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Sandinistas are in a good position for coming elections

"Daniel is my rooster" may seem like an unlikely election campaign slogan, but it is one I heard often during a recent visit to Nicaragua, as that country enters the final weeks of its election campaign. Elections will be held on Feb. 25 for president, vice president, National Assembly, and local offices. The elections come 10{ years after dictator Anastasio Somoza and the National Guard at his command were overthrown in a national revolt led by the Sandinistas. The ensuing decade has been a turbulent one, as efforts at national reconstruction and development have been hampered by a debilitating U.S.-financed Contra war and a U.S. economic embargo. In the 1984 Nicaraguan elections, the Sandinistas won approximately two-thirds of the vote. The Nicaraguan voters now must decide whether they wish to return the Sandinistas to power or if a change is in order.

Heading the Sandinista ticket as its presidential candidate is the incumbent, President Daniel Ortega. The campaign slogan referring to him as a rooster draws attention to two differences between him and his principal opponent, Violeta Chamorro: age (he is 44; she is 60) and sex. Despite his youth, Ortega has been active in politics for almost 30 years, suffering his first arrest by the National Guard at age 15. Later as a law student, he was a leader in the student movement against Somoza. Imprisoned for seven years, he was eventually released in 1974 in a prisoners-for-hostages exchange. A brother died in combat with the Guard in 1978. For the past two decades Ortega has been one of the architects of Sandinista policy.

Violeta Chamorro is the presidential candidate of the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO), a fragile coalition of disparate political parties which share the wish of unseating the Sandinistas. Born into a wealthy family, Violeta Chamorro is the widow of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro (the editor of La Prensa newspaper who was murdered by Somoza in 1978). In her hands the newspaper has shifted to the right and has adopted an editorial policy consistently critical of the Sandinistas and tolerant of the U.S.-backed Contras.

The two candidates offer the voters a distinct choice not only in personalities but also in policies and programs. As the attack by the Contras through the 1980s required a shifting of national resources into defense, the Sandinistas have had to interrupt the ambitious social programs of land redistribution, literacy education and expansion of access to health care, etc. which they had launched in the early years after the overthrow of Somoza. As a result, many voters find themselves struggling with persistent poverty and exhausted by a decade of war. Their discontent with the status quo has led the Sandinistas to adopt as a second campaign slogan a rallying cry which may seem odd for an incumbent party: "Everything will be better." The message is that the country has turned a corner. With the Contras defeated strategically, the social programs popular with the poor and working classes can now finally be resumed.

The Sandinista efforts to attract the poor and working classes is reflected in the Sandinista campaign paraphernalia: maids' aprons imprinted with Sandinista slogans, school notebooks with Ortega's picture, and tin plates used by on-the-street food vendors which carry a message to vote Sandinista on election day.

By contrast, UNO is largely the coalition of the more prosperous sectors of the society. It is guided primarily by upper class and business elements. The coalition also has important links to the Contras, including former Contra leader Alfredo Cesar, who is Violeta Chamorro's chief personal advisor, and another former Contra leader Alfonso Robelo, who leads one of the parties within the UNO coalition. Furthermore, armed Contras who have infiltrated into the country across its northern border have been "campaigning" on behalf of UNO. Contra campaign tactics range from exhortations to vote for UNO to outright assassination of Sandinista activists. For example, on Oct. 21 in Rio Blanco the Contras ambushed a truck carrying reservists on their way to register to vote, killing 19.

Looking for an opportunity to unseat the Sandinistas, the U.S. government has been another key backer of UNO and has provided it with substantial financial support: $12.5-million voted openly by Congress and an unspecified amount channeled through the CIA. (The reverse situation of Nicaragua or any other country supporting a particular party in the United States would be illegal under U.S. law.)

Like the Sandinistas, UNO has adopted a campaign slogan looking to the future: "Yes, things can be changed." The slogan is backed up by George Bush's promises that he will end U.S. support of the Contras and call off the U.S. economic embargo in the event of an UNO victory. As temptingas these promises may be, many Nicaraguans seem to mistrust UNO's roots and intentions and to resent Bush's quid pro quo. According to Greenberg-Lake, an independent polling firm based in Washington, D.C., 62-percent of Nicaraguans consider UNO "too close to the rich and big commercial interests," 52 percent fear that Violeta Chamorro will "return the land

back to the big landowners," 62 percent (including half of Violeta Chamorro's supporters) say UNO is "too close to the Contras," and 50 percent believe that Chamorro's triumph would "return Nicaragua to U.S. control."

The elections will be the most intensely observed elections in Latin American history. The most prominent observer groups are the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Council of Freely Elected Heads of Government (led by Jimmy Carter), and the Center for Democracy, but a variety of smaller, non-governmental organizations also have observer status. Election observers began arriving in Nicaragua over the summer and have watched all phases of the election, including voter registration in October and the current campaign. Speaking for the United Nations in his capacity as a U.N. observer, Elliot Richardson praised the voter registration process, which succeeded in registering 80 percent of the eligible population. By election day, the number of observers is expected to swell from 300 to over 1,500. With an electoral process so open to public scrutiny, few anticipate fraud.

In December the Sandinista electoral campaign received a Christmas gift from an unlikely source. George Bush's decision to invade Panama was unpopular throughout Latin America, Nicaragua included. A Greenberg-Lake poll found that 64 percent of Nicaraguans considered the invasion bad or very bad while only 18 percent expressed approval. The invasion of a neighboring country has focused Nicaraguan attention on U.S. influence in the region and on Nicaragua's right to be autonomous and free from outside attack. These concerns may help explain why Ortega's margin over Chamorro increased, according to Greenberg-Lake, from 44 percent vs. 27 percent before the Panama invasion to 51 percent vs. 24 percent after the invasion.

With its U.S. funding and its links to the U.S.-backed Contras, UNO is suspiciously regarded as an unworthy and unreliable defender of national self-determination. Thanks in part to George Bush, a vote for the Sandinistas has come to be seen as a vote for sovereignty. Anticipating victory, the Sandinista rooster has something to crow about.

Dr. Cranberg recently returned from teaching neurology at Rehabilitation Hospital in Managua. He is a clinical instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.