How the US Should View Nicaragua Elections

EARLY last summer I suggested to President Bush, Vice President Quayle, and Secretary Baker that, given the importance of the Nicaraguan election to the potential alleviation of one of the worst dilemmas of American foreign policy, a presidential observer group should be appointed months in advance so that all members could visit the country and come to a careful understanding of both history and current circumstances. In unprecedented fashion, President Bush appointed a 20-member Nicaraguan election observer group on Nov. 14 to be co-chaired by congressman Tony Beilenson, a California Democrat, and me. We were charged with a mission of visiting Nicaragua in all possible locations and were given the widest latitude for our own deliberations and report. After the November congressional recess, members planned travel to Nicaragua but were stopped in their tracks by an official directive from Nicaragua denying visas to all members of the presidential observer group.

Whether I or any of the official US observers ever see Nicaragua or not, a congressional debate will commence soon. It will play a critical role in shaping future US-Nicaraguan relations. I intend to play a vigorous role in it. I will cite the following factors as relevant to the election process thus far:

1. The ground rules for the election have been set entirely by the Sandinistas except at the time of the National Dialogue when an accord with the opposition was dictated by a Sandinista need for an agreement to take to the Tela conference of Central America presidents. The National Dialogue was supposed to resume immediately thereafter, but the Sandinistas have refused all opposition requests for a resumption of discussion on key remaining issues.

2. The mainstream opposition has only one representative out of five members on the electoral council. The chairman, an able man, and staff are largely from the Sandinista-appointed council for the 1984 election.

3. A large registration of voters indicated enthusiasm of most Nicaraguans for the elections, although the presence of armed soldiers and paramilitary Ministry of the Interior troops at some polling stations has troubled citizens trying to assess the wisdom and prudence of electoral participation.

4. Although registration was completed in late October, the opposition received registration lists only in late December - affording relatively little time to check for accuracy, given a Jan. 15 deadline.

5. An increase in violence at rallies usually directed by Sandinistas against UNO [National Opposition Union] personnel and increasing intimidation of UNO poll watchers and local candidates has been noted by the Center for Democracy. Specific violent activity has been cited by the OAS, and the UN has generally condemned the increase in violence.

6. Barricada and Nuevo Diario, Sandinista newspapers, have consistently identified UNO with the contras and the Somoza national guard during the present time of especial national tension. President Ortega has established this by fantasizing a United States-backed invasion of Nicaragua and by threatening to kill any opposition person who supports such an invasion.

7. The Sandinista advantages of incumbency include liberal use of public funds, grossly disproportionate television programming, and an apparent calculation that a mood of fear is more appropriate than a mood of hope and celebration.

Regardless of who wins the February election, United States policy should have some benchmarks for judging democratic progress in Nicaragua with which to gauge the extent of post-election US assistance. It is useful to list these benchmarks now.

1. Sandinistas and contras will need to engage in the oft-postponed dialogue which could have followed Tela on demobilization of the huge Sandinista army in coordination with contra demobilization. Such mutual demobilization must include safe return for the contras and integration into the mainstream of life in the country. The army should be a national Nicaraguan army flying the Nicaraguan national flag and not a Sandinista party army flying the Sandinista flag. Imagine for a moment the problem of sorting out a United States policy of assistance if Mrs. Chamorro should win the election and the Saninistas retain a huge army under their party flag.

2. A tolerance for diversity and pluralism must be established in which neighborhood watch committees, Ministry of the Interior para-military forces, secret ``MINT'' prisons for political opponents, and all elements of Sandinista neighborhood control should be terminated.

3. A system of justice including judges and courts independent from and superior to the executive branch of government should be instituted.

4. A constitution recognizing all political forces - not just the Sandinistas - will need to be drafted and adopted. That constitution or a separate bill of rights should recognize freedom of the press, property rights, and the normal freedoms which similar documents in our hemisphere have enumerated.

I have highlighted the present democratic challenge in Nicaragua in order to take American foreign policy from a statement of broad definitional ideals to specific actions which can be noted, applauded, and supported with generous hands of reconciliation and fraternal democratic relationships.

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