León at Crossroads After Disputed Election, As Both Parties Claim ‘Resounding’ Victory
LEÓN – When mayor-elect Manuel Calderón appeared in national newspapers beating a riot cop with a club at an opposition protest in September, the former Sandinista guerrilla leader once known as “Comandante Rufo” earned a new nickname from the opposition media: “Comandante Garrote,” or Commandant Club.”
Two months later, the former Sandinista rebel commander’s hometown spiraled into violence over allegations that the ruling Sandinista party rigged the Nov. 9 elections in León and elsewhere. Sandinista supporters donning masks and shooting homemade mortar guns blocked opposition leader Eduardo Montealegre from heading a march on the colonial city to protest electoral fraud – allegations that were fueled by thousands of ballots for the opposition found in the local municipal dump.
Though Calderón officially won by 4 percent in a city that was a hotbed of revolutionary activity and has been a Sandinista political stronghold ever since, his Liberal Party opponent Ariel Terán claims to have won by as much as 30 percentage points, based on a tally by Liberal electoral delegates.
Terán claims the Sandinistas rigged the vote by forcing Liberal electoral delegates out of the election by not accrediting hundreds of them, annulling some 5,000 votes and distributing hundreds of fake voter IDs.
“They made the people out to be fools,” he said.
Terán said that after rigging elections, the Sandinistas have resorted to their old guerrilla tactics-to silence the opposition with threats and intimidation. On Nov. 18, some 40 masked men with assault weapons ransacked the studio of three critical radio stations, breaking glass, robbing computers and shooting up the place.
But Calderón said that Terán – who met with U.S. Ambassador Robert Callahan after the elections – is an “oligarch” who is seeking U.S. support to steal power from the people of León.
“The majority must have the power, but they want the minority to have power and the rest to live miserably,” Calderón said of the opposition. “We have a different logic, a different concept of the world.”
Calderón also brushed off fraud allegations that prompted the U.S. government to freeze $64 million in Millennium Challenge Corporation aid to support poor León and Chinandega farmers and entrepreneurs.
Calderón said he’s pushing forward with his plan to support León’s poorest and to refurbish the colonial city’s historic downtown in a bid to boost tourism.
Fighting for Democracy
A U.S.-educated entrepreneur who led a grassroots campaign throughout León, Terán surprised many when a voter-intention poll by M&R Consultants published in the daily La Prensa before the election showed him in a neck-and-neck tie with Calderón in a city that traditionally votes Sandinista.
Though his refusal to concede defeat could continue to provoke violence in León, Terán said he’s ready to put his family’s safety and his fortune on the line to defend democracy. If a proposal to annul the election fails in the National Assembly, he said, he’ll continue to fight the results by enlisting international support and staging acts of civil disobedience such as not paying taxes.
“We’re in a struggle for our democracy,” Terán told The Nica Times, as he drove to León after a day full of meetings with business leaders in Managua.- “We’re going to push it. We’re not afraid.”
Like his counterpart in Managua, Eduardo Montealegre, who says the Sandinistas defrauded him of victory in the capital, Terán said the post-election struggle is about more than just small-town politics.
A husky coffee plantation owner who attributes his impeccable English to studies at Florida International University, Terán said that in recent weeks he’s had rocks thrown at him, pistols pulled on him, and threats made to family members. Even as he feared someone might be following him on the highway at night, he said he’s not letting up – he’s invested too much.
“This is my weapon,” he said, pulling down his car sun visor to reveal a photo of the Virgin Mary.
Additional protection is provided by the private guards Terán has hired to protect his ranch after unidentified assailants tried to burn it last week.
Criticizing Nicaragua’s business leaders for not taking a hard enough stance against Nicaragua’s decaying democracy, the former León baseball player who campaigned for months in his old uniform jersey claims he’s still the most popular candidate amongst Leonenses.
“People on the streets call me mayor,” he said, driving along in his SUV. “The (Sandinistas) used all the government equipment to defeat me but haven’t defeated me yet.”
But Terán’s rival, who helped negotiate the 1987 Central American peace agreement, said the Sandinista victory was convincing.
