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Trip to Nicaragua

By Jimmy Carter


For 100 years, the United States' relations with Nicaragua have always been interesting and filled with drama. For me, they began during my term as president. In 1977, Nicaragua was controlled completely by a dictator, Anastazio Somoza, who enjoyed a firm working relationship with the U.S. government and some very influential American corporations. We condemned Somoza's human rights abuses with some effect. Dissension increased as he became more oppressive, and a number of revolutionary groups were formed. Their fervor and cohesiveness were intensified in January 1978, when a prominent newspaper editor, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, was murdered, and many thought, incorrectly as it turned out, that it was done by Somoza or his allies. Violence erupted nationwide, and approximately 50,000 people died in the revolution.

In June 1979, the OAS called for Somoza to resign and a democratic government to be installed. He soon after left the country, and I recall that a group of eight foreign ministers from Latin America escorted the victorious revolutionaries into Managua to assume power in July. Although the revolution originally comprised a broad coalition including educators, business leaders, intellectuals, and others, it soon became apparent that the leftist Sandinistas would be playing a dominant role.

Within a year after Ronald Reagan became president, the U.S. decided to support a group of rebels, or Contras, who aimed to overthrow the government. There were hot debates in the U.S. Congress about this policy. Congress approved some aid to the Contras, but voted to stop the aid in 1984. At that time, parts of the administration continued secretly to foment and finance the war. The United States provided weapons and other support to the Contras, and helped them establish a base in Honduras. (Revelations of these activities resulted in the so-called Iran-Contra scandal.) A multiparty election was held in 1984, and Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega was elected president.

Although the U.S. supported a boycott by the major opposition parties, the Contra war continued until the end of Reagan's term, with Oliver North and others secretly channeling assistance through various intermediaries, including Panama strongman Manuel Noriega. After George Bush became president in 1989, his administration approved plans of The Carter Center and Latin American leaders to assist with a democratic election process, to be monitored by us and other international observers. To the surprise of the Sandinistas, a coalition of 14 political parties called UNO received 55% of the votes, and Violeta Chamorro (widow of the slain newspaper editor and one of the 1979 revolutionary leaders) became president.

During President Chamorro's term, our Center offered advice on bringing hyperinflation (36,000% annually!) under control, and attempted, with some success, to resolve the still continuing arguments about ownership of property that changed hands during and at the end of the revolution. Rosalynn and I had been to Nicaragua in 1986 to help with a Habitat for Humanity project (during the Contra war) and again immediately following Hurricane Mitch. After visiting the path of the storm, we marshaled aid for victims in the devastated areas.

In 1996 we monitored another election, which was mostly fair and peaceful, though with many irregularities, and Arnoldo Aleman became president. His administration has earned an unfortunate reputation for corruption. His Liberal party (PLC) and the Sandinistas (FSLN) orchestrated a new national constitution in 2000 which, in effect, provided for sharing political power and spoils between these two major parties and practically excluding all others.

Background for the 2001 election:

Beginning 16 months ago, The Carter Center has monitored the political situation in Nicaragua, attempting to make the election process more open, democratic, and technically effective. Although earlier the process was hamstrung by a lack of funds and an inadequate system for transmitting election returns by fax, most of these problems were reported to be resolved. According to polling results, the presidential election seemed to be a dead heat between PLC candidate incumbent vice-president Enrique Bolanos and FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega. The campaign was relatively free of violence, and both candidates were able to present their views to the public.

Bolanos is a wealthy cotton grower, who was head of the business community and challenged Dona Violeta Chamorro for UNO's nomination in 1990, when she was chosen and elected president. He joined Aleman in 1996 as his vice-president. Generally believed to be honest, he did not condemn the alleged corruption of the president, who totally dominates the Liberal party organization.

