Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega has a clear lead in Nicaragua’s presidential election. With votes tallied from more than 60 percent of polling stations, Ortega has over 38% of the vote, nearly 8 points ahead of his conservative, Washington-backed rival Eduardo Montealegre. The race has drawn heavy attention from the Bush administration and U.S. officials have threatened economic sanctions and withdrawal of aid to Nicaragua if Ortega is elected. [includes rush transcript]
In Nicaragua, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega has a clear lead in the country’s presidential election. With votes tallied from more than 60 percent of polling stations, Ortega has over 38 percent of the vote, nearly eight percentage points ahead of his conservative, Washington-backed rival Eduardo Montealegre. Ortega needs to win at least 35 percent and hold a lead of 5 points to take victory in the first round and avoid a runoff.
He is expected to be confirmed as the winner with a final batch of returns on Tuesday. As results trickled in, thousands of Sandinista party supporters celebrated in the streets of Managua on Monday night.
Montealegre dismissed the partial results, saying he would face Ortega in a run-off. He also highlighted what he called voting irregularities, saying "In a democracy, that is unacceptable." But international observer teams declared that the election was orderly and lawful.
The race has drawn heavy attention from the Bush administration. The White House has threatened economic sanctions and withdrawal of aid if voters elect Ortega. The former president is trying to regain power for the first time since 1990. In recent weeks a number of current and former U.S. officials have warned about the consequences of an Ortega victory. Oliver North recently traveled to Nicaragua and said a victory by Ortega would be "the worst thing" for the country.
- Roberto Vargas, veteran Nicaraguan diplomat from 1979 to 1991. Served as Charges de Affaires in Washington, D.C., Director of the North American Directorate at the Foreign Ministry in Managua, and finally Nicaraguan Ambassador to China.
AMY GOODMAN: Our next guest, Roberto Vargas, is a veteran Nicaraguan diplomat. He served as Charge d’Affaires in Washington, D.C., director of the North American Directorate at the Foreign Ministry in Managua, and finally Nicaraguan ambassador to China. He joins us on the phone from San Antonio, Texas. We welcome you to Democracy Now!
ROBERTO VARGAS: Thank you very much. Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us. You were not always supporting Daniel Ortega in this race, is that right?
ROBERTO VARGAS: Yes, right. We’ve had differences in regards to what’s happened to the party internally over the last years, so that consequently I just kind of dropped out. I was supporting an old friend, Herty Lewites, who frankly had a pretty good vision of what should happen now, currently in the Nicaraguan society, given, you know, the current politics of Latin America, so that, yes, we were looking forward to having a new face for, you know, the Sandinista Party. So, I was moving with Herty at the beginning of the year, until Herty died July 3rd this year.
AMY GOODMAN: Roberto Vargas, we’re going to go to break and then come back to you. Again, Roberto Vargas is a veteran Nicaraguan diplomat, served with the Sandinistas from 1979 to 1991, now is in San Antonio, Texas, looking at the — what looks like the victory of Daniel Ortega as the next president of Nicaragua. We’ll be back in a minute.
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest in San Antonio, Texas, is Roberto Vargas, a veteran Nicaraguan diplomat from 1979 to 1991, Nicaragua’s ambassador to China. When were you the ambassador to China, Roberto Vargas?
ROBERTO VARGAS: Frankly, that was during the Ms. Violeta Chamorro’s tenure. That was like the beginning of 1990. I spent several months there, you know, after we had the transition, the government transition after the elections, where, you know, Daniel lost, obviously, and Ms. Chamorro. And I was asked by my party at the time, the FSLN, to continue, you know, that we should — if we were asked to continue the post, that we should look at it as professionals and, in the interest of Nicaragua, to stay, so I did. And, you know, Ms. Chamorro’s government, I guess they looked and saw that my expertise was the United States, so they sent me to China, which we called the "golden exile," exilio de oro, but it was extremely important time, and again, that was during the — right after the elections, 1990.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let me ask you about the U.S. involvement in this election. You had Oliver North, who went down and was trying to convince people not to vote for Daniel Ortega. You had Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense. He insisted he wasn’t getting involved in the politics of another country, as he said he doesn’t get involved in the politics of our own country, but your response?
ROBERTO VARGAS: Well, okay, in terms of the overall entourage, the parade of U.S. diplomats, delegates, officials, etc., that went through Nicaragua in the last several months leading up to the race, we had, of course, Dan Burton of California, we had [inaudible], we’ve had — again, you’ve pointed out Oliver North, who was the most obvious, and all of these different people — Carlos Gutierrez. And all of them, in unison, were calling for, you know, people not to vote for Daniel Ortega, that they were going to go back to the '80s, when, you know, we were faced with Reagan's war. And I think North’s presence underlined all of that time, and I think it somehow had a boomerang effect on the people, those who were really not decided how they should vote, you know, I think that kind of pushed them over the edge, in particular last Wednesday and Thursday, Mr. — what is his name? —- Rohrabacher, Dana Rohrabacher from California insisted on calling—-
AMY GOODMAN: The Congressman.