Calderón, who is affectionate with women who come to see him at his office to ask him favors, fixing their collars and rubbing their shoulders, served as the second-in-command of the now defunct Sandinista State Security Directorate beneath Sandinista spy boss Lenin Cerna in the 1980s (see sidebar).
Calderón denies allegations that the Sandinistas rigged the elections and were involved in the Nov. 18 attack on opposition radio stations Radio Dario, Radio Caricias and Radio Metro Stereo.
He said the thousands of ballots found in the León dump with votes for the opposition were unused ballots that electoral officials threw in the trash by mistake – he said they should have burned them instead. He said he believes the opposition found the unused ballots and marked them in favor of the Liberals as part of a montage to frame the Sandinistas for electoral fraud.
“They could have easily penned in the ballot boxes afterwards,” he said.
He denied Sandinista involvement in the attack on the radio stations, saying “We do better work than that.” Calderón claims the opposition likely staged the attack in an attempt to shore up support from the United States.
“The media will make them look like martyrs,” he said.
Opposition Radio Attacked
Radio Dario marketing director Anibal Toruño said the station building that was attacked, which houses three radio stations and is uninsured, sustained $45,000 in damage after a group of masked men broke in and vandalized the place while pistol-whipping employees Nov. 18.
Police Chief Douglas Zeledón said cops have few leads in the case, and haven’t made any arrests.
“We sent police there but 40 armed elements were in and out in less than three minutes,” said León police Chief Douglas Zeledón. He described the group as “a masked force with weapons of war, pistols, and other convincing objects.”
Toruño said one of the group’s leaders was Sandinista legislator Filiberto Rodríguez, who allegedly unmasked himself to tell a police officer guarding the radio station that the ransack was none of his business. Rodríguez has denied involvement to the local press.
The opposition radio station has been attacked several times in its 58-year history, for its hard line against the former Somoza regime as well as the Sandinista Front.
Though Toruño claims he has the license plates of the six vehicles that transported the attackers to the station, he is reluctant to report the crime and doubts a serious investigation will be launched based on recent experience with police.
A suspect who attacked Toruño’s car with rocks in September was released within hours of his arrest, he said.
“Things don’t really work like they should here,” said Toruño, who served as Terán’s campaign manager.
During a recent interview at his office in León, Calderón comfortably fit the role of paternal politician as residents lined up to ask the mayor-elect for small favors such as assistance for school enrollment and social events.
When a toothless man asked Calderón to help him purchase vigurón (a local dish of yucca, pork rind and onions) and soda for an upcoming church event, the freewheeling Calderón joked that God would punish the church group with diarrhea for eating food with no nutritional value.
A jokester at heart, Calderón laughs off the scandal set off by his violent September run-in with the police.
“It makes me smile,” he said, recalling that after he beat the riot cop with the club, the cop struck back by spear-fingering the candidate in the throat.
The former rebel leader defended his actions, saying he warned police that Sandinistas would block the opposition protest.
Plus, he claims that the riot cop he bludgeoned had pushed a young girl down in the street.
In the next four years, Calderón said, he will defend the defenseless like he did by protecting that young girl.
He said he’ll continue the Sandinista government’s push to spread basic services León’s poorest residents, who live in the shanties surrounding the colonial downtown and in the farms that sprawl to the base of Leon’s volcanic cordillera.-
He said he’ll be carrying the torch of past Sandinista administrations that have improved access to water and electricity.
In his crusade for the poor, Calderón said he will try to create tourism jobs with a plan to refurbish the downtown historic center and find ways to support small farmers. He has contracted a Nicaraguan architect to design a project to improve parks, streets and create formal booths for street vendors to ply their trade.
As for the U.S. government’s freeze on $64 million in Millennium Challenge-aid over concerns of electoral fraud, Calderón said the affects on poor people of León will most likely be minimal.
He said U.S. aid, which would have gone toward supporting small producers in León and Chinandega, tended to end up in the hands of the rich, anyway.
Plus, he added, the Sandinista government will no longer have to put up with the demands from the U.S. government, which he compared to a squawking hen.
“Have you ever seen a hen lay an egg? Well, sometimes they make all this noise and they don’t even lay anything,” he said.
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