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Report from Managua
From reg.nicaragua, 11 November 1996
The following report is from Brendan Shea, development worker for the Boulder-Jalapa Friendship City Projects. He has lived in Nicaragua for the past six years.
Around 4:30 in the afternoon, the people started to stream into the plaza in the old downtown section of Managua in large numbers. Depending on who you talk to, this place is either called the Plaza of the Revolution or the Plaza of the Republic. On July 19,1979, the victorious fighters of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation and their supporters filled the plaza in celebration of the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship; they christened the plaza in honor of that day. Those who did not support the Sandinista Revolution or fought against it call the Plaza of the Republic, as it was called during the Somoza era. However, on November 8, it is filled with people who call it the Plaza of the Revolution. Thousands of Sandinistas gather there to commemorate the death in combat of Carlos Fonseca Amador, the founder of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN). On November 8, 1976, he died fighting in the forest of Zinica, located about 120 miles northeast of Managua while fighting against the National Guard, Somoza's US-trained army. Carlos Fonseca researched the history of the Nicaraguan nationalist hero Agusto Cesar Sandino, who was killed on the orders of Anastasio Somoza Garcia, the first Somoza to rule Nicaragua. After Sandino's murder, Somoza commissioned several books designed to discredit Sandino. For good measure, he banned Sandino's writings. Carlos Fonseca resurrected Sandino's memory and discovered Sandino's ideas about building a new Nicaragua. He was buried in the forest where he died, but after the Sandinista triumph, his remains were brought to Managua and laid to rest in a tomb in the Plaza of the Revolution. Across the sidewalk from Carlos Fonseca's tomb is another one that honors Santos Lopez, who became an officer in Sandino's "Crazy Little Army" at the age of 17. Santos Lopez escaped when Sandino was murdered, and nearly thirty years later, he trained the first Sandinista guerrillas after the FSLN was founded in 1961.
Every year on November 8, thousands of people, including school children, professionals, housewives, women who operate small vending stalls in Managua's open air markets, teachers, health workers and unemployed people file by the tomb and lay flowers in the pool that surrounds it. By sundown, the pool is full of flowers. It is an emotional day of remembrance for a national hero, one whose memory is fresh in the hearts of many Nicaraguans.
Carlos Fonseca saw that armed rebellion was the only way to free Nicaragua from the grip of the Somozas, but perhaps he is most famous for a comment he made to two Sandinista guerrillas who were teaching campesinos how to use weapons in preparation for battle against Somoza's National Guard; he told the guerrillas to "teach them to read as well." He felt that there could be no functioning democracy if more than half of the adult population of the country could not read and write, and one of his dreams was to one day teach the poor of Nicaragua to read. He dreamed of building schools for all the children of the country, rich and poor. In 1980, thousands of high school and college students went into the Nicaraguan countryside to make Fonseca's dream come true. In six months they reduced the illiteracy rate from 53 percent to 12 percent. The people who turned up to pay tribute to the Carlos Fonseca's memory were proud of this and other accomplishments of the Sandinista years.
As the plaza filled with people, enterprising vendors weaved through the crowd peddling beer or soda pop from buckets full ice. Others brought their mobile hot dog stands and carts from which they sold food, soda pop and small plastic bottles of rum. One young woman and a friend walked around selling stylish black caps with red ribbons around them. (The colors of the Sandinista flag are red and black. One might say she and her friend knew a "market opportunity" when they saw one.) She made numerous rounds through the crowd, and by the end of the demonstration she had sold all but two or three. The Eskimo ice cream company carts also made their way through the crowd, bells ringing. In all the years I have been in Nicaragua, the Eskimo carts always show up at rallies, demonstrations and riots, wheeling through the smoke from burning tires, ringing their little bells. Vendors with boxes slung around their necks hawked cigarettes, gum and candy.
Ongoing allegations of fraud in the recent elections have angered the Sandinistas, who came to the plaza on Friday as much to condemn the fraud in the election as to honor the memory of Carlos Fonseca. The demonstration was called by the Sandinista Assembly, the Sandinista party's decision making body, called for the demonstration on Tuesday, November 5, defying an extension of the electoral period ban on demonstrations that went into effect at midnight on October 16. The ban was designed to prevent unfair last minute campaigning in the three days leading up to the election. The radio station Radio Corporacion and other media tried to create tension by misrepresenting the call for the demonstration as a call to arms to overthrow the government. The press release announcing the demonstration said that it would be a peaceful protest, and it also called for organizing a petition drive. There was some speculation as to whether the police would attempt to stop the demonstration, but they granted a permit the day before it took place. The speculation about violence proved to be completely unfounded as the event was held with no violence whatsoever.
