Returning to Nicaragua was almost like going home. The troubled nation presented an important political issue with the overthrow of the dictator Somoza during my administration as president, followed by the fragmentation of the revolutionary front into competing political factions that resulted in the election of the leftist Sandinistas in 1984. During the past two decades Rosalynn and I have been involved in many visits, beginning with an ambitious Habitat for Humanity home building project in the northwest region in the mid-1980s. It was remarkable in that we were able to build homes for ten-person families for only $300, using local clays for bricks and roofing tile and local mahogany for roof trusses.
The Carter Center was invited to monitor the 1990 election between the Sandinistas (FSLN), led by Daniel Ortega, and a multiparty slate of candidates headed by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro. After her surprising victory, we helped to negotiate a gracious acceptance of the results from victors and vanquished. In effect, this brought an end to the Contra War that had been orchestrated by the Reagan administration to overthrow the Sandinista regime. Later, our Center assisted in resolving the extremely complex dispute over titles to property between former Somocistas and the revolutionaries and again in another successful effort to assist in the control of hyperinflation. We returned to observe subsequent national, regional, and local elections, including those held recently that will culminate in the election of a new president and parliament on Nov. 5, 2006.
Although not holding the top office, the Sandinistas have been successful in forming a political alliance (El Pacto) with leaders of the conservative Liberal Party (PLC) and have thus gained effective control of the parliament, courts, and electoral council. The immediate past president, Arnoldo Aleman, has been convicted on charges of corruption and is under house arrest, but still leads the PLC and exerts substantial influence. The conservative political wing is represented by two competing candidates, Eduardo Montealegre (ALN-PC) and José Rizo (PLC). In the same manner, Herty Lewites (MRS) broke away from the Sandinista's party (FSLN) to compete with Ortega. Lewites died on July 2, the day before our visit, so the effect of his death on the future election was always a prevailing point of discussion.
After our arrival in Managua, our team (headed by Jennifer McCoy, Jaime Aparicio, and Shelley McConnell) was briefed by U.S. Ambassador Paul Trivelli and his associates. Their primary goal during the next few months is to help ensure an honest election that results in the defeat of the Sandinistas, with an apparent preference for Montealegre. One tactic, so far unsuccessful, has been to try to induce Rizo to withdraw from the race to eliminate the potential split among more conservative voters. Equally obvious is the support being given to the Sandinistas from Venezuela, using gifts through Sandinista mayors of fertilizer, with promises of future cheap petroleum products.
As has been our policy during 62 previous elections, the goal of The Carter Center will be to help ensure an honest and fair election process while remaining neutral among the contending candidates. Our immediate purpose during this visit was to learn as much as possible from Nicaraguan leaders and to use our unofficial influence to avoid some potential future problems that we have already identified. We also wanted to introduce Jaime Aparicio, a respected and experienced public servant from Bolivia, who will spend most of his time in Nicaragua as our Center's Chief of Mission.
One strong impression in traveling through the city was the prevalence of large and elaborate billboards extolling Daniel Ortega and the Sandinistas. It was interesting that his former symbol (a virile and dominant rooster) and harsh black and red colors have been replaced by a fatherly photograph and all-pastel colors. The publicity for all the candidates is based on their first names: Daniel, Eduardo, Herty, José, etc.
Our first visit was with President Enrique Bolaños, who was elected to replace Aleman five years ago. He barely escaped impeachment last year and has been in constant conflict with a National Assembly that is controlled by the FSLN-PLC Pact. While proud of some accomplishments, he was looking forward to retirement. We then met with former President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, her daughter Cristiana and son-in-law Antonio Lacayo. It was interesting to be received in the unchanged room where I had brought Ortega to meet her on the night of her victory over him in 1990. Antonio gave us an intriguing assessment of the political situation and how it might be affected by the death of Lewites. Like other analysts, he could only speculate, but he thought it would be helpful to Montealegre. This opinion was compatible with the editorial position of their family newspaper, La Prensa.
