MANAGUA – For more than 50 years, popular radio personality Fabio Gadea has been invited into Nicaraguans’ homes and patios across the country for some old fashioned storytelling.
Since founding Radio Corporación in 1965, Gadea has consistently delighted rural audiences with his folksy and colorful radio show, “The Tales of Pancho Madrigal”—simple narratives of moral living in the Nicaraguan countryside.
Now Gadea, who will turn 80 three days after the Nov. 6 presidential election, is cashing in on his popularity in hopes it will translate into “a mountain of votes” at polling stations next month. And like his tales of Pancho Madrigal, Gadea’s campaign message poses a simplistic choice between good and evil.
“Here the battle is between democracy and dictatorship,” Gadea told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a recent interview. “The dictator is Daniel Ortega, and democracy is Fabio Gadea.”
Since opposition political leader Eduardo Montealegre—the runner-up in the 2006 presidential election—handpicked Gadea to head a broad-tent coalition against President Ortega’s questionable reelection efforts, the folksy yet gruff radio personality has been turning out large crowds in rural areas where listening to Pancho Madrigal is an afternoon ritual. In Camoapa, Gadea drew a crowd of 20,000. In Sebaco, he drew close to 40,000. And for the close of his campaign last Friday, 20,000 supporters paraded through the streets of Matagalpa to support Gadea’s candidacy.
“We have had an extraordinary reception in the Northern Zone, and according to our polls we are winning there by a lot,” Gadea says. “The enthusiasm with which the people receive us there, it is evident that they want a change, they want to fix the institutionalism of the country.”
But before Gadea can worry about fixing a divided country, he’ll first have to fix a divided party. Gadea’s candidacy has caused serious internal rifts among long-standing members of the PLI, some of whom resent what they view as a hostile takeover of their party by Gadea and Montealegre. Several PLI malcontents have gone so far as to file a legal challenge before the Sandinista-controlled Supreme Court to wrest control of the party away from the political journeymen in Montealegre’s faction.
If the disenfranchised group is given control of their party, 51 congressional candidates—including Montealegre himself—could get kicked off the PLI’s ticket one week before the election.
The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the matter Wednesday, Oct. 26.
Elections first, government plan later
Though Gadea’s campaign platform is based on five pillars—macroeconomic stability, investment in education and health, reinstitution of democracy, investment in youth, and improvements to infrastructure—he says the buzzwords that resonate the loudest with voters are “honesty” and “democracy.”
“The other candidates don’t talk about that. I do. I talk about an honest government, a government without corruption. This country will get fixed when there is no corruption,” Gadea said.
While some of Gadea’s proposals are concrete, such as lowering sales tax from 15 percent to 12 percent, most of his ideas seem vague. Some of the ambiguity, however, is by design. Rather than addressing the ideological and political differences between his conservative supporters and his left-leaning allies in the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS), Gadea has decided to postpone all internal debates until after the campaign is over.
“We are not going to be focusing on things like therapeutic abortion and stuff like that. I am a lover of life; I am against abortion, and I always will be. But I am not going to discuss that type of thing to please my adversaries. We’ll look at that later… We are not going to get distracted now by talking about issues that we don’t agree on, because we’ll fix that later.”
Though some may consider a woman’s right to life and basic maternal healthcare a fundamental human right rather than an electoral distraction, Gadea thinks the most important issue at hand—the one that forms the thickest and perhaps only thread stitching his campaign together—is that of democracy.
Says Gadea, “We want to beat Daniel Ortega and establish a democracy here to prevent a dictatorship. On this issue we are totally in agreement.”
While Gadea and his team seem to have left considerable chunks of their government plan for a rainy day after the election, at some point they’ll also have to sit down and figure out how they’re going to pay for it all. So far, Gadea’s plans to pay for the new roads, job creation and improvements to health and education are at best incomplete, and at worst vacuous.
Gadea seems to think that simply by installing an honest and transparent government, a hidden treasure trove of pilfered government funds will suddenly be made available for nobler causes.
“When the government doesn’t steal millions of dollars like so many government officials are doing now, you’ll see a change in the country. There will be money for real transformation in education, health and roads,” Gadea said.
