On election day in Nicaragua last month, an Occidental College professor and other official U.S. observers learned that a young woman in the town of Masatepe had been robbed of her vote.
The injustice, they soon discovered, was more of a family squabble: The woman's brother supported a different candidate and the night before had sabotaged her voting card.
"We went back to that town three hours later, and she was still crying because she had wanted so much to vote," said Margaret Crahan, the Luce professor of religion, power and the political process at Occidental. "I think more evident than anything else was the people's desire to have a free and fair election and the commitment and honesty of the voting officials and the poll watchers."
Those observations were among many made by Crahan and Carlos Ugalde, local university professors and Latin America experts who traveled to Nicaragua for the country's second national election, held on Feb. 25. The victory of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro of the 14-party coalition called the National Opposition Union over Sandinista President Daniel Ortega stunned Nicaraguan citizens and international observers.
Crahan, who has studied Latin America for 30 years, was one of about 2,000 official observers summoned by Ortega's government and the opposition parties to monitor about 3,500 polling stations around the country. Crahan was an official observer for the nonpartisan Latin American Studies Assn., which sent 15 U.S. scholars to meet with political and church dignitaries and observe polling stations.
Ugalde, a professor of Chicano and Latin American studies at Glendale Community College and a self-declared Sandinista supporter, was credentialed as a news reporter and photographer.
"It was tremendously emotional and very historical," said Mexican-born Ugalde, who stayed with families in Managua and covered several pre-election rallies for Ortega.
Participating in an election under intense international scrutiny was not a new experience for either scholar. Both monitored the 1988 plebiscite in Chile; both have researched, visited and written about countries such as Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Colombia. And for both, the recent trip was the 10th visit to Nicaragua. Ugalde, in fact, first visited the country in December, 1979, to celebrate the the Sandinistas' overthrow of dictator Anastasio Somoza.
But the Nicaraguan election, they said, was unprecedented for both of them.
Before the election, Crahan and 14 other LASA delegates met with the vice-presidential candidates from the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and National Opposition Union (UNO) parties--Sergio Ramirez and Virgilio Godoy--and officials from other opposition parties, she said.
The delegates also met with Roman Catholic Church dignitaries, officials from the Supreme Electoral Council--the entity that ran the election--and other observer teams, including those of the United Nations and the Organization of American States.
"The fact that we met with these people is sufficient to indicate that we had high-level access and we got to talk to people from a wide variety of perspectives--not just the FSLN or UNO perspectives," Crahan said.
But it was the citizens, not the dignitaries, who stole the show in Nicaragua, Crahan and Ugalde agreed. They described how voters dressed in their finest clothes, walked miles to polling places and lined up hours before the polls opened that Sunday.
Some women, wearing their finest dresses, walked to the stations in bare feet or simple shoes; once in line, the Occidental professor recalled, they would put on high heels.
"The most casually dressed people were the observers," said Crahan, who on election day wore jeans and a white T-shirt that identified her as an official monitor. "People had been waiting for hours. I asked them if they were going to stick it out and everybody would just look at me as if they were saying, 'What an odd question.' "
Reports later showed voter turnout was about 90%.
"I've always thought the most important political actors have been the individual citizens," Crahan said. "In Nicaragua, they wanted to be able to have an election in which the ultimate source of the decision was the people. The elections were honest because people in all levels in Nicaragua made them honest."
Crahan spent election day traveling by jeep to about 10 polling stations, some in remote areas and housed in mud huts with dirt floors.
Ugalde stayed with pro-Sandinista families in Managua, gathering dozens of shots of massive crowds at pre-election rallies for Ortega. On Sunday, he traveled to several polling stations in rural southern Nicaragua to photograph the long lines of people waiting in the searing heat.
"The elections were fair and clean," said Ugalde, who advises a Latino student group at Glendale College. "You saw tremendous amounts of voter participation. Wherever anyone went to a polling place, it was very impressive. They had tremendous pride, recognizing that this had been a struggle."
But such avid participation was not caused by overwhelming support for either candidate, Crahan and Ugalde emphasized. Nor were voters driven to the polls by single factors, such as Contra-Sandinista warfare or the 1985 U.S. economic embargo, the scholars said.
Instead, a multitude of factors contributed to the outcome: Nicaraguans had grown increasingly opposed to a military draft and weary of more than a decade of war, Crahan and Ugalde said. Enormous inflation, unemployment and the huge amount of the country's resources being channeled into warfare also played a significant role.
"In the second half of the 1980s, many of the decisions the government had to make were essentially damage-control decisions with respect to the economy . . . so that bread-and-butter issues became major items in the campaign," Crahan said.
Ugalde, a fervent Sandinista supporter, said that although Ortega and his party created the "free and open" climate for the elections, it was the United States that created the poor economic and political conditions that led to Chamorro's victory.
"Those conditions were imposed by the vicious, inhuman foreign policy" of the United States, said Ugalde, who said that given time and freedom from U.S. intervention, Ortega's government could have turned the economy around and ended the war.
"It is not democracy that won," he said. "Democracy simply does not come about just because people went to vote on a Sunday morning."
The two scholars agreed that the transfer of power between the Sandinistas and UNO scheduled for April 25 may be tense and that extremist factions on either side could disrupt reconstruction now being planned by Chamorro and Ortega. If the United States does not help disband the Contras, Ugalde added, that too could derail the peace process.
They also agreed that although Ortega lost the election, he gained valuable political power that could strengthen his role in the National Assembly and his chances to regain the country's leadership in the future.
The election gave the Sandinistas about 38 of the 90 seats in the National Assembly. And although candidates in the UNO coalition won 52 seats, its 14 parties have been united only in their opposition to the Sandinistas.
"There is no party within UNO that has a national presence nor a mass base nor an internal structure to compare with the Sandinistas,' " Crahan said, noting that the third-place party, the Movement of Revolutionary Unity, garnered only about 1% of the vote. "Ortega emerged from this smelling of roses, basically so that looking toward the 1996 elections, he's a major contender.
"Nobody in Nicaragua thinks one side is perfection personified and the other one the opposite," she continued. "If Chamorro and UNO don't meet with their approval over the course of the next six years, they'll vote them out too. Which, of course, is the basic element of a sovereign nation."