US Meddling Nothing New in Nicaragua
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.