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Post-post-Sandinista tyranny?

Nicaraguans hold their second free elections; what they need now is a vision for the future

in Managua Across Nicaragua, graffiti plastered houses, walls, and public buildings. The most prevalent campaign slogan everywhere was: "Daniel 5:25." Intended to be a simple instruction on how to vote, it literally meant, "Vote for Daniel Ortega, the 5th position on the ballot, on the 25th day of September." But Christians in Nicaragua saw a hidden meaning that only God, the author of humor, could orchestrate. For Daniel 5:25 in the Bible reads, "God has numbered the days of your reign and brought it to an end. You have been weighed on the scales and found wanting." Christians wondered if Daniel Ortega had unwittingly proclaimed the prophecy against his own rule. The church waited, hoping the prophecy would bring an end, not only to the economic and social destruction of Mr. Ortega's communist reign, but also an end to the oppression of the church. That was 1989. Under the communist Sandanistas, Nicaragua, once the bread basket of Central America and a net exporter of food, had become a food importer and had dropped to an economic level second only to that of Haiti in this hemisphere. It was a nation where communist spies were sent into churches to seek out anti-Sandinistas, a nation nearly devoid of foreign missionaries, and a country where the celebration of Christmas and Easter was outlawed by the communist government. Yet, for the first time in two generations there was guarded hope in the humid tropical air because Nicaragua had scheduled its first free election. Nicaraguans faced their second free national elections Oct. 20. International observers were there again to see that the elections went forward as planned, but in the run-up to the elections, an air of uncertainty-with incumbent President Violeta Chamorro stepping down and Mr. Ortega's entry into the race-remained. Even the most pessimistic political soothsayer did not predict the extent of Mr. Ortega's 1989 loss. He received less than 20 percent of the popular vote, a thunderous victory for Mrs. Chamorro and the 14-party UNO coalition. Mrs. Chamorro assumed leadership under tremendous pressures: a military controlled by Daniel Ortega's brother and inflation at 3,000 percent per year. Most of the middle class, including business owners, lawyers, dentists, doctors, and school teachers, had fled the country. Property had been confiscated from Contras, who opposed Mr. Ortega, and redistributed to pro-Sandinistas. Even her vice president, Virgilio Gordoy, referred to Mrs. Chamorro as a "housewife." But a newly formed Congress wrote and ratified a new national constitution and passed laws banning pornography and homosexuality. Mrs. Chamorro encouraged the church to play a vital part in the rebuilding of the nation's moral base. The minister of education discarded communist-inspired school books, replacing one million math, science, and reading textbooks with ones that had the Ten Commandments printed on the first page. Despite those accomplishments, many economic problems have remained unresolved. Even members of the UNO coalition have criticized Mrs. Chamorro's administration. "She has brought us peace and a new hope to Nicaragua," says current UNO vice presidential candidate Roberto Teran. "For that we are forever grateful. But, the problem is that President Chamorro has no vision for the future of Nicaragua." Mr. Teran, a successful businessman, is quick to point out the country still relies on foreign aid. Since 1990, the United States has sent $1.5 billion in aid to Nicaragua to help in the transition to democracy. "We have reached an economic plateau," says Mr. Teran. "The nation has bogged down in a quagmire of government bureaucracy and repressive taxes." Business taxes, the primary source of income to run the government since there is no property or income tax in Nicaragua, are so high that the black market is flourishing. Some estimates suggest that 60 percent of all Nicaraguan commerce and imports is done underground to avoid taxation. "There is no such thing as a 20- or 30-year loan in Nicaragua," says Mr. Teran. "It's because of a lack of vision. The only money available is at 36 percent per annum interest and then for only one or two years. We must offer farmers long-term funding that will restore Nicaragua's once rich agricultural economy." Mr. Teran's free-enterprise statements form some of the basic economic tenets of the new UNO. Six years ago the acronym stood for "Unidad Nacional Oposici¢n" (National United Opposition); this year it is simply the Spanish word for "one." UNO's presidential candidate, Alfredo Cesar Aguirre, describes his party's political position as "conservative, slightly right of center." The race for the presidency was a nip-and-tuck struggle. According to early polls, the Nicaraguan Foundation for Democracy and Development Party (NFDD) had a chance to gain the 45 percent of the vote necessary to win the election. (Under election rules, if no candidate receives 45 percent of the vote, there will be a run-off later in the month between the top two vote-getters.) NFDD's candidate, Arnoldo Alem n, former mayor of Managua, bases his political ideology on a liberal economic and social agenda and a hatred of the pro-communist Sandinistas.The portly, 51-year-old Mr. Alem n takes credit for the economic recovery that is transforming Nicaragua's capital city. Since the end of the civil war, the city of Managua has been undergoing major renovation. Streets are paved. Trees are planted. Bullet holes are plastered over. Homes that sold for $4,000 in 1989 are selling for $40,000 today. Mr. Alem n promised to resolve the controversial land confiscation issue, in part, by asking the United States for $600 million to pay off all the property claimants. Meanwhile, Mr. Ortega, who has lived in his Managua home isolated behind fortress walls, barbed wire, and gun towers, also campaigned for the presidency. His chances of success were considered even smaller than in 1989 because the Sandinistas have splintered into two main factions. Mr. Ortega heads up the Orthodox Sandinistas, while Sergio Ramirez, Mr. Ortega's former vice-presidential candidate, leads the Reformed Sandinista Party. A smaller faction led by former Comandante Eden Pastora also vied for the presidency. Mrs. Chamorro, although not running for reelection, pledged an "absolutely crystal clear" electoral process. The United States pledged $3.5 million to assist with the systematic registration of all citizens. Throughout the country there are long lines to register-and fewer than a third of the 1.8 million eligible voters have officially done so. Both UNO/96 and the NFDD hoped to squeeze out victories in the first round. The citizens of Nicaragua hope the election will represent the first step in their struggle to escape their country's economic squeeze.

Greg Dabel

Greg Dabel

Greg is a former WORLD contributor.