Poll: Nicaraguans don’t want to follow Chavez toward socialism

News Analysis.

Seven out of 10 Nicaraguans think democracy is the best form of government for their country, and only 17% of the population supports the type of “21st century socialism” championed by Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, according to a poll released this week by M&R Consultants.

Based on those polling numbers, one might guess that Daniel Ortega is an unpopular president. But one would be wrong.

On the contrary, the M&R Consultants poll suggests that Ortega is exceedingly popular and generously democratic. The president has a 60% approval rating and 69% say he is governing democratically and lawfully. In contrast, only 25% of Nicaraguans are fussy-pants who think the president is an autocrat trying to install a dictatorship.

In many democracies it would be disconcerting if a quarter of the population suspected the president of being a tin-pot dictator, but for Ortega those numbers are great. In a 2009 poll, 60% of Nicaraguans said they thought Ortega was dictatorial and only 32% said they thought he was governing democratically. Three years later, after sidestepping the Constitution to get himself reelected, Ortega has somehow managed to invert his poll numbers and convince most of the countrymen that he’s now a law-abiding democrat.

As Ortega’s approval ratings and popularity continue to soar, an overwhelming majority of Nicaraguans say they are feeling confident about the country’s direction and future. Indeed, 73% of those polled say they are pleased with Ortega’s leadership—a remarkable turnaround from four years ago, when the same polling firm found that 70% of Nicaraguans thought Ortega was leading the country in the wrong direction.

Overall, 70% of the population is satisfied with the state of democracy in Nicaragua, and 55% claim democracy has only gotten better under perpetual president, who plans to run for reelection again in 2016, according to his chatty wife.
The question is: has Ortega suddenly become a model president in an exemplary democracy? Or have Nicaraguans simply lowered their expectations?

More basic yet, what does democracy mean for Nicaraguans?

To understand why Nicaraguans are so tickled about the state of their self governance, it is helpful to understand how Nicaraguans define democracy in the first place. According to the poll, most Nicaraguans think of democracy in terms of basic individual liberties—or what a libertarian political philosopher might call “negative rights.”

The M&R surveyors asked people what it means to “live in democracy,” and the top answer across the board from those identifying as Sandinistas, opposition or independents was: “to live in peace, tranquility and harmony”—an answer with a certain chayistic ring.

The second-most common answer—provided by 20% of the population—was “freedom of expression,” while the third-ranked answer was “freedom.”

Based on their top three answers, Nicaraguans—undoubtedly influenced by their past experiences with authoritarian regimes, war, forced military drafts, arbitrary incarceration and other egregious intrusions on individual liberties—seem to think democracy exists when the government simply gets out of people’s way and does not subjugate its citizens. It’s the school of thought that defines things diametrically, without any refined consideration for subtleties: peace is the absence of war; democracy is the absence of military dictatorship.

That concept seems to be further supported by what people didn’t say in the poll. Only 5.5% of those surveyed said democracy brings to mind “constitutionality, justice and rule of law.”

In other words, the legal framework, checks and balances or other guarantees of a properly functioning liberal democracy seem less important to Nicaraguans than the concept of respect for inalienable rights and basic personal liberties.

No one polled said that “living in a democracy” means having the right to healthcare, the right to education, the right to social security, or even the right to freely elect government authorities. Those would all be “positive rights,” which are provided by Nicaragua’s mistreated Constitution, but apparently are not considered pertinent enough to make people’s list of benefits from “living in a democracy.”

However, when pressed on some of the specifics of democracy, there is a dramatic split of opinion between those in the ruling party and members of Nicaragua’s fatuous opposition. For example, 90% of Sandinistas agree with the statement “Nicaragua freely elects its government authorities,” while only 34% of the minority opposition agrees. More than 80% of Sandinistas agree that the government respects rule of law and the separation of powers, but 75% of the opposition disagrees. And 71% of Sandinistas think there is economic stability and economic progress under Ortega, while 80% of the opposition disagrees.

Nearly 90% of Sandinistas claim the government is responding to the needs of the population, while 70% of opposition party members and half of independents disagree.

Those answers start to paint a picture of a caste system, which isn’t entirely democratic.

Still, despite the discrepancy over who is benefiting most from democracy under Ortega, there does seem to be a sense of universal relief—and a rather sophisticated level of distinction, given thick political rhetoric peddled by the presidential couple and echoed by mindless politicasters—that at least the president isn’t trying to replicate Chávez’s self-styled socialism in Venezuela.

More than 70% of Nicaraguans—including many Sandinistas—say it’s better for Nicaragua to maintain its own course rather than follow Chávez down the path towards “21st century socialism.”

Nicaragua might not be a highly evolved democracy, but Nicaraguans have come to realize that the country does best when it dances to the beat of its own drummer.


  • Pat Withrow

    I a citizen of the United States and a part time resident of Nicaragua. Believing in democracy I have also said that the most efficient form of government is a benevolent dictatorship. Looking at the problems of the US with the necessity of being elected every two years for Congress, four for president, six for Senate it is obviously a very inefficient form of government. I must say that Ortega is running a good operation, he’s gotten rich but so have the politicians who have to pander to the vote, with the people in Nicaragua benefiting much. I have become a believer.

    • Elsa

      Pat, sorry to hear that voting every four years is such a bother for you and others in the US. But I will tell you that there is no such thing as a benevolent dictatorship. Benevolent dictators eventually end up getting pulled out of their gilded thrones and dragged through the streets–a rather unfitting end to such a benevolent rule.

