MANAGUA – In a country where “voter fraud” is a relative transgression, the 2011 electoral process has been about as smooth of a democratic exercise as Nicaragua can hope for under the circumstances, according to veteran political analyst and former opposition candidate Arturo J. Cruz Porras.
Cruz, who campaigned briefly against Daniel Ortega in the 1984 presidential elections before dropping out of the race shamefacedly, says abstention was a mistake then and would be an even bigger mistake now.
“The candidates have an obligation to run,” Cruz, 87, told The Nicaragua Dispatch in a recent interview in his bucolic home in the hills south of Managua. “In 1984 we were in the context of the Cold War, but now it’s about the survival of Nicaragua. And Nicaragua has to survive—the international community and the people of Nicaragua want that to happen.”
Only one of the four opposition candidates—Enrique Quiñonez, of the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN)—flirted briefly with the idea of boycotting this year’s elections. Several left-wing protest groups, organized under the banner “Don’t count on my vote for this electoral farce,” also claim participation in the elections will only legitimize Ortega’s “illegal reelection.”
Cruz, however, urges all Nicaraguans to vote on Sunday. He acknowledges that the electoral magistrates of the Supreme Electoral Council’s (CSE) have a lousy track record counting votes, but he shrugs it off as one of many imperfections in Nicaragua’s democracy.
“You know how they are,” Cruz says, referring to Nicaragua’s electoral magistrates as if they were a group of wayward teens. “But we don’t have any others.”
Though there has been a litany of complaints about this year’s electoral process, Cruz says it has been remarkably peaceful compared to years past. He says any last minute efforts by disgruntled groups to undermine Nicaragua’s hard-fought right to universal suffrage would be a serious mistake.
And he’s speaking from personal experience.
In 1984, Cruz says he was used by the CIA and Nicaragua’s “extreme right wing” to run a “fake candidacy” against Ortega’s first attempt to legitimize his continuance in power through the ballot box.
In the forthcoming second installment of his political memoires, “Chronicles of a Dissident,” Cruz dedicates an entire chapter to what he calls the “absurd” role he was unwittingly suckered into playing in the “electoral farce of 1984.” His advice to candidates and voters now is simple: learn from my mistake and make an honest effort to defend Nicaragua’s democratic advances, before it’s too late.
Chronicle of an electoral farce
Cruz’s history of political dissidence began in the 1970s as a vocal opponent of the Somoza dynasty. He eventually became a member of the Sandinistas’ so-called “Group of Twelve,” a group of erudite intellectuals who gave an international voice to the Sandinistas’ revolutionary cause.
After the triumph of the revolution in 1979, Cruz was named the Sandinistas’ first Central Bank President. He was then sent to Washington, D.C., to serve as the government’s Ambassador to the United States.
But Cruz’s fling with the Sandinista Front was short-lived. Before the second anniversary of the revolution, Cruz defected from the ruling party with serious concerns about the moral and ethical direction of the revolution. The Sandinistas, he says, “had no moral brakes” and “Sandinista ethics permitted any type of action or behavior for the cause.”
So when the Sandinistas announced presidential elections in 1984, Cruz, who was working for the Inter-American Development Bank in Washington at the time, was the first to scoff at the idea. He said he was convinced the Sandinistas, with their absolute grip over the state electoral machinery, would orchestrate an electoral farce to try to justify their continuance in power. And anyone who agreed to participate in the elections under those terms was a fool, Cruz thought.
Despite taking a vocal stance against the ‘84 elections, Cruz was identified by the CIA and several prominent Nicaraguans, including business leader Enrique Bolaños, as an ideal candidate to run against Ortega.
The CIA’s plan, however, was to get Cruz to campaign against Ortega just long enough to rally anti-Sandinista sentiments in the countryside, but drop out of the race before the vote. The plan, Cruz says, was to use the elections as an excuse to campaign openly against the Sandinistas, but then withdraw his candidacy to deny Ortega the satisfaction of winning a legitimate poll.
After a series of secretive meetings with CIA handlers in Washington-area bars and in his home in Bethesda, Maryland, Cruz says he started to warm to the idea of running a fake candidacy, and started to seriously contemplate his counterfeit campaign. But before he could make up his mind whether or not to run, Cruz discovered that the CIA and extreme right were already moving forward on the plan by publically announcing his candidacy in Managua.
At that moment, Cruz writes in his yet-to-be-released memoires, “I was for the first time forced to cross the bridge that the CIA had laid out in front of me.”
As he was dragged into the campaign—now somewhat reluctantly—Cruz went on the CIA’s payroll, receiving “six or seven thousand dollars a month” in income, which he says he reported dutifully on his IRS income tax returns, even though it was listed as coming from phony companies.
But once Cruz returned to Nicaragua and got into campaign mode, he started to have a change of heart. He said that Managua Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, an erstwhile adversary of the Sandinistas, and former Venezuelan President Carlos Andrés Pérez both encouraged him to run for real. But it was the overwhelming support from the campesino voters themselves who convinced him that it was a mistake to play with people’s emotions and hopes by running a fake campaign.
Cruz’s determination to “run for real” became even stronger as his campaign was met with Sandinista violence in the countryside. On repeated occasions, Sandinista mobs armed with rocks and clubs attacked his campaign rallies, destroying vehicles and stages and attacking his supporters.
“The Sandinistas wouldn’t allow me to campaign anywhere in the country, not even behind closed doors,” Cruz said.
But when his supporters started to fight back and—on at least one occasion— chase away Sandinista mobs, Cruz realized peoples’ rejection of the Sandinista government was genuine and decided they deserved an opportunity to vote for a real opposition candidate.
Cruz told his CIA handlers he wanted to make his fake candidacy real. But when he did, his situation went from bad to worse. The frustrated candidate said he felt like he was stuck in a “crossfire” between the Sandinistas on one side, and the CIA and extreme right on the other. Neither side wanted him to be a real candidate.
“There was a strange symbiosis between the two sides: (the Sandinistas) didn’t want to have any opposition in the government system, and the (CIA) didn’t want to ruin the possibilities of a (military) victory for the contras.”
Trapped between two poles, Cruz withdrew from the race. Ortega won what was essentially an uncontested election with 62 percent of the vote, and the contra war escalated for the next five years.
Looking back on the frustrated electoral events of the 1980s, Cruz says a lot of mistakes were made by all sides. Uncle Sam’s mingling in the ’84 elections was a mistake, he says, and so too was the U.S.’ support for the counterrevolutionary war.
In hindsight, Cruz says, the U.S. would have been a lot smarter to “Let (the Sandinistas) fry in their own lard.”
Ultimately, he says, the lesson learned from the electoral debacle of 1984 is that abstention is much more damaging to democracy than participating in a flawed system. And even though Cruz says he still feels “dirty and used” by his brief venture into politics in the 80s, he insists it would be even more foolish to sit out on Nov. 6 and risk repeating the “folly of ’84.”