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The Nicaraguan Tangle: Another Exchange

In response to:

The Nicaraguan Tangle from the December 5, 1985 issue

To the Editors:

I hope Mr. Leiken’s later articles on Nicaragua are more objective and less tendentious than his first [NYR, December 5, 1985]. To take just one example, his allegation that the voting figures at the 1984 elections there were rigged, his case seems in essence to be that they always were in pre-revolutionary Nicaragua, that they were in El Salvador, and that La Prensa says so. The first two points are irrelevant and to rest a case on La Prensa is the equivalent of basing a serious judgement on the word of one of the most disreputable of Rupert Murdoch’s papers—the Sun in this country and you have equivalents in the United States.

Mr. Leiken disagrees with my observations of the Nicaraguan election. With what facts given in my report does he disagree? My case is simply that, imperfect in some ways as the Nicaraguan election of 1984 was, it was better in every measurable way than the one in El Salvador during the same year which I also observed and on which I published a report. Therefore if President Duarte was validly elected, as the US government and I both think he was, then President Ortega was too.

Lord Chitnis

House of Lords

London, England

To the Editors:

As a member of the all-party mission from the Human Rights Group of the British Parliament1 which observed the 1984 Nicaraguan elections, and as by now a fairly frequent traveller in Nicaragua and from end to end of Central America, may I comment on Robert Leiken’s article “The Nicaraguan Tangle”?

Like most other qualified observers, we found some things wrong with the election campaign—disorders, censorship—but not to any remarkable extent by world, as opposed to United States and North European, standards. (Compare India, generally regarded as a great democracy.) We found nothing wrong with the election law, or with the polling and count, which we observed closely and in many places. We travelled unaccompanied, and chose our own routes. The law was devised by Swedish experts and the count was carried out with the help of telecommunications equipment given by France.

Mr. Leiken gives a vague impression that there must have been election fraud, and that the results were pre-established, but also notes that the final results came only after nine days. Provisional results came at once, and the final ones were not significantly different. If there was fraud, many hundreds of officials must have conspired to procure it, and the Electoral Council (Chairman, a devoutly Christian former Rector of the University) must have been part of the conspiracy. From personal knowledge, I do not believe they were. Nor do I believe that in Nicaragua, hardly a tightlipped country, several hundred officials have been keeping secrecy for over a year.

Too much of the argument abroad is still buzzing round the question of Arturo Cruz. Democrats in all continents should bear in mind that he was one candidate out of eight who might have stood for the presidency. Sure, he was an important one; but some of the others were no slouches either. After weeks and months of hesitating the revolutionary government decided not, as Cruz had demanded, to postpone the elections beyond the fifth year after the revolution, which was what they had promised at the time. So Cruz chose not to stand. The other seven stood, three of them to the right of the Sandinistas, three to the left. The three parties on the right got a third of the votes cast, and a third of the seats on the Assembly. From that position the right-wing parties which decided to get their hands dirty have been conducting a spirited opposition and achieving (so far) a full input into the constitution-making machinery. It is a pity this is so little reported in the United States and Western Europe.

Mr. Leiken did not either report the campaign of the Nicaraguan Communist Party which, hammer, sickle, red star, picture of Lenin, nationalization-of-the-means-of-production-distribution-and-exchange and all, fought an excellent campaign against the Sandinistas, who promised a continuation of the mixed economy.

I do not write as a friend of Sandinism, since it is a nationalist, anti-United States revolutionary socialism, and so cannot mean very much to a West European. I write as a friend of the rights of small peoples to have home-made revolutions, do good things and mistaken ones, and hold elections as best they can and in their own way without having war carried into their country by either superpower.

The United States Administration judges Nicaragua by the standards of North America and Western Europe, not, as would be fair, by the standards of Honduras, Salvador, and Guatemala. People by and large do not disappear in Nicaragua, and are not tortured, and the only guerrillas there are those financed by the United States.

Lord Kennet

House of Lords

London, England

To the Editors:

In assessing the Nicaraguan election of 1984, Robert Leiken asserts that it falls within the tradition of staged or “demonstration” elections in Latin America, citing our book Demonstration Elections in support of this argument. We believe that Leiken misunderstands and misapplies the concept of a demonstration election. We described it as a relatively new technique of foreign intervention, in which elections are “organized and staged by a foreign power primarily to pacify a restive home population.” We contrasted these elections—such as those in the Dominican Republic in 1966, Vietnam in 1967, and El Salvador in 1982—to earlier staged elections, particularly in Latin America, where the United States manipulated the outcomes for a different reason: not to pacify a home population alarmed over a brutal US intervention and the prospects of an imperial war, but simply to choose an appropriate agent for US policies or to peacefully resolve conflicts among Latin American elites. The transition from merely staged to demonstration elections reflects a major change in the requisites of imperial management, a problem eventually encoded as the “Victnam Syndrome.”