Friday, 11/2/01

I arrived in Managua on November 2, to head an observer team of 50 persons from about a dozen countries and immediately met with U.S. Ambassador Oliver Garza. We then visited members of the 7-member Supreme Electoral Council (CSE). There are three Sandinista and three Liberal members plus the president, Roberto Rivas, who is known to be very close to Cardinal Obando y Bravo (who strongly opposes the Sandinistas). One potential problem was that the losing side might boycott meetings, preventing a legal quorum of five, but we were assured that the Council would not adjourn until at least a month after the election, making the quorum issue moot. Council members and Carter Center staff expressed some concerns about proper transmission of voting results from the 2 regions and 15 departments into the CSE center, and Rivas assured us that there would be physical carrying of the records paralleling the fax transmissions. The likelihood was that no partial results would be available until after midnight. A CSE regulation prevented the publication of any quick counts until after the CSE announced a victor, but plans were for the domestic observer group Ética y Transparencia (E&T) to deliver their results to all seven of the CSE members, which virtually ensured public revelation by word-of-mouth. E&T had about 5,000 data points, which should give an extremely accurate report (less than 1% error).

We drove south of Managua to one of the homes of President Aleman, the last 12 miles on a fine new mountain road constructed just for his use. We were told that the government has provided similar services to all his other fincas. Although he was quoted in the morning newspaper as not desiring my presence in Nicaragua, he and his associates were very gracious. I was surprised when entering his office to confront a double-life-sized statue of Augusto Sandino, the "patron saint" of the Sandinistas who fought against U.S. intervention forces in the 1920s and was assassinated in 1934. Aleman explained that he had placed its duplicate in Sandino's hometown. He predicted that Bolanos would win by a 6-7% margin. He told us that he and his cabinet would be assembled in Managua as the election ended, in case there was a "national emergency," somewhat corroborating an earlier rumor that a close and uncertain election would precipitate a
negotiated result, regardless of the vote.

Back at our hotel, we met the observer delegation leaders of the European Union and the Organization of American States, and shared concern about Aleman's obvious desire to remain in power by "negotiating the votes" in case of a small margin of victory. We international observers agreed to share information and to consult before making any kind of definitive statements to the news media. I decided after these meetings to talk directly to Army Commander General Carrión, who would play a key role in deciding what would constitute a national emergency warranting any possible alternative to vote counts in determining who would be president.

Saturday, 11/3/01

Our delegation met with Gabriel Solórzano and other leaders of Ética y Transparencia, an NGO that would be doing the extensive quick count. They were also concerned about reports of a negotiated vote, and promised to give us their presidential election results when available. Next, we made our regular visit to Cardinal Obando y Bravo, respected Catholic leader, who has always opposed the Sandinistas in his personal influence and in a homily on Sundays preceding elections. His sermon this year was less vitriolic than in previous years, and he assured us that he would support the vote count and not any behind-the-scenes negotiations.

Daniel Ortega and other FSLN leaders met with us, discussed the same concern, said they were prepared with well-trained observers, etc., and pledged peaceful reaction to results no matter who won. Then we went to visit General Carrión, who expressed his quandary if forced to question a declaration of his civilian commander-in-chief, but assured us that he was strongly opposed to any alternative to the citizens' votes and did not want to send out the army in force. I let him know that the international observers agreed with this position and that he would have our backing. We then met with PLC candidate, Vice-president Enrique Bolanos. Surprisingly, he also brought up the same concern about a subversion of the electoral process. He seemed confident of victory, and said he would expose and root out corruption in all previous administrations.

Our last meeting before election day was with Alberto Saborio, the Conservative party candidate. The Liberal and Sandinista leaders had done everything possible to prevent any other parties from participating, and I congratulated this group for their persistence. They had no hope for the presidency but expected some seats in the national assembly. Although some of them have shifted political alignments, I have known the top leaders in all the parties during three presidential elections. Everyone was emphasizing peace, education, and jobs.

At our press conference, there were predictable questions about prospects for a fair and open election, with the results to be determined solely by who gets the most votes. Two questions were about the deliberate public actions of the U.S. ambassador in support of the Liberal candidate. I expressed disapproval of any outside interference, but pointed out that President Bush had stated publicly that our country would honor the results of the election and work with either successful candidate. After former president Oscar Arias arrived from Costa Rica to join our delegation, we gave him a briefing and then attended a reception at the U.S. embassy. A congressional delegation was there, along with other ambassadors and leaders of international observer groups.

I watched the Diamondbacks wipe out the Yankees before sleeping.

