Edgar Chamorro, a former Contra leader who later became a critic of U.S. policies in Nicaragua, said Wednesday that the recent elections in that country were neither free nor honest because of the infusion of U.S. dollars and political influence.
For Nicaraguans, the choice was simple, he said: continued war, poverty and inflation or opposition candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
"They were not electing a president, they were electing a way out," he said.
Chamorro, who spoke to about 300 students at Cal State Northridge, was joined by a panel of CSUN instructors and a community member, all of whom observed the Feb. 25 election.
He said he was surprised by the election outcome; that "in one Sunday you can change things that have taken years to build."
Most of the speakers agreed that the loser in the February election, the leftist Sandinista government led by Daniel Ortega, was drained of money and energy because of its efforts to fend off the Contras.
In retrospect, Chamorro surmised that ensuing problems such as 16,000% inflation "eroded the credibility of the government" and led people to deduce that "if the Sandinistas won, the pain would continue."
"It's not that they don't like Daniel. They like Daniel, but he can't get the job done," said English Prof. Robert Chianese.
Chamorro charged that U.S. monetary support for the 14-party National Opposition Union that backed candidate Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, his distant cousin, probably has been grossly underestimated. He said the infusion of money caught the Sandinistas off-guard.
"They thought they had the political power to match any U.S. escalation," he said.
Other speakers advised students to form opinions about the Nicaraguan elections independent of media reports. They criticized many reporters for failing to mention in election stories that Ortega won an election in 1984. Instead, they said, many stories emphasized the Sandinista overthrow of the Somoza family dictatorship in 1979.
Bill Becker, a member of Witness for Peace who called himself a "free-lance social activist," accused the Los Angeles Times of "demonizing the Sandinista" in its election coverage. Journalism Prof. Michael Emery chided CBS news anchor Dan Rather for describing the Sandinistas as Marxist-Leninists.
The panelists offered widely divergent opinions of the future for the Sandinistas. Prof. Raul Ruiz of the Chicano studies department said the Sandinistas still lead the people and probably will regain power in the next election. Marc Cooper, a free-lance journalist and journalism instructor, was more skeptical about the Sandinistas' ability to regain power because they "have been ground down by 10 years of war, and they're tired." Becker predicted either chaos or a revolution.
Chamorro--who calls himself a centrist--took the middle ground.
"I believe there is going to be a negotiated situation inside the country," he said. "Violeta will be in power, with the Sandinistas as a loyal opposition, not rocking her boat."