  • Fede Cuadra

    Pat let me inform you about Nicaragua’s past.
    First, Ortega in the 2 month window between Ortegas defeat and Violetas Chamorros new presidency Ortega confiscated private lands, houses, business and gave them out to his friends. It’s known as La Pinata en Nicaragua. This man is a thief. Take from the rich and give to the poor? He gave it to himself! And people who bent over to kiss his ass. You know what a lot of those farms are doing now? Nothing.
    Second, he ran illegally! Constitution says you can’t run for this term and he did.
    Third, mixing private and public funds is not good. We have to many eggs in one basket.

    Fourth, it saddens me to see how easy Nicarguans forget. This man says anti-Chvez supports can’t be Christians. He preaches how the Imperialists get rich off the poor. Exactly what he is doing.

    decile al Comandante Ortega que digo yo que coma mierda

    • Erik Nelson

      I am not interested in the opinions of those who use foul language. If they cannot make their point within profanity, they problem don’t have a point to make. Here we have a good example of a person who cheapens the forum by his lack of respect,

      • Erik Nelson

        Sorry for the typos above. Should read:
        If they cannot make their point without profanity, they probably don’t have a point to make.

  • Carla Chamorro

    Just the money!
    Same thing they wanted from Somoza in the first place: the greenbacks!

    Have you noticed Tim how the Sandinismo (to use a name) has re-invented the Somocismo?

    If they do it right, they could be successful for a while!

  • Ken

    I believe there’s a term for people’s evaluations to cluster around an average one, but I forget it. (Maybe something like the “halo effect”?) Anyway, this seems to be what’s going on. The majority of Nicas are rightfully content with aspects of Ortega’s leadership, and because these are important to them, they suppress their discontent with other aspects of his leadership (dictatorship?). In this way they avoid cognitive dissonance that goes with maintaining apparently inconsistent opinions. Of course, the opposition does the same thing, albeit the salient variables to them are Ortega’s faults and they can’t see the good he does. This natural human tendency is very frustrating, especially with guys like Ortega, since IMHO proper evaluations of him are all over the map. Were politics a school, I swear he would deserve an A in some subjects and an F in others. Articles like this one are helpful for highlighting some of the more nuanced ways in which people should ideally evaluate public figures and public policies. Keep it up.

  • CJ

    I really appreciate the integration of Nicaraguan idiom in ND. Love the use of “chayistic.”

  • Devry

    Who are M&R Consultants? Who/what segement of the population did they ask these questons; urban/rural/age/sex/employed??? Some context might make these extraordinary contrast make some sense!

    • Tim Rogers

      You’re right, this info should have been included in the article. M&R is national polling firm. This poll was conducted between Sept. 15-23, a sampling of 1,600 voting age Nicaraguans, men and women, from urban, rural and sem-rural locations, including the Caribbean coast. Polling was done face to face. Poll claims a 95% confidence rating and +/- 2.5 margin of error

  • Nospam Sonny

    To the idiot Yankee Pat Withrow who is now “a believer” – go read up about Somoza on your way to hell.

  • Sarah

    I agree with Devry. While this is an extremely convincing and well-written article, it would benefit from some context. “The Nicaraguan population” is referenced a lot here– I would like to know the percentage of Nicaraguans polled (what is the sample size?), the geographic boundaries (Was the Atlantic Coast included here? Might be interesting to see their take on things) and general demographics including age, gender, socioeconomic status, and political preference.

    That said, I realize that the author likely only had so much room for including these parameters, and I can most likely look up the poll myself for more information.

    All of that aside… These figures don’t surprise me. When I was last in Nicaragua (May-June 2011) I spoke with a number of Nicaraguans who basically echoed the results of this poll. My take on it is that the revolution still very much lives on in many Nicaraguan hearts. Ortega has built (or is really trying to build) himself up as the new symbol of the Sandinista Party. I’m really interested to see the percentage of polled citizens who were also active in the Sandinista Revolution and the Contra Wars.

    Lastly (!!!) I love Carla Charmorro’s reference to Somocismo… scary, scary stuff– but all too much of a reality!

    • linda

      sarah…i think i know you, welll. I have written a small thing, also, never as good as yours!

  • linda

    I lived there many years ago, when the first Samosa was in power, I remember the problems, even though I was a child.
    I think of one thing, having returned every so often as an adult…people are happy(?) that they are not being killed, and there is no “war”..better to let things go along as they are..I realize this is simplistic..but humans do get down to basics, I believe. Who really knows what people really think.

  • BD

    I previously managed a hotel in Managua and a farm near Masaya. My wife lived in Nicaragua as a child and our granddaughter has done extensive graduate level research into social issues there. Our family loves debate; so, we spend a lot of time discussing Nicaragua and all of Central America.
    I think observers tend to get too wrapped up in the proverbial forest of Socialist vs. Democratic and lose sight of the trees of Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs.
    Number one in the search for happiness is safety from war and terrorism: Nicaragua is at peace.
    Number two is the means to live, feed and clothe your family: Generally smiling, healthy looking people,growth in jobs Poverty, sure; but starvation, i don’t think so.On the other hand 20,000 people living in the city dump–not so good; but, then I still saw little truly abject poverty. Number three opportunity: Education needs a lot of support. It is essential to the future health and welfare of the country.
    Number four Freedom of speech: This is in doubt, I think.
    Number five Individual rights to self determination: I am not sure. I have not been on the ground for several years.
    I think peace and stability are, for now, the most essential factors in growth of infrastructure and instituions and thus population well-being. Labels are unimportant–Actions for the good of all are essential.

  • Brian

    Great article, Tim. Nicaragua is a hell of an interesting place … Wow!