Clearly the Nicaraguan election was not a demonstration election in the above sense. But it does fit into a demonstration elections framework in a manner that Leiken fails to recognize. That is, with the United States attempting to destabilize and overthrow the Nicaraguan government, it has tried diligently to create a negative image of the election in order to discredit it and to prevent the election symbolism from interfering with US plans. Just as the US campaign and use of symbols made El Salvador’s elections in 1982 and 1984 genuine “steps toward democracy,” so the intense US effort to denigrate Nicaragua’s election succeeded in making the latter a “disappointment” if not an electoral farce. For the sponsored election, imperial power legitimized; for the disapproved state, it demonstrated democratic failure and illegitimacy.

A demonstration elections framework is also useful for analyzing the role of Arturo Cruz. It is difficult to believe that Cruz ever intended to run, given his certain defeat and the plans of his major supporters. His defeat was assured by both a lack of mass base and, even more definitively, by his ties to the contras and the Reagan administration. Whatever Cruz’s personal wishes, interviews with his backers and managers that appeared in the US press before the election indicate that neither the US administration nor the Coordinadora had any intention that he would actually run. For example, Philip Taubman wrote in The New York Times that “the Reagan administration, while publicly criticizing the Nov. 4 elections in Nicaragua as ‘a sham,’ has privately argued against the participation of the leading opposition candidate [Cruz] for fear his involvement would legitimate the electoral process, according to some senior Administration officials” (October 21, 1984). Taubman was told by several officials of the Reagan administration that, unbeknownst to Cruz, the CIA “had worked with some of Mr. Cruz’s supporters to insure that they would object to any potential agreement for his participation in the election.” Chief among these was the business organization COSEP, one of the major constituents of the Coordinadora. Taubman was also told by Reagan administration officials that the leaders of COSEP had met with CIA officials throughout the spring and summer of 1984. Furthermore, Taubman was told by members of the Coordinadora that objections by the leaders of COSEP “played a major role in preventing Mr. Cruz from reaching an agreement with the Sandinistas” over election arrangements.

Cruz’s function in the election was to help create the appropriate negative image. By holding forth the possibility of running, he was able to obtain steady publicity that allowed him and his backers to feature the imperfections of the Nicaraguan electoral process. Given their limited media access and power, the Sandinistas could not disregard Cruz even though they knew that he was acting a role in a political theater intended to discredit them. Thus the negotiations and their inevitable failure provided an effective vehicle for demonstrating Sandinista intransigence and electoral failure. By contrast, the planned and total exclusion of the mass-based FDR from the Salvadoran elections never interfered with the positive view of those elections as reasonable expressions of the popular will.

Frank Brodhead
Edward S. Herman

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

To the Editors:

I’m writing to you in reference to a letter published in The New York Review of Books, May 8, 1986, signed by Marvin José Corrales, which contains numerous distortions concerning political activity inside Nicaragua. As a Nicaraguan writer, the editor, between 1979 and 1984, of Nicaráuac, the cultural magazine of the Sandinista government, who was in Managua during the election campaign, I feel the statements in his letter should be corrected.

By agreement of the Sandinista leaders, the purpose of the 1984 elections in Nicaragua was to institutionalize the revolution and at no time to allow their own power to be jeopardized. This intention was repeated time and again by all the leaders of the revolution, from the most arrogant, like Bayardo Arce, to the supposedly most pragmatic, like Daniel Ortega.

In this context, in which the Sandinista Front could count on all the resources of the state, the FSLN granted to six political groups a certain amount of money in order to carry out their election campaigns, including limited use of the media (which were constantly clogged with government propaganda). Among these groups, the only one with the true identity of an opposition party with a political strategy was the Independent Liberal party, whose leader was Virgilio Godoy.

