Sincronía Winter 1996

Nicaragua's Thermidorian Reaction

Peter Costantini, Seattle Correspondent, Interpress Service

As the dust from Nicaragua's October 20 elections began to settle, a taxi driver summed them up with an ambiguous grin: "Our disorder is very well-organized."

He could have been implying fraud by the winners. Or he could have been accusing the losers of taking advantage of disorganization to cry fraud. Or he could have been criticizing the baroque electoral procedures. Perhaps all three.

A recently passed law foolishly slashed the electoral budget and politicized the process, gutting a system that served well in Nicaragua's first democratic elections in 1984 and 1990. The resulting problems--polling places that opened hours late, discarded bags of ballots, an error-prone communications system--raised tensions and postponed a full resolution. After a recount, Arnoldo Aleman of the right-wing Liberal Alliance won a clear 51 to 37.75 percent victory over Daniel Ortega of the left-nationalist Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN). The FSLN and several minor parties, though, requested annulment of the elections in two areas because of the widespread irregularities.

In the emerging political landscape, a conservative president will face a National Assembly evenly divided between right and left. Although the Aleman's coalition has five more votes than the Sandinistas, it lacks an absolute majority, so several small parties will hold the balance of legislative power. Recent constitutional reforms have reduced the power of the executive, increasing the need for parliamentary horse-trading. The Liberal victory represents a Thermidorian reaction against the declining Sandinista revolution.

Aleman and some of his inner circle were close to the Somoza dictatorship, which the Sandinistas overthrew in 1979. The Sandinistas, though, remain the largest and most cohesive single political force in the country, with influence in the army and police. This polarization creates a delicate standoff. If the Liberal government attempts to take vengeance against their old adversaries, to take control of the military, or to implement draconian economic measures, the Sandinistas and supporters could put up serious resistance in the streets. But the economy requires stability to create jobs, and anyone who disrupts this will pay a political price.

Although much of its base is still poor and militant, the FSLN ran a moderate campaign of conciliation with ex-contras and encouragement of agricultural producers. It also enjoys support among some sectors of business. Internal tensions have already produced one split and could create more divisions. But they could also open the door for new leadership: Ortega, who has lost twice, is not likely to run again.

Aleman's alliance, too, has its fault lines. Beyond his upscale core of businesspeople, he also has some following among the poor, who hope his aggressive salesmanship and connections in Miami and Washington will help revive the economy. "Nicaragua's political culture is one of charismatic strongmen," observed incoming foreign minister Emilio Alvarez Montalvan. "Both Aleman and Ortega are caudillos," he said, whose emotional vision glues an anarchic society together.

Perhaps the biggest winner in these elections was Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who reasserted the king-making power of the conservative church hierarchy. Just days before the vote, while a ban on campaigning was in force, he invited Aleman to help him celebrate mass and delivered a vehemently anti-Sandinista homily on national television. Even some religious conservatives criticized this partisan flood of holy water. Nevertheless, Nicaragua's Richelieu has emerged as the gray eminence behind the new government, with three key ministries going to his close associates.

Aleman's opening political shot was a clumsy suggestion that all sitting judges resign so that he could replace them with his own appointees. The Supreme Court promptly rejected the idea as unconstitutional. The President-elect then transposed into a less confrontational key, calling for a national agreement between all political forces to assure governability. Rather than the traditional division of spoils between elites, said losing presidential candidate Alejandro Serrano, this accord should focus strategically on how to meet Nicaraguans' desperate needs. With most people lacking such basic necessities as water, light, housing, and sanitation, he said, "it's very difficult to consolidate a democracy."

One key area of conflict will be the ownership of contested properties. Wealthy emigres whose properties were confiscated after the overthrow of Somoza now expect the Liberals to return them. But hundreds of thousands of ordinary people own a little house or farm as a result. As one working-class man who got his home in the process put it," If they try to take it away from me, they'll be eating lead."

Property issues must be cleared up to attract investment, said an Aleman advisor. But capital alone will not solve Nicaragua's problems. Global finance and markets now rule Latin America, yet they have repeatedly failed to distribute wealth equitably and have eroded the living standard of most citizens. No political force, however, has come forward with a compelling alternative. "You can't talk about alternative economic models," said economist Nestor Avendano, "because the international financial organisms only will finance one model, and there are no viable alternatives." Although Aleman himself has said that private property "must serve a social function," his economic program sounds like International Monetary Fund orthodoxy. "First we need to transform our agriculture into agribusiness, to create jobs," he proposed. He also plans to prioritize tourism and expand the maquila (export assembly) sector to take advantage of Nicaragua's cheap labor. Right on cue, the U.S. government's Export-Import Bank announced days after the elections that it would open a Nicaragua office. The Bank will finance sales of U.S. machinery, ostensibly to increase agricultural productivity and generate more export earnings for Nicaragua.

Even given the best intentions, a 50-percent budget deficit and a huge international debt will leave paltry resources to meet the health, education, or housing needs of the 70 percent of Nicaraguans who live on the edge. If current trends persist, said economist Xabier Gorostiaga, Central America could become "an ungovernable mix of Taiwanized enclaves and Somalicized regions." This "two-speed society" would trap most women, children, peasants and indigenous people in penury and "social disintegration." In the midst of this "low-intensity chaos," a few modernized havens of commerce would shelter elites and a small middle class.

To avoid this fate, said Gorostiaga, a new social contract must include all the region's people. A sustainable, integrated regional economy, he asserted, should encourage small farmers, transnational services, biotechnology and ecotourism. Gorostiaga's dystopia is not far-fetched. While supermarket shelves are now full, soaring prices of basic foods have meant malnutrition for growing numbers. The legions of barefoot kids washing windshields at traffic lights and working girls outside hotels and nightclubs are only the most visible symptoms of receding hopes for a decent life.

"Nation of furious destiny," poet Giaconda Belli called Nicaragua. Despite the demands of international markets for stability and yearning of nearly everyone for reconciliation, the elections have left the country severely polarized. Slaking that fury will require political maturity, economic ingenuity, and the will to help the majority allay its gut-twisting hungers. * * *

Peter Costantini wrote about the recent Nicaraguan elections for MSNBC. He taught at the National Engineering University in Managua in 1986 and has covered previous elections in Nicaragua, Mexico and Haiti. He is Seattle correspondent for Inter Press Service.

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