MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Pre-election polls indicated that Daniel Ortega and his Sandinista National Liberation Front had finally convinced Nicaraguans to give them the presidency. But memories of the past and the powerful influence of the Catholic Church combined to deliver a very different outcome.
Enrique Bolaños, the Sandinistas' archrival, will be next president of Nicaragua.
A Nov. 1 Mass, at which Cardinal Miguel Obando Bravo publicly questioned the sincerity of Ortega's claims to respect Church teachings and his personal sexual morality, appeared to play a decisive role in the outcome.
Only a week before the Nov. 4th election, polls showed that Ortega, a leader of the Sandinista revolutionaries who overthrew dictator Anastasio Somoza in 1979 then quickly became Soviet pawns in the region, would finally succeed in his third presidential bid since 1990.
Ortega's alliance with former foes, the replacement of his olive-drab revolutionary uniform for a pink shirt and a crucifix over his chest, and a campaign called “the trail of love” seemed to have erased old memories of abuse, scarcity and the hardships of war.
Analysts even started warning the United States to respect the outcome of the elections, and some harshly criticized U.S. Ambassador Oliver Garza for appearing at campaign events of Bolaños, the candidate of the ruling Liberal Constitutional Party.
Sergio Ramírez, a former Sandinista commander, even predicted that the visit of two American congressmen who allegedly convinced a third candidate, Noel Vidaurre, to withdraw to prevent a split of the anti-Sandinista vote, “will only convince Nicaraguans that they need to vote for Ortega, the truly independent candidate.”
But when election returns were counted Nov. 5, Bolaños had blasted away all such predictions with a 56-43% margin of victory. Voters, who during the campaign had wavered over allegations of corruption against outgoing President Arnold Alemán and concern over Nicaragua's gaping social disparities, had concluded when casting ballots that a return to the economic chaos and anti-Catholic hostility of the Sandinista years was even less appealing.
Said Freddy Potoy, an editorial-ist for the daily newspaper La Prensa, “Despite the heavy political baggage inherited by Bolaños from Alemán, history was even heavier in Nicaraguan minds.”
Indeed, while the Sandinistas still have their significant popular base, its enemies and detractors are implacable.
The Sandinista Front started its political career with the aura of the romantic guerrillas who toppled a notorious dictator. Liberation theologians, such as Peruvian Gustavo Gutiérrez and former Franciscan priest Leonardo Boff, as well as left-wing intellectuals like Brazilian Paulo Freire provided academic and other support to what was promoted as the world's first socialist Christian revolution.
With the initial sympathy of the U.S. administration of then-president Jimmy Carter, the Sandinistas organized successful literacy campaigns, distributed land and gave jobs to a large part of the youth — even if some of the jobs were carrying a gun around as part of an oversized, Soviet-financed “Popular Army.”
The Sandinistas' increasing ties to Cuba gradually drove out moderate allies, and after private properties were seized, opponents imprisoned and the economy completely controlled by the state, the Sandinistas openly aligned themselves with the Marxist bloc.
In this context, this year's electoral battle between Ortega and Bolaños was a personal one. In the early 1980s, Ortega ordered the “nationalization” of Bolaños' home and some of his businesses. When the businessman protested, he was jailed.
But the most formidable enemy the Sandinistas made was the Catholic Church. On the advice of liberation theologians — whose interpretation of the Gospels as a message of socialist revolution rather than of transcendental salvation was specifically condemned by the Vatican in 1984 — the Sandinistas tried to create a “Popular Church” by setting up Christian front organizations that were critical of Church authorities and supportive of Sandinista policies.
“Their effort to manipulate the Catholic faith and to turn the people against Cardinal Miguel Obando Bravo was probably their worst political miscalculation,” said Msgr. Bismark Carvallo, who during the 1980s endured constant hostility from the Sandinistas for his role as director of the Catholic Radio network.
“Nicaraguans, who are in a large majority devout Catholics, were shocked when the Sandinistas tried to manipulate the Holy Father's visit,” Carvallo added.