Sunday, 11/4/01 (election day)

The morning news headlines were that Aleman still saw the likelihood of a national emergency, obviously attempting to precipitate tension in the country. At the polling sites we found long and patient lines and meticulously organized procedures to prevent any aspect of fraud. The parties nominated polling officials, so that there was always dual (or triple) oversight of each step of the process. Beginning at 6 a.m., every blank ballot was examined and counted (1,600 in all), which took until 7:20 a.m. The ID card of each voter was examined under ultraviolet light under a black cloth to assure its authenticity, each ballot was signed on the back by the voting officials, indelible ink was applied thoroughly on voters' right thumbs, ID cards were perforated to prevent voting twice, and party observers were ever-present. Even illiterate voters could make informed choices by the parties' symbols, acronyms, and photographs of presidential candidates. At other sites, we found some of them opening late and voting slowly, but with everyone peaceful and patient.

We then went to see Dona Violeta Chamorro, and found her gracious and extremely careful not to express any preference.

We observed final counting in a Sandinista stronghold, and saw that Bolanos was getting 53% of the vote, indicating a strong shift in his favor. After watching the end of one of the greatest baseball World Series in history, I slept until about 3 a.m., when we received the preliminary quick count result from É&T, showing the PLC winning with a surprising margin of about 10%, which would increase as further data flowed in.

Monday, 11/5/01

Bolanos called me several times during the night, and I visited him before daybreak Monday. He was quite concerned that no results had been announced and was ready to claim his victory. While I was with him, 5% of the results were announced at 7 a.m., with his lead at 8%. He was still quite concerned about possible collusion between President Aleman and the Sandinista group (called Convergencia), especially regarding seats in the assembly. I assured him of the backing of all international observers, pledged that we would monitor "the last vote" in all races, and offered the continuing services of The Carter Center as he begins his new administration in January. He'll have a difficult time asserting his political authority with Aleman's continuing control of the PLC party apparatus and Liberal members of the parliament. Bolanos will need all the help he can get from us and from the opposition. He expressed public disapproval of Aleman's suggestion that he be president of the next national assembly.

I also called Daniel Ortega, who promised to acknowledge his defeat as soon as the CSE made a substantive announcement. He was already aware of the quick count results showing him losing.

One of our observer teams had suffered a serious car accident in Leon on Sunday, so I decided to visit the driver in Managua and the observer in Leon. While I was with the driver in the Managua military hospital, we all celebrated when he moved his hands and feet. Our young American observer in Leon had had quick surgery to drain blood from his lungs, and we found him conscious and breathing regularly on a respirator in what was a rudimentary hospital. We thanked the local surgeons for their fine work, and it was decided to evacuate him to Florida that afternoon.

Shortly after noon, Ortega conceded and pledged that the Convergencia would serve as a responsible opposition. At 1:30 p.m. the CSE announced a clear lead for Bolanos (still with only 13% of the returns). Ortega and Bolanos greeted each other warmly on television.

After an early afternoon press conference, where I denounced the inept and politically subverted electoral council, we spent the rest of the day in meetings with business and civic leaders, and with an impressive group of Convergencia leaders. These are a dozen or so former opponents, including former Contras and UNO members who now support the FSLN and pledge to work in concert during the coming years. I advised them strongly to forego secret deals and openly support much-needed reforms in the electoral process and the judiciary and parliamentary systems, and to join Bolanos in exposing and rooting out corruption. Both they and Bolanos know that The Carter Center is willing to help with these controversial tasks.

That night, no additional returns had been published, and there was serious dissension in the CSE, so we went there to meet with President Rivas. He claimed that the other members had subverted the process, but we conceded that gross confusion, last minute changes in software and computer operators, and a politically charged atmosphere were the responsibility of all members.

Tuesday, 11/6/01

There was little more that I could do personally, so I decided to come home. On the way to the airport, I talked with President-elect Bolanos and Ambassador Garza, pledging continued involvement of The Carter Center as long as we are needed. Nicaragua is a nation of great promise and with citizens dedicated to peace and democracy, but too long prevented by war, extreme political rivalry and polarization, and corruption from realizing its potential. The future of los nicaragüenses is still uncertain, and they need all the help they can get.

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