrion are also backing Jarquin. They disagree with charges from Ortega’s camp of dividing the Sandinista vote maintaining that any division is actually the fault of Ortega for not allowing other candidacies within his party.

On the down side to getting elected, Jarquin spent most of the last 22 years outside the country, first as the Nicaraguan ambassador to Mexico and Spain under the FSLN government and later as a top level economist at the Inter-American Development Bank.

As a virtual unknown to many Nicaraguans he had to spend a considerable amount of time and MRS resources to quickly become known to the electorate after Herty Lewites death and his assuming the party’s presidential candidacy.

Observers believe he succeeded in becoming a household name with his slogan “el feo” the plain face guy who wants a pretty Nicaragua, in the Pacific urban areas, but had less success in the north, central and eastern rural departments where the MRS organizational network was weaker.

Jarquin took a lone stand in favor of maintaining the hundred-year-old therapeutic abortion law when all the other parties (FSLN, PLC and ALN) heeded the call of the Catholic and some Evangelical Church leaders and quickly repealed the law that could sacrifice the lives of thousands of women with complications in pregnancy.

Anikelka Aguirre, 23, a first year marketing student says she will vote for Jarquin “because his is sincere and honest.” She said she likes that “he doesn’t promise heaven on Earth like the other candidates.” What Aguirre likes most is Jarquin’s offer to create dignified employment and educational opportunities.

Aguirre maintains that Montealegre did nothing as a top official of the Aleman and Bolanos governments “and now promises the impossible.” Regarding the FSLN candidate she adds, “if we vote for Ortega it will be a catastrophe, and therefore we must vote for real change.”

Ricardo Gonzalez, a 51-year-old professor at the UPOLI University in Managua said he supports Jarquin because he “is the new alternative that Nicaragua needs and whose promises are more believable than the others.” Gonzalez added: “I like his proposals because they are viable instead of demagogic; they take into account the reality of the country.”

Renato Artiles, a 53-year-old administrative worker said, “For us professionals, Jarquin is a fresh alternative from the rest who seek personal gain and a continuation of the status quo. These elections are crucial. Either we change or we sink.” Artiles further said he also supports Jarquin’s desire “to fight corruption and reduce the mega salaries in government.”

Yiselda Herrera, a 26-year-old law student, said she will vote for Jarquin “because his is sincere and explains things clearly. I am sure he will turn things around in our country.”

Herrera said one of Jarquin’s strengths is that “he is not contaminated by the past and is not just another politician. The others all have a record and none of them has the moral authority to govern this country.”

The future attorney said the elections are especially important “because the youth vote for this candidate is going to set a precedent.” Herrera maintains that Jarquin’s experience in international relations and communications skills to deal with the World Bank, and even the United States, are an asset.

Friday, November 03, 2006

US Meddling Nothing New in Nicaragua

By Circles Robinson

An attempt by the US State Department and a number of legislators to sway the vote in Sunday’s general elections in Nicaragua, population 5.6 million, is par for the course; United States meddling in the Central American nation’s affairs is nothing new.

In the last century alone the US sent in troops to occupy Nicaragua from 1912 to 1933; backed the brutal Somoza dictatorship for 45 years with weapons and economic support (1934-1979); trained and financed the “Contras” to fight the Sandinista revolution (1979-1990); poured money into the campaign of Violeta Chamorro in 1990; and openly supported the subsequent campaigns of Arnold Aleman in 1996 and Enrique Bolaños in 2001.

Washington once again turned its eyes to Nicaragua early in the year when polls showed that new election rules and a deeply divided anti-Sandinista vote clearly favored a comeback of Daniel Ortega from the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).

The bill, pushed through in 2000 by Ortega and Aleman’s benches in the National Assembly, allows a candidate to win on the first round with 40 percent of the vote or only 35 percent if no other contender has 30 percent.

