President Bush signed a bill Saturday providing $9 million in U.S. government aid for Nicaragua's presidential campaign, but some officials said they fear their chance to engineer a victory by the country's pro-American opposition already has slipped away.
Bush, who signed the bill at the presidential retreat at Camp David, Md., said last week that the aid, most of which is intended to fund officially nonpartisan poll-watching and get-out-the-vote efforts, was "the only way . . . to ensure a reasonable shot at free and fair elections."
White House Press Secretary Marlin Fitzwater, in a statement released Saturday, added, "In this way, we hope that Nicaragua will join other countries that have made the transition from repression to freedom."
The Administration is openly backing the campaign of pro-American newspaper publisher Violeta Barrios de Chamorro against President Daniel Ortega, whose leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front has ruled Nicaragua since the country's 1979 revolution.
In public, the Administration has maintained that Chamorro has a good chance of winning the Feb. 25 election. But most officials concede her campaign has had a painfully slow start, and some believe she is almost certain to lose.
For one thing, the U.S. aid will arrive in Nicaragua too late to help the opposition with what may turn out to be the most important phase of the campaign: voter registration, which ends next Sunday.
"The election may be over this month," one official said. "If the opposition can't get organized for registration, they're going to scream, 'Unfair.' "
The Sandinista Front has run an effective nationwide political organization for 10 years, officials point out, and has already registered most of its followers. Some officials estimate that Sandinista Front members, government workers and members of the armed forces--most of whom presumably support the government--make up as much as 60% of the voters' rolls.
"(The Sandinistas) have trucks, they have telephones, they have sound equipment," one official said. "They have a big advantage."
Opposition votes also may be split by the presence in the race of a third candidate, Erick Ramirez of the Social Christian Party.
Meanwhile, they said, the opposition has been disappointingly slow to put together an effective campaign organization. "They have no experience organizing this kind of campaign," another official said. "Some of them have simply been waiting for the (U.S.) aid to arrive."
Moreover, the aid will not go to the opposition immediately. Officials said that under the Sandinistas' election law, foreign aid for the election must first go into a bank account under the control of the government's Supreme Electoral Council, and the opposition must apply for its release.
"We don't know how long that process will take," an official said.
"Obviously, one of the tests of whether this is a free and fair election, whether they've won fairly, is whether they interfere with this assistance," he added.
Officials have said the U.S. funding will provide an estimated $3 million to the Chamorro campaign, $5 million to other Nicaraguan organizations to organize ostensibly nonpartisan voter education and poll-watching efforts, and about $1 million to several international observer groups.
Under the election law, however, some of the aid will end up going to the Supreme Electoral Council, which the Administration says is under Sandinista control.