Nicaraguan Elections 2011: Little Country with Great Hope

By Larry Fisk

Esteli, Nicaragua- My daughter, a friend and I arrived in Nicaragua on October 17 to be in the country during the lead up to the elections on Sunday, November 6 and during the post election period till our departure on November 16. We rented a car in Managua and drove north to Esteli arriving in the evening. We stayed with a Nicaraguan family that my daughter and I met in 2008. On arrival we experienced the last 4 days of an extended period of intense rain, which caused flooding in the Departmant of Esteli and other parts of the country. Thousands were driven from their homes to shelters. We spent one afternoon with other volunteers bagging corn, rice beans, peas and cereal for delivery to shelters. We visited one shelter where we talked with children and took pictures. Though there was obvious hardship and stress for the families, the government response to the national emergency was prompt, efficient and comprehensive. Though the storm struck during the heart of the electoral campaign, the Frente Sandinista canceled almost all active campaigning, especially in the north, to concentrate on disaster relief. President Ortega called an emergency meeting with the mayors of all 153 municipalities in the country. Vice Presidential candidate, Omar Hallesleven delivered aid to the shelters in lieu of campaigning. Opposition candidate Fabio Gadea (PLI) visited Esteli during this period. I waited along the route for several hours, left when I decided he wasn´t going to show and returned to find I had missed him. I was told that he didn´t even mention the rains, the people in the shelters or the damage from the rains. I did visit the PLI office before the election, on election day and after the election.

We drove into the countryside of Esteli with a technician from the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry. We saw bean crops which in this area sustained 50% loss. Nationally, the loss was estimated at 20% which was considered good news. If the rains had come a few weeks earlier, the young plants would have sustained more damage. Fortunately, the first bean harvest of the year had been good.

In the countryside we visited beneficiaries of some of the many social programs, which are improving the lives of the people. We saw the roofs provided by Plan Techo which gives 10 sheets of corrugated metal roofing and nails to poor families. In the last five years more than a quarter million families have benefited and the government plans to nearly triple that in the next five years meaning that nearly every family in the country that needs a roof will have one.

We met a number of women who have received pregnant cows, sows, chickens, plants and technical assistance through the Bono Productivo Alimentario program. So far 100,000 women have received this aid which is modified specifically to the individual small land holding, its size, quality of soil, availability of moisture, the ethnic, cultural and dietary traditions of the recipient, etc. Another 200,000 women are expected to receive benefits in the next five years. I asked one woman whether she had been asked about her religious or political affiliations before receiving benefits. She said all they asked her was whether she needed help. The technician visits once a month to check on health of the animals and crops. Her life and nutrition have improved. Her cow has had three calves which are usually sold. She produces milk and eggs to feed an extended family. Many women sell there excess product to neighbors which improves their diets also. The young animals sold to neighbors help to increase local production. Another woman received financing to purchase high quality hogs for breeding. The profits have allowed her to send her oldest daughter to a university.

One bean farmer, whose family plants a substantial crop of beans using pointed sticks as their only tools, said that in the past if the crop was lost the bank would try to take your vehicle or property, but that the government now simply waits until you have a successful crop before repayment. I asked how life is for him. He said, “Life is beautiful now. We have electricity, project of the government, we have chlorinated water, project of the government. We all have roofs, project of the government. We have low interest loans to plant our crops and we have a clinic down the road. My only problem is this rain!”

In the city of Esteli, we met women who have received small low interest loans from the Usura Cero (Zero Usury) program. Any woman who has a small business or a plan to start one and joins a support group of similar women can receive this microcredit. One woman used it to repair the motor for her two small mills used to grind corn for her home tortilla business in a poor barrio.

In Esteli I also visited a preschool and a primary school. The directors and teachers are unanimous in saying that the children will have a better future because they are receiving a good education. We were told that all children read, almost all adults except some senior citizens read and there are programs to teach older people. Classes are large with up to 60 and schools operate with two sessions from 7 AM to 12:30 PM and 1PM to 5:30 PM and often night classes for adults. We visited one school which provides night classes for working women. A significant part of the the population from 3 year old preschoolers to the elderly are involved in some kind of educational process. Over 11,000 classrooms have been built, repaired or refurbished. In front of the house were we stay in Esteli a public preschool is being constructed on a vacant lot.