He acknowledges that the cushy Venezuelan slush fund that President Ortega has benefited from will most likely evaporate, but thinks—perhaps somewhat guilelessly—that other foreign aid that has left Nicaragua on the Sandinistas’ watch will “return immediately” once Ortega is voted out.
The youth vote
In a country where 16-year-old kids can vote and nearly half the voting demographic is younger than 25, Gadea—like all candidates—is making a special effort to target the youth.
“We have big plans for the young people; we want them to be learners and entrepreneurs. Those who need scholarships will get scholarships. Those who need work, we’ll find them work. But we want to make them promoters and owners and entrepreneurs with their own businesses— a way to move forward in life. The same way I did when I was young. I promoted myself. I invented Pancho Madrigal on the radio. I earned 3 córdobas an hour. And in 1965, I formed Radio Corporación. And I became a businessman all by myself. And that’s what we want to promote with the young people now.”
Gadea’s campaign handlers have playfully dubbed their candidate “the youthful old man.” And Gadea himself boasts that “Pancho Madrigal has always attracted young people.” Yet not all of Gadea’s views—especially those pertaining to social issues—reflect the type of modern-man thinking his campaign is trying to project.
Indeed, some youths claim Gadea is too old-fashioned, conservative and intolerant to lead any genuine effort to construct a new and improved Nicaragua. Last July, in one of his so-called “Love Letters to Nicaragua”—a regular column he publishes in the daily La Prensa—Gadea displayed both his homophobia and ignorance in the same paragraph by railing against homosexuals in hateful terms and claiming that being gay is something that can be treated with “modern science.”
Yet on other topics, Gadea appears to have softened his stance a bit.
When I first interviewed Gadea in September 2010, I asked him if he would include Sandinistas in his so-called government of “national unity.” He responded with hoary indignation. “No. Why? The Sandinista Front? No! They are the extreme left and we’re not interested in them. Plus, they wouldn’t accept (a government post) because they want to be a part of their party and blindly obey their leader. The Sandinista Front?! No!”
He wasn’t done.
“Are we going to have Sandinista ministers in our government? No, obviously not!”
Yet when I recently asked Gadea if he still plans on sweeping all Sandinistas out of state institutions if elected president, the candidate answered with more polish—like a politician with a year of campaign experience under his belt.
“We are not going to fire anyone, unless they are worthless, or a ghost. If they don’t work, they’re gone. But those who work will remain, even if they are Orteguistas. They’ll stay. We won’t sweep them out of office,” Gadea said.
The candidate did, however, say he will make it clear that the cult-of-personality veneration in state institutions must stop immediately.
“We are going to tell them, Here there is no ideology. There are no posters for Daniel Ortega and no posters for Fabio Gadea. No posters for anyone. Here you are going to be a professional and do your job. And those who can’t do that won’t fit in the government.”
Gadea insists state workers must be apolitical and tend to the affairs of state, rather than act as party lackeys. The job of public employees, he says, is administrative, it’s not about “Making political propaganda or standing in rotundas waving flags for a political party, or going around to public schools hanging signs up for the president.”
Yo soy Pancho Madrigal
After a year of polling second to Ortega, Gadea maintains hope that the majority opposition will unite behind his candidacy on election day to give him the final boost he needs. But his biggest hurdle to victory could be tertiary candidate Arnoldo Alemán, who happens to be Gadea’s in-law (Alemán’s daughter is married to Gadea’s son).
Gadea laments that Alemán’s candidacy will most likely “diversify” the opposition vote and prevent him from winning with a majority in the first round.
“Alemán can say what he wants, but the truth is something else. I have 34 percent of the voter intention, and he has 13 percent. So there is no way he can beat Daniel Ortega. Never. Never. The only candidate who can beat Daniel Ortega is named Fabio Gadea. The only one. And the government is worried. They are worried about that. Of course they are worried. Wherever we go, they put signs for Daniel, signs for Daniel, signs for Daniel.”
He added, “They send trucks to handout zinc and tell people not to go to our events. But they are still coming. Our people are coming and that means (the Sandinistas) are worried. They are worried. The mountain of votes that we are going to have will be there, and it is going to be very difficult, very difficult, to have fraud.”
But to beat both Ortega and Alemán on election day, Gadea may need a little help from his old alter ego, Pancho Madrigal.
“If they vote for Pancho Madrigal, magnificent. If they vote for me, magnificent. It’s the same vote.”