I finally understood that the Sandinista National Liberation Front was likely to lose the national elections in Nicaragua to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro’s opposition coalition after I talked to a young Sandinista policeman on February 24, the night before the balloting. The policeman, in his beige shirt with the red and black Sandinista arm patch, was standing at a large intersection on the southern side of Managua at about 10:30 at night, trying to hitch a ride, and I picked him up in my rental car.
As soon as he was settled in his seat he began to tell me anxiously that he was an hour late reporting for the night shift at a police station on the outskirts of the capital. His infant daughter had come down with fever convulsions earlier while his wife was away working at her day job. He had waited for hours with the sick baby at the seedy emergency room in the state-run hospital near his house, only to discover that the hospital did not have in stock the medicines that were needed. Since it was a Saturday night no public buses were running, and he had been forced to take a cab to work. The cab took him only halfway, then charged him more than a day’s worth of his salary, which was the equivalent of about $20 a month.
The young man told me he had been drafted, reluctantly, into the Sandinista army, but after much maneuvering had been allowed to do his service with the Managua police. He found, however, that his commanding officers treated him “like filth” because he was not a career policeman or a Sandinista party activist. He nevertheless managed to finish his compulsory two-year term of service and was ready to return to civilian life last October when, he said, he was advised that he would not be honorably discharged until after April 25 when, his superiors were certain, Sandinista President Daniel Ortega would be inaugurated for a second term.
The only time his voice brightened was when I asked him what he thought about the elections. He carefully limited himself to saying he was confident that the presence of hundreds of international observers would ensure a secret vote. But by the time he had climbed out of my car after a ten-minute ride, I was certain that he was one Nicaraguan who looked like a Sandinista, but who was going to cast his vote for Chamorro’s National Opposition Union, called UNO.
By midnight the following night, after a peaceful day when some 87 percent of Nicaraguans went to the polls under the scrutiny of more than 1600 international observers, UNO had won by a landslide that few diplomats or reporters—and no Sandinista leaders—had expected. The final results from the Supreme Electoral Council (which are still being challenged by UNO because of alleged irregularities in some races for assembly seats) showed that UNO won the presidency by 54.7 percent to …