Tortilla con Sal, May 12th 2016
On May 6th last week Nicaragua's Supreme Electoral Council held a ceremony in Managua to announce the electoral calendar for 2016, setting the date for this year's presidential and legislative elections for Sunday, November 6th. The most interesting aspect of the ceremony was the presence of an array of distinguished electoral specialists from all over Latin America and the Caribbean, most of whom have supervised national elections in their own countries. Those specialists came from Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Peru and Uruguay.
In interviews with those specialists, one notable comment came from Wilfredo Penco, Vice-president of Urugay's electoral authority. Penco remarked, “Firstly, I think the presence of youth and women in the electoral process puts Nicaragua in the continent's vanguard. I mean, few countries can show as Nicaragua does such an important presence of women and a mass presence of youth in their political life....from that point of view I think the Nicaraguan people can be very proud of what they are demonstrating to the rest of the continent and to the world in general.”
Contrast that with the report by Jackson Rateau in Haiti Liberté on the recent formation of Haiti’s Electoral Verification Commission to investigate that country's hopelessly flawed presidential elections of 2015. In Haiti, the United Nations, the United States government and its allies as well as a plethora of Western non governmental organizations have had over a decade since the 2004 coup against President Jean Bertrand Aristide to help guarantee a legitimate constitutional government in Haiti. But last year 2015, yet once more, their efforts lead to a disastrous outcome in the first round electoral process on October 25th, culminating in the cancellation of the second round and the eventual makeshift installation of an interim president, Jocelerme Privert on February 14th this year.
Even on their own criteria, since 2004, the United Nations, Western governments and NGOs have played a contemptible role confounding the development of legitimate democratic institutions in Haiti. That conclusion has not been lost on governments elsewhere in Latin America and the Caribbean, especially in the countries of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas (ALBA). This reality was reflected in the fact that notably absent from the ceremony announcing Nicaragua's electoral calendar for 2016 was either any physical presence of a Western electoral observation organization or any mention of them in the speech by Roberto Rivas, the President of Nicaragua's Supreme Electoral Council.
Why this is significant is clear from a brief look at the history of elections in Nicaragua since 1990 when for the first time in Nicaragua's history one democratically elected government peacefully handed over power to another. That moment was made possible by the genuinely democratic commitment of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation led by Daniel Ortega in the face of a relentless terrorist war and wholesale intimidation including economic sanctions from the US government. After the 1990 election, national elections were held first in 1996, then in 2001 and then again in 2006. In all of those elections, Western institutions took part in some shape or form both directly through foreign observation missions and indirectly through funding of local non-governmental groups to monitor the electoral process.
In the 2006 elections, Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front was elected President of Nicaragua for the second time. The Nicaraguan right wing political parties accepted the result relatively calmly, in part because they still held a majority in the legislature and in part because they had no choice but to recognize that their own divisions in effect handed the presidential victory to the FSLN. The general mainstream assumption was that Daniel Ortega would struggle to implement his party's legislative program, that the right wing would unite again and then duly assume their rightful place as the natural government of Nicaragua in the elections of 2011.
But in fact Daniel Ortega and his ministerial team, coordinated by Daniel Ortega's partner Rosario Murillo acting essentially as Prime Minister, were incredibly successful in stabilizing Nicaragua's economy and promoting major social advances. They did so thanks in great part to judicious use of development cooperation funding from Venezuela, worth over US$400 million a year, as part of the framework of the Bolivarian Alliance of the Americas. Daniel Ortega's team worked tirelessly against the clock to make sufficient progress through 2007 and 2008 to break down what many regarded as the right wing's natural, inbuilt, structural electoral majority.
And they did it. In the 2008 municipal elections and the subsequent Caribbean Coast municipal elections the FSLN electoral alliance won over 90 of the country's 153 municipalities, including the capital Managua. But more importantly, in overall national terms, they defeated a united right wing, including ex-Sandinistas who teamed up with the corrupt leaders of Nicaragua right wing parties hoping to win in Managua. The reaction of the right wing was furious and vicious, because they knew they then faced the prospect of losing both the presidential and the legislative elections in 2011. Despite a vigorous campaign claiming electoral fraud, the right wing simply lacked enough support to challenge the results seriously within the country.
Overseas, the phony claims of electoral fraud were supported by an unholy alliance of NATO country governments and Western progressives with such success that in 2009 the European Union cut US$45 million in development cooperation funding and the US government cut US$60 million from projects of the Millenium Challenge program in Nicaragua. This was right in the very depths of the 2009 global recession at a time when the Nicaraguan government's annual budget was barely US$1 billion. Despite that, the government continued implementing its social programs, attracting record investment, dramatically increasing exports and, after 2009, achieving average annual GDP growth of around 4.5%, well above that of its neighbors.
So it was no surprise that the FSLN and Daniel Ortega won the 2011 national elections with over 63% of the vote, achieving, too, a big majority in the legislature. The sequel to those elections was that the OAS election observers grudgingly acknowledged the integrity of the voting process with the European Union dragging its feet before finally accepting the results as if through clenched teeth. Throughout all this time, from the 2001 national elections through various municipal and regional elections up to adn after the 2011 national elections, the members of Nicaragua's Supreme Electoral Council remained unchanged, including both Sandinista and opposition party magistrates.
Now in 2016, the Supreme Electoral Council of ten magistrates, including four women, still reflects a political equilibrium with a mixture of Sandinista members, magistrates associated with the opposition and Roberto Rivas, its president, generally regarded as politically independent. What has definitely evolved since 2001 is the Council's policy on election observation. Prior to the 2011 national elections, Nicaragua's electoral authorities treated grossly biased intervention by foreign election monitors and local non-governmental organizations with great forbearance. But that changed with the 2011 national elections when local non-governmental organizations who refused to abide by the Supreme Electoral Council's norms were denied observer status.
The policy on electoral observation now is to prioritize the role of accompaniment by distinguished electoral specialists from all over Latin America and the Caribbean, effectively rendering missions like those of the European Union and the OAS or of NGOs like the Carter Center irrelevant. And it is worth noting too the vision those Latin American and Caribbean specialists have of democracy, a vision well summarized by Eugenio Chicas, former President of El Salvador's electoral tribunal when he said in a recent interview, “Our countries have evolved a great deal as a region. Democracy now means not only voting and electing but rather too the demand to resolve social problems, resolve economic problems, having inclusive participation in the frameworks and mechanisms of social development. And that is what is so innovative about the electoral process in Nicaragua because it doesn't limit itself simply to the right to vote and elect but also to the possibility of building the country's future destiny.”
Nicaragua has left behind the days of neocolonial electoral interventions by cynical and hypocritical Western powers and their proxies in international institutions like the United Nations and non governmental organizations of various stripes. Throughout the region people can see what that pernicious coalition of forces has done to Haiti. In effect, Haiti is living through what Nicaragua suffered during the military occupation by the US in the 1920s and 1930s when US marines oversaw the country's presidential elections.
Similarly, last year's election in Guatemala was very much stage managed by the US government together with local elites using the mechanism of the UN International Commission against Impunity. That ignominious neocolonial fate is what Venezuela's Bolivarian Revolution is now fighting desperately to avoid. Nicaragua stands out in Central America now as a model because its government shares with Venezuela and its ALBA country allies, particularly Bolivia, Cuba and Ecuador, a genuine commitment to mass democratic participation, in marked contrast to Western countries and governments so completely dominated by their corporate elites.