Realizing that the Independent Liberal party might be able to capitalize on the enormous popular discontent and, above all, boycott the elections, the FSLN seduced and promoted a PLI vice-presidential candidate in order to protect themselves in the event that Godoy withdrew. When Godoy did withdraw, after it became obvious that the Sandinistas did not intend to grant even the most minimal political concessions, this reserve candidate was now ready to participate fully in the election game.

But the FSLN was watching with equal concern the political activity of the other groups. Within the small and splintered Democratic Conservative party the winds of abstention were also blowing; and during the afternoon meeting in which the party members were to decide the group’s position regarding the primary elections, a fiery group of young people, who passed themselves off as Conservatives, took the unprepared delegates by storm, demanding that the party participate in the elections. This is how Mr. Corrales, who is now identified as the president of the Democratic Conservative Youth Group, began his meteoric political career.

It seems suspicious, however, that from a mere fraction of an almost-extinct traditionalist party like the Conservative party, with a candidate who aroused more curiosity than interest among the populace, there could suddenly appear among its geriatric ranks a vigorous and bountiful youth movement; and it seems suspicious as well that the behavior of this supposedly Conservative youth movement would be the same as that of the aggressive and extremely powerful Sandinista shock troops; and suspicious also that the contemptuous language that Corrales uses to denigrate those who supported abstention (accusing them of selling out to the CIA) coincides with that used by the FSLN to denigrate all other dissidents; and likewise suspicious that the US appears in his letter in the role of villain—just as the Sandinistas always paint the US—and that US interests are made to appear as the force behind all opposition.

It seems, finally, suspicious that the tone used by the organizations in the United States that are spreading Sandinista propaganda is the same tone used in this case to transform Mr. Corrales into an expert debater, skillful in the handling of the international press and resplendent in all his political autonomy. It is obvious that the operation that began in 1984 with the expulsion of the Conservative delegates who threatened to ruin the elections show continues now in a new period in the American press. This time it is being carried out by those in this country who use the lie that political pluralism exists in Nicaragua in order to attack those who oppose the totalitarianism of Managua; such people bear part of the responsibility for the existence in Central America of the cynical and evil Sandinista regime, which is an offense to those who believe in the true humanistic values of socialism.

Xavier Arguello

Concord, California

Robert S Leiken replies:

The quality of Lord Chitnis’s report is illustrated by his comment on La Prensa. As the only Nicaraguan daily newspaper not controlled by the government, it is heavily censored and harassed but it remains virtually the sole independent source of published information in the country. By absurdly comparing it to Rupert Murdoch’s Sun, Lord Chitnis could simply ignore information in La Prensa that contradicts his own.

He asks with which of his “facts” I disagree. There is room here for only a small sample. His version of the history of the Nicaraguan political parties is filled with errors and Sandinista-inspired defamations, and he misrepresents their political positions, usually relying on Sandinista caricatures of them. He claims, for instance, that “the Conservative Democratic Party [sic] was formed around 1970.” In fact the so-called Democratic Conservative party was a minority which left the Democratic Conservative party in 1983 and was awarded official status by the Sandinista courts. Chitnis neglects even to mention the traditional anti-Somoza Democratic Conservative party. Chitnis also states that the opposition Social Christian party (PSC) “never came forward in favour of a revolutionary process and believes in the pre-revolutionary political system of Somocism without Somoza” (p. 6). In fact the PSC, together with its labor union ally, the CTN (Nicaraguan Workers Central), was a militant opponent of Somoza and belonged to Pedro Joaquin Chamorro’s UDEL (Union for Democratic Liberation) which led the civic opposition to Somoza. Likewise Chitnis asserts that the opposition Social Democratic party “advocated a political system that resembled Somocism.” He portrays the opposition Coordinadora Democratica (CDN) as controlled by rightist business interests and omits even mention of the fact that two major labor federations belonged to it.

Lord Chitnis also claims that former Venezuelan president and Socialist International vice-president “Carlos Andres Perez said that the Socialist International had unanimously expressed…its full agreement and total satisfaction with the [Sandinista] election plans” (p. 11). In fact, Carlos Andres Perez, the chief international supporter of the revolution, publicly declined an invitation to Daniel Ortega’s inauguration, explaining that “sufficient guarantees were not provided to assure the participation of all political forces.” As for the Socialist International it issued a tepidly critical report which aroused controversy among its members for its mildness; but even that report made it clear that “there was political discrimination consisting in harassment of opposition meetings, inequality of time available on TV [and] radio and censorship.” The SI report also noted that Sandinista Defense Committees “unduly pressured individuals” to vote. But Lord Chitnis heard “no complaint of harassment” in the weeks before the election from the political parties except that from “a leading Conservative who told me that their supporters were being harassed by the ‘Contras’ not to vote” (p. 15). He adds that all “dissatisfaction with the government … found a democratic expression” (p. 19). He endorses the Nicaraguan elections because all political parties could “participate freely” and there was “a political choice” (p. 20). Yet the only official government report, by Dutch observers, stated that “parties were not able to organize and regroup their forces at a grass roots level” and that “political choices were limited” (pp. 24–26).

