San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Miskito Leaders Warn Against Vote Fraud in RAAN

Following the fiasco of Nov. 9 municipal elections on the Pacific side of the country, Miskito political leader Reynaldo Francis is warning the Sandinista Front and electoral authorities to “not even think about” attempting any similar electoral shenanigans in the Jan. 18 municipal elections in North Atlantic Autonomous Region (RAAN). He said that any attempts at electoral fraud on the Caribbean coast would be “very dangerous” and could have violent repercussions.

Francis, the governor of the RAAN and a leader of the YATAMA indigenous party, said the largely Miskito indigenous population in the RAAN is wary of the scandalous elections that occurred in the rest of the country on Nov. 9. They don’t want those problems brought to the Caribbean coast this weekend, when the remaining seven municipalities of the RAAN will vote for their mayors and city councilmen.

“We know how it went in Managua, and we won’t allow it here. Here the elections have to be transparent,” Francis told The Nica Times this week in a phone interview from Puerto Cabezas (Bilwi). “The people here will defend their vote and take to the streets if necessary. Then there could be violence. We hope that doesn’t happen.”

YATAMA leader and national lawmaker Brooklyn Rivera has also expressed concern regarding the electoral process.

“Due to our experience in past elections, we fear some complications especially with results that are favorable to YATAMA,” Rivera said, while dismissing similar warnings of vote fraud expressed by the opposition Liberal Constitutional Party (PLC).

“The PLC only has a chance of winning in Siuna and Mulukukú, so their allegations of fraud are foundationless,” Rivera said.

Vote fraud isn’t the only concern in the days leading up to the elections. Some indigenous residents have also protested what they consider unfair campaign practices by the ruling Sandinista Front.

Governor Francis, whose own seat is not up for election until 2010, said that he had to help defuse one situation earlier last week when protesters blocked the road into Puerto Cabezas following a Sandinista campaign event to hand out gas stovetop burners to party supporters. Francis said the situation grew tense when Sandinista sympathizers began to taunt others who weren’t on the ruling party’s giftlist.

The stoves were reportedly donated by the Venezuelan government to help the Sandinistas campaign in the impoverished region, Francis said. But the campaign ploy turned problematic when non-Sandinistas showed up looking for stoves after the giveaway was announced on the local radio.

Apparently, there was confusion about whether the handout was part of a government program or just party cronyism.

On Jan. 7, Francis met with the protesters and helped to persuade them to lift the roadblock without further incident.

“Most people want to cook using firewood, anyway,” he said dismissively, upon breaking up the roadblock.

Tentative Alliance For the past two years, YATAMA and the Sandinistas have maintained a tentative political alliance that was forged during the 2006 presidential elections, when Daniel Ortega signed a 14-point accord with the indigenous group in exchange for support for his bid for presidency.

YATAMA, a regional party, does not participate in national elections, only in regional ones.

But with the upcoming municipal elections on their home turf, YATAMA is running its own candidates for mayor – against Sandinistas and other challengers – in the municipalities of Puerto Cabezas and Waspam. Yet in some of the smaller municipalities, such as Rosita, where the indigenous organization is weaker, YATAMA is still running as part of the Sandinista alliance.

The other political parties participating in the RAAN’s municipal elections are the Liberal Constitutional Alliance (PLC), the Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance (ALN), the Nicaraguan Resistance Party (PRN) and the Multiethnic Party for Coastal Unity (PAMUC).

In Puerto Cabezas, the regional capital of the RAAN, Governor Francis insists that YATAMA candidate Rodolfo Spear has the backing of most of the population. He claims the Sandinista Front, without the support of the YATAMA alliance, doesn’t have the support to carry the port town.

Others say the Sandinistas are stronger than YATAMA in the urban area of Puerto Cabezas, while the indigenous movement draws its support from the rural areas, so the Sandinistas could win with a low turnout.

Complicating the political scenario in Puerto Cabezas is the candidacy of former YATAMA militant leader Osorno “Comandante Blas” Coleman, whose YATAMA NO SANDINISTA contingent is running for office on the ticket of the Liberal Constitutional Party.

Coleman, who broke from YATAMA when it fashioned its alliance with the Sandinistas in 2006, told The Nica Times this week that he is the favorite in the elections, and that his polling numbers show he will win with 65 percent of the vote.

The former rebel leader said both YATAMA and the Sandinista Front are setting the table for electoral fraud on Sunday. He claims that the Sandinistas have withheld state identification cards (cédulas) needed to vote, and have been campaigning with state resources, including hurricane relief materials.

“The fraud is already being committed,” Coleman said.

He warned of the possibility of violence if the Sandinistas steal the elections.

Desperation and Promises Social and religious leaders consulted by The Nica Times this week said that despite the politicians trying to hype the elections, most people on the Caribbean coast have little interest in the municipal elections, or the partisan political system in general.

The political problems in Managua are a long way removed from the RAAN, said Norman Bent, a veteran pastor of the MoravianChurch, a leading moral authority on the Caribbean coast.

“What happens in Managua has nothing to do with them,” he said. “The people on the Atlantic are worried about their own poverty.”

Bent said that many of the indigenous people have a negative opinion about the elections and their elected officials in general.

He said most of the politicians there are viewed as “agents of the state” who look out for their own personal interests rather than those of the constituents they represent on the Caribbean coast.

Bent predicts those sentiments will translate into a low voter turnout on election day.

Respected indigenous leader Mirna Cunningham, of the Center of Indigenous People’s Autonomy and Development, agrees that voter abstention will probably be high, for both social and cultural reasons.

On a societal level, she said, most people don’t have faith in the promises of the politicians. The 14 points signed between YATAMA and President Ortega – from basic issues such as roofing for homes, to more complex issues such as legal reforms and the legalization of indigenous lands – remain unfulfilled after two years, she said.

And culturally, Cunningham stressed, the indigenous people don’t identify with the concept of municipal elections, which they view as “an imposed colonial system that has more to do with Spanish government than the Caribbean.”

Cunningham, the founding rector of Caribbean’s Autonomous URACCAN university, noted that the communities of the RAAN already have their traditional leadership and the regional council, which is viewed as a key element to the region’s autonomy. The municipal elections, she said, are “more important to the political parties than they are the voters.”

Cunningham also dismissed the idea that people are concerned with the prospect of electoral fraud. She said concerns of fraud were eased when the CSE, which refused to allow any credible observers in the Nov. 9 municipal elections, agreed to allow the Moravian and Catholic churches to observe the elections in the RAAN.

“This is the great lesson they learned from the Nov. 9 elections,” Cunningham said.

The CSE, however, said no one has been accredited.

Felix Navarrete, spokesman for the CSE in Managua, said that he’s heard the rumor that the church groups were going to observe the elections, but stressed that no one has authorized them to do so.

The confusion over the church’s role as observer could perhaps foreshadow troubles to come on Sunday.

For Gov. Francis, meanwhile, the best way to avoid any efforts at fraud is to have a “massive voter turnout” on Sunday.

“Everyone needs to vote to avoid fraud,” he stressed.

But in a part of the country where abstention is the norm, a call for a large turnout could be like paddling against the current of the Río Coco.



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