Besides Ortega, the other three main candidates in the November 5th balloting are economist Edmundo Jarquin of the center-left Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS); coffee farmer and the outgoing vice president Jose Rizo of Aleman’s right wing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC); and banker Eduardo Montealegre, the US choice from the newly formed right wing Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN).

Right Wing Liberals bitterly divided

Convinced that around 60 percent of the Nicaraguan population would never vote for Daniel Ortega had made things relatively easy for the US to get its way in the 1996 and 2001 elections since the vote was totally polarized between two candidates, Ortega and Aleman and Ortega and Bolaños.

Now the new rules and increased dissatisfaction with over 15 years of free market and low social investment policies put that assuredness on ice.

The key factor affecting the anti-Sandinista vote is the division that occurred within the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC). Shortly after taking office in 2002, Enrique Bolaños, who was Arnoldo Aleman’s VP during the previous term, betrayed the PLC strongman and prosecuted him on corruption charges. Aleman received a 20-year sentence, which he is “serving” while free in Managua with some travel and political restrictions.

Bolaños had never said a word about corruption while serving as Aleman’s vice president and the PLC swiftly closed ranks around their leader expelling Bolaños from the party and leaving him to carry out his term with a small minority of deputies he pried away from Aleman.

Stagnation set in with a president unable to pass legislation as the PLC often allied with Ortega’s FSLN. The chasm between the Liberals continued to deepen.

US dumps Arnoldo

As the elections approached the US then dumped its old ally, the disgraced Arnoldo Aleman. US Ambassador Paul Trivelli said his government opposes both the FSLN and PLC and made no secret that Washington prefers the ALN candidate, Eduardo Montealegre.

“I believe the Nicaraguan people know that the pact (between Ortega and Aleman) remains alive and a vote for the PLC (Rizo) is the same as voting for the FSLN,” said Trivelli.

PLC vice presidential candidate Jose Alvarado replied by saying: “I believe the US ambassador doesn’t understand Nicaraguan.” The PLC believes its superior organizational strength and having won the last two elections deserved recognition.

On October 13 around a thousand US citizens and dozens of social, solidarity and religious organizations sent an open letter to Ambassador Trivelli rejecting his statements. “Such behavior would be unacceptable and unlawful if foreign diplomats attempted to influence elections in the United States. The United States cannot claim to support free and fair elections while it attempts to control and manipulate the voting in Nicaragua.”

A new battleground

When Ortega received open support from Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez the US State Department stepped up its meddling to keep Nicaragua in its fold and out of the clutches of the Latin American integration movement spearheaded by Chavez, Fidel Castro and Evo Morales.

For Bush administration ideologues seeking a new battleground, Chavez providing cheap fertilizer, discount oil and free eye operations through FSLN channels, and publicly expressing his preference for Ortega to win the elections, was sufficient to put a bigger motor on the wheels of intervention already in motion.

However, numerous private meetings and public appeals by Bush administration emissaries and the ambassador, all the way up to the last week of the campaign, were unable to convince Rizo to throw in the towel and pave the road to a Montealegre victory.

Iran-Contra ghost contradicts Bush administration

The State Department plan also received a setback from an unexpected corner when Oliver North, architect of the illegal covert arms supply to the “Contras” in the 1980s, dropped in on Managua to support Jose Rizo and demand Montealegre, the White House choice, withdraw from the race.

While North said his trip to Nicaragua was to visit old friends, he referred to the public letter he sent to the State Department stating that its support for Montealegre was counterproductive and increased chances for an Ortega victory.

“Unfortunately those who implement US policy in Nicaragua have been blind to the reality of Nicaraguan politics,” said North adding, “The country only has two important parties: the FSLN and the PLC.”

Ambassador Trivelli was quick to say that North’s support for Rizo would have little effect saying the colonel has not been an official of the US government for many years.