ROBERTO VARGAS: Yeah, Congressman Rohrabacher insisted that Chertoff look into the Homeland Security in how to withhold the remittances, which by different estimates, you know, like provide millions, some people say up to $400 million, to the economy of the Nicaraguan people, right? Now, that’s — I was looking at that the other day and thinking about the larger issue — right? — the context of the larger issue right now, immigration and timely remittances, which in some estimates are like $40-something billion going to Latin America from the Latin American citizens, the Latinos living in this country, immigrants, right, so that that is part of that larger issue, where Tancredo from Colorado and recently Inhofe, all of these people are now signing on and calling for the withholding remittances.
And that’s, I think, also a boomerang effect, similar to what happened with stopping the Cuban Americans from going to Cuba, right? They weren’t really involved in the politics, but their presence, they had license to go at least once a year, and that really threw that whole equation off in Miami, with the younger Cubans particularly. So I think that this is a reminder that all of these people came aboard — Tancredo, Royce, Rohrabacher — that they’re calling for further boycotts.
Nicaragua currently is one of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, right? Next to Haiti. So to start threatening us with that kind of inhumanity, continued inhumanity, similar to the boycott, the embargo they’ve had on Cuba, I think that it finally underlined what we’re faced with again. When you have a country such as Venezuela that is providing tons and tons of oil, you know, coming into the port quietly, diesel fuel, fertilizer, tons and tons of support and promises of further support, and on the other hand you have the U.S. threatening more warfare, more economic warfare, I think the vote this weekend, with 70% turnout, massive turnout, we can do the analysis on that, right? I mean, it’s kind of obvious.
There was a big fear attempt, fear tactics similar to what they do here in this country, but the results are in, and I think Nicaragua is saying something very clearly to the U.S. government, to the U.S. officials who attempted to threaten us. And the vote is clear. We want change, and we think that Daniel Ortega is the one that’s going to lead that change.
AMY GOODMAN: Roberto Vargas, I wanted to ask you about the Bush administration threatening economic sanctions if Ortega wins. In an interview with the Nicaraguan newspaper, La Prensa, the U.S. embassy spokesperson Kristin Stewart said, quote, "If a foreign government has a relationship with terrorist organizations, like the Sandinistas did in the past, U.S. law permits us to apply sanctions. Again, it will be necessary to revise our policies if Ortega wins." That is Kristin Stewart. Your response?
ROBERTO VARGAS: Again, that’s part of the fear tactics that were used, very blatant, very, very obvious fear tactics, and again, this is their response. The Nicaraguan people responded completely to the contrary. You know, they demonstrated that we’ve had enough. We were frightened off in the '90 elections. People thought that by voting against Ortega that we might have a change, where the — or respite, where the U.S. would stop their funding of the Contras, where we would probably have some kind of economic respite, where we would have development programs and etc., you know. And it's 16 years proof to the contrary.
We’re still poorer than ever, and the rich got richer. You see some interesting development, new hotels, a lot of business coming in, but again, not trickled down to the masses who live on $2 a day, maybe, in Nicaragua. So, yes, to threaten us further with economic sanction like that, I mean, it was the end of it. It was like a death sentence. And Nicaragua doesn’t need to depend on that kind of a system, an economic and political system that keeps threatening your very existence, all of the people, just like they’ve done to Cuba for all these decades, where they don’t think of the people of the island. They’re thinking, because of Fidel Castro, as they say, they’re going to starve off the people of Cuba. Well, they’ve been trying to do that with Nicaragua, as well, and the people here have responded in another way.
AMY GOODMAN: Roberto Vargas, we’re coming up on the 20th anniversary of the Iran-Contra affair, Oliver North central to that during the Reagan-Bush years, illegally selling weapons to Iran, skimming off the profits, and giving them to the Nicaraguan Contras, who were responsible for the deaths of thousands of Nicaraguans, despite the congressional ban, the Boland Amendment that said the Contras could not be supported. The significance of this coming at the same time, and some of the same people today being in office in the United States, who were deeply involved with this, like Elliott Abrams, John Negroponte was involved. Your response? Yes?
ROBERTO VARGAS: Well, I think that it’s interesting that this is the Reagan — a continuation of the Reagan rollback, you know, of the popular resistance and popular movements in Latin America, but I think many of us have said that revolution — evolution is a process, right? You don’t do it overnight by decree. Even elections sometimes will change the course for a while, but if there’s a true and deep-seated need for that transformation, that social transformation, that they will continue. And I believe this is an expression of that, where the revolutions and the transformations were held back, but, you know, we saw what’s happening now.
We have another opportunity to come back, a different way, a different time, but the change is desperately needed in Nicaragua. We’ve got to — just for our basic survival, we’ve got to change now, and the U.S. has demonstrated throughout the centuries that it’s not providing for our survival or for our development for anything, rather than for what they did with the support of Somoza regime for 44 years — right? — and the current support that they’ve got in other areas for dictators in the name of national interest, so that, yes, we want to have peaceful and respectful and commercial relations with the United States, but we cannot accept the kind of hegemony that they exerted on us for decades.
AMY GOODMAN: Roberto Vargas, I want to thank you very much for being with us, veteran Nicaraguan diplomat under the Sandinistas, as well as the successive Chamorro government in Nicaragua, talking about the — what looks like the imminent win of Daniel Ortega to be president again of Nicaragua.