Although rigged elections during the Somoza era raised hardly an eyebrow in Washington, Nicaragua’s November 1984 election was pilloried by the White House and the mainstream media. Pre-election reporting was hostile, coverage of the actual balloting was hijacked by hysteria over phantom Soviet MIG jets in Nicaragua, and a few months later many journalists seemed to forget that elections had even taken place. A New York Times editorial (2/13/85) lambasted the Sandinistas, who garnered 67 percent of the vote, for refusing “to subject their power to the consent of the Nicaraguan people.”
Yet according to the vast majority of independent observers, the 1984 elections were perhaps the freest and fairest in Nicaraguan history. A report by an Irish parliamentary delegation stated: “The electoral process was carried out with total integrity. The seven parties participating in the elections represented a broad spectrum of political ideologies.” The general counsel of New York’s Human Rights Commission described the election as “free, fair and hotly contested.” A study by the U.S. Latin American Studies Association (LASA) concluded that the FSLN (Sandinista Front) “did little more to take advantage of its incumbency than incumbent parties everywhere (including the U.S.) routinely do.”
Thirty-three percent of the Nicaraguan voters cast ballots for one of six opposition parties–three to the right of the Sandinistas, three to the left–which had campaigned with the aid of government funds and free TV and radio time. Two conservative parties captured a combined 23 percent of the vote. They held rallies across the country (a few of which were disrupted by FSLN supporters) and blasted the Sandinistas in terms far harsher than Mondale’s 1984 critiques of incumbent Reagan. Most foreign and independent observers noted this pluralism in debunking the Reagan administration charge–prominent in the U.S. press–that it was a “Soviet-style sham” election.
The Washington Post (11/6/84) subsequently published portions of a “secret-sensitive” NSC briefing paper which outlined a “wideranging plan to convince Americans [that the] Nicaraguan elections were a ‘sham.'” The crux of the U.S. strategy was to focus media attention away from those conservative parties actively campaigning and toward the non-candidacy of Arturo Cruz. Although he had hardly lived in Nicaragua since 1970 and had dubious popular support (LASA study), Cruz was anointed leader of “the democratic opposition” by the White House and the media. A recipient of CIA funds, Cruz was persuaded by Washington to boycott the elections and soon after joined the contras (Wall Street Journal, 4/23/85).
U.S. officials admitted to the New York Times (10/21/84) that the White House “never contemplated letting Cruz stay in the race” because “legitimate” elections would have undercut the contra war. Although the boycott strategy was exposed, it still worked to perfection on leading editorial pages. “An election without [Cruz’s] participation will be judged a charade,” the Washington Post (9/17/84) predicted. Sure enough, after the balloting, the New York Times (11/7/84) harumphed, “Only the naive believe the election was democratic or legitimizing proof of the Sandinistas’ popularity.”
La Prensa, the anti-Sandinista newspaper, also opposed the elections. Although its editor admitted he could have published “almost anything regarding politics” during the campaign (Washington Post, 7/30/84), La Prensa refused to mention any candidates running for office or accept ads from political parties. The Democratic Conservative Party, which placed second in the polls, accused La Prensa of “censorship.”
Similarly most of the U.S. media boycotted the actual campaign. Leaders of all three right-of-center parties which competed for votes complained to election observers of having been pressured or bribed by the U.S. embassy to quit the race. Conservative presidential aspirant Virgilio Godoy later told the Christian Science Monitor (11/5/84):
What the Media Elected to Cover
Coverage of Central America’s elections echoed Reagan administration bias. While the press fixated on the right-wing faction that boycotted Nicaragua’s election, few explanations were offered in major U.S. media as to why El Salvador’s united left chose not to participate in its election.
Professor Ed Herman’s 1984 study of New York Times coverage showed that reporting on El Salvador’s elections relied almost exclusively on U.S. and Salvadoran government sources, while 80 percent of the Times sources about Nicaragua’s election were U.S. officials and Nicaragua’s boycotting opposition. Herman found that issues of press freedom and limits on opposition candidates were never discussed in articles about El Salvador’s elections, but these topics appeared in most articles about Nicaragua’s elections.