In 1982 the same Lord Chitnis wrote a report on the Salvadoran elections for the Parliamentary Human Rights Group (PHRG) represented in the Nicaraguan elections by Lord Kennet. His reasons then for regarding the Salvadoran elections as “so fundamentally flawed as to be invalid” were: “limited choice…. Choice there may have been but it was a disastrously limited choice…. More important, the electorate was given no choice on the question most of them cared about—how to end the war…. The war should have been the main issue before the electorate…. The pressure put on those Salvadorans eligible to cast their vote” (p. 18). Lord Chitnis applies a double standard: in El Salvador the “main issue” was how to end the war; but in Nicaragua when Arturo Cruz, the would-be opposition candidate, proposed negotiations to end the war, Chitnis’s response is to charge that Cruz was “not merely interested in improving the electoral process” but rather “to present himself as a mediator between the Sandinistas and the CIA financed Contras.”

I discussed the possibility of electoral fraud quite concretely in The New York Review of January 30, 1986. According to the report of Lord Kennet’s Parliamentary Human Rights Group, two members of the delegation including himself departed two days after the vote and the third left three days later. Yet Lord Kennet is certain that there was nothing wrong with a vote count completed more than a week after he had left the country. As I have pointed out, in the ten days of the vote count each succeeding partial tally augmented progressively and disproportionately the average number of ballots cast per voting precinct counted. This was only one of the peculiarities raising suspicions that the vote total was being inflated. At the same time the relative proportion per party remained uniform. Party leaders subsequently told me that they have been struck by the fact that their party received the same number of votes in precincts in which they had no members and had done no campaigning as in precincts in which they had a concentration of members and had campaigned heavily.

Surely Lord Kennet does not believe that “official stories” cannot be concealed by a small clique in countries like today’s Cuba or yesterday’s Argentina. The Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) has been and continues to be a tightly controlled and conspiratorial party organized under what it calls democratic centralist principles. Many Nicaraguans believe that one of the reasons the FSLN postponed elections in Nicaragua until 1984 was to gain time to build up a sufficient number of cadre and a sufficiently effective state security system to enable it to assure “revolutionary” election results. Lord Kennet, “from personal knowledge,” believes the president of the Supreme Electoral Council, Mariano Fiallos, could not have been a party to the conspiratorial plans of the FSLN. Comandante Bayardo Arce, however, publicly referred to him a few months after the revolution as a clandestine member of the FSLN.

As a “qualified observer” of the elections, Lord Kennet should also have been aware that since 1980 the Sandinistas had scheduled the elections for 1985 not 1984, as he claims. On August 23, 1980, Comandante Humberto Ortega, the minister of defense, announced that elections would not take place until 1985 and that those “elections will be to perfect revolutionary power, not to hold a raffle among those who seek to hold power.” This announcement distressed the Sandinistas’ former Nicaraguan supporters who, along with the Organization of American States, had been led to believe there would be “early and free elections.” The 1985 date was reiterated by Comandante Tomás Borge in February 1982 and by Sergio Ramirez, now vice-president of Nicaragua, in May 1983. It was not until February 21, 1984, that Daniel Ortega moved the election date up to November 4, 1984. The Sandinistas explained that this was to avert their much advertised “US invasion” by assuring that Nicaragua had a legitimately elected government before President Reagan’s reelection. Lord Kennet’s naive belief that the Sandinistas, who have a well-known reputation for breaking promises, were motivated by a respect for their past promises in refusing to grant the opposition a two-month delay to organize their electoral campaign indicates how little he knows the Sandinistas.

Kennet affirms that there is no torture in Nicaragua and that anyway we should judge Nicaragua by the standards of Honduras, Salvador, and Guatemala. A tactic of the apologist is always to divert attention from the specific regime in question. Those who covered up the “dirty war” in Argentina used to call attention to Chile. Defenders of Pinochet like to bring up Jaruzelski, and vice versa.