Our meeting with Cardinal Obando y Bravo was surprising in that he has changed from a fervent anti-Sandinista to having become reconciled with Ortega, and his most recent homily was subtly, but clearly, an endorsement. He told us that Ortega had publicly repented, had married his lifelong female companion, and that the reconciliation was genuine. Although the new archbishop is the official head of the church, the cardinal is still preeminent in political affairs. He was very proud of the new cathedral, donated by Tom Monaghan of Domino's Pizza, which we visited. It is a strange and striking design by a world famous Mexican architect.
I gave a speech at the U.S. Embassy's 4th of July celebration, and then we had a long discussion with the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE), concentrating on many questions and concerns raised by our staff. It is obvious to everyone that its members are dominated by the Sandinistas, with support from the Liberals, excluding the other parties. This puts a great responsibility on us and other international observers to help prevent fraud and to minimize bias.
We then had a series of meetings with candidates, beginning with José Rizo (PLC), who has inherited the party of Aleman, but denies close ties with him. He and his associates were very bitter at the interference of the U.S. in the campaign, with public condemnation of his candidacy and indirect financial and overt verbal support for either Montealegre or the party of Lewites. He said that U.S. efforts to secure his withdrawal from the race would never succeed. He has been campaigning for only two months, and recent poll numbers are improving while Montealegre has lost a few points.
Shortly after being chosen to replace Lewites, Edmundo Jarquin (MRS) met with us, reporting that a famous singer, Carlos Mejia Godoy, would be his running mate. Although Jarquin claimed to deplore "foreign interference," he said they would continue to accept legal assistance from the U.S., such as funds to train their party poll watchers. Eduardo Montealegre (ALN-PC), an articulate banker with close family ties to the U.S., explained that his recent slight drop in public opinion polls was due to a phase of reorganizing his campaign and a lack of active campaigning. He was unapologetic about his overt support from the U.S., but was aware that it might have some deleterious consequences. As with some other candidates and our own team, he had a list of concerns regarding the CSE.
Wednesday, we first met with Ethics & Transparency, a private organization that claims 3,000 members and expects to qualify 10,500 observers prior to Election Day. We have worked closely with them in previous elections. They have been extremely critical of the CSE in the past, but expressed surprising satisfaction with more recent decisions. Their quick count results will be important in verifying the official results, and we will attempt to protect their independence and access to all aspects of the electoral process. Next, Mauricio Zuñiga came to explain the work of the Institute for Democracy (IPADE), who are expecting to have 2,000 workers to observe the appeals process. Despite our repeated attempts, Daniel Ortega refused to meet with us in our hotel, as the other candidates had, using various delays and excuses.
The Alternative for Change party (AC) is headed by Eden Pastora, the famous Comandante Zero during the Revolution. Despite their small showing in the last election and current polls, they have been granted full representation among the allotted electoral posts. We then met with the United Nations Development Program representative and considered a post-election reconciliation conference. During the remainder of the afternoon we had discussions with representatives from the various embassies in Managua and civil society. Almost all of them deplored the overt involvement of the U.S. government in the electoral process and thought it might be counterproductive.
One of our most important projects in Nicaragua (and other countries) is the passage and implementation of Freedom of Information laws. Our remaining meetings were devoted to this goal, which we consider to be a crucial factor in the establishment and perpetuation of stable democracies. There is strong support from the news media, the president's office, and private groups, and I met with them and with top leaders of the National Assembly to agree on a final draft, hopefully to be passed within the next few weeks.
At our final press conference we summarized our findings and further recommendations to the Electoral Council, which are published on our Web site (www.cartercenter.org). Immediately thereafter, I had a long telephone conversation with Daniel Ortega, who seemed quite confident about the election and promised to help with our requests to the CSE and regarding Access to Information. He said that his reason for avoiding our meetings was his aversion to coming to the hotel. Before leaving Nicaragua I was informed that necessary amendments to the draft law were successful.
Despite the still remaining political divisions in the country (not unlike those in the United States), Nicaragua has enjoyed substantial economic progress, has the lowest crime rate in Central America, and its people are firmly dedicated to democracy. Even four months before the election, the news media and private citizens are obsessed with the campaign, and leaders from all segments of society seem to appreciate The Carter Center as a friendly, dependable, unbiased and stabilizing factor in the heated political environment.