I spent election day, Sunday the 6th, in Granada, Nicaragua. Then travelled to Managua the following day.
The night before, the most prominent signs of the election were to be found hung outside bars and liquor stores – the government had banned sales of alcohol from 6pm Saturday night and people needed reminding. Otherwise there was little to distinguish the event, the town seemed to flow with its normal routine and its gentle charm was unruffled. There was certainly no sign of the violence suggested on the front-page of La Prensa, who had led with a front-page picture of a burning car.
Sunday morning we were awoken by a long unbroken peal of church bells, that continued at intervals throughout the day. As we strolled around town stopping at polling stations everything was orderly and surprisingly small scale. The polling stations electoral rolls were affixed outside and none had more than a couple of hundred names on. The stations were manned not by police, or soldiers, but civilians. A mix of old and young all wearing fresh white t-shirts that denoted them as the organisers. Nowhere we passed had large groups in or around the stations, none had any party markings nearby, and there was no preference apparent without asking people.
By about eleven on Saturday evening the first news hit the street of a victory for Daniel Ortega. One car drove past waving a Sandinista flag, but the street remained quite and the mood restrained. By midnight fireworks started going off and there was singing coming from the Plaza. We fell asleep with horns still beeping intermittently and the loud pops of homemade fireworks that banged but didn’t flare.
The day following the election had a festive feel. La Prensa had “worse than fraud” across its front-page, but it seemed to be the only suggestion of this. Our taxi driver that morning was clearly not a partisan for Ortega – or simply Daniel here – but he was unequivocal that Daniel was the peoples choice. He said that over the last five years the health and education systems had improved and that it was hard to argue against both being free for everybody. A Sandinista flag toting young man we spoke to had a rather more sanguine anecdote for the root of his popularity, he said that Ortega had given the rural poor cows.
Late Monday morning we took the bus to Managua. People were excited, shouting numbers at one another wherever there was a television by the side of the road; the question was how much of the vote was in and how much was for Ortega. In Managua crowds were gathering and there was clearly a party brewing where there had been a party the night before. It was hard to marry the mood around Managua with the stories of violence and intimidation reported in some of the international press, even if the result was in already.
Reading the reaction to the election in the international press was an example of how perception can shape reality. Governments of the south, especially those who speak out against domination from the north, are held to higher standards than other governments. For example, whilst there may have been some irregularities in the Nicaraguan election, there is no suggestion that they affected the outcome, such was margin of victory; to manufacture this would have taken flagrant fraud. Conversely, whilst proportionately smaller in number, the issues with denial of voting rights in Florida in 2004 could well have been decisive. Whilst this may not have gone unnoticed by everyone, there was little suggestion of looming tyranny in the mainstream press.
Both the London Guardian and the New York Times suggested that Ortega might now run in perpetuity, citing unnamed sources for the suggestion that he could demolish democracy in the country that he had had a large hand in introducing it to. (The Times report was filed from Honduras, serving as a small reminder of the fragility of democratic forms and their expendability in the face of social programs favouring the poor.)
As well as the double standards, western reports are often historically amnesic. Nicaragua in the last hundred years has only a brief history of democracy. Dominated by American interests in the early part of the twentieth century and repeatedly occupied buy its marines when the people sought to assert their own. As the system of exploitation moved with the times and became neo-colonial, the Somoza dictatorship ruled Nicaragua with U.S. support – another example of double standards from the pulpit. It was the Sandinistas who removed the dictatorship. They then held elections in 1984 that were boycotted by the opposition under strong U.S. pressure, much to their later regret when they realised the gains they might have made. When further elections were held in 1990 the Sandinistas were voted out and they peacefully gave up power. In contrast, the Bush administration had promised to continue the dirty war against the country should they win, perhaps instructive of the respect for democracy on either side.
One final example of the underlying attitudes of western superiority that permeate analysis of third world politics. In every report I have read today online, (all buried behind news on Whacko Jacko’s ghoul maker) the reticence of the Nicaraguan government in allowing international election monitors has been used as an example to support accusations of fraud. However, Ortega was quite explicit on this issue, as Nicaragua would not presume to and would not be welcome to observe British elections, for example, then why should these roles be reversed? It is only assumed in the west that the rest of the world has an obligation to justify themselves to the former and current centres of imperial power.
Whatever the flaws of the process and the uncertainty of the future policies, it seems clear that for better or worse Daniel Ortega is the choice of the Nicaraguan people. Whilst Ortega has angered some of his former revolutionary comrades for his lack of ideological zeal and for some he cannot be disassociated from his radical past, he now seems to be ploughing a pragmatic path. At its heart, there is a commitment to lifting people out of poverty (down 12% in 5 years), whilst avoiding the economic regression – previously bought on by outside attack – that sunk the revolution.
Whilst I write this, Hugo Chavez is indulging in one of his long orations on Canal Sur. After asserting that the great challenge facing Guatemala is not the crimes of the past, but the daily crime of thirty children dying of want every 24 hours, he moves on to Nicaragua. Asked to comment on the allegations of fraud, he says that these are inevitable and he expects the same next October if he is reelected.
Like Chavez, and many of the left leaning Latin American leaders, Ortega talks a good talk. The proof will be in exerting enough influence and intelligence to share more equitably the wealth of his nation whilst simultaneously expanding it – a tough trick to pull if you alienate the capitalist class. In the meantime people will call fraud, but only time and the results of policy will show if these have any merits. Tonight in Nicaragua is the Sandinista’s night, for real.
Josh Hollis is traveling in Central America. He can be reached through his website.