There are torture and disappearances in Nicaragua—on a large scale on the Atlantic Coast and in some rural areas, selectively in the cities. Distinguished Nicaraguans, defenders of human rights such as Marta Patricia Baltodano, the former director of the Nicaraguan Permanent Commission on Human Rights, have stated that the Sandinistas practice physical as well as psychological torture in regions removed from international attention. The leaders of two Nicaraguan political parties (the Social Christian and the Independent Liberal parties) recently provided me with lists of rural towns in which large-scale detentions have occurred. In the cities, State Security concentrates on middle- and lower-level activists, taking care not to jail for long periods or disfigure conspicuous opposition figures who would attract international attention. This “modern” practice of human rights violations is qualitatively different from the traditional practices in countries like El Salvador and Guatemala. There exemplary violence has been used by the feudal landlords and the governments and death squads they sponsor to spread terror among the population. The Sandinistas instill fear by other means: a ubiquitous network of block committees, infiltrators, and State Security agents, as well as an unprecedented militarization of Nicaraguan society. Only where such methods have failed, as on the Atlantic Coast, do the Sandinistas revert to open mass terror. Recently upward of ten thousand Miskito Indians fled in fear the Sandinista army to Honduras. 2

There is another difference between Nicaragua on the one hand and El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras on the other. The marvels of the “new” Nicaragua are proclaimed far and wide by its numerous international supporters as the solution to the oppression and under-development that have beset Central America and as a model, not just for Central America, but for Latin America and the entire third world. For these supporters it is a source of great embarrassment to acknowledge that there are, in fact, thousands of guerrillas in Nicaragua who are not financed by the United States, among them Miskito leader Brooklyn Rivera’s Misurasata and the guerrillas of the southern front.

Lord Kennet, perhaps seeking to avoid giving a false impression, leaves another one. He says the Parliamentary Human Rights Group “represented only the Parliament.” In fact the PHRG represents only itself—a self-constituted ad hoc group of individual members of Parliament. Lord Chitnis, to my knowledge, has written at least two election reports for the PHRG, which perhaps give us some idea of the general quality of its work. Herman and Brodhead have written in their book, Demonstration Elections: ” ‘Observers’ are now an institutionalized part of demonstration election props…. The observers invariably find demonstration elections good…. There has even emerged a body of professional observers, associated mainly with establishment and rightwing propaganda agencies like Freedom House and the American Enterprise Institute [sic]” (p. 7). Lord Chitnis, the PHRG, and recent reports published by US organizations like the Washington Office on Latin America and the Latin American Studies Association, suggest that such “props” are no longer, if they ever were, a monopoly of the right.

Demonstration election “reports” are one good sign of a demonstration election. But for Herman and Brodhead the Sandinistas’ ipso facto was not a demonstration election since the United States did not stage it. Their definition neatly excludes not only the Nicaraguan elections but those regularly held in Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe. Yet knowledgeable observers such as Vernon Aspaturian of Pennsylvania State University, Thomas Hammond of the University of Virginia, and Madelyn Albright of Georgetown University have seen strong similarities between the current Nicaraguan process and that of Eastern Europe after World War II, especially Czechoslovakia between 1945 and 1948. In both cases the pro-Soviet Communists concealed their intentions behind promises of “popular democracy,” a transitional stage which permitted “pluralism” and a “mixed economy.” To this day a “Social Democratic Party” is maintained in Czechoslovakia and conducts “active campaigns,” etc. But for Herman and Brodhead “demonstration elections” are a way of focusing attention on Western imperialism while diverting it from Soviet imperialism. The latter’s home population is certainly not “restive” about elections in the colonies. Nonetheless, Soviet-bloc elections are obviously not real elections—they are held precisely to demonstrate popular support for their “elected” governments.

Herman and Brodhead’s definition is also misleading historically. The US-sponsored Nicaraguan elections of 1928 and 1932 were in part a response to mounting “restiveness” in the US which included mass rallies, numerous books and articles, Senate hearings, and growing congressional opposition to the US intervention in Nicaragua. American anti-imperialism did not start with the antiwar movement.

