In the second most impoverished country in the hemisphere where over half of the population lives below the poverty line on under two dollars a day, Nicaragua’s voters are presented every five years with on onslaught of promises to improve their situation.
This time around the pledges are coming from former president Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN); economist Edmundo Jarquin of the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS); outgoing vice president Jose Rizo of the right wing Liberal Constitutionalist Party (PLC) dominated by former president Arnoldo Aleman; and Eduardo Montealegre of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), which broke with Aleman and is openly supported by the US government.
The foursome are locked in a tough four-way battle unlike the last three elections when despite numerous other candidates Ortega and his victorious opponents (Violeta Chamorro, Arnoldo Aleman and Enrique Bolaños) garnered between 89 and 97 percent of the votes.
With the majority of the population suffering the consequences of the liberalized market policies of the last 16 years, Rizo and Montealegre present themselves as outsiders even if they held top posts in the last two administrations.
Nicaraguans say hope is the last thing one holds on to and there appears to be a pact among the candidates to disseminate illusion and the voters to live on it during the months before Election Day, set for Sunday November 5.
For months the candidates paraded around the country of 5.6 million inhabitants offering the dignified jobs that everyone wants to have. They each pledged between 300,000 and half a million jobs, stated as if they had a magic wand. They all told immigrants in Costa Rica, the United States, El Salvador, etc. that if elected they will create conditions to allow for their return.
However, few of the unemployed or underemployed see the campaign promises of good jobs and prosperity turning into reality, expecting the winning candidate to take a morning after pill and carry on with their real agenda.
Meanwhile, it’s a common understanding that the country’s privileged will jockey to cash in on the benefits if their candidate triumphs.
Brownouts and Business
Besides the widespread unemployment or underemployment (around 50%) Nicaragua also faces a serious energy crisis with months of daily brownouts and a deterioration of public health care and rural roads, issues all the candidates say they will prioritize.
Under the last three governments the country lost control over power distribution to the Spanish firm Union Fenosa and stagnated without a concrete investment program for increased generation in the wave of privatization that swept the country. Half the country still remains without electricity altogether, something Union Fenosa promised to change but didn’t.
The price of electricity is greater than the Central American average and combined with low access for the rural population deeply affects the country’s development possibilities.
Another big concern is the nearly a million children and teenagers that do not attend grade school. Instead of becoming the human resources the country needs for the future, many young people dream of emigrating south or north in search of greener pastures. All the candidates promise an effort to get young people into the classrooms and technical schools.
For those that live off the land or have businesses, all four candidates are offering to establish banks to stimulate investment by providing credit for small and medium sized entrepreneurs and farmers. These, the logic goes, will help create the promised jobs.
In meetings with the upper end private sector the same candidates promise stability and tax and market conditions favorable to local and foreign investment and profits. They all, including Ortega, assure their will be no property confiscations as occurred in the 1980s under the revolutionary government.
In the end there is a promise for everyone but the bottom line is what the voters think the candidates will really do in office and who will benefit.
Therapeutic Abortion becomes big campaign issue
One heated issue that took over the front pages and TV news this last month, and is still simmering, is the topic of therapeutic abortion, permitted in Nicaragua, like most countries, for over a hundred years.
At the request of the Catholic Church and many Evangelical leaders, Ortega’s FSLN and both Rizo and Montealegre’s liberal party factions joined together to rush through a repeal of a law that has saved thousands of women’s lives.
Under a campaign that abortion is murder and ignoring the true nature of the law that deals with cases when a woman’s life is in danger, 28 legislators of Ortega’s party and 24 Liberals affiliated to the PLC and ALN rushed through the repeal last week at the National Assembly. Not one legislator voted nay while others preferred not to turn on their voting machines.
The only presidential candidate opposing the banning of therapeutic abortions was Edmundo Jarquin of the MRS (no seats in the Assembly) who stood fast despite the possible electoral fallout in a country highly influenced by religious leaders.
While it was no surprise that the PLC and ALN supported the repeal, Ortega’s strong pro-Church stance was an eye-opener for many physicians and women’s organizations.
Free Trade Treaty with US
The Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) could have been a major campaign issue, such as in this year’s Costa Rican presidential elections, but was suddenly passed a year ago in Nicaragua, supported by the different Liberal factions
The FSLN, which had made itself the voice of numerous groups that for over a year had actively demonstrated against the agreement, dropped its opposition at the last minute saying the majority of the people favored the accord with the United States.
All the candidates now see CAFTA as a foregone conclusion and say they will seek to make the most of it.
However, different approaches can be deciphered. Montealegre and Rizo see the State using deregulation as a vehicle to facilitate investment by the larger economic groups in conjunction with transnational corporations.
Under such a strategy the already weak internal market and the competition presented by small and medium producers and businesses would be further sacrificed to promote exports. Low contract wages are seen by Montealegre and Rizo as Nicaragua’s main competitive edge to attract investment and jobs both in the maquila industries and in agriculture.
Social expenditures under the two rightwing candidates would continue to be limited and would receive a boost from Ortega or Jarquin.
Ortega also hopes to participate in the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA) a Latin American integration initiative promoted by Venezuela, Cuba and Bolivia to achieve social and economic advancement through mutually beneficial trade and solidarity.
Jarquin would also be likely to seek alternatives while based on their track records Montealegre and Rizo would most likely prefer to put all their eggs in the US corporate basket.
Both Sandinista parties propose an economy where the State plays a greater regulatory role with protection for public services, one of which, water, promises to be a battleground in the coming years.
The campaign has now ended and an electoral silence takes hold. Many schools, converted into polling stations and vote counting centers, will not hold classes for the next week or two in some cases.
*Circles Robinson is a US journalist based in Havana who is covering the Nicaraguan elections. His articles and commentaries can be read at www.circlesonline.blogspot.com. Circles Robinson