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  • Nicaragua's ChoiceThe Making of a Free Election
  • Robert A. Pastor (bio)

In the early morning hours of 26 February 1990, the first tentative signs of a new spirit of conciliation and comity emerged in Nicaragua. Prior to that moment, suspicion had dominated the country's political history. The government and its opposition each believed the worst about the other and repeatedly acted in ways that helped to confirm those beliefs and justify mutual distrust. Even when one side tried to be conciliatory, the other would dismiss it as a trick or a sign of weakness. The extremes on both sides always helped each other by exaggerating the negative and discounting the positive.

"Peaceful changes between different factions of the ruling classes, which have been rather frequent in other Latin American countries, have not taken place in Nicaragua," wrote Carlos Fonseca Amador, the founding father of the Sandinistas. "This traditional experience predisposed the Nicaraguan people against electoral farces and in favor of armed struggle."1 The government traditionally viewed the opposition as weak, fragmented, and ineffectual, and did everything it could to keep it that way. The opposition viewed the government as coercive and corrupt. When elections were called, some opposition groups would participate; others asked the people not to vote, lest they provide a veneer of legitimacy to a dictatorial regime.

Prior to 1990, only three Nicaraguan elections had been judged fair by some observers. The elections of 1928 and 1932 were viewed as fair, [End Page 13] but since both were supervised by the U.S. Marines, they were not exactly ideal examples of self-determination. Many observers judged the 1984 election as fair, but a number of opposition groups, with encouragement from the Reagan administration, withdrew before the election, protesting government harassment. If the criterion for a free election is that the losers accept the results as fair, then Nicaragua had never had a free election—until 1990.

Opposition groups have long sought outside assistance from the regime's enemies. Thus, internal strife became inextricably tied to foreign intervention. Nicaraguans on one side would condemn the other for enlisting foreign help even while they were doing the same. This tragic pattern, so well analyzed by the father of the Sandinista party (FSLN), reached its logical conclusion under their rule. The FSLN accused its opposition of being ineffectual, disloyal pawns of the United States, while the opposition castigated the FSLN as a repressive Marxist Leninist surrogate of Cuba and the Soviet Union.

The Reagan administration helped each side's perceptions of the other come true. Its support for the contras justified the Sandinistas' militarism and deepened their dependence on the Soviet Union and Cuba, even while rendering the internal opposition impotent. The war further divided the country, killing thousands of its children and weakening an already fragile economy. Though the United States initially sought to reduce the polarization in Nicaragua, it soon found itself infected by the same disease. Extremism within Nicaragua and the United States and between the two governments evoked and justified extremism.

President Oscar Arias of Costa Rica offered both sides an opportunity to break loose from this tragic history. At Esquipulas, Guatemala in August 1987, he offered a proposal—accepted by Daniel Ortega and the other Central American presidents—to end conflicts in the region through democratization, national reconciliation, and a halt to support for insurgencies. By making each country responsible for securing democracy in all five, the plan cut the cord that had tied internal conflict to external intervention.

As part of the Esquipulas Accord, Arias and the other presidents asked the United States to stop funding the contras. Reagan called the plan "fatally flawed" and insisted that the Sandinistas would never accept democracy unless Congress approved military aid to the contras. The swing votes in Congress rejected Reagan's argument and accepted that of Arias, who told them that "it is time to focus on the positive . . . . Let us restore faith in dialogue and give peace a chance."2

Congressional approval of humanitarian but not military aid proved correct. Nicaraguans could not negotiate under the continuing pressure of the Reagan administration's approach; they needed some space, which Arias and Congress...


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pp. 13-25
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