In my article I placed considerable emphasis on the efforts made to boycott the elections by important elements of the Reagan administration, especially in the National Security Council and the CIA, in conjunction with right-wing business interests in the Coordinadora (CDN). Where I differ with Herman and Brodhead is with their view that both the CDN and the administration monolithically opposed elections. Most of the components of the CDN—including the two labor unions, La Prensa, part of the business group COSEP, the Social Christian party, part of the Conservative party, and other smaller parties—consistently supported Cruz’s efforts to gain entrance into the election process on reasonable terms. The CDN took decisions by consensus; and Cruz was unable to gain such a consensus for participation when he telephoned from the crucial but improvised meeting at Rio de Janeiro. When Cruz returned from Rio he got the consensus he sought. But the FSLN used Cruz’s request for a two-day delay to talk with the other CDN leaders as a pretext to walk out of the meeting. Bayardo Arce, the Sandinista negotiator, told a prearranged press conference that Cruz had caused the break by “asking for more.” Socialist International vice-president Carlos Andres Perez of Venezuela, who arranged the meeting, said that he was puzzled and that “the agreements [including a two month election postponement] were accepted by both parties and there was no new material on the table.”3 Andres Perez, who used to be called the “god-father” of the Nicaraguan revolution, made it clear where he felt the blame lay by refusing, as I’ve stated, to attend Ortega’s inauguration.

In line with their apparent belief that there is only one superpower villain, Herman and Brodhead blame the Reagan administration for the “imperfections” of the Sandinista elections. They accept, at face value, the FSLN’s propaganda that Cruz had no “mass base.” But if Cruz was condemned to “certain defeat,” one must wonder why the FSLN would not wait two days for him to obtain a consensus and run in the elections. As to Cruz’s mass support there is no way to be “certain” about it, but several facts are suggestive: the large crowds who attended, or sought to attend, opposition meetings at Chinandega, Matagalpa, Leon, Boaco, Managua, Jinotepe, etc.; independent polls conducted in November 1981 indicating that only 28 percent of Nicaraguans supported the FSLN and that Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo was the most popular Nicaraguan (after La Prensa sought to publish this poll, the Sandinista junta banned all but government polls); a government-commissioned but unpublished poll conducted by the Strategic Institute of Spain in November 1983 showing that the Sandinistas would get only 35 percent of the vote; the generally acknowledged estrangement from the regime of the rural Nicaraguan population (roughly one half of the total); the more than 200,000 urban Nicaraguans who, while shouting anti-Sandinista slogans, waited through the night in Managua for the newly elevated cardinal upon his return from Rome in June; the enormous crowds that attended or tried to attend his masses in the summer and early fall of 1985; the success of the Social Christian and other opposition parties and labor unions in their hard-pressed organizing efforts during the summer and early fall of 1985 which, along with the cardinal’s masses, led to the Sandinista decree removing most of Nicaraguans’ remaining civil rights.

In my article I alluded to the August 5, 1984, rally for Arturo Cruz at Chinandega as an important turning point in the election process. “A public surge of support for the opposition did not figure in the Sandinistas’ electoral plans and they prohibited La Prensa from publishing reports from Chinandega…. If the Sandinistas feared Cruz, their fear was not of losing the election—they controlled the electoral process too tightly—but of ‘two, three many Chinandegas’: a wave of support that could elude Sandinista control and reveal the erosion of the FSLN’s popular backing. By tying Cruz’s hands in Rio, the hard-liners in the Reagan administration, working through its allies in the CDN, provided the Sandinistas a convenient way out of the impasse.”

Alexander Cockburn of The Nation (December 28, 1985) challenges the account of the Chinandega rally I published in The New York Review and at greater length in The New Republic. He relies on a letter originally sent to The New Republic by Tony Jenkins, whom Cockburn describes as a “correspondent in Managua for the London Guardian and the BBC.” Mr. Jenkins claims to have gone to the rally and that my description of it was inaccurate. He disputes my contention that Chinandega was “historically the heart of Sandinista organizing efforts and support.” According to Jenkins, “that description would go first to Masaya, or Esteli, or Leon, or Matagalpa.” He claims that a large number of turbas (government controlled “mobs”) did not tear down banners placed in preparation for the meeting and forcibly disperse the organizers. He denies that the government impeded traffic from outlying areas into Chinandega, and claims to have checked the main road into town. He denies that Cruz led a parade through the city of Chinandega and that the rally itself was attacked by turbas with the help of the local police.