Last minute fear campaign

Looking for fertile ground to mount a last minute fear campaign against Ortega, Montealegre and his US-backers turned to the delicate topic of family remittances, estimated to bring in from $700 million to a billion dollars a year to thousands of Nicaraguan families from relatives in the United States, Costa Rica, El Salvador and other countries. The figure exceeds the country’s exports.

In a speech during the 27th anniversary celebration of the Nicaraguan revolution this past July 19, Ortega said his government would seek a way to establish a mechanism to bring the remittances without commission or intermediaries. The plan was immediately attacked by Montealegre and Rizo as a way to put controls on foreign exchange. Shortly after, Ortega retracted but the campaign to instill fear in those who send or receive remittances has increased.

An editorial Wednesday in La Prensa newspaper stated: “It’s easy to imagine that if Ortega wins the elections a lot of people will begin to withdraw their bank deposits, especially those in dollars, producing a great flight of foreign exchange.”

Continuous TV ads run by Montealegre and Rizo highlighted the out of control inflation and shortages that existed in the 1980s under Ortega, while failing to mention the US blockade and the Contra war.

Several Republican members of the US Congress then chimed in with threats to push through a freeze on sending remittances altogether.

FSLN vice presidential candidate Jaime Morales called the proposal of US representatives Dana Rohrabacher, Ed Royce and Peter Hoekstra to block remittances “cruel and inhumane.” He also assured that an Ortega government would respect private property, the free market and the family remittances.

A month earlier Congressman Dan Burton publicly stated that diplomatic and economic relations between the US and Nicaragua would likely suffer if Ortega were to be elected.

Congressman Tom Tancredo upped the ante by saying the FSLN is a pro-terrorist party. He warned that if Ortega returns to power all bilateral cooperation with the US would be interrupted. Tancredo has played an active role in promoting harsh anti immigrant laws including support for building a wall between Mexico and the United States.

Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) presidential candidate Edmundo Jarquin, who has criticized both the US and Venezuela for taking sides in the campaign, said the proposal to block family remittances if Ortega wins constitutes meddling. “I want to repeat, we are against all foreign interference in the political process of Nicaragua, independent of where it comes from. For us there is no ‘good’ interference.”

The Ortega camp has used the US intervention to attack the rival MRS since it has not specifically been targeted by Washington. While not hiding Washington’s support for Montealegre, Ambassador Trivelli has told Nicaraguan voters not to cast their ballots for Ortega or Rizo, and that doing so could bring grave consequences.

The US enforced a crippling commercial and financial blockade on Nicaragua during the last Ortega government in the 1980s.

Foreign investment threatened

A loss of potential investment is another focus of the fear campaign. The message from the Bush administration couldn’t have been clearer. Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez stated on October 19 that an Ortega victory would put US investment in Nicaragua at great risk.

To try and influence voters desperate for employment, Gutierrez said three US firms are ready to invest 230 million dollars and generate 123,000 jobs but are waiting first to see the election results. He warned that it would be unlikely that the investment would take place if Ortega wins.

The commerce secretary also said implementation of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) could be endangered with an Ortega government, this, even though the FSLN withdrew its opposition to the accord allowing its smooth passage in October, 2005.

Gutierrez further stoked the fire by saying another 220 million in US aid programs would be in jeopardy under Ortega.

Big Bucks Campaigning in Little Nicaragua

By Circles Robinson

Nicaraguans go to the polls on Sunday after months of saturation advertising campaigns that have invaded just about every public and private space.

The candidates include Daniel Ortega, trying to make a comeback after being voted out in 1990; Jose Rizo, a hacienda owner elected VP with the current president Enrique Bolaños; Edmundo Jarquin an economist in his first bid for office; and Eduardo Montealegre a banker and familiar face in the past two cabinets.

Lavish spending (estimated at well over 20 million dollars) on TV and radio, billboards, banners, posters, baseball caps, t-shirts and the massive consumption of fuel at over $3.00 a gallon, feed the illusion that there are resources available to resolve everyone’s problems once a winner is elected.