After ten days in Esteli we traveled to San Juan de Oriente, south of Masaya, where we stayed for a week. We used the house of a friend as a base for exploring the area and commuting to Managua, the capital. We visited a Nicaraguan family in Managua that I have known since 1988. When I visited them in 2008, about 16 months after Daniel Ortega and the FSLN regained power, they said things were a little better. This time they said emphatically that things are a lot better. In fact the matriarch of the family, a 72 year old woman whom I have never known to say much, could not stop telling me about how much better things are in the neighborhood, better streets, better schools, better electrical service, better health care for free, better buses, less crime and plenty of food at reasonable prices. She is full of hope for her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

We spent one afternoon at la Chureca, a barrio at the Managua dump. People there earn money by picking through the trash for recyclable materials. We saw them doing this and selling it to buyers who park there trucks at the dump. Nearly 1,000 people live at the dump including 600 children, many if not most of whom were born at the dump. The dump is beside Lake Xolotlan (Lake Managua) which has been rising in the wake of rains. We saw 24 families whose house shacks were being flooded as we watched them attempt to retrieve possessions and materials. The mayor´s office has supplied lumber, roofing metal and plastic sheeting so the families can construct temporary housing. But the dump is full of hope! Through a joint project of the Mayor´s office and the Spanish government, life at la Chureca is being tranformed. The dump is being converted to a closed sanitary landfill. Some of the adult residents will be be trained to work in a modern facility to handle the trash and remove the recyclable materials in a safe and sanitary way. The rest of the adults are now being or will be trained in carpentry, welding and as electricians. An entirely new housing area is being constructed for the residents that will have a school and two soccer fields. The residents have elected committees who participate in the decision making together with a representative of the mayor. We met with members of a committee that has eleven members, seven women and four men, including elders and youth. These people are positive and hopeful. Presently, the residents have water and electricity provided free by the city. After they have jobs they will begin paying for services like other citizens. There is a heath clinic on site and a school.

We visited a longtime activist concerned with women´s and community issues. She explained that the lives of women and children have improved significantly and that women provide the backbone of support for the FSLN and the revolution. She echoed the words of others concerning the changes and improvements in the lives of ordinary Nicaraguans. She is also a teacher and verified the extensive educational efforts and the prospects for a better future.

We also interviewed a Uruguayan journalist who works for an independent pro-government radio station. He worked in solidarity with the revolution in the 1980s, left after the Sandinistas lost the 1990 election and returned to Nicaragua several years ago. He said he has been surprised at the scope of the achievements over the last 5 years. He was very confident that Ortega would easily win another term but was not sure about the election for Diputados to the Assemblea Nacional (legislature) where the FSLN has not had a majority and have had to bargain with the opposition.

Very near San Juan de Oriente is Ninquinohomo, the birthplace of national hero Augusto Sandino. The home of his father is now a library and very modest museum where the city offers free dance and music classes for children and other classes for adults. We watched a flower arranging class. The librarian told us that the actual birthplace is unknown but thought to be either the father´s house or the house of the mother which is now a pharmacy. She said that the schools are good, health care is good, all the kids are vaccinated and can read and reaffirmed the reports of improvements in the lives of people that we heard in other places. She said she was confident in the future of the children and that Ortega would win the election.

We also took the opportunity travel south to Rivas and to visit the beautiful island of Omatepe with its two lovely volcanoes. I asked the waiter in a restaurant what the political feelings were in the area. He said the FSLN, which he referred to as the communists, were the strongest but he was more conservative. But then he said that Daniel was a good man and very smart and that he had done a lot of good things to help people and he would not mind if he were reelected.

While visiting a cybercafe to use a computer to check email I met a member of the opposition group, Ethics and Tranparency (ET). I told him I would like an interview, which we set up for another day. I met him at the cybercafe and asked him about the purpose and position of the organization. He said the Ortega´s candidacy was illegal. I asked about the Supreme Court ruling that said it was legal and he insisted it was not. He claimed there were many irregularities and said there was violence throughout the country and there would be more violence. I asked whether he approved of the violence. He said no, but that it was happening and there would be a lot more. I inquired about the funding for ET. He claimed there is none, that everything in voluntary. I said there must be some expenses for office materials, etc., but he said no, people just donate things. I knew this to be false as ET has been documented to receive US funds. He also had some electoral documents and said the election would be a fraud. I asked how it could be stolen. He said that after the votes are counted when they are sent to the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) that they can be changed. I asked whether the result at each polling place was made public. He said no, they are secret, that is why it can be fraudulent. This was a lie as I will explain later. We finished our interview and I took a few pictures and said goodbye. He left, I checked email. A few minutes later he returned and said there is an irregularity occurring right now at the office of the PLC, which was two doors down the street. He wanted me to come and take pictures. At the office a man came out with a small handful of pieces of cut up cedulas (ID cards necessary for voting and other things). He said the Sandinistas cut up the cedulas. He showed me a crudely scrawled graffiti message saying Daniel will win and claimed that was evidence that the Sandinistas were guilty of irregularities and I should take pictures. A small crowd of about 30 people gathered. A National Police vehicle with anti-riot personnel arrived and sat across the street for 2 or 3 minutes then drove down the street. The crowd was more excited than upset. I asked a few questions, took some pictures and left. I thought it was an amazing coincidence that this transpired within minutes of the interview and within 50 feet of where we were.