Since Mr. Cockburn’s piece appeared, I have visited Chinandega with two groups of Americans. In February I went there with a mission from the International League for Human Rights which included Patricia Derian, the assistant secretary for human rights in the Carter administration, Joseph Onek, deputy White House counsel in the Carter administration, and Nina Shea, program director of the International League for Human Rights. In April I returned with Congressman Les Aspin (D- Wisconsin) and Bernard Aronson, former assistant to President Carter and Vice-President Mondale. On the first occasion, several Chinandegans, some of whom had attended the Cruz rally and one of whom helped to organize it, confirmed to the visiting group each of the points I have noted above as they were published in The New Republic. In April this account was again confirmed by the seventy Chinandegans who attended a public meeting with Congressman Aspin. The Americans present at the two meetings can confirm my account. All of those Chinandegans present at the second meeting, and all but one at the first, had supported the insurrection against Somoza. Some of them were former Sandinista organizers and others had organized against Somoza independently of the Sandinistas.

As to Chinandega’s centrality to the Sandinistas, Plutarco Hernandez, the leader of the Sandinista internal front during the 1970s, has written that Chinandega was the main recruiting and training ground for Sandinista cadre. Its proximity to the San Antonio sugar refinery and to the port of Corinto gave the Sandinistas access to major concentrations of Nicaragua’s agricultural and its small industrial proletariat. German Pomares of El Viejo, a village on the outskirts of Chinandega, led Sandinista organizing efforts among cotton workers. Leon could rightly be said to be the heart only of Sandinista student activity; in February 1978 when Monimbo, the Indian enclave of Masaya, rose against Somoza, there was, according to Humberto Ortega, no Sandinista presence. In the same interview Ortega also acknowledged that during the insurrection at Esteli a few months later the Sandinistas did not have sufficient cadre to lead the insurrection. And no one who knows the history of the revolution would seriously argue that Matagalpa had a claim to the role that Jenkins assigns it.

For someone who claims to have attended the rally and to have investigated it thoroughly, it is curious that Mr. Jenkins omitted any explicit mention of Chinandega in his reports to the Guardian. On August 7, 1984, at the end of a story on another subject, he briefly mentions an opposition rally on August 5 where “1000 people gathered to hear Dr. Cruz speak.” This could only have been Chinandega. When he came to write his letter, the number had soared to four thousand—presumably because there was now an extant account (mine) of the event. In another article Mr. Jenkins describes the CDN as a “small right wing group,” taking no account of the number, size, and ideology of the ten groups that made it up. His reporting from Nicaragua can hardly be characterized as objective. Moreover, according to the BBC, he is not their correspondent, but a “contributor” who files occasional reports. The Guardian says he is “not a staff member but a stringer who serves as our man in Central America.” In his letter to The New Republic he insinuates that we are on a first-name basis and that we have a long-standing personal relationship. I am not certain whether I have ever met Mr. Jenkins, but I am sure I do not know him nor have I ever given him an interview. The New Republic did not print his letter simply because it arrived more than a month after responses to my piece had been published and two months after my article had appeared.

Mr. Cockburn, for his part, seems to have become obsessed with my writing, calling me a “monumental fraadmonger,” a purveyor of “lies,” “calumnies,” and “falsehoods,” as well as a “drum majorette [sic] for Edén Pastora,” not to mention his citing Jenkins’s description of me as a “Pol Pot Maoist.” In a subsequent article in The Nation (March 15, 1986) Cockburn published a letter from Marvin José Corrales disputing my account of the Democratic Conservative party meeting that was disrupted on October 28, just before a vote was to be taken on participation in the elections. In the May 8 issue of The New York Review, I replied to Mr. Corrales quoting two letters from Enrique Sotelo Borgen (the National Coordinator of the Democratic Conservative party at the time), in which Mr. Sotelo made clear his view that Corrales was an impostor—he was not the leader of the Conservative Party Youth when the meeting took place, as he seemed to claim; nor was he then in any position of authority in the party. Now that Mr. Corrales has been exposed, Cockburn and the pro-Sandinista sources he cites are attempting to discredit Mr. Sotelo (The Nation, May 10, 1986).

Referring to Mr. Sotelo as “Borgen,” Cockburn claims that he was “forced into public resignation” from the Democratic Conservative party (PCD) on October 29, and that he thus misrepresents himself as national coordinator until January 1986. He also claims that Sotelo and other party leaders were offered bribes by US officials not to participate in the elections; he writes that one of the PCD leaders, Gustavo Mendoza, reported the bribe offer to the party and this impelled a group of young Conservatives to disrupt the meeting.

