On November 4, Nicaraguans will go to the polls to select a president, vice president, and all sixty-six members of their unicameral congress–an event that on its own merits would hardly deserve much attention on the part of foreign observers. But the drama unfolding in that tiny country is characteristic of many small (and not so small) Latin American countries today: the inability of democracy alone to address effectively some of the fundamental problems of society. Nicaragua also provides some interesting insight into the peculiar pathologies that afflict postrevolutionary states, and as such may provide some light on what we can expect in post-Castro Cuba and even, eventually, in post—Chávez Venezuela.
When Nicaragua Mattered
It seems like only yesterday that Nicaragua was one of the principal pieces on the cold war chessboard-a new Cuban–Soviet bridgehead in the Central American isthmus, and a deeply contentious issue in U.S. domestic politics. In 1979, more than forty years of rule by the Somoza dynasty came to an end, not so much as the result of a guerrilla war by the Marxist Sandinista Front of National Liberation (FSLN) as by the precipitous abandonment of the Nicaraguan government by the Carter administration. Anthony Lake's excellent book Somoza Falling tells the story in vivid detail—how, step by step, the United States and its Latin American friends unwittingly abandoned its support for a right-wing dictator without bothering to secure a replacement more broadly representative of Nicaraguan opinion. For the fact was that the vast majority of Nicaraguans, including almost all opponents of Somoza, were neither leftist nor anti—U.S. The morning after the dictator's departure they found themselves saddled with a new regime that was both.
During their ten years of power, the Sandinistas attempted to force Nicaragua into a Cuban template–a state whose characteristic features were an oversized military and security establishment, an educational system whose purpose was political indoctrination, neighborhood surveillance committees, an "agrarian reform" that disenfranchised thousands of small peasants, and the systematic export of violence and subversion. Unlike Cuba in 1959 and 1960, however, vast sectors of the anti-Sandinista opposition did not abandon the country, and the United States—after a change of administrations—did not abandon them. A civil war ensued, in which many on the antigovernment side were veterans of the earlier struggle against Somoza, with the support (both covert and overt) from the United States. (In spite of howls of protest from liberals and their transmission belts in the media, not to mention the near totality of Western Europeans, this assistance was far less than the Sandinista army and police received from Cuba and the Eastern bloc.)
By the end of the decade, the Nicaraguan economy was in chaos, almost wholly dependent upon aid from Western sources. This anomaly—a Marxist revolution in far—off Central America, aligned with the Soviets and the Cubans but financed by credulous Swedes, Norwegians, Dutch, and Danes–largely explains why the regime felt obliged in 1990 to validate its questionable legitimacy by holding competitive elections. To the shock and surprise of most foreigners, President Daniel Ortega was ousted by Violeta Chamorro, owner of the opposition daily La Prensa and widow of one of the great martyrs in the struggle against Somoza.
Uprooting the Sandinista dictatorship proved considerably more difficult, however, than liquidating its predecessor. For one thing, between Doña Violeta's election and her inauguration, the leading figures of the Sandinista party had hurriedly "privatized" many of the enterprises they had expropriated during their decade of rule, a mafia-like operation which created a whole new business class of thuggish ex—revolutionaries with vast resources to finance their future political ventures. For another, former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, who regarded the outcome in Nicaragua as a virtual plebiscite on his Central American policy, persuaded Doña Violeta the morning after her victory that the interests of "national reconciliation" would best be served by allowing the defeated Sandinistas to retain control of some of the country's institutions. Thus, Ortega's brother Humberto stayed on as commander in chief of the army, and were it not for the nearly simultaneous demise of the Soviet Union and the Eastern bloc, Moscow and East Berlin would have maintained their intelligence facilities as well.
For yet another, during Doña Violeta's term, nothing was done to restore the property of those expropriated by the Sandinistas. As a result, many wealthy Nicaraguans who had fled to the United States, Mexico, Venezuela, or Spain during the revolutionary decade refused to repatriate their holdings. And the U.S. Congress, in the person of Senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), vetoed further aid to the country until outstanding property claims of U.S. citizens (including many of Nicaraguan origin) were satisfied. Potential foreign investors, alerted to the fate of their local counterparts, held back from reentering the country. As a result, the expected economic revival did not take place.
In 1996 another presidential election was held, this time with former president Daniel Ortega facing Managua mayor Arnaldo Alemán. The matchup was particularly piquant, since Alemán had been a follower of Somoza in his youth and many of his supporters were, or were accused of being, former somocistas. In spite of this—or perhaps even because of it—voters rejected Ortega a second time, and there was widespread expectation that the settling of scores with the past so deftly averted by Jimmy Carter in 1990 would finally take place. Quite the contrary, in fact. Alemán proved to be an indolent, cynical, and corrupt politico, basically uninterested in addressing the country's fundamental problems. Indeed, the president has spent most of his energies these past few years trying to reach an agreement with Ortega that would allow the Sandinistas and Alemán's own Liberal Constitutionalist Party to alternate in power indefinitely.
At the same time, however, the world price of coffee—Nicaragua's principal export–experienced a catastrophic decline. Several Nicaraguan banks have gone under, forcing planters to lay off thousands of members of the rural work force. One consequence has been widespread hunger and even starvation in the provinces of Jinotega and Matagalpa; another has been a significant rural exodus to Nicaragua's cities. Whoever wins this election thus inherits a country battered almost uninterruptedly for twenty years—by perverted revolutionary experiments, civil war, corruption, and economic dislocations large and small.
