WHEN YOU LEAVE TORONTO for Nicaragua in a snowstorm you should know things are not going to go right. Your luggage takes off on its own, the hotel never heard of you and you arrive too late for the getting-to know-you day at the beach. The group we are getting to know is the Canadian Action for Nicaragua's election observation team. CAN has gathered 16 of us from across Canada to be official observers of the February 25 elections.
We are students, a pastor, businesspeople, union members and journalists. We are volunteers; in fact the trip costs us $1600 plus souvenirs.
Going to Nicaragua is always an education. You learn about parasites when Somoza's revenge hits. You learn to live with mosquitoes, ants in your bed, toilets that leak, waterless days and quixotic telephones. But nothing we encounter compares with the troubles the Nicaraguan people have weathered for the past 10 years.
All attempts by President Ortega to end the war with the contras or to have the economic embargo by the United States lifted have failed. The U.S. will not play ball. The toll is 60,000 dead, 50,000 wounded and 14,000 war orphans. The Intemational Court has decided the damages amount to 12.2 billion dollars U.S. Don't bet on Nicaragua's collecting that one.
The contras continue right up to the month of the election. The message was: Elect Violeta Chamorro and the low intensity war will stop. This Violeta is not shrinking. She heads a powerful family. Two of her children, Carlos Fernando and Claudia are staunch Sandinistas and two others Pedro Joaquin Jr. and Cristiana are anti-Sandinista. The family work on opposing newspapers La Prensa and Barricada. Yet they sit down together for Sunday dinner. Another irony is the fact that Violeta's husband was killed on dictator Somoza's orders in 1979. Violeta's party, a coalition of 14 parties from left communists to right conservatives is called UNO, the United National Opposition party. Daughter Claudia writes that many of the political sectors in UNO represent the very interests of the Somocista past of oppression and injustice.
THE COALITION IS ONLY HELD TOGETHER by U.S. money and a desire to get rid of Ortega.
But back to our merry band of election observers. We held meetings every day, read all the papers and attended the mass rallies. Some of the candidates were excellent. Margine Gutierrez was running for mayor of Matagalpa. She described her job of providing water, schools, houses and roads for a town growing by 14 percent a year. Campesinos displaced by the war were pouring in. She was building pre-school nurseries and organizing reforestation. She even had dreams of a university for Northern Nicaragua to teach the skills the people need. She was not elected.
We were unimpressed with the men we met at the local UNO headquarters. They had a litany of complaints about the election. Their scrutineers were being harassed and beaten, one supporter wasjailed, the government had held up their funds, they had only 7 TV transmitters while Ortega had 30, their posters were vandalized, etc. We had to admit that the Sandinistas did have more new T-shirts, flags, billboards and the best songs.
The final UNO rally was held in Managua on Sunday a week before the election. It was a huge rally by Canadian standards, about 80,000 people.
They arrived by car, truck and on foot and many brought food and drinks to sell. You could get a whole meal wrapped in two big leaves. We wedged ourselves on the steps of the old cathedral on Carlos Fonseca Square. Above us the statue of Jesus was waving a blue and white UNO flag. We should have known that was a sign.
The Sandinista rally was five times as large. It was fantastic. The people poured down every street into the square and ovetflowed the centre of the city and the stadium. It was a joyous sea of red and black flags waving in unison when Daniel Ortega spoke. He threw autographed baseballs to the crowd. They loved him and his vice-president the handsome Sergio Ramirez. The cheers went on all day. The fireworks began at dusk and then Jimmy Cliff swung into his rock concert. Reluctantly the crowd began the walk home. It had been Sandino Day, the anniversary of the death of their guerrilla hero Augusto Sandino gunned down in 1934. It was the last day for campaigning.
WE GOT READY FOR THE ELECTION. We had read all the rules of the Supreme Electoral Council the group of five who were chosen to run the election. We had visited the regional electoral office where the boss, Noel Lazo showed us the ballots, the maps, described the voting process and praised the unpaid work of the thousands of volunteers and scrutineers. He said he was pleased to have so many international observers especially the ones from the United Nations and the Association of American States. This would be the most observed election in history.
IN SOME RESPECTS A NICARAGUAN election is more democratic than ours. The election is financed by the funds the Supreme Electoral Council takes from political donations. Half cover the cost of the elections and half are returned to the parties. The voters vote for the party and the number of people elected corresponds to the number of votes. Proportional representation is more democratic. No alcohol, guns, knives or sharp objects are allowed at the rallies. Only after the rallies did the cervazas (beer) appear.
On election day we spread out to 33 polls in Managua and Matagalpa. At some of the polls we were allowed to watch as they opened up at 7 a.m., closed at 6p.m. and counted the votes. We decided to follow our bus driver, Gabino and his family as they went to vote. They were each given three large ballots by the presidente and instructed to mark them behind the cardboard screen. These and the ballot boxes were part of the $700,000 donation Canada gave to the elections. On each ballot were 10 columns for the 10 parties. In each column was the symbol of the party, the names of the candidates and the big 0 for the X mark. The ballots were placed in color-coded boxes. The process was easy for illiterate voters. Gabino dipped his right thumb in a bottle of ink to prevent him voting twice and left the polling station.
All of Nicaragua waited by their TV sets for the results. It took all night and part of the morning . At last the Supreme Electoral Council chairman announced that Violeta Chamorro was the new president,and Virgilio Godoy, the vice-president. In the National Assembly the UNO won 52 seats, the Sandinistas 38 and the small parties of the MUR and the PSC one each.
Some of our group cried. One of our friends who had worked with Canadian Action for Nicaragua for three years felt his work was over. Others tried to say it might be a good thing, the war might end and the United States might rebuild the country.
On reflection I feel the story is just beginning. So many things could happen:
It was an anti-feminist backlash. Violeta represents the good housewife who supports the family (read anti-abortion in a country where botched abortions are a leading cause of death). The country will become a Nicaraguan Handmaid's Tale.
Ortega will not hand over the Sandinista army to the new government. The army has all the guns so the Marines will have to intervene (again).
The UNO party will disintegrate on the first vote in the National Assembly and Ortega will again have the largest party. Chamorro will need him to pass anything in the Assembly.
Chamorro is really incredibly clever. She will end the war, disband the contras, receive economic aid from the U.S., restore trade and not take any crippling International Monetary Fund money.
Chamorro is not so clever. She will not be able to run the country, the U.S. will have to send in a strong leader backed up with the Marines and Nicaragua will start to resemble El Salvador.
Gabino, who had been captured by the contras and escaped through the mountains but whose two brothers-in-law had been killed, will have second thoughts about how his country voted.
We live in interesting times.
Shirley Farlinger is an Associate Editor of PEACE.