The right-wing cynics were
trying their best in the run up to Sunday’s election in Nicaragua. Correctly foreseeing victory
by the incumbent President Daniel Ortega (he won with 64% of the vote), they were arguing that at the least sign of electoral manipulation the US should put its foot down. For example, only a few weeks into his retirement, former ambassador Robert
Callaghan, who likes to remind everyone of Ortega’s past as a ‘Marxist-Leninist’, launched his four-point plan for the US to follow in the wake of likely electoral fraud. These included refusing to appoint a new ambassador and cutting off US aid.
US criticism of elections in developing countries is highly selective, but in any case Ortega has much less need to worry about it than he would have done a few years ago. America’s poor political reputation in Latin America under Bush has barely recovered under Obama, especially given his failure to condemn the coup d’état in neighbouring Honduras. Ortega can easily keep up his anti-US rhetoric while being quietly aware that the United States is Nicaragua’s biggest trade partner. As Nicaragua has signed a free trade agreement and is putting no blocks on US business or tourism. All were factors in Nicaragua’s 5% economic growth running up to the election. But he doesn’t need America’s strings-attached aid programmes, even though he won cleanly and by a clear margin.
The crucial factor in electoral success has been the government’s anti-poverty crusade. The programmes have prosaic titles – ‘Plan Roof’, ‘Zero Hunger’, ‘Zero Usury’, ‘Streets for the People’ – but their impact has been widespread. It is impossible to visit a rural area without spotting families that have benefitted from Zero Hunger, in which women are given a cow, pig, hens and some basic help with looking after them. Similarly, many houses now exhibit new ‘zinc’ roofs. Partly as a result, poverty in rural areas fell by 5% in the last year. Even the elite shouldn’t complain – most main roads are better than ever and investment in power generation – including in renewables – means that extended power cuts are now only associated with past governments.
But complain they do, of course. The two main national newspapers have been unremitting in their criticism, and the fact that Ortega has run for a second consecutive term produced dire warnings of an imminent ‘dictatorship’ in the press, and on TV channels not controlled by his family. To add to this, the social programmes and infrastructure investment depend heavily on aid from other Latin American countries, especially Venezuela but also Cuba and Brazil. Ortega’s links with Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro infuriate both Washington and Nicaragua’s US-oriented elite, but for most Nicaraguans they are a welcome alternative to dependency on US aid and its inevitable conditions.
There is a patronising assumption that people’s votes are easily bought by a few programmes directed at the poor. But this ignores a combination of critical factors. The first is Nicaraguans’ political awareness. There are consistently high levels of participation in elections and young people are enthusiastically involved in Ortega’s Sandinista party. People have only had a democratic vote since 1984 and place a high value on it. I’ve just spoken to someone here whose family made a costly overnight trip solely to vote in the remote village where they are registered. Voting is seen as a patriotic duty and not to vote is shameful.
Second, most people are poor (Nicaragua remains the hemisphere’s second poorest country after Haiti). Consequently the anti-poverty programmes, combined with improved services like schools and health centres, and a steadily growing economy, are seen as real achievements not mere baubles. It is hardly surprising that people use their votes to return the party that delivers them.
Ortega’s success is partly because of his achievements but also because he motivates people to defend them, including those who aren’t his traditional supporters. Nearly all the left-of-centre governments in Latin America have learnt the same winning formula: it is vital to have programmes that directly address the poverty suffered by the majority of the population, and equally vital to make sure the poor vote to continue them next time round.