Abortion Outlawed in Nicaragua Ten Days Before Controversial Elections

Just ten days before an extremely contentious five-way presidential election, the Nicaraguan National Assembly approved a law banning all forms abortion.

Though abortion in non-emergency cases has always been illegal in Nicaragua, therapeutic abortion (in the case where the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life) has been legal since 1893 under Article 165 of the Penal Code. The National Assembly did not vote to impose a proposed 30-year prison sentence for women who receive abortions and the doctors that perform these procedures. President Enrique Bolaños and the Catholic Church support this harsh punishment, which is on par with the toughest sentences given for homicide. The current six-year penalty for abortions thus stands and now extends to therapeutic abortions.

In recent weeks, national and international women and human rights groups, doctors and health professionals, the Nicaraguan Ministry of Health, the World Health Organization, the United Nations, the European Union, and many foreign governments have pressured the Nicaraguan government to reject the ban. Opponents of the ban argue that the criminalization of therapeutic abortion will result in the death of thousands of women. The Nicaraguan Network of Women Against Violence states, "The penalization of therapeutic abortion is a death sentence for thousands of women, especially those who have been impoverished by imposed economic policies and politicians’ lack of social consciousness, which has left most women without access to basic health care." Of the 193 member countries of the United Nations, 98% allow for therapeutic abortion.

The Catholic Church, which has historically played an important role in national politics, (despite the official establishment of Nicaragua as a secular state in 1893) has always staunchly opposed therapeutic abortion. However, therapeutic abortion has stirred increased controversy in the months leading up to the November 5th elections and has been politicized for partisan purposes. The Catholic Church launched a vigorous campaign the end therapeutic abortion several months ago after Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) candidate Edmundo Jarquín affirmed his support for the issue in an interview with a journalist. The Church’s campaign has received the support of evangelical churches and the two main parties, the Constitutionalist Liberal Party (PLC) and the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN).

The FSLN toppled the decades-long Somoza family dictatorship in 1979, and initiated reforms in education, health care, and land distribution throughout the revolutionary decade of the 1980s. US President Reagan, who considered Nicaragua a Soviet satellite state, in spite of its mixed economy and support from various western European nations, imposed an economic blockade on Nicaragua and funded and trained Somoza’s ex-National Guard, who became known as the Contras. Years of war, a state-imposed military draft, and the economic embargo, among other factors, led the FSLN to lose the 1990 presidential elections to a coalition of rightist forces led by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

Daniel Ortega, Nicaragua’s president during the revolutionary decade of the 1980s, ran in the 1996 and 2001 elections, suffering defeats on both occasions. However, the FSLN has maintained itself as an important force in the National Assembly, and Ortega is once again the FSLN presidential candidate for the November 5th elections. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has openly announced his support for Ortega and has arranged a preferential petroleum deal with the Sandinista-controlled Nicaraguan Municipalities Association (AMUNIC).

Despite the FSLN’s revolutionary past, its desire to win the upcoming elections has caused it to form various peculiar political alliances and to support the therapeutic abortion ban. Daniel Ortega is running on a platform of "national reconciliation" that has led him to make amends with the Catholic Church, whose hierarchy strongly opposed the FSLN during the 1980s. In an attempt to win votes among devout Catholics, the FSLN has openly supported the Church’s campaign to ban therapeutic abortion. Daniel Ortega has even suggested that Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, a particularly staunch opponent of the FSLN and ally of the Contras in the 1980s, be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.

In another effort at reconciliation, Ortega selected Jaime Morales Carazo, a former Contra leader and the godfather of former right-wing president Arnoldo Alemán’s (1997-2002) children, as the FSLN’s vice-presidential candidate. In fact, Ortega’s current residence is a house confiscated from Carazo in the 1980s. In another bizarre turn of events, Salvador Talavera, the leader of the former Contra National Resistance Party (PRN) and also a National Assembly candidate for the right-wing Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), recently announced that he has made amends with Daniel Ortega and will support the FSLN in the November 5th elections. This evoked a strong reaction in the National Resistance Party, which has condemned Talavera and confirmed its allegiance to the ALN.

Despite the FSLN’s efforts at reconciliation and promises to foster good relations with the United States, the US has repeatedly warned Nicaraguans of the negative consequences of an Ortega victory. In April, US Ambassador Paul Trivelli offered to provide logistical and monetary support to unite the Nicaraguan right in order to defeat Ortega, and has made repeated statements about the effects of an Ortega victory. In a recent visit to Nicaragua, Dan Burton, US Republican congressman and Chairman of the Sub-Committee on the Western Hemisphere of the House Committee on International Relations, stated, "if Daniel Ortega is elected it would be very difficult to maintain good relations after these elections." Both the Carter Center and the Organization of American States have condemned foreign interference in the elections.

