Monday, March 06, 2006

The Meaning of .... Democracy

At the end of this year, 2006, Nicaraguans will once more elect the person that will lead the country for the next five years along with the people that will represent them in the legislature. The term democracy will once again swing into fashion as every candidate tries to convince voters that only he or she truly embodies the great democratic principles. The question is, what exactly is meant by democracy?

Shortly before the last national elections, I asked a few people from a rural community in the north-eastern mountains of Nicaragua what they thought democracy was. Much to my surprise, they told me that democracy was having a strong leader that “did things” and was not corrupt. What they considered democratic sounded to me as though it leaned more towards authoritarianism, and it was very far from the old Greek ideal where ‘the people’ ruled. Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, just a few words above demolish, defines democracy as “government by the people […] rule of the majority […] a government in which supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usu. [sic] involving periodically held free elections” (Webster’s New Collegiate, 1977, p. 302). The comments of the people from the rural community may not have matched the dictionary’s definition; however, they did reflect the ongoing verbal battles between national political parties.

By going back to newspaper articles from that pre-election time, we can see that the political forces use the word democracy in different ways to meet short-term political goals. In each case, democracy is referred to as something positive and related to elections. The rest is variable. It can mean Christian faith, honesty and power sharing, or simply choosing to vote for the friends of the United States of America.

The first example of the use of term democracy is by Dr. Arnoldo Aleman, the then president of the Republic of Nicaragua and leader of the Constitutional Liberal Party. In a talk with evangelical youth, he called upon them to pray to God so that in the elections democracy would “vanquish” his atheist opponents that were “enemies of God and peace” (Sandoval, 2001b, para. 2, 4)[i]. Suddenly, democracy becomes a religious issue between believers and non believers, where divine powers are invited to intercede to make one party win over another. It is also interesting that the electoral process is not represented as part of a democratic process, but rather that democracy will “vanquish” through the electoral process. Democracy becomes synonymous with the Liberal Party, or at least becomes its private property.

Daniel Ortega, leader of the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN for its initials in Spanish) and president of Nicaragua during the eighties also talked about democracy in his pre-election speeches. Since the Liberal government had been wracked by charges of corruption, Ortega promised an honest government with lower salaries for state functionaries. He also proposed a transfer of powers from the Executive to the population in what he called participative democracy (Ruiz, 2001). Ortega associates democracy with honesty and lower salaries. He speaks about a transfer of powers from the government to the population, yet his does not specify what powers or the mechanisms he would use. We are left with the message that democracy is the contrary of the other party, and that only the Sandinistas will bring this new profound yet undefined democracy.

Daniel Ortega, Nicaraguan President during the 1980's and current presidential candidate for the FSLN.

The third major actor in the 1991 Nicaraguan elections was the government of the United States of America. Different American functionaries spoke to let people know their version of democracy. After the September 11th attack on New York, the messages became more belligerent. The US embassy in Nicaragua put out a news release, in which they affirmed that the “interest of the United States is that Nicaragua has fair elections […] which show the will of Nicaraguan voters and that our programs help in the strengthening of the democratic institutions in the long run” (Sandoval, 2001a, para. 4). The State Department assured Nicaraguans that they would respect the results of free and fair elections; however, at the same time, they also said that they had “serious reserves” about the FLSN, since the Sandinistas had violated democratic principles and basic human rights and sheltered terrorists. The State Department continued by stating that “there exists no intermediate point between those who oppose terrorism and those who support it” (Chamorro, 2001, Section II, para. 5). Democratic senator Bob Graham and Republican senators DeWine y Jesse Helms wrote a proposal to Congress asking the US president to modify U.S. policy towards Nicaragua if the Sandinistas won. They claimed it was necessary because the Sandinistas had historic ties to “terrorist” states such as Cuba and Iraq, and the absence of free and fair elections in Nicaragua would constitute a serious reverse for the people of Nicaragua and for the democracy in the hemisphere (Briones, 2001). The logic seems quite clear. Democracy means free and fair elections. Free and fair elections means voting for the candidates the U.S. government promotes. Should the population choose not to do so, the country will be labelled a terrorist threat like Afghanistan and Iraq and treated accordingly.

Quickly looking through a few newspaper articles from the 1991 election period shows what messages Nicaraguans received about democracy from the major political forces in the country. In each case, democracy means voting for the speaker’s party and not the other. Aside from that, they have very little in common. One type of democracy is divine retribution against the unbelievers. Another type is honesty and some undefined participation of the population in the state. For the U.S. government, it is apparently voting for whom they tell people to, or face the same fate as all the other “terrorist” nations that failed to have “free and fair elections.” Each political force uses the term democracy in the way they feel best suites them. They cash in on its positive image and use it to forward their own agenda. In the end, this makes the word empty, simply referring to elections and little more. Instead of bringing “supreme power” to the people, it leaves them powerless. They are allowed to vote under dire threats and choose between candidates that they have not chosen, who will represent them on issues that have not been publicly debated, and they will not be taken into account for another five years when the circus starts up again. As we start a new election year, we will have to wait and see how many new and inventive meanings the political leaders give to the word democracy. However, this year, people may stand up and take back the word that should, by all rights, be theirs. As the Creole poet from the Atlantic Coast of Nicaragua wrote in his poem “Tell dem fa mi”:

Dem a talk bout democracy, dem styla way

wen dem yusta go wit wi banana an wi lomba

wi gold an wi labsta, wi fish an so fort

dem was happy, tings was good, fa dem do.


But tel dem fa mi, wi da billup owa democracy

Ina owa styla way statin fram wi roots.


(Hurtubise, 1995, p. 50)


Briones Loáisiga, W. (2001, November 2). Senadores de EE.UU. proponen modificar política si gana el FSLN. La Prensa. Retrived January 26, 2006 from

Chamorro, X. (2001, October 6). EE.UU. sacude al Frente. La Prensa. Retrived January 26, 2006 from
06/ nacionales/nacionales-20011006-05.html

Hurtubise, Josef. (1995). Poesía en Ingles Criollo Nicaragüense. WANI Revista de la Costa Caribe de Nicaragua, 6, 43-56.

Ruiz López, N. (2001, July 20). Ortega ofrece cambiar sistema político actual. La Prensa. Retrieved January 26, 2006 from 2001/julio/20/politica/politica-20010720-03.html.

Sandoval, C. (2001a, January 27). Estados Unidos espera “elecciones sin fraude”. La Prensa. Retrieved January 26, 2006 from cronologico/2001/enero/27/politica/politica-20010127-03

Sandoval, C. (2001b, July 1). Presidente Alemán ora por la democracia. La Prensa. Retrieved January 26, 2006 from cronologico/2001/julio/01/politica/politica-20010701-02

[i] All quotations except for those from the Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary and the Creole poem are my translations from the originals in Spanish.

[ii] With Standard English spelling the poem would read as follows: Them talk about democracy, them style way/ when them used to go with we banana and we lumber/ we gold and we lobster, we fish and so forth/ them was happy, things was good for them. […] But tell them for me, we will build-up our own democracy/ in our own style way starting from we roots. […] They-are-crazy [or democracy].

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