El Güegüense: strategies for eruption in Nicaragua

The conclusion to this series on Nicaragua’s important election year examines the main opposition coalition’s strategy.  What chance does it have of breathing life into a dormant democratic consciousness? Español

Robert Magowan
25 May 2016

A protester chants anti-government slogans against Nicaragua's President Daniel Ortega back in 2015 in Managua, Nicaragua. AP Photo/Esteban Felix.

In 1989, ten years into the Sandinista revolution, a ramshackle coalition of fourteen different parties jumped at the chance of a second open election.  It cobbled together to oppose the then-revolutionary President Daniel Ortega, weakened by a decade of war dreamt up in Washington’s corridors.  The coalition was weak, divided and faced the full force of an FSLN-government electoral machine as well as multiple other “opposition” groups on the ballot paper.  But it rallied around the symbolic figure of Violeta Chamorro, widow of the La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro Cardenal, whose assassination in 1978 had sparked the revolution and the end of the Somoza dictatorship.  It forced a war-weary population to pick a side, and even die-hard Sandinistas voted, in droves, for an end to the eighties.  In 2011 too, with a practically demolished PLC, finally crumbling under the reputation of El Gordo, the election became a two horse race.  Those who turned away from Ortega had a clear, respected alternative in the radio institution that is Don Fabio Gadea.  On both these occasions, polarity came before unity.  The priority was to clarify the choice, to force a decision, to turn an election into a referendum.

This year’s front running opposition coalition, led by the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), believes that only unmitigated fraud denied it victory in 2011.  They are betting that 2016 will be no rerun, and that the very same strategy of polarization has a chance.  Two recent developments, however, put the success of this plan into serious doubt.

The public is not PLI

There is a tendency to write off recent polling in Nicaragua as just another cog in the Sandinista machine.  Certainly some public sector workers, long used to being bussed off to FSLN rallies and celebrations (willingness aside), will simply respond with what they think their employer wants to hear.  But two polls conducted so far this year carry similar results, and while the headline figures of over 50% support for the FSLN might be advisably accompanied by a generous dose of salt, the next largest group should be a cause for concern.  35-37% of the population align themselves, at this stage, as independents.  Meanwhile, the entire spread of Nicaragua’s opposition parties muster only 6% between them.  This begs the question: how does the coalition expect to rally mass support under the flags of a political party about as popular as a fart in a lift? 

The public’s perception of the PLI is one of mutual disdain – indeed many view liberals in general as lofty and aloof, Nicaragua’s original self-serving elite.  Any attempt to portray Eduardo Montealegre, the PLI’s leader and front man at its “Protest Wednesdays”, as a distinctly untainted figure in a murky world of disreputable politicians, is doomed.  The former banker took a seemingly principled stand in splitting from the powerful PLC at the height of the Alemán-Ortega supremacy.  But that fleeting reputation was soon ruined when a bank bailout scandal, going back to Montealegre’s time as a treasury minister in 2001, was exposed and later dubbed by Ortega “the theft of the century”.  Self-serving overstatement aside, a crippling reputational bond was formed, one that Eduardo Montealegre has never been able to break.

The public, therefore, distinguish little between the coalition and their opposition cohorts, and care little for their infighting.  Only a known and, crucially, respected presidential candidate, would begin to single out the PLI, the MRS and their allies from all the rest.

Don Fabio said no

On April 7th, that candidate, Don Fabio Gadea, declined their offer.  Addressing listeners in his “Love Letters to Nicaragua” radio show, he referred to his experience of fraud in 2011 and the fact that “not one favourable change to the CSE” has been achieved.  Gadea’s ability to maintain a steady sense of traditional principle, throughout decades of troubles, allowed him to transcend the opportunistic and parochial tendencies of his country’s politics.  His reach extended into the deepest rural regions and particularly to two vital demographics for the liberals, independents and Catholics.  That the candidacy was offered to a man who would celebrate his 90th birthday during his first term in office, shows just how unique this figure is.  But it also hints at the desperation behind the polarization strategy, and the lack of a credible alternative.  One of the biggest concerns in fact, in the lead up to Gadea’s decision, was whether he would even make it to November.  Even more worrying for the coalition was his reasoning.  How can the coalition convince the justifiably cynical, the understandably hopeless, to hold some remnant of faith in their democracy, when it seems their own hope for president does not? 