I cannot know for sure but I feel the incident was entirely concocted to impress me. It is consistent with a pattern. The opposition has used the issue of cedula denial or destruction to discredit the elections. Any serious investigation has found the allegations to be false. There were demonstrations of people claiming they were denied IDs. Typically, only a handful actually do not have a cedula and that is usually because they failed to pick them up, applied incorrectly or too late. People had years to get their ID before this election and a record number of people did. The previous record for an electoral period was about 160,000 applications. This time there were about 460,000 applications which were largely processed and delivered without much problem. The CSE has no way to distinguish the political leanings of all these applicants. Polling has shown that most people without cedulas are Sandinista supporters.

We left the Masaya area and drove to the northwest part of the country to visit Leon and Chinandega and take a dip in the Pacific. We did not let two flats, a blowout or the fact that the spare tire had two nails and a leak around the rim or that we got stuck in the mud deter us. This is hot country and the cool Pacific waters refreshed us. In Leon we interviewed a woman who was working for the Supreme Electoral Council educating poll workers. We were able to learn a lot about the electoral process. The evening before we left Leon we learned that the opposition PLI party had applied to the CSE to change thousands of its poll workers. This was only two nights before the election, an unreasonable demand, but typical of opposition tactics too burden the system and then cry foul if they do not get their way. Amazingly, the CSE granted their request and reprocessed credentials for thousands of personnel at the last minute. Some thought this was an over indulgence. After visiting the Cathedral we left Leon to head back to the cooler upland country of Esteli on the eve of the election to be able to observe the electoral process in a familiar place. Stopping at a gas station in San Ysidro, in the department of Matagalpa, we were told there had been an opposition demonstration earlier that day. Arriving in Esteli after dark we learned that PLI supporters had burned several vehicles near the CSE office in Sebaco.

It turned out that a friend of mine was the president of a voting table, a Junta Receptora del Voto (JRV), at a local school where there were to be ten such voting stations. On the eve of the election he explained the process of voting, counting and reporting the vote. He showed me the manual of regulations and the responsibilities of various functionaries at the polls. There is a president of the table, a first member and second member, usually of different parties. There are also representatives of each party to observe the process and the counting of the vote unless they simply cannot come up with a volunteer to watch, which was a problem for the two small parties.

The election consisted of four electoral contests 1) President and Vice-President 2) Deputies (Representatives) to the National Assembly elected from each department (roughly equivalent to one of our states in the US) 3) Deputies to the National Assembly elected by nationwide vote and 4) Deputies to the Central American Parliament. All contests were included on one ballot, which is new for this election. Previously there would have been four separate ballots that voters would have deposited in four separate boxes. The new ballot is considered to be simpler, faster and perhaps a bit more economical. It was agreed to by all parties.

The ballot was divided into columns for each party. The Partido Liberal Constitucional (PLC) of ex-president Arnoldo Aleman had the first column, #1. The Frente Sandinista de Liberacion Nacional (FSLN) had #2, the Alianza Liberal Nicaraguense (ALN) had #9, Aliaza para la Republica (APRE) had #10, and the Partido Liberal Institucional (PLI) off Fabio Gadea had #13. The numbering system has historical origins that I will not go into. In each of the five columns were boxes for each of the four electoral races. Thus FSLN voters were urged to vote in box #2. Each box had the number, the name and the flag of the party or alliance, each quite distinctive and easy to recognize. In the boxes for the presidential candidates there was also a photograph of the presidential candidate. The ballot therefore was clear, with multiple ways for voters to recognize there preferred party or candidate.The ALN and APRE each gained less than 1 percent of the vote and were not significant in the process.

