After Herty Lewites: a crossroads for Nicaragua

Sergio Ramírez
3 July 2006

The unexpected death by heart-attack of presidential candidate Herty Lewites on 2 July 2006 has irrupted into Nicaragua's electoral panorama just four months before the elections of 5 November. There are two possible ways in which the event could radically alter the election's outcome. It could presage a return to a fundamental polarisation between hardline Sandinismo and hardline anti-Sandinismo, or it could reinforce the alternative for change which Lewites's "renovated" Sandinismo offered.

The former option would likely benefit the long-term leader of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (Sandinista National Liberation Front / FSLN) and former president Daniel Ortega; the latter would require Lewites's successor as presidential candidate for the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (Sandinista Renewal Movement / MRS) to succeed in displaying some of his charisma as well as inheriting his political legacy.

The 66-year-old Lewites – who helped create the MRS in 1995 to seek reform of the FSLN from within, and was expelled in March 2005 after challenging Ortega's leadership – had articulated a political platform that won him more profound support among the electorate than was reflected in his performance in the opinion polls (the most recent of which gave him 15% in the presidential race).

Sergio Ramírez is a Nicaraguan writer. He was vice-president of the country from 1984-90 during the period of the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN) government. In 1995 he broke from the FSLN with Herty Lewites to form the Movimiento de Renovación Sandinista (MRS). His latest book is El reino animal (Alfaguara, 2006).
His website is here

Also by Sergio Ramírez on openDemocracy: "Nicaragua's hijacked democracy"
(18 November 2005)

This was reflected in the numbers and the character of the people who for many hours filed past his body in the Managua funeral parlour where it was displayed: among them humble people from the poor districts of Managua, market traders, taxi-drivers and young people who had never even voted. The demonstration revealed that even in death Lewites had succeeded in breaking the monopoly of popular sentiment that Daniel Ortega had always considered his own.

Lewites's political profile may originally have been that of a traditional FSLN militant engaged in the anti-Somoza struggle, but his rupture with Daniel Ortega and the latter's eternal presidential candidacy earned him respect among two distinct groups. Sandinistas anxious not to continue eternally losing with the same candidate turned to him, as did many disillusioned Nicaraguans who were seeking a real change from an old politics defined by a pitiful choice between two caudillos: Arnoldo Alemán and Daniel Ortega himself, partners in a dark political enterprise that has multiplied corruption, impoverished the country and weakened its institutions.

Lewites's ability to create this image of genuine independence from Ortega's populist Sandinismo was partly the result of his attractive personal qualities, but it was also founded on practical achievement. As minister of tourism in the 1980s, and as mayor of Managua (2001-05), he acquired a justified reputation as a man of action, capable of implementing useful, visible projects.

More broadly, he extricated himself from Ortega's tired rhetoric of confrontation with the United Status, thus persuading many Sandinistas of the distinct advantage in appearing a viable political option in the eyes of the US without sacrificing any of his independence. This combination earned Lewites a legitimacy that Ortega could never aspire to, and gave non-Sandinista voters the confidence that – after the disappointing presidency of Enrique Bolaños - he could govern the country without risk of confrontation.

Also in openDemocracy on issues of democracy in Latin America:
Arthur Ituassu, "Poverty and the state in Latin America"
(August 2005)
Ivan Briscoe, "The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America"
(October 2005)
Victor Valle,
"El Salvador's long walk to democracy"
(May 2006)
Celia Szusterman, "Latin America's eroding democracy: the view from Argentina"
(June 2006)
Phil Gunson, "Hugo Chávez's provocative solidarity" (June 2006)

The next candidate

In parallel with Lewites's candidacy against Ortega, the dissident liberal and banker Eduardo Montealegre emerged on the political scene in opposition to Ortega's fellow-caudillo Arnoldo Alemán. Both men from the start criticised the institutional ills of a decayed political order: corruption, patronage, bribery, and the Ortega-Alemán power-sharing pact itself.

As a result, the Nicaraguan electorate saw in both men a hopeful sign of new times. Lewites appealed to a large number of Sandinistas as well as independent voters, while Montealegre's approximately 25% support in the opinion polls showed him capable of eclipsing Alemán's candidate and chosen successor, vice-president José Rizo.

Now that Lewites has gone, the chance of Nicaraguans returning to a default polarisation will be increased if those supporting his renovated Sandinistas – especially the poorest who want no more of Ortega, felt comfortable with Lewites, but could not back Montealegre – are put in the fatal position of feeling obliged to vote for Ortega, while the pro-Lewites independents turn to Montealegre.

This makes the MRS's choice of Lewites's successor even more vital. The foregoing analysis suggests that the only possibility is his candidate for the vice-president, Edmundo Jarquín. Jarquín's background is notably different from Lewites's: a brilliant economist who graduated in Chile, he was Nicaragua's ambassador to Spain and Mexico during the Sandinista government of the 1980s, and then a representative in the national assembly after the FSLN defeat in the 1990 elections.

Jarquín's family circumstances then obliged him to emigrate to the United States where for more than a decade he was director of public policy for the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB). When the IADB president and his close confidant Enrique Iglesias was appointed the Madrid-based secretary-general of the Interamerican Summit, Jarquín was appointed Iglesias's chef de cabinet.

Lewites, conscious that he needed a political partner of high executive ability capable of handling the complexities of financial policy and relations with international institutions, had the wisdom to choose Jarquín as a running-mate. Jarquín has also cultivated excellent relations with the key governments that cooperate with Nicaragua – those of the European Union as well as the United States and Latin America.

Despite their divergent personal histories, Lewites and Jarquín had much in common: informality and lack of solemnity, and a sense of humour that included the ability to laugh at themselves – a rarity in Nicaraguan politics, which is full of false solemnity, heavy rhetoric and, above all, official lies. As vice-presidential candidate, Jarquín was supposed to appeal in particular to the middle classes; now he must demonstrate that he is capable of embodying Lewites's ideals and put himself on the side of democracy, and at the same time stand with the poorest.

Edmundo Jarquín, after so many years of absence from Nicaragua, knows that his task will be more than difficult. But in his favour he has his own political capabilities; a personal credibility never stained by any act of corruption; and international connections that are useful to a candidate emerging on the national political stage. Jarquín's urgent task will be to sustain the opinion-poll support bequeathed to him by Lewites, in order to create a foundation where he can break the deadlock in favour of Sandinista renewal. As the writer Gioconda Belli puts it: Herty Lewites could continue to win battles even in death, just like El Cid.

This article was translated from Spanish by Isabel Hilton

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