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View from the Inside: An Observer Recalls the Carter Center's First Election

The chanting started soon after Jennie Lincoln and her partner entered the school in the Chiriqui province in Panama on May 7, 1989.

"The observers are here! The observers are here!"

Soon, hundreds of locals had swarmed them, eager for a glimpse of the Americans who had come to Panama to witness the election between Guillermo Endara and General Manuel Noriega's handpicked candidate, Carlos Duque.

Lincoln had arrived in the country a few days earlier as part of a joint election observation mission that included The Carter Center and the National Democratic and Republican Institutes for International Affairs. Former U.S. Presidents Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford co-led the mission alongside George Price, the former prime minister of Belize, and Australian politician John Spender.

Tensions had been running high for months; Lincoln, who was then the associate director of the Center's Latin America program, recalls intense negotiations just to get visas for the team. After much back-and-forth, Carter and Noriega finally met in private. (President Ford had left the country by then.) Carter asked Noriega if he would accept the results if they didn't go his way; Noriega seemed to think even the possibility of losing was ridiculous.

Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter briefs the media during the 1989 elections in Panama, the first observed by The Carter Center. (Photo Credit: The Carter Center)

Burning the Ballots

Now it was Election Day. Noriega had grounded all domestic flights, but Lincoln and her observation partner, retired General David Jones, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, took off for the western province of Chiriqui in a small private plane anyway.

"I was taller than the plane; so was he," she recalled. "He looked at the plane and came to me and said, 'There are three instruments that are not working.' And I said, 'I hope one is not the altimeter.'"

They arrived safely, and the pilot warned them that they needed to be back before the afternoon rains began.

"He said, 'The rain will start by 12:30. The plane will return to Panama City by 12:30. If you're on it, that's fine; if you're not, the plane is leaving.'"

Wherever they went, voters were happy to see them. They had heard that observers would be there, but didn't quite believe it until they saw them for themselves. Lincoln and Jones saw military troops in shiny boots and new uniforms arriving by the busloads to vote, and took note of the buses' license plates in case they turned up at another center to vote again.

But everything appeared above-board. They beat the rain back to Panama City. All seemed fine.

A Fraudulent Election

Panama's voting process was unusual. At the voting centers, there were trays filled with slips of paper that bore the names of individual candidates and their parties. Voters chose the slip they wanted and put it in a box. Poll workers removed them from the box, recorded the votes on tally sheets written on six or seven sheets of carbon paper. Then they burned the ballots.

"Watching those ballots - the primary evidence - burn was heart-wrenching," Lincoln said.

Especially given what happened next.

The Catholic Church had conducted a quick count that showed Noriega's candidate losing three-to-one. That night, observers started getting reports of military men breaking into polling stations, accosting vote counters, and stealing tally sheets, which they later replaced with falsified ones.

"President Carter says, 'Let's go see them.' We walk up to this school, and it's locked shut. President Carter says he wants in. They unlock it. We walk in, and the place had been ransacked. All of a sudden you hear, 'Carter! Carter! Justicia! Justicia!' Hundreds of people surrounded the school, demanding justice."

Lincoln recalls the crowd jostling them as the team - arms locked together with the Secret Service in front and behind - made their way back to the car.

"We get into the car, and Carter says, 'Okay, let's go find another one.'"

Carter spent the next day trying without success to reach Noriega to facilitate a meeting with the president and vice presidents who should have been named the winners.

Mid-afternoon, he headed out of the hotel, brushing past the hoard of armed National Guardsmen in the plaza, to the national counting center. He stood and listened as an official read off falsified tally sheets - sheets the opposition knew were falsified because they'd been given carbon copies of the originals.

An angry Carter shouted to the officials in Spanish, "Are you honest men, or are you thieves?"

Later that night, he called a press conference.

"He said, 'This election is fraudulent. The will of the Panamanian people has been robbed,'" Lincoln recalled. "We're in Panama City, and Noriega and his guns and his goons are right there. And we're not leaving till the next morning. So there was a little trepidation that night."

Dr. Jennie Lincoln was a member of the Carter Center's first election observation mission in Panama in 1989. Today she is acting director of the Carter Center's America's Program. (Photo: The Carter Center)

The Key is Integrity

The team made it out the next morning without trouble. Seven months later, the United States invaded Panama and deposed Noriega, making it possible for the real election winners to take office.

Lincoln was part of the Carter Center's election observation missions in Nicaragua, Haiti, Guyana, and the Dominican Republic before leaving the Center for academia.

"What Carter did in Panama was historic," said Lincoln, who is now back at the Center as acting director of the Americas Program and plans to be part of the 100th election mission to Guyana May 11. "In those first elections, we never imagined the possibility of the global expansion of the Center's election observation efforts or of monitoring 100 elections.

"The key, I think, is integrity - the integrity of President Carter personally, which translates into a trust in The Carter Center. When you earn the trust of all contentious sides, there is an opportunity to help elections truly serve the interests of the people. What has been achieved is marvelous."

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