With their sizeable war chests, Ortega, Montealegre and Rizo have made it possible for large quantities of people to be brought into the cities for their major caravans or rallies to merge with locals and demonstrate their numbers. Jarquin’s campaign was underfinanced in comparison.

Since most of the rural poor cannot otherwise travel, a day off and a free trip in a truck or bus is often treated like a family excursion. Many people are said to attend the rallies of more than one candidate enjoying the festive atmosphere and hoping to get a cap or a shirt.

The Frontrunner

Daniel Ortega, 61, has been ahead in all the polls from the beginning of the campaign. After three successive defeats he used a new campaign strategy designed by his campaign manager and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) communications boss, Rosario Murillo, his wife. The key words are peace, love and reconciliation.

A frequently used TV ad has the candidate speaking with John Lennon’s Give Peace a Chance, the campaign song, in the background. “The vast majority of these families have decided to vote for jobs, peace and reconciliation. Now more than ever there is a decision to produce a profound change in our country,” states Ortega.

Huge pink billboards are ever-present throughout the country proclaiming the FSLN as the solution to the country’s problems with lettering in white and yellow, colors of the Catholic Church, and proclaiming that a United Nicaragua will Triumph.

The Ortega campaign is non-confrontational as the candidate seeks a second chance to govern. Campaign paraphernalia including posters, t-shirts and caps are massively distributed as part of the effort to convince the voters.

Murillo’s strategy has included Ortega declining to participate in any of the many public debates or electoral forums organized by universities, the media and social organizations. Ortega has also refused to be interviewed by the press, stating that the couple’s “pilgrimage” to the voters is all that counts.

Alliances with former enemies have been another important FSLN campaign strategy, starting with his running mate, Jaime Morales, a former leader of the US funded “contras” that fought the Sandinista government in the 1980s. Morales was Arnoldo Aleman’s campaign manager in 1996 when he defeated Ortega.

Several mid level “contra” leaders have also come on board during the long campaign convinced by Ortega’s promises to address pending land and financing problems.

Even more significant was the reconciliation between Ortega and Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the Sandinista revolution’s chief internal enemy during the revolutionary government Ortega led from 1979-1990.

The two have now reconciled and last year the cardinal married Ortega and Murillo, who have been together for nearly three decades, in a religious ceremony. The cardinal frequently appears with the candidate in public.

Murillo and Ortega’s steadfast support for repealing the country’s therapeutic abortion law, in effect for over a hundred years, is widely seen as a gesture to the cardinal and the Catholic Church. The country will now prosecute doctors who practice abortion to save a woman’s life and the patients themselves will also face hefty prison terms.

During his campaign Ortega used massive vehicle caravans through rural communities, towns, urban neighborhoods and cities to demonstrate his party’s superior organizational capacity. The caravans, as well as Murillo’s and his speeches to the onlookers, were then rebroadcast in paid 10-20 minute television ads.

When speaking to his followers on the low end of the economic spectrum, the former president attacks the “savage capitalism” and the resulting poverty it has brought to the country.

Meanwhile, his running mate assures the private sector that his government will not carry out confiscations or create a confrontational climate that would hamper investment.

The FSLN has sharply criticized the United States government for intervening in the campaign but says an Ortega government hopes to have respectful relations with the Bush administration.

The candidate and his lieutenants have also praised Venezuela for offering to help the country with discount oil, fertilizer and in health care enabling some Nicaraguans to receive free eye operations in the South American country and in Cuba.

Jose Rizo aims at the countryside

The campaign of the Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC), winner of the 1996 and 2001 elections, concentrated on a two prong attack of Daniel Ortega, for being a return to the “dark night” of the 1980s, and Eduardo Montealegre, for dividing the anti-Sandinista vote.

The PLC went to great effort to distance its candidate, Jose Rizo, 62, from his involvement in the corrupt Aleman administration (1996-2001) and the current Bolaños government in which he was the vice president.