Carvallo was referring to efforts by the Sandinistas to force Pope John Paul II to support the “Popular Church,” and to silence his criticism of the revolutionary regime's oppression of the Church, during his 1983 visit. These manipulations, which reached their peak at an outdoor Mass in Managua where Sandinista supporters drowned out the Holy Father's words with revolutionary chants, sparked worldwide criticism.
During his second visit to the country in 1996, the Pope commented on the notably more friendly reception accorded him.
Said the Pope, “This visit takes place under very different circumstances from the former. Those who remember my visit of 13 years ago, know that the Pope came to Nicaragua and celebrated holy Mass, but could never really meet the people. Since then, many things have changed in Nicaragua.”
In recognition of how much popular support was lost by the Sandinistas' anti-Catholic attitude, a mellowed Ortega dressed in casual wear and promised respect for the Church and for democracy in the presidential election that also took place in 1996. Nonetheless, Alemán won easily.
During Ortega's third bid to win a democratic victory, the Sandinistas tried even harder to convince Nicaraguans they had changed. Ortega vowed to support a market economy, friendship with the United States, and a “close communication” with Cardinal Obando.
Despite his promises, “Ortega was unable to win over his past enemies, especially politicians and businessmen who suffered the Sandinista repression and did everything possible to block him in 1990, 1996 and again this year,” said Adán Silva, a Nicaraguan polit ical analyst.
And, Silva added, while it was true that the U.S. government had used its considerable clout to block Ortega, most commentators have downplayed the crucial role of the Catholic Church.
“Everybody knows that Cardinal Obando, doubtlessly the most popular personality in Nicaragua, has no sympathy whatsoever for the Sandinistas, and he has always made clear that his opinion remains unchanged,” Silva said.
Ortega was so aware of this that his effort to regain the presidency by democratic means featured flowers, fireworks and a crucifix over his pink shirt, and religious rhetoric highlighted with phrases like “love is stronger than hate,” “we will build the promised land,” and “we will promote a truly Christian solidarity.”
Bolaños responded by calling Ortega's softer image “hypocrisy,” repeating time and again that, “We cannot forget the many times [Ortega] said that religion was the opiate of the people.”
The Fateful Mass
Cardinal Obando, who termed Ortega a “snake” in the closing days of the 1996 campaign, criticized the former guerrilla during an outdoor Mass Nov. 1.
“When we vote, we should ask ourselves whether the candidate supports marriage, and a family based on marriage, instead of the tendency to equate true marriage with other forms of union,” the cardinal said during the Mass.
Ortega attended the Mass with Rosario Murillo, with whom he has lived for more than 25 years, although they are not legally married. Bolaños, legally married, also was present.
The cardinal reminded parishioners that Ortega faces unresolved accusations of sexual abuse from his stepdaughter, Zoilamerica Narvaez.
Ortega has denied the accusations. His parliamentary immunity has prevented the case from going to court.
“In electing our candidates we should see if they preach with the testimony of their lives, if they have been exemplary in their families,” the cardinal said.
But after Ortega graciously conceded defeat without challenging the legitimacy of his rival, Bolaños admitted that maybe the Sandinista leader had indeed become a new man and promised to work “respectfully” with the Sandinistas.
The Catholic Church also expressed relief and appreciation of Ortega's decision not to dispute the results. The Nicaraguan bishops' conference issued a short statement praising the electorate for participating and exercising its right to vote, as well as the political parties for “strengthening democracy by participating in such a civic way.”
The document, signed by Bishop Juan Abelardo Mata Guevara of Esteli, general secretary of the conference, also said that “once again our people has demonstrated its profound will to live in peace and work harmoniously in building that peace.”
At a personal level, Cardinal Obando asked his vicar general, Msgr. Eddy Montenegro, to call Ortega and personally congratulate him for peacefully accepting Bolaños' victory.
“Ortega's attitude was very commendable. It was heartwarming to watch him [on national television] greeting his opponent,” Msgr. Montenegro told the Register.
“This was a clear sign that Nicaraguans can go through an electoral process without polarization and violence,” added Cardinal Obando's spokesman. “Now, what the Church expects is to see the winners fulfill their promises on behalf of the people, and the losers to join the effort to bring Nicaragua up on its feet.”
Alejandro Bermúdez is based in Lima, Peru.
(CNS contributed to this report.)