Both the facts about such claims and the process by which the facts have been distorted are clarified in the letter printed above from Xavier Arguello. Mr. Arguello’s testimony is especially valuable as it comes from one who knows the Sandinistas not from their well-organized network of “opposition” figures, “witnesses,” “correspondents,” and professional writers of letters to editors but from firsthand, day-to-day experience in the Sandinista government. Mr. Arguello is a former anti-Somoza organizer and a gifted writer who was chosen by Sergio Ramirez and Ernesto Cardenal to direct the prestigious official cultural journal Nicaráuac. It is worth noting that like the former editor of Cuba’s Revolución, Carlos Franqui, and an increasing number of members of the Nicaraguan opposition, Arguello criticizes his government not for carrying forward the revolution but for betraying it, not for building socialism but for subverting it.

The Democratic Conservative party split after its meeting of October 28 was disrupted by several hundred young people, but the disruptors did not belong to the Democratic Conservative party, but, according to Arguello and Sotelo among many other Nicaraguans, were organized by the Sandinista State Security. The meeting by all accounts was about to vote overwhelmingly to withdraw from the elections because of Sandinista abuses. The government, as it had done in several previous cases, supported the minority faction, which is now known as the “official” Democratic Conservative party. The majority continues to regard itself as the real Democratic Conservative party and its elected representatives remain in the National Assembly. Contrary to Mr. Cockburn’s claim, Mr. Sotelo, who is a well-known human rights lawyer and politician in Nicaragua, did not “publicly resign” from his own party and remains in the National Assembly, as readers of The New York Times on Sunday, May 11, could verify from his interview with Times correspondent Stephen Kinzer. Mr. Corrales, on the other hand, remains unknown to the opposition politicians I have talked to in Nicaragua. As far as Sotelo can recall, he was simply an errand boy for the party, but he now believes him to have been a State Security plant inside the party.

Mr. Cockburn correctly noted that I had wrongly assumed Mr. Jenkins had written the Guardian article that Corrales cited to support his bribe allegations. However, Cockburn fails to note that the actual story by Jonathan Steele in the Guardian is somewhat at odds with Mr. Corrales’s and Cockburn’s account. According to Steele’s source, the leader of the minority faction of the PCD, only one party member was allegedly approached with a bribe offer from US officials. In Cockburn’s version of the story in The Nation, for which he gives no sources, we are told that four people were present when the offer was made.

From this we can conjecture that when it became clear that the PCD would vote to pull out of the elections, the authors of the bribe story decided to amend it so as to implicate and discredit party leaders like Sotelo who refused to go along with Sandinista efforts to get the party to take part in the elections. When I interviewed Sotelo he told me that before the party meeting Comandante Tomás Borge had sought to bribe and intimidate him and other party members in order to force the party into the elections.

Cockburn claims that I misindentified Jenkins as the author of the Guardian bribe story in order to insinuate that Jenkins himself invented the story. Not at all. The bribe story bears all the earmarks of Sandinista disinformation. My guess is that when the Sandinistas saw that their efforts to intimidate the party’s delegates had failed, they concocted the story to limit the damage of a PCD pullout even as they organized turbas to prevent an official vote. A PCD withdrawal would have been especially embarrassing since it would have come just after the vote of Virgilio Godoy’s Independent Liberal party (PLI) to withdraw. After these withdrawals only very small and radical factions would have been left to represent the “opposition” to the FSLN.

I should add that I by no means find it implausible that the CIA may have attempted to bribe Nicaraguan politicians to boycott the elections. It is equally conceivable that the Sandinistas bribed Gustavo Mendoza to corroborate the bribe story. As I previously wrote, The New York Review of October 22, 1984, reported charges that Sandinista officials had tried to bribe opposition political parties not to criticize the military draft during the election campaign. In the case of the split in the Democratic Conservative party, I have seen no proof of a bribe offer either by US officials or by the Sandinistas. A sound policy for journalists, “observers,” and polemicists would be to supply evidence when making accusations and to distinguish their speculations from factual claims.

  1. 1

    The British Government sent no observers; we represented only the Parliament.

  2. 2

    See The Washington Post (April 8, 1986); see also UNHCR, “Informational Docket” (April 19, 1986), which documents more than seven thousand.

  3. 3

    Miami Herald (October 3, 1984).

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