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Getting the Right Result: Nicaragua's Election Showed the US Still Won't Allow a Free Vote

7 November 2001

During a recent television discussion in the United States chaired by veteran presenter Barbara Walters, the subject for discussion was the new national puzzle: why they hate us. The reason, suggested Karen Hughes, President Bush's special counselor and his senior press officer during his election campaign, was that "they hate us because we elect our leaders".

Voters in Nicaragua, queuing at the polls last Sunday to elect a new government, might have been forgiven a wry smile on hearing those words. While the United States government radar may seem to have been pointed in the direction of Afghanistan and the Middle East, the state department and many American politicians and officials still found time over the last few weeks to use money, free food and propaganda to try to influence the vote in Nicaragua. In the short term, they may have succeeded - the US's favored candidate, the 73-year-old entrepreneur and landowner Enrique Bolanos of the ruling Liberal party, defeated the Sandinista leader and onetime guerrilla Daniel Ortega - but who knows what the long-term effect will be?

Some history: the Sandinistas ended the Somoza family dictatorship through a revolution in 1979. Their leaders were more pluralistic and less ideologically strait-jacketed than many similar movements and the victory was broadly welcomed in the country. When the Sandinistas stood for election in 1984, they won with 67% of the vote. The US, having seen which way the vote was going, indicated before the election that they would not recognize it. Instead, they supported what, certainly by today's definition, amounted to a terrorist campaign under the contras or counter-revolutionaries. It was an illegal war which resulted in up to 50,000 deaths in Nicaragua. In 1990, a weary electorate backed the US-favoured candidate, Violeta Chamorro, and Ortega surrendered power, the first such peaceful transition through the ballot box in the country's history.

Ortega's political career since then has disappointed many of his former supporters, not least because of the powerful allegations of sexual abuse by his step-daughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez. Few imagined he would ever again challenge seriously for the presidency. Then, earlier this summer, came the results of opinion polls in the local press: Ortega was running some six or seven percentage points ahead of his nearest rivals and might, it seemed, return to power.

The US dispatched a state department official who told the local chamber of commerce how damaging this would be to the country. Pressure was successfully put on the third party candidate, the Conservative Noel Vidaurre, to drop out in order to prevent the splitting of the anti-Ortega vote. The US ambassador, kitted out in a Liberal party baseball hat, embraced the Bolanos election campaign and invited the candidate to join him on an emergency food-aid distribution trip. (Think the US ambassador to the Court of St James dressed in Tory T-shirt, handing out free choc ices in Swansea or Sheffield shoulder to shoulder with Iain Duncan Smith.) John Keane, the US's acting deputy assistant secretary of state for western hemisphere affairs, said last month that the Sandinistas included people responsible for "abominations" of human and civil rights. Such has been the official US rhetoric that former president Jimmy Carter, in Nica ragua to oversee a fair election, was moved to say last week: "I personally disapprove of statements or actions by another country that might tend to influence the votes of people of another sovereign nation."

Jeb Bush, the US president's brother and governor of the state of Florida, home of the one of the dodgiest election results in recent history, wrote an article in the Miami Herald last month in which he attacked Ortega because he "neither understands nor embraces the basic concepts of freedom, democracy and free enterprise". Bush Jr added: "Daniel Ortega is an enemy of everything the United States represents.

Further, he is a friend of our enemies. Ortega has a relationship of more than 30 years with states and individuals who shelter and condone international terrorism." The article was duly reprinted last week as an ad by the Liberal party in the Nicaraguan daily, La Prensa, under the headline "The brother of the president of the United States supports Enrique Bolanos". As satirist Tom Lehrer said on the occasion of Henry Kissinger winning the Nobel peace prize - who needs irony?

Then, last week, three US politicians: Jesse Helms, the North Carolina Republican, Bob Graham (Democrat, Florida) and Mike DeWine (Republican, Ohio) put a resolution to Congress calling on the president to re-evaluate his policy towards Nicaragua if the Sandinistas were to win - effectively suggesting the further impoverishment of an impoverished country if the wrong result came through. The resolution was duly reported in the Nicaraguan press.

In the meantime, two of the architects of the illegal contra war have returned from the elephants' graveyard. John Negroponte, who had not noticed anything untoward when atrocities were being committed in Honduras during the war, was confirmed as UN ambassador within days of September 11 when the nation's attention was elsewhere. Earlier, Elliott Abrams, who had pleaded guilty in 1981 to lying to Congress over the conduct of the war, was installed by the president to head his "office for democracy and human rights". See Tom Lehrer again. His criminal offense was described by White House spokesman Ari Fleischer as "a matter of the past".

Ortega, sadly, was no Nelson Mandela. Now that he has lost, some of the idealistic souls who once stood beside him in what was, by any standards, a brave revolution may now return to the political arena. Other younger, untainted politicians may emerge. But just at the moment when the US needs to be convincing the world that they do not impose their will to protect their commercial interests with little regard to local people's desires, the events of the past few weeks in Nicaragua will serve to create mo re cynicism.

The Sandinistas, a small, disorganized party in one of the world's poorest countries, posed no threat to the US. To link them to terrorism in the wake of September 11 was a cheap and dishonest shot. The next time Barbara Walters asks Karen Hughes why do they hate us, she can add one smal l but not insignificant cause.

Duncan Campbell.
Published in the Guardian of London.
Guardian Newspapers Limited 2001.

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