Rizo also tried to shake any connection to the governance pact between opposition leader Daniel Ortega and Arnoldo Aleman that divided up posts on the different judicial, electoral and comptroller powers to PLC and FSLN members. Ortega and Aleman justified the pact saying that the two parties represented over 90 percent of the electorate.

A Rizo radio ad begins with chants of “Nicaragua First, Nicaragua First,” the campaign slogan. The candidate then addresses his rural following. “From the far corners of Nicaragua to the heart of the country there is only one voice. It demands an end to conflicts and divisions that only lead to poverty and backwardness. We are going to progress with work for all, with health care for our children, because the poverty is the result of our divisions. We are going to progress with a united and strong government.”

In a TV ad the camera zooms in on Rizo with classical music in the background. “I can say with pride what our candidates are offering. My hands are clean of the corruption. We are telling those who made the pact, which sunk Nicaragua in a backward state, that the corruption steals the food off the people’s plates. We say never again to Ortega and the pact.”

Rizo sees rural Nicaragua as his stronghold and addresses much of his campaign to that sector mobilizing large numbers of the farm population for caravans and public gatherings including the campaign finale last Sunday when over 300,000 people converged on Managua.

The PLC campaign painted Rizo as the only candidate that can defeat Daniel Ortega, to get votes from Liberals supporting Montealegre. He repeatedly reminded voters of his party’s successful record in previous elections that took Arnoldo Aleman and Enrique Bolaños to the presidency.

Rizo shunned the last polls showing him running behind Ortega and Montealegre in third place, stating that it is the rural population not included in the polls that will make the difference.

The Bush administration unsuccessfully tried to get Rizo to withdraw from the race but the PLC candidate did get support from Oliver North, one of the lead figures in the Iran-Contragate scandal that equipped the “contras” with covert funds coming from drug and arms dealing.

Edmundo Jarquin, 60, ran by far the most inexpensive campaign of the four leading contenders, without the money for transporting supporters or buying much billboard space.

Jarquin’s main strategy was to present his candidacy and the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) as being the honest side of the legacy left by Augusto Sandino who successfully fought the US occupation troops in the late 1920s and early 30s, and those that later made possible the 1979 Sandinista Revolution that ended the Somoza dictatorship.

A relative unknown to the general population, Jarquin urgently needed to become a household name when he substituted the MRS candidate, Herty Lewites, a popular former FSLN mayor of Managua who died on the campaign trail of a sudden heart attack on July 2.

Calling him the “feo”, or plain faced guy who wants a pretty Nicaragua, the initial MRS advertising was designed to give the candidate name recognition and hold on to Lewites supporters.

Following Lewites groundwork, Jarquin took a moderate center-left stance and said his government would avoid confrontation that would ruin the country’s chance to progress.

Jarquin has appealed to undecided voters by stressing his professional reputation as an economist, projecting that he is the most qualified of the candidates.

The fight against widespread corruption and criticism of what Jarquin calls the “dirty pact” between Ortega and Aleman was combined with a call to reduce the State bureaucracy and mega salaries as key features of the campaign.

In a TV ad containing images of the countryside and artists performing, Jarquin stated: “I want to tell all you Nicaraguans that in my government there are going to be some unemployed people because we are going to reduce the number of Supreme Court Justices from 16 to 9 and National Assembly deputies from 90 to 45 as well as end the mega-salaries. The millions saved will be invested in programs for the poorest sectors so they don’t have to emigrate.”

Besides marches and vehicle caravans Jarquin’s campaign activities often included cultural events featuring concerts by vice presidential candidate Carlos Mejia Godoy and his group.

Mejia Godoy, who substituted Jarquin as the VP candidate when Lewites died, is widely recognized as the country’s most popular singer/songwriter and the leading promoter of Nicaraguan culture. He wrote the main revolutionary songs used before and after the fall of Somoza.

