Rhetoric and Reality

By Samuel R. Tyson


Dec. 14 ‘91 ---Stunned! Shocked! Surprised! Such were the reactions to the Nicaraguan elections in February, 1990. How could events be so far from expectations when thousands of people from over the world traveled and worked in that country for years? The most reasonable conclusion is that hopes were based upon faulty information arising from the general use of rose-colored glasses. Wishing does not make it so. Had Penny Lernoux been alive there would have been one cogent voice for caution and reality.

To have been stunned or shocked showed the limitations of the common sources for information from groups like Witness for Peace. A reading of the press, New York Times and Wall Street Journal, would have indicated the possibility for something less than a Sandinista sweep. News from Central America is shot through with hopes remote from reality.

Surprise is a legitimate response to the size of the Violetta Chamorro UNO win. The Sandinistas not only lost, but decisively so, 41% to 55%. Minor parties took 4% of the vote, very different from elections in the United States. Politics is taken seriously in Latin American, contrary to the apathy and casualness in the U.S.

How could sources be so wrong? Most visitors and groups were pro Sandinista, neither neutral nor very reconciling. Post election comments laid the blame on U.S. interference, sending money to support the UNO coalition. Some like Quest for Peace and Fellowship magazine thought it was not that simple. Sandinista rule was by no means faultless after all.

The economy was in shambles due to the Contra war, domestic mistakes and U.S. economic sanctions, nor can any country spend so large a share of its wealth to purchase modern weapons without eroding of the quality of life for the people.

Sandinista mistakes with the Miskito native population came back to haunt them. It was no accident that the Miskitos voted solidly UNO, having been victims of the Managuan interference in their long established way of living.

Coastal Caribbean south, Bluefields, also went against the across the mountains centralized power. Though an area of heavy Cuban involvement, teachers and health workers, the locals rejected the outsiders. Bluefields, English speaking Black, not Hispanic, hand long been allowed to go its own way by General Anastasio Somoza and his National Guard.

The use of armed men to prevent Nicaraguans from fleeing to Costa Rica to avoid the troubles was a lesson in harsh reality. Central power had too little flexibility to avoid such errors. There were probably some killings, more an aberration than policy. People got carried away and settled old scores.

Conscription was begun to oppose Contra force and went on to become a divisive internal problem. Continued past the time of military need, it became a liability. Although stopped in the Fall of 1989, it was too late to allay suspicions that it was just one more form of government control.

Closing the newspaper La Prensa was inexcusable, a major flaw in a proclaimed democracy. It matters little whether it printed the truth or not. One person’s truth can be another’s distortion. Given the often scurrilous nature of Latin American political rhetoric, La Prensa deserved as much right to print as did La Barricada, the Sandinista press organ. Government controlled most of the media for years, right up to the election, as did Somoza for years.

Sandinista bureaucratic perks in housing, land and transportation were visible evidence that some people were better treated. In a world where the many had little, it was a poor example.

Nicaragua under the Sandinistas became a client state of the Soviet Union, no matter how it got that way. Disintegration within the U.S.S.R. necessarily meant there would be less aid, fewer loans; needful petroleum would be much more difficult to obtain. A client state has fewer options whether subservient to the U.S.S.R. or the U.S.

The military was generally described as Sandinista, the equivalent of a political party army. It was not viewed as a Nicaraguan army. The exclusive nature of the armed forces was not a force to bring the country together. The police force labored under the same handicap, not neutral.

To the victor belong the spoils, but not for Eden Pastora, a hero of the fighting. His response was to go into violent opposition without joining the Contras. He claimed to be fighting for the democracy being stillborn by Sandinista centralizing. After the CIA attempted to assassinate him he ceased his opposition. General confiscation of opponents’ property by the government always causes problems for the future. How well Native Americans know possession is nine-tenths of the law of force. It makes retrieval of constrained property very iffy.

With thousands of outsiders wandering around the country, Nicaragua was very much in the world eye. Work done by Peace Brigade International, Witness for Peace, Neighbor to Neighbor and Quest for Peace subtly diminished centralized control. All this doing good showed options other than those of the Sandinistas. Monitoring Contra depredation was useful in itself, but the people to people exchange under all sorts of auspices operated only partly by government consent. Encouraged conformity ran up against diversity. The idealistic activities of outsiders was visible and acted as a brake upon how far government could go. The pro-Sandinista visitors unintentionally undermined centralized control.

Armed struggle carries the seeds of its own destruction. Violence is a short cut; its lesson is rigidity.

What is obtained by force is maintained the same way. The inevitable result is internal pressure leading to dissent.

Sandinista leadership chose to ignore its own history. It was only when the middle class, business and farmers, joined the fray was the revolution possible. It was the death of a Chamorro which acted as a catalyst to galvanize new people into action. The long running Somoza government was pushed to the wall. It is fitting that Sandinista control was ended under the banner of another Chamorro. The UNO coalition under Violetta Chamorro was not expected to last the year out because of its disparate parts. Three years later the government may still fall. Intransigent Sandinistas keep trying to preserve the revolution, though a minority. Even with some armed groups acting up, excessive weaponry has been cut down; the military is undergoing a sizable paring job. Most areas of the country are quiet as people try to cope with a mangled economy.

A major area of conflict remains, the goodies Sandinistas handed out to themselves just prior to relinquishing power. Land, homes and apartments were taken. Owners were not compensated. Confiscation from dissidents was simple when they were not around to protest or protect. The UNO does not want this to remain as was in early 1990 but it has. Nicaragua is disintegrating economically. El Salvador is presently coming along better because neither side won.

Polls are only useful when the input is accurate. An open election held in the absence of fear turned unpredictable. What intelligent person would jeopardize their family’s future by openly stating their intention to vote no on Sandinistas. Quite obviously people said one thing and voted differently.


May ‘97-----The problems which beset the Chamorro government remain largely unsolved. Nicaragua became much quiet with the end of the fighting. A price has been paid. Far less effort has gone into the medical clinics and into the schools. With the economy in such poor shape from the years of fighting and dissension. The army and police have not been depoliticized. A new government(conservative) was elected in January 1997.

The basic problem to stability continues to be questions regarding private property taken by force, after the Sandinistas won in 1979. The lame duck government of the Sandinistas made the seizures official in that 60 day time called la pinata after the election loss.

Two laws were passed to protect small holdings but their implementation has been blocked. There are 100,000 waiting to have clear title so the land can be planted. Given the size of the Sandinista political base, their choice seems to be civil disruption to present the Aleman government from settling the issue of property rights.

Outside investors will not nibble as long as who owns what remains is in doubt. Part of this swamp of politics is that the prior land owners have not been compensated for property seizure. As long as there is no compromise on the land issue, the economy remains a shambles.

All politics aside, there was so much outside involvement in Nicaragua things could never be as they once were. Both El Salvador and Guatemala have the opportunity to relax the old hatreds. Groups like El Porvenir remain in Nicaragua doing clean water or whatever their limited resources allow so it is not just all politics.

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from Roots and Fruits, a publication of the Stanislaus Peace-Life Center

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