The polls were open from 6 AM to 6PM or until no potential voters were at the polling area. I arrived at the polling place at 6AM and stayed until the counting was completed at about 10:30 PM except for a break for lunch and to observe 2 other voting tables in the downtown area for a short time. The voters arrived at the school where 10 classrooms were being used as separate voting facilities with separate officials and party observers. A master list of the voters in the neighborhood was posted near the entrance. On this list the voter found his or her name and the number of the classroom where they were to vote. There were lists particular to each polling place outside each classroom where the voter confirmed their name and got in line, if there was one. There were people called Procuradores Electorales who helped people if they had any trouble finding their name or proper polling place. For this election people were allowed to use the new cedulas or old cedulas that were technically expired but extended by law or substitution documents if they had lost their cedula. It was also possible to register at the polling place with proper ID showing neighborhood residency if not preregistered. The voter presented the ID at the door where a poll worker confirmed they were on the list then entered and presented the cedula to the president of the table who confirmed it´s validity and signed and stamped the ballot. The ballot was then displayed for the voter and explained. The voter was instructed on voting procedure, to go to one of the three cardboard voting booths, mark the ballot, fold it in half and deposit it in the ballot box that usually sat on a student desk at the side of the room. Then the voter returned to the table, had ink applied to a thumb as a deterrent to multiple voting, obtained their cedula and left the polling station. Once the voter entered the process took no more than 2 or 3 minutes. I talked to many voters after the process and everyone without exception said the the process was easy and fast and they were satisfied and had confidence in the integrity of the vote. Most people were friendly and social, talking to friends. There were quite a few children around, many went into the polling place with parents, some played on the floor while mom or dad voted. Old persons were shown deference and usually led to the front of the line. People on crutches or wheelchairs were carried up the steps to the classrooms. Each polling place had 400 voters registered. There was not a hint of a problem in any of the polling places from opening to closing. There were people with t-shirts saying “policia electoral” who just seemed to be there to help the process and watch out for problems. They were not armed at all and just seemed to be volunteers. There were two National Police officers down at the main gate to the school. The polling places finally closed at about 7:10 when they were sure no more voters were straggling in.

When the poll closed the door was closed and the ballot box was opened.The president of the table removed the ballots and showed everyone that the box was empty. The ballots were put on the table and they proceeded to count the votes for president by separating them into separate piles for each candidate and for blank or invalid votes (usually for choosing multiple candidates), then counting the piles. They recounted ballots with all the polling personnel, including representatives of the parties participating. They all wrote down the totals, compared them and agreed they were accurate. They counted the votes in the other races, agreed on the figures and wrote them down. The entire process took several hours as they were meticulous and there was paperwork involved. When all the counting was done and agreed upon all the poll workers, that is the members of the table and the party observers signed a document confirming the total and everyone received a carbon copy. Finally, a form stating the vote totals for each race was filled out and posted on the door for the public to see, showing that the man from Ethics and Transparency had lied to me about the process.Then the president of the table packaged and sealed all the ballots. The rest of the process was related to me by my friend. The president of the polling table, accompanied by the other members of the table and police officers, took the sealed ballots and the signed documents with the vote totals to a central location where there were technicians from different parties and a fax of the documents was sent to the CSE in Managua where another group of computer technicians and observers from various parties received the various totals and tallied preliminary results.

At sometime around 11:00 PM the CSE announced preliminary results, stating that Daniel Ortega had won the election. By this time I was home exhausted. Inside the house I heard the city erupt in cheering and shouting for joy. It was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. There were fireworks and honking but mostly a huge collective roar from every direction that would swell, fade a little and then build again. It went on for hours. At 1AM my friend and I got a second wind and ventured out to catch the later part of the celebration. Many people were heading back to their homes but there were still thousands gathered in the center of town. There was music and a large video screen showing demonstrations of joy from all over the country. We stayed for about an hour and it still was going on when we left. The next afternoon the Juventud Sandinista staged a concert downtown with a lot of wonderful bands. It went on into the night and was great fun. Thousands of young people, and some old folks, sang and danced and reveled in a landslide victory and hope for the future.

Though the European Union statement on the election is full of pro-opposition nonsense, others have come out more clearly recognizing the electoral results. This morning I spoke with Ramon, a European observer that I met in Managua a week or so ago. We agreed to compare notes after the election. He told me that he and a partner observed about 10 polling places in the extreme southwest, in Rivas and San Juan del Sur. He was extremely impressed by the peaceful democratic process and by the large voter turnout of 70%. He saw no evidence of any problems. The Secretary General of the Organization of American States stated after the election that in Nicaragua yesterday democracy and peace advanced. I watched the head of CEELA, the Council of Latin American Electoral Experts, state on television that the election took place in normality, legality and transparency. The CNU, the National Council of Universities has stated that the elections took place in peace and normality. One of their student observers was at the polling place where I was and we agreed that the process was secure and transparent.

The final results show the FSLN candidate and his running mate, Omar Halllesleven receiving 62.66% of the vote, PLC 5.67%, ALN :33%, APRE.21% and PLI 31.13. The FSLN received slightly over 60% in all the other electoral races. That will give them a strong majority in the National Assembly. These results are totally consistent with most pre-election polls. The people of Nicaragua have overwhelmingly endorsed the leadership of Daniel Ortega and the FSLN and look forward to a future with more education, better health care, increased production and availability of food, more access to electricity, water, housing, sports facilities, better streets and roads and the continuation and expansion of over 40 social programs which have brought health, happiness and hope to the people. Governments in the US and Europe will try to block, discredit and undo the gains of the Nicaraguan people. Those of us who know and love this beautiful people and this wonderful little jewel of a country need to stand with them now and always.