FSLN presidential candidate and former president Daniel Ortega gave a speech in which he criticized His Eminence Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo for interfering in the electoral process; he bestowed a blessing on Liberal Alliance candidates Arnoldo Aleman and Roberto Cedeno by inviting them to give the readings at a mass held on Thursday, October 17. He said that the Cardinal's actions were reminiscent of the days when the church served as the chaplain of Somoza's National Guard. He also criticized the government for failing to prevent public officials like Education Minister Humberto Belli from using their positions to campaign for the Liberal Alliance. Belli issued propaganda in support of Arnoldo Aleman in the high schools in Managua, saying it was an "addendum' to the history curriculum. Students were told they would be responsible for the material on their examinations at the end of the school year. This happened shortly after Aleman informed Dr. Belli that he would be retained as Education Minister if Aleman won the election. President Violeta Chamorro ordered him to cease and desist from purveying the propaganda and remove what had been circulated, and he ignored her order. Many Nicaraguans feel he should have been fired for his arrogance, but President Chamorro took no action against him. "We are not fighting the church, or the government or the private sector, we are saying that they have hurt the country," he said.
Ortega also had harsh words for some of the international observers who came to Nicaragua for the election such as former U.S. Jimmy Carter and Oscar Arias of Costa Rica, who pronounced the elections free and fair before catching their planes home. Many Nicaraguans feel their judgements were premature. Daniel Ortega said that in a private meeting held with representatives of the Sandinista party held shortly before he left, Oscar Arias said, "My God, in Costa Rica, or some European country, this election would be anulled for less than what has happened here." Ortega claimed he said this in front of 200 people, but in public, he declared the elections free and fair. However, he also noted that there were many international observers from non-governmental organizations who did not rush to judgement and have pointed out the many problems they observed, including ballots found in garbage dumps and other irregularities.
Ortega noted that in the departments of Managua and Matagalpa, the electoral process was tainted by so much bad administration and fraud that the elections in those departments must be nullified. The morning after the election, the FSLN alleged that there were grave discrepancies between the telegrams that were used to transmit results from telephone offices through out the country and the tally documents that were signed at the polling stations by poll watchers for the various political parties who participated in the election. "We called for a comparison betwen the telegrams and the actas (tally documents) to clarify the differences that we saw between the official results and the results given to us by our poll watchers. In Managua and Matagalpa, the actas were falsified or disposed of, and we have proof of this," Ortega told the crowd. He called for new elections to be held in Managua and Matagalpa departments, adding that the documented proof of fraud and disorganization in these areas gave plenty of justification for repeating the elections there. He said that the FSLN would appeal the provisional results announced earlier on November 8 according to the law. "This struggle will be carried out within the frameword of the law, within the framework of the constitution," said Ortega. "In this electoral struggle, our message is clear: we will not save this situation will rifles, but with conscience and moral strength. The strength of Sandino and Carlos Fonseca was not with rifles, but their consciousness and their ability to face the most difficult situations with joy and determination." He said that it was the Sandinistas' duty to contest the electoral results because "we cannot show the young people that we are cowards or liars that would reward fraud and thievery." If the Supreme Electoral Council rejects the appeals introduced by the Sandinistas and some eleven other political parties, "we reserve the moral and political right to question the legitimacy of the election." It is not clear what this last action would entail, but Ortega stressed that there would be no violence. What these actions will be remains to be seen. The parties who wish to appeal the election results to the Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) must have those appeals filed by midnight on Monday, November 11, and then the CSE will have five days to consider them, according to Nicaragua's electoral law. On Friday evening, Ortega said that the FSLN and at least eight other political parties will ask that the elections in Matagalpa and Managua be annulled and new elections held in those areas. These two departments represent some forty percent of the country's electorate, and if the results from these areas were anulled, the entire presidential election would be called into question. However, not all Sandinista supporters agree with the call for new elections. Mariano Fiallos, who would be made Foreign Minister in a Sandinista government, has called on all parties to accept the results of the elections for the good of the country. The Sandinista Renovation Movement, an organization of Sandinistas who left the FSLN also called for the public to accept the election results. The crowd that filled the plaza Friday night would not agree with them.
A decision by a Matagalpa judge may cast new light on the numerous allegations of election fraud. The Nov. 9 editions of the Nuevo Diario and the Barricada newspapers reported that Matagalpa Criminal Court Judge Mirna Vargas Osejo issued an arrest, warrant for Alberto Blandon Baldizon, the president of the Departmental Electoral Council for Matagalpa. Mr. Blandon is accused of various "electoral crimes," including stealing ballots and interfering with poll watchers' rights to monitor the transmission of election results by fax or telegram. He is a partisan of Arnoldo Aleman's Liberal Alliance and was a member of Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo's "Verification Commission." He is said to be on of Dr. Aleman's closest advisors. CSE President read "provisional" election results that gave Aleman a substantial lead, but the numerous allegations of fraud by his partisans have cast doubt on the legitimacy of the election.