The FSLN’s perpetual pact-making with the right-wing since its electoral defeat in 1990 (particularly during Alemán administration), as well as various corruption scandals (such as the so-called "piñata" of 1990, in which prominent officials personally seized various state assets before turning over power to the newly-elected government) led many of its prominent members to break with the party and form the Sandinista Renovation Movement (MRS) in 1994. The party remained marginal until the past year, when former FSLN Managua mayor Herty Lewites announced his intention to run for president, which led Ortega to expel Herty from the FSLN. Lewites then decided to run as the presidential candidate of the MRS. Herty’s sudden death in July 2006 left his vice-presidential candidate, Edmundo Jarquín, an economist who worked at the Inter-American Development Bank, as the MRS’s presidential candidate. Jarquín and the MRS selected the popular singer-songwriter Carlos Mejía Godoy, the composer of many of the revolutionary anthems of the 1980s, as the party’s vice-presidential candidate. Edmundo Jarquín is the only presidential candidate who spoke out in favor of therapeutic abortion, which has led the religious establishment to demonize him. This smear campaign clearly benefits the other presidential candidates, all of whom oppose therapeutic abortion. Ernesto Cardenal, a Catholic priest, artist, and former Minister of Culture during the 1980s, argues that, "Daniel has deceived the leaders of the Latin American left, who think that he represents the left here. A vote for Daniel is a vote for Alemán."

The other major Nicaraguan political party which supported the ban on therapeutic abortion, the right-wing Constitutional Liberal Party (PLC), has entered into a crisis similar to the FSLN’s due to its pact-making with the left-wing and major corruption scandals. The party’s leader, former President Arnoldo Alemán (1997-2002), was sentenced to 20 years in prison in December of 2003 after being convicted of money laundering, embezzlement, and corruption. However, through his connections with the Sandinista-controlled judicial branch (a result of pact-making between the FSLN and the PLC), he has been permitted to serve his sentence under house arrest at his private estate and is allowed to freely move about Managua. He has extraditions for money-laundering charges pending in both the United States and Panama, but a Nicaraguan appeals court issued an injunction against Alemán’s extradition in May 2006. The current Nicaraguan president, Enrique Bolaños, launched Alemán’s corruption investigation and has since broken from the PLC. This has caused him to run into severe conflicts with the FSLN and PLC controlled National Assembly during his tenure, often leading to political stalemate. His vice-president, José Rizo, renounced his post earlier this year in order to run as the PLC’s presidential candidate in the upcoming elections.

In a reaction to the PLC’s corruption scandals and pact making with the FSLN, many on the right have broken with the PLC to form the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), led by US-educated businessman Eduardo Montealegre. Montealegre is the Nicaraguan business community’s and the United States’ favored candidate. Though Montealegre served in both the Alemán and Bolaños governments, he says that he has not been involved in the corruption that has engulfed these administrations and condemns the FSLN-PLC political pacts. The PLC and FSLN have accused Montealegre of involvement in a corruption scandal involving several bank failures, but the ALN candidate denies these claims as false and politically motivated. Montealegre has stated that he is against therapeutic abortion.

The fifth candidate, Edén Pastora, a former Sandinista guerrilla who soon after the 1979 triumph turned against the FSLN and became the leader of the Contra forces on the southern front, is currently running on the Alliance for Change (AC) ticket. He is the presidential candidate with the least support, and there is evidence that his party is actually a satellite of the FSLN, which ostensibly provides the AC with logistical and financial support in order to pull votes away from Jarquín and Montealegre. Pastora also opposes therapeutic abortion.

On November 5th, Nicaraguan voters will go to the polls to vote for President and Vice-President, 20 National Deputies to the National Assembly, 70 Departmental Deputies to the National Assembly from Nicaragua’s 17 departments, and 20 delegates to the Central American Parliament in Guatemala. In order for a presidential candidate to win in the first round of voting, she/he must obtain at least 40% of the vote. It is possible to win with only 35% of the vote if the second-place candidate is at least five percentage points behind. Due to the five-way presidential ballot split, it is unclear if the results will be determined in the first round of voting. However, a recent and comprehensive poll, conducted by the Universidad Centroamericana among 15,330 people from urban and semi-urban areas in all of the country’s 17 departments and both the autonomous Atlantic regions, demonstrates that a first-round victory for FSLN candidate Daniel Ortega is highly possible. The poll shows Ortega leading the vote with 37.5%. In second place is PLC candidate José Rizo, with 20.11%, followed by ALN candidate Eduardo Montealegre with 17.3%, MRS candidate Edmundo Jarquín with 12.9% and AC candidate Edén Pastora with 1%. Previous polls had placed Montealegre as Ortega’s main contender. In spite of the heavy presence of both the MRS and ALN in urban areas, it is unclear if these newer parties have been able to convince rural voters to break with the two traditional parties. Rural citizens make up half of Nicaragua’s population and were most heavily affected by the war of the 1980s.

Who will serve as the President of Nicaragua for the next five years and what the results of the November 5th elections will mean for Nicaraguans are very unclear. Accusations of fraud are likely, in spite of the 13,000 observers that will be present for the elections. In a country still recovering from the wounds of a brutal war that cost 50,000 lives, the threat of violence surrounds the elections. The United States has issued an official Travel Advisory for Nicaragua and the Nicaraguan Army and Police will be on high alert.

What is certain is that the new executive administration will face a difficult situation in the National Assembly, which will most likely be sharply divided among the four main contending parties. The new government will also have to confront the severe political, social, and economic problems that Nicaragua faces, such as rampant corruption, attacks on women’s rights and the separation of Church and State, acute energy and water crises, malnutrition and food insecurity, high unemployment rates, environmental destruction, rising poverty levels, the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), and a US$3.5 billion debt.

Kristen B. Shelby writes for www.UpsideDownWorld.org from Managua, Nicaragua.