Mar 1 1990

Post-Mortem on Nicaragua’s Election

Daniel Ortega at a 1990 campaign rally (cc photo: Robert Croma)

Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega at a 1990 campaign rally (cc photo: Robert Croma)

Not everyone was unprepared for the Nicaraguan election results. In his 1985 book Turning the Tide, Noam Chomsky predicted that the US would not overthrow the Sandinistas through an invasion as long as “the dream that there might be a more just and decent society remains.”

“A wiser strategy,” Chomsky wrote,

is first to kill the dream by a campaign of terror, intimidation, sabotage, blocking of aid and other means available to a superpower that is immune to retaliation, until the errant society cracks under the strain and its people recognize that in the shadow of the enforcer, there can be no hope of escaping from the miseries of traditional life.

Such an analysis was almost wholly excluded from the national dialogue following the election. The mass media’s reaction to the Sandinista defeat could be summed up in a New York Times headline, “Americans United in Joy but Divided Over Policy” (2/27/90), which ran above a news story, not an editorial. The only issue seriously debated in the media was who deserved credit for “the victory”: pro-Contra Republicans or pro-intervention Democrats who sought to overthrow the Sandinistas through economic blockades and diplomacy.

Nowhere was the narrow spectrum of views more apparent than in TV “debates.” The day before the election, PBS offered one moderated by pro-Contra Morton Kondracke between Elliott Abrams and the New Republic’s Hendrik Hertzberg, supposedly representing the left (American Interests, 2/24/90). Hertzberg said that he’d support a continued trade embargo if the Sandinistas won and there were less than totally favorable reviews of the election’s fairness. Debating on CNN against rightists Pat Buchanan and Bob Novak (Capital Gang, 2/24/90), Mark Shields refused to take a position on whether the Contras were a good or bad cause. On CNN’s Crossfire (2/26/90) after the election, both Patrick Buchanan “on the right” and Michael Kinsley “on the left” were delighted that Nicaragua’s right wing had won.

One wouldn’t know it from the media, but millions of US citizens have opposed all intervention—either economic or military—against Nicaragua. Never before in US history has there been a solidarity movement (based heavily in church, academic and labor communities) as big as the one in support of the Nicaraguan revolution. Far from being “united in joy,” many Americans were united in shame at what they saw as a US policy that offered Nicaraguans a dire choice: vote for US-backed candidates or suffer more war.

But these viewpoints were virtually silenced in the upbeat media barrage epitomized by New York Times veteran David Shipler’s op-ed headline (New York Times, 3/1/90): “Nicaragua, Victory for US Fair Play.”

—The Editors