Quinnipiac University College of Arts and Sciences

Debate in Nicaragua

In Faculty, Research on November 7, 2011 at 11:56 pm

By Sean Duffy, Associate Professor of Political Science

Late in October, I attended a debate among candidates for deputy to the National Assembly, in the Department of León. Nicaragua’s national assembly is composed of 92 deputies, 70 of whom are elected through a proportional representation (party list) electoral system in the several departments of Nicaragua. Party list systems generally work where voters in a constituency vote for their preferred party, and seats are allocated from the party lists (starting at the ‘top’ and working down) according to the proportion of the vote received by each party.

The debate was held at the Universidad de Ciensias Commerciales, a private university on the south side of León. I was told that such a debate couldn’t have taken place at the largest university in town—the one León is most known for: UNAN (the National Autonomous University of Nicaragua)—because of that university’s politicization. The FSLN grew out of the student movement at UNAN/León in 1961. The student movement had been active against the Somoza government throughout the 1950s, becoming most noted for furnishing the “student martyrs” of July 23, 1959, when Somoza’s National Guard fired on a student demonstration. These days, the student movement across the campuses of the National University (there’s also a campus in Managua) is affiliated with (controlled by) the FSLN. In past (non-FSLN administrations), the FSLN could rely on mobilizing student demonstrations whenever they needed a presence in the streets—and during the administrations of Arnoldo Alemán and Enrique Bolaños (1997-2002; 2002-07) a common cause for protest was to call for a “full 6%” of the budget to go to education (as required by the Nicaraguan Constitution). The Alemán and Bolaños administrations continued the neoliberal economic policies adopted by the Violeta Chamorro administration (1990-1997) at the encouragement of the U.S. government and its allies in the “Washington Consensus,” the IMF and the World Bank; one result of these policies was a severe drop in funding for education, health, housing, and other social programs that the Sandinistas had promoted in the 1980s.

So Tuesday’s debate was held at a private university. The rectora of the university alluded to the politicization of the national university when she emphasized, in her welcoming comments, the importance of “open, civil debate” for a democratic society—and asserted the importance of Universities as non-politicized space for holding such open discussions.

The moderator for the debate was Monique Blanco. I first learned about Monique Blanco last May, when I was here with students. A member of the student government organization (which is controlled by the student movement, and hence by the FSLN national directorate) was talking about politics from the student perspective, and told us of Monique: she had been a popular, compelling, candidate for student leadership who nevertheless didn’t toe the party line—and so her candidacy was declared “out of order” (for some trumped-up technical reason) and she was forced out. So it was interesting to see her here, promoting open, democratic discourse around the upcoming elections.

The debate was presided over by five local journalists—and it was broadcast over their respective radio and television stations; they provided the first five questions. Four candidates for the Assembly attended: two each from the liberal, opposition parties: the Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC), the main successor to the National Liberal Party that had historically been one of the major parties in Nicaragua (but sullied by its long association with the Somoza regime) and the Independent Liberal Party (PLI), which split off of the PLC in the last decade.  No candidates for the Frente Sandinista (FSLN) attended, and there were none from the Alliance for the Republic (APRE—more about this in a future post). I am continually impressed by the party discipline demonstrated by the FSLN: in this case, as in others, I’m sure the debate was avoided by FSLN candidates because it offered too open a possibility for unscripted messages. In her role as lead spokesperson for the Nicaragua government, First Lady Rosario Murillo has also served as Ortega’s de-facto campaign manager and overall media strategist. It is rumored that she must approve all public appearances by FSLN candidates and officials.

From what I understood of the debate (I’m still running a few seconds off real time, most of the time, in Spanish), I didn’t find the questions asked by the journalists, nor the answers provided, to be very interesting or informative—but the three banks of five questions each taken from the audience were interesting: they covered issues as widely ranging as what to do about regional development, health care and street children, to youth baseball programs, to whether any government plan for development and national renewal isn’t just utopian. The question that elicited applause from the audience (against explicit instructions to remain silent for the debate) followed a setup that catalogued the toll taken by maternal mortality and spousal battery; it asked “why this doesn’t call for a change in the country?” Interestingly, the response given by the candidate who chose to respond simply pointed out that the Constitution explicitly protects the rights of women; it just needs to be supported with more effective policy.

I later asked one of the teacher/students at Alianza Americana what he had thought of the debate. He didn’t have high expectations that the politicians would follow up their rhetorical positions with action once in office. Still, he confided that he thought the FSLN was the best choice: what it boils down to for him, is results. In his view, the war in the 80s had set Nicaragua back, Chamorro then sold the railroad (I’ve heard this more than once, it seems to symbolize the losses suffered by the people from the privatization of the public good that occurred under neoliberalism—the railroad became an asset on someone’s balance sheet, and then was torn up; it exists no more). Alemán robbed the country (although he may have had some good policies), and Bolanos didn’t do anything. Daniel Ortega, according to this young person, had gotten things done: houses for the poor, and support for health, education and GNP growth.

The audience was sparse—about 60-70 people in a space that was set up for about 200. There were partisans in attendance: a whole group of students with PLI/Gadea shirts on, and two students with shite t-shirts that said “no to re-election” on the front and “how about you re-elect your mother” (“Que te reelija a tu madre“) on the back. The audience had been instructed not to propagandize, express support or approval/disapproval during the debate, and candidates were told not to interrupt each other—and were politely “thanked” when their time to respond had run out. I was surprised at how docile and compliant the candidates were: none of the testing of boundaries and playing to the camera that have become common fare in U.S. televised candidate debates.

At the end of the debate, the audience was once again reminded of the values of a democratic society, where objectivity, participation and ultimately support regardless of who wins are values to be upheld. The national anthem was played twice—at the beginning and end of the debate. I found myself drawing the conclusion that this was all largely preaching to the choir: the only ones who were in the room (candidates/parties and audience members) were those who already held these values and (desperately?) wanted to bolster them.

Still, I left with the strong impression that this event represents (exemplifies, even) the extent to which, even more than thirty years later, this society is still trying to consolidate a transition to an open, civic republic with a democratic culture—despite countervailing traditions of tight political control by a small elite, the use of political violence to manipulate the masses and undermine the opposition, and the tendency to consider public office a personal privilege and opportunity for self (and family) enrichment.

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