The FSLN's Daniel Ortega comfortably won a fourth term as president in November's elections in Nicaragua. Despite opposition claims that his government is becoming increasingly authoritarian, Ortega received more than 70% of the votes cast, while the FSLN party increased its majority in the legislative. Here, a supporter of the government working in the Nicaraguan countryside explains to Nicaragua Now magazine what he sees as the reasons for this victory.
NN: What were the factors that contributed to the FSLN and Daniel Ortega winning the elections by such a large margin?
NH: The main factor was that Nicaragua has had a strong, well organised and proactive FSLN government for the past two decades that has brought tangible benefits for the majority of people, but not just the disadvantaged, and the whole country has benefited from stability.
If you look at concrete things, there’s commitment to free education for all, so everybody feels that the government values the fact that their children should be in school, should be given a chance, and should be educated.
The same can be said about health. Again, a lot more needs to be done such as investment in hospitals, but to the best of their ability, the government tries to provide good quality health care to everyone. In the health centres and hospitals there are notices saying you will not be charged for any services.
This belief in a government that cares is reinforced by the other programmes such as the ‘Roof Plan’ that ensures that every family at least has a decent roof over their heads. It involves giving any family who need it ten corrugated iron sheets which is more than enough for a small house.
Then you have production bonds for thousands of small farmers who receive a bond worth about US$1,000 consisting of a pig, ten chickens, fencing, and a number of other things. As a small farmer, you feel like someone cares and wants to support you.
There’s also a really successful women’s programme called Zero Usury. The women organise themselves into small groups and are given loans at extremely low interest rates. The idea is to prevent them falling victim to money lenders who charge 20 per cent interest per month. This enables women to set up small businesses such as shops in their homes, bread baking, and other such activities. So again, there’s this real feeling that the government cares.
Another example is public spaces that create a secure, child friendly environment. All across the country the central squares are family places where people gather and there’s not this demand on you to spend money as it doesn’t cost you anything. The main square in Leon where I live is well lit and safe and has become a real family place in the evenings.
Then of course there is what visitors notice. Every city now has roads connecting them that are second to none in Central America. Now you can get to most places in the country in two or three hours whereas 15 years ago it would have taken five or six.
NN: Why did the opposition parties perform so badly?
NH: The opposition was weak and divided and did not present any viable alternative. The right wing campaigns have always been based on fear: [a vote for the Sandinistas will mean] that rationing and war will return, that there will be no investment. This largely worked for many years, but in this election they didn’t even bother running a scare campaign. The truth is people trust the Sandinista leadership to do what they say they’re going to do, and this is the credibility Daniel Ortega has built up over all these years.
NN: Nicaragua is perceived in the western mainstream media as veering towards dictatorship, and Daniel Ortega as an autocratic leader. Does the reality in the country reflect that at all?
NH: Anti Sandinistas are still a reasonable percentage of the population who, along with the US State Department, will never be happy with an FSLN government. Any Sandinista successes become a threat to those who don’t want a successful left wing government to become a good example for the region. However, the old arguments have fallen apart: Nicaragua is now one of the most peaceful, least corrupt countries in the region, and a good place to do business. The new arguments are political.
If you want to interpret strong government and proactive participation of many people as authoritarian, then that’s an interpretation you can make. Enemies of the revolution will argue that Nicaragua is not a ‘satisfactory democracy’. However, the elections were incredibly participatory. The right wing has always participated with similar desire and passion, and similar hopes and fears as the Sandinistas. But these elections were marked by a completely different feeling because the opposition was completely demoralised and disorganised. That did affect the turnout which was about ten percent less than previous elections but still high at 68 percent. The right wing and the opposition knew they weren’t going to win as their anti-FSLN discourse has been deconstructed.
The poor and disadvantaged are of course concerned about the connections between the government and business, but in general people understand that the country has to develop and you can’t do this without business and investment.
NN: On the pretext of the Nicaraguan elections being flawed, on 21 September, the US House of Representatives approved the NICA Act which would prevent Nicaraguan access to international loans. What would the consequences be for Nicaragua if the Trump administration approves this legislation?
NH: The consequences would be terrible because it would not only block international loans from the World Bank and other international lending institutions but also anywhere else that the US has influence. It’s very worrying that the US is again wielding this interventionist sword to deny Nicaragua access to finance after the country has come through a war and is achieving reconciliation of a very divided nation. We should not forget that the Nicaraguan contra war was caused by US interventionism. The NICA Act was announced before the elections when the Sandinistas had over 60% in the polls. To talk about an election being undemocratic when you know the majority of the people support the government doesn’t make any sense.
NN: Why was Nicaragua so opposed to having international observers monitor the election?
NH: Foreign observers have never had a positive impact on Nicaragua’s elections. Despite widespread accusations of fraud including thousands of ballot papers found in the sewers of Matagalpa, a mission led by ex US president Jimmy Carter validated the 1996 elections won by right wing candidate Arnoldo Aleman. This left the country in absolute turmoil. We know the US does not appreciate a successful left-wing government especially when they win democratic elections by a large majority. Knowing Nicaraguan history and US involvement one wonders what the US backed election observers wanted to come here to do? Nicaraguans are perfectly capable of running their own elections just as we do in the UK and as is the case in the US.
NN: What are the hopes and fears for the future?
NH: The biggest concern is that the ugly head of external interventionism will rise up again and force Nicaragua back into crisis. The hope of the majority that voted in these elections is that the Sandinistas continue to lead the country to prosperity, continue to scale up programmes for the disadvantaged and provide them with opportunities to prosper.
Photo caption: Celebrating the Sandinista election victory in Estelí Credit: Steve Lewis