After their defeat the Sandinistas fell to quarreling among themselves, and for a time the party split into "traditional" and "renovationist" wings. The latter, headed by Ortega's former vice president, novelist Sergio Ramírez, made a valiant effort to come to terms with the past, accept their responsibility for Nicaragua's current plight, and offer a new version of Sandinismo, one more nearly resembling social democracy. This project has not prospered, despite the prestige of its leader. (Ramírez is a distinguished novelist with an international reputation.) Even some people associated with the more "traditional" wing of the party, including General Humberto Ortega, have called for new leadership and urged Daniel Ortega to retire from politics, perhaps partly motivated by charges of the former president's stepdaughter that he repeatedly abused her sexually during her adolescence. None of this seems to have mattered to the former president. Armed with the resources of "privatized" state companies and supported by a cadre of ex—bureaucrats and party functionaries eager to loot the treasury once again, Ortega insists on running one more time.
In some ways the context now is far more favorable to his ambitions than in 1990 or 1996. Given the current state of the Nicaraguan economy, almost any opposition politician begins with a serious advantage. Many younger voters probably have at best a shaky recollection of the earlier period of Sandinista misrule. Moreover, Alemán's handpicked successor, Vice President Enrique Bolaños, is a businessman, not a seasoned politician, and he must carry the water of a discredited administration.
To further his advantage, of late Ortega has been making much of his supposed "transformation." He claims that times have changed, and so has he. Yesterday's firebreathing Marxist revolutionary now claims to favor democracy, pluralism, even—God save the mark!—free markets. Sandinista representatives have gone out of their way to reassure foreign investors, Nicaragua's neighbors, even the U.S. government. Under these circumstances Ortega should easily win the race, particularly since a third-party candidate, Conservative Alberto Saborio, refuses to withdraw, thus potentially splitting the anti-Sandinista vote.
Even so, polls show Bolaños and Ortega in a dead heat. In large part this is probably due to unpleasant memories of Ortega's earlier presidency among Nicaraguans above the age of thirty. But it also reflects the fact that Bolaños, though lacking in charisma, radiates integrity and moral courage. Unlike many wealthy Nicaraguans, he did not flee the country during the Sandinista period, even though some $9 million worth of his property was expropriated by the revolutionary government. Instead, he remained to organize the civic opposition. He is not slow to remind Nicaraguans that in spite of Ortega's new professions of a desire for good relations with the United States, the latter still maintains close relations with Cuban dictator Fidel Castro and Libyan strongman Moammar Gadhaffi. Indeed, Bolaños has suggested more than once that Gadhaffi may be providing some of the financing for Ortega's campaign. Nor does he think his opponent has changed all that much. "He is a master of deceit. He has done this before," he told a rally in late September. "If he has changed, he can start proving that by returning the property he has taken." The important difference this time is that, because the cold war is long since over, if Bolaños is right, Nicaraguans will no longer be able to count on the United States to rectify their errors.
One other aspect worthy of note is the not-so-veiled threat to withdraw foreign investment in the event of an Ortega victory. Taiwan's ambassador to Nicaragua has already publicly warned that "it would not be a smart idea" for the Sandinistas to break off relations with his country once again, as they did from 1979 to 1989. Exactly what would happen in that eventuality is unclear, but many Nicaraguans are likely to take note of the possible consequences, since foreign assembly plants, mainly run by Asian firms, provide about 40,000 jobs in Nicaragua.
The Makings of a Mess
As if a divided country and a shattered economy were not enough to raise concerns about Nicaragua's future, there is also the possibility that the elections themselves will lack sufficient credibility to confer legitimacy on whatever government manages to be elected. As George Folsom, president of the International Republic Institute (IRI), wrote in the Washington Times on September 21, the pact between Ortega and Alemán "substantially alters the requirements to win the presidency, allowing for victory with only 35 percent of the popular vote." On an observer mission to the country in August, IRI delegates "heard numerous complaints that citizens had been excluded from the voter registration process." This was particularly the case, they found, in areas with a heavy population of former anti-Sandinista fighters, the so-called contras. There, "representatives of several indigenous groups and community leaders . . . reported omissions of entire towns and settlements in the voter registration process."
As if this were not enough, as of August 31, Folsom reports, more than 225,000 voting credentials had not been distributed, not including 125,000 credentials scheduled to be produced by September 5. "An inadequate distribution effort," he concludes, "will further mar the process and call into question the fairness of the elections. . . . A tainted election could create a groundswell of political chaos in Nicaragua and possibly lead to violence and regional instability."
To be sure, Nicaragua is not China, and nowadays Americans have other, more pressing issues on their plate. But in a broader regional context, there is reason to be concerned. Nicaragua points in a direction toward which all too many other Latin American countries may eventually tend. Almost all of these societies, and particularly the smaller ones, are extremely vulnerable to the ups and downs of the world economy; in some cases, including many in the circum–—Caribbean, they often depend upon one or two exports. Add to this an approach to politics that regards public office as nothing more than an opportunity for illicit enrichment, cynically manipulates the electoral process to distort or pervert outcomes, and ignores the real problems of ordinary people, and one finds oneself in the midst of what is often called the failed state syndrome. Nicaragua is almost there; so are Ecuador and Paraguay. Without naming names it is possible to imagine at least a half dozen other states, some of them quite large, that could face a similar fate. These elections may be the last chance Nicaragua has to avoid it.
1. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989.
2. Brenda Farrington, "Nicaraguan presidential candidate says Ortega has not changed," Associated Press, September 21, 2001.
3. "Taiwan Ambassador: Some Taiwan Firms Fear Sandinista Win," Dow Jones International News, September 27, 2001.
Mark Falcoff is a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.