Since Mejia is well known throughout the country, he traveled extensively to promote the MRS cause.

Jarquin and Mejia have made it a point to attend virtually all election forums to make their party’s intentions known.

Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN) is using, like Jose Rizo of the PLC, a double edged attack strategy against Ortega as the enemy that would take Nicaragua back to war and shortages and Rizo for dividing up the “democratic” votes and giving Ortega a chance to win on the first round.

Montealegre, a 51-year-old banker, repeatedly uses the polls in his ads to show he is in second place ahead of Rizo to try and get PLC voters to switch over to the ALN to stop Ortega.

Both Montealegre and Rizo tried to get the other candidate to drop out of the race and the United States used its ambassador and several and congressional emissaries to try and convince Rizo to throw in the towel and avoid a return of the dreaded Sandinistas.

But it was all in vain. Up to the final day of the campaign on Wednesday the ALN and PLC candidates carried out a media blitz to convince voters that casting a ballot for the other was a wasted vote that would put Ortega in the presidency.

During his radio campaign advertising Montealegre told rural voters: “I want to tell my brothers from the countryside that I’m going to develop an investment bank that will guarantee more and better financing with lower interest for all.”

Montealegre reached out to the private sector with his TV message: “Liberals and independents, the polls show that only one candidate can defeat Daniel Ortega. Only one candidate is endorsed by COSEP,” the organization that represents larger business interests.

Another TV ad uses a news reporter format and says: “Eduardo Montealegre stated that his principles are very different than those of Daniel Ortega, who attacks democracy by calling producers and economists ‘savage capitalists’ forgetting that he and his associates stole millions from the people of Nicaragua. How can he say he represents the poor and drive around in a 140,000 dollar Mercedes Benz?”

The candidate has participated in large caravans and marches, mostly appearing on foot, as well as rallies trying to project a youthful, caring appearance.

The US ambassador Paul Trevelli and numerous Bush administration officials, advisers and Republican congress people have joined the Montealegre scare campaign warning that an Ortega victory would have unforeseeable negative consequences for Nicaragua’s future, including a possible blocking of family remittances and an end to US economic assistance.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Living off Promises, the Nicaragua Election Game

By Circles Robinson

In the second most impoverished country in the hemisphere where over half of the population lives below the poverty line on under two dollars a day, Nicaragua’s voters are presented every five years with on onslaught of promises to improve their situation.

This time around the pledges are coming from former president Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN); economist Edmundo Jarquin of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS); outgoing vice president Jose Rizo of the right wing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) dominated by former president Arnoldo Aleman; and Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), which broke with Aleman and is openly supported by the US government.

The foursome are locked in a tough four-way battle unlike the last three elections when despite numerous other candidates Ortega and his victorious opponents (Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Aleman and Enrique Bolaños) garnered between 89 and 97 percent of the votes.

With the majority of the population suffering the consequences of the liberalized market policies of the last 16 years, Rizo and Montealegre present themselves as outsiders even if they held top posts in the last two administrations.

Nicaraguans say hope is the last thing one holds on to and there appears to be a pact among the candidates to disseminate illusion and the voters to live on it during the months before Election Day, set for Sunday November 5.

For months the candidates paraded around the country of 5.6 million inhabitants offering the dignified jobs that everyone wants to have. They each pledged between 300,000 and half a million jobs, stated as if they had a magic wand. They all told immigrants in Costa Rica, the United States, El Salvador, etc. that if elected they will create conditions to allow for their return.

However, few of the unemployed or underemployed see the campaign promises of good jobs and prosperity turning into reality, expecting the winning candidate to take a morning after pill and carry on with their real agenda.

Meanwhile, it’s a common understanding that the country’s privileged will jockey to cash in on the benefits if their candidate triumphs.

