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Public Papers - 1989

Statement by the President on the Upcoming Elections in Nicaragua

1989-07-19

Ten years ago, there was widespread satisfaction here and in Latin America that the anti-Somoza revolution in Nicaragua had triumphed and at long last democracy would be given a chance. The Sandinistas committed to the OAS [Organization of American States] in 1979 to establish a democracy and renewed that commitment when the Central American peace accord was signed nearly 2 years ago. Despite these promises, that commitment remains unfulfilled today.

The United States wanted to do its part for the success of the turn toward democracy. We had contributed to the overthrow of Somoza by cutting off military assistance. Encouraged by the Sandinistas' promise to the OAS, we provided 8 million in economic and humanitarian assistance to the new Nicaraguan government. This was substantially more than any other country gave the new regime and represented more aid than we had provided the Somoza government in the previous 4 years.

Despite our efforts to be supportive, as well as those of other democratic governments, the Sandinistas quickly embarked on a course which centralized power in their hands, brought economic ruin to their country, and forced hundreds of thousands to flee. They built up the largest army in Central America with aid from Cuba, the Soviet Union, and other Communist states. The security forces and Sandinista thugs harassed and imprisoned the opposition, including from the political parties, labor unions and businessmen, the Catholic Church, and the Miskito Indian community. Elections were postponed for 5 years, and when they were held, the Sandinista ground rules did not allow the opposition to compete freely and fairly.

Today, with the eyes of the world upon them, the Sandinistas have another opportunity to give peace and democracy a chance. But as the second anniversary of the commitments at Esquipulas approaches, what is evident is a renewed attempt to prevent a free and fair election. In strong contrast to its neighbors, who have chosen the democratic path, the Sandinista government continues to show that it fears free political competition.

The Sandinista electoral reform law, for example, was imposed upon the opposition over its objections and provides for an electoral council which is stacked in the Sandinistas' favor. Provisions for government campaign financing penalize parties that did not participate in the last election. To snuff out any chance that foreign contributions to the opposition could somehow offset official favoritism toward the Sandinista party, the law provides that 50 percent of foreign contributions be distributed to the electoral council. The Sandinista party is under no such constraints.

On paper, the electoral law permits foreign observers, but Sandinista practice to date indicates a desire to restrict them. The Sandinistas, for example, have branded National Endowment for Democracy representatives as CIA agents, expelled a Freedom House observer, and imposed visa restrictions on Americans so as to control who may report on the election. Two American diplomats were expelled for observing an opposition rally, and Sandinista restrictions on other members of the diplomatic corps provoked a protest by the EC representatives. These moves stand in sharp contrast to the Salvadoran experience, where observers from all sides were welcomed -- even those critical of the Government.

The new media law also fails to meet democratic standards, as it contains vague provisions that permit prosecution for defaming the Government, and enforcement is left to the Ministry of the Interior. Unlike the other Central American countries, the Government by law owns all television broadcasting. Moreover, only government-sanctioned polling is permitted, allowing the Sandinistas to hide from the people the true extent of their unpopularity.

The Sandinistas have also shown their fear of electoral freedoms in other ways. Several opposition marches have been canceled because the Government denied permits. Labor unions have been threatened, lest their display of economic power threaten the Sandinistas. Recently, several private sector leaders were stripped of their property, not for violations of law but in a transparent attempt to silence vocal critics of Sandinista policies.

Permeating all of these Sandinista measures is a government propaganda that equates opposition with disloyalty and criticism with allegiance to a foreign power. At every point, the Sandinistas have shown that they feel they can ignore opposition demands for dialog. Last week in San Jose, President Ortega indicated he might be willing to change. We look for him to do so, for there will be dim prospects for national reconciliation unless the internal opposition and the Nicaraguan resistance are made full partners in this process.

We also look to the Sandinistas to make other changes to comply with their Esquipulas commitments. Recently discovered arms caches in El Salvador show that the Sandinistas continue to subvert their neighbors. Despite our having halted lethal aid to the resistance, the Sandinista military buildup continues with new deliveries from Cuba and other Communist states. And now the Sandinistas are making common cause with the Noriega regime in Panama, a dictatorship in the style of Somoza.

The bipartisan accord with Congress offers an opportunity for better relations between our two countries. We want to see democracy and national reconciliation work in Nicaragua. We remain willing to respond positively if the Sandinistas fulfill their promises -- made to the OAS over 10 years ago at Esquipulas, and again last February in El Salvador -- to allow Nicaraguans to exercise their democratic rights. Despite the somber prospects, we remain committed to support free elections and democracy in Nicaragua, and our sincerest hope is that next year the Nicaraguan people will truly have something to celebrate.

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