The phenomenon of El Güegüense , the masked hero (or rascal, depending on interpretation) of Nicaragua’s colonial folkloric comedy who craftily tricks his Spanish occupier to avoid paying taxes, has been used to explain this country’s rebellious surprises.  In 1979, for example, when just months after thousands had poured onto Managua’s streets to tell Somoza he still had their loyalty, the dictator found himself in exile.  In 1990 too, when after months of predicting certain Sandinista victory, Ortega was decisively defeated at the polls.  In 2011, many hoped for a similar vote of quiet rebellion, that El Güegüense might reveal itself once more.  But the turnout, though impossible to know precisely (due to a near-obsolete electoral register) was estimated to have been lower than previous years.  The perception of an election as pre-determined – a pointless exercise – is a powerful deterrent.  Don Fabio Gadea, despite urging his listeners to vote, may have inadvertently strengthened that bleak outlook.  His decision, and his justification, leaves the coalition weaker, and more divided.

“A complete dictatorship”

Just one month after his attack, Carlos Bonilla is back on the streets, handing out flyers, stubbornly sticking up Jabba the Hut-like caricatures of Roberto Rivas, demanding his resignation.  In a region where the realities of political violence are impossible to ignore (the Honduran environmentalist, feminist and indigenous rights activist, Berta Caceres, was assassinated in the same week) naivety is a rare trait, and Carlos is under no illusions as to the nature of his own attack. “My attempted murder was totally political,” he writes from the family’s safe house in Managua.  “We are living in a complete dictatorship.”  Though two of his attackers were supposedly detained by neighbours and handed over to the police (one, it is claimed, recognized as an employee at Managua’s city hall), not a word has been uttered by the authorities since.  “In my country the national police divide citizens into two types: those who are in favor of the government and those who are not,” maintains Carlos.  “The latter have no right to protection.” 

Justice will likely remain beyond Carlos’ control, like so much else in the world of Nicaragua’s opposition activists.  It is hard to know if Ortega’s reckless start to 2016 shows he is cocksure in his power or terrified of losing it.  The election itself was only officially called last week, six months later than is customary.  No mention was made to national or international observers, even though the EU delegation to Nicaragua has set an end of May deadline if they are to be invited.  Rumours of conflict within the FSLN are abound, and certain time bombs such as Murillo’s ambition (it is said she has always sought the presidency itself) and Daniel’s health (he suffers a heart condition, and was even rumoured to have died in 2014, before showing up at Managua’s airport), could turn events entirely on their head.  Rising energy prices and a serious drought have intensified bubbling discontent in recent months, particularly among the rural poor, and could tip the scales were they to worsen.

“A democratic consciousness”

Amidst all of this uncertainty the opposition factions have but one option – to forge ahead with their various campaigns, blind to the future in so many ways.  Only one thing they can truly influence, and fortunately, on that subject they are absolutely united.  When asked about what might make the difference in November, all point to the very same thing: turnout.  Certainly, the formidable FSLN machine goes into hyper drive during election season.  But that means their opponents can be certain that practically every single extra vote that they get out, to the disgruntled, the skeptics, will be a vote against Ortega.  And one can only steal so many votes.  “The idea is that Ortega needs legitimacy … more than ever,” explains Dr Pedro Belli.  “All his buddies are gone.  And through votes, not through bullets.” 

When opposition politicians accepted their electoral defeat and Ortega’s return in 2007, veteran US journalist Stephen Kinzer argued that a “democratic consciousness has taken hold in Nicaragua.”  Many would argue it took hold long ago, sporadic as the volcanoes in its eruption but just as assured, manifest in Nicaragua’s heroes and upstarts, from José Santos Zelaya, the president who first dared to defy the United States; to Benjamín Zeledón, martyred for that same cause; to Augusto Sandino, whose spirit founded the revolution. 

Where that democratic consciousness is this year is, as yet, unclear.  Parading along perhaps, to the Ortega-Murillo tune, under the guise of apathy, below a veil of cynicism, or even cloaked in fear.  Just maybe, beneath the mask of El Güegüense, it knowingly, quietly, smirks, ready to change the music.

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