Brownouts and Business

Besides the widespread unemployment or underemployment (around 50%) Nicaragua also faces a serious energy crisis with months of daily brownouts and a deterioration of public health care and rural roads, issues all the candidates say they will prioritize.

Under the last three governments the country lost control over power distribution to the Spanish firm Union Fenosa and stagnated without a concrete investment program for increased generation in the wave of privatization that swept the country. Half the country still remains without electricity altogether, something Union Fenosa promised to change but didn’t.

The price of electricity is greater than the Central American average and combined with low access for the rural population deeply affects the country’s development possibilities.

Another big concern is the nearly a million children and teenagers that do not attend grade school. Instead of becoming the human resources the country needs for the future, many young people dream of emigrating south or north in search of greener pastures. All the candidates promise an effort to get young people into the classrooms and technical schools.

For those that live off the land or have businesses, all four candidates are offering to establish banks to stimulate investment by providing credit for small and medium sized entrepreneurs and farmers. These, the logic goes, will help create the promised jobs.

In meetings with the upper end private sector the same candidates promise stability and tax and market conditions favorable to local and foreign investment and profits. They all, including Ortega, assure their will be no property confiscations as occurred in the 1980s under the revolutionary government.

In the end there is a promise for everyone but the bottom line is what the voters think the candidates will really do in office and who will benefit.

Therapeutic Abortion becomes big campaign issue

One heated issue that took over the front pages and TV news this last month, and is still simmering, is the topic of therapeutic abortion, permitted in Nicaragua, like most countries, for over a hundred years.

At the request of the Catholic Church and many Evangelical leaders, Ortega’s FSLN and both Rizo and Montealegre’s liberal party factions joined together to rush through a repeal of a law that has saved thousands of women’s lives.

Under a campaign that abortion is murder and ignoring the true nature of the law that deals with cases when a woman’s life is in danger, 28 legislators of Ortega’s party and 24 Liberals affiliated to the PLC and ALN rushed through the repeal last week at the National Assembly. Not one legislator voted nay while others preferred not to turn on their voting machines.

The only presidential candidate opposing the banning of therapeutic abortions was Edmundo Jarquin of the MRS (no seats in the Assembly) who stood fast despite the possible electoral fallout in a country highly influenced by religious leaders.

While it was no surprise that the PLC and ALN supported the repeal, Ortega’s strong pro-Church stance was an eye-opener for many physicians and women’s organizations.

Free Trade Treaty with US

The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) could have been a major campaign issue, such as in this year’s Costa Rican presidential elections, but was suddenly passed a year ago in Nicaragua, supported by the different Liberal factions

The FSLN, which had made itself the voice of numerous groups that for over a year had actively demonstrated against the agreement, dropped its opposition at the last minute saying the majority of the people favored the accord with the United States.

All the candidates now see CAFTA as a foregone conclusion and say they will seek to make the most of it.

However, different approaches can be deciphered. Montealegre and Rizo see the State using deregulation as a vehicle to facilitate investment by the larger economic groups in conjunction with transnational corporations.

Under such a strategy the already weak internal market and the competition presented by small and medium producers and businesses would be further sacrificed to promote exports. Low contract wages are seen by Montealegre and Rizo as Nicaragua’s main competitive edge to attract investment and jobs both in the maquila industries and in agriculture.

Social expenditures under the two rightwing candidates would continue to be limited and would receive a boost from Ortega or Jarquin.

Ortega also hopes to participate in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) a Latin American integration initiative promoted by Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia to achieve social and economic advancement through mutually beneficial trade and solidarity.

Jarquin would also be likely to seek alternatives while based on their track records Montealegre and Rizo would most likely prefer to put all their eggs in the US corporate basket.

Both Sandinista parties propose an economy where the State plays a greater regulatory role with protection for public services, one of which, water, promises to be a battleground in the coming years.

The campaign has now ended and an electoral silence takes hold. Many schools, converted into polling stations and vote counting centers, will not hold classes for the next week or two in some cases.

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