ON January 1 Nicaragua witnessed for the first time in her history a peaceful change in party government. On that day General José Maria Moncada, the successful Liberal candidate, was inaugurated as President to succeed don Adolfo Diaz, Conservative. For this historic eleccion libre, United States supervision under Brigadier General Frank R. McCoy was responsible. Acting as personal representative of President Coolidge, in accordance with the Stimson agreement which ended the sanguinary revolution of 1926-27, General McCoy successfully superintended a large organization of American and Nicaraguan election officials to the satisfaction of both political parties. Conservative and Liberal leaders alike declared that the American supervision was fair and just, a most happy outcome to months of delicate negotiation.

Rarely have so much thought and effort been applied to the mechanical task of conducting an election. Measured by the standards of our election machinery at home, the Nicaraguan poll, down to the work of the humblest precinct boards, was a model of efficiency. Yet the mechanics were but part of the job. By far the greater effort went to maintaining a pre-election atmosphere of freedom and fairness for all parties and persons.

The result was sufficiently close to demonstrate the shallowness of the charge that the United States, during the years in which the Conservatives were in power, had deliberately supported a small minority party because it alone was friendly to us. Of a total of 133,000 votes cast, General Moncada received a majority of 20,000 over don Adolfo Bernard, his Conservative opponent. Although election day fell in the season of heaviest rains, and in spite of bandit threats in the disturbed northern sections of the country, ninety percent of those who had registered voted. Such a high registration and vote had never been experienced before.

The election was the fulfillment of a most important item of the Stimson agreement of May, 1927, between the government of Nicaragua and the rebellious Liberals under General Moncada. When Colonel Stimson arrived in Nicaragua in April of that year he found the country rapidly degenerating into anarchy. There seemed no hope that either side could within a reasonable time organize the country on a peaceful and orderly basis. Under the promise that the United States would supervise a presidential election in 1928, Colonel Stimson prevailed upon the opposing leaders to declare the war off. This election was not merely to be "observed" by a few American representatives, but an American was to sit as chairman of every election board -- national, departmental and local -- with a deciding vote in all electoral matters and appropriate police powers to make the supervision effective.

Since the day of her independence Nicaragua's story has been one of bitter feuds between Liberals and Conservatives, with the spoils of office and revenge the chief motivating factors. With the possible exception of a slight divergence in attitude towards the Catholic Church, there are no appreciable differences in principles or practices to provide a basis for choice between the two parties, but the average Nicaraguan is nevertheless a violent partisan of one or the other. In reality the two parties are much like two opposing gangs, and their political struggles can best be interpreted in terms of gang warfare.

Measured even by our own standards, which admittedly are none too high, the 1928 campaign was therefore a dirty campaign; but appraised in the light of traditional Nicaraguan elections it was clean and uneventful. While the party arguments consisted chiefly of personal charges and counter-charges, there was a marked absence of the customary intimidation, bribery and fraud for which the party in power at the moment is generally responsible. President Diaz as chief executive of the nation and titular head of the Conservative party coöperated fully with the American Mission. But his spirit of fair play involved him in serious quarrels with subordinate leaders who could not understand why the traditional advantages of the party in power should not be utilized to the utmost. General Moncada likewise insisted that his subordinates refrain from wrongful practices and work in harmony with the Americans. But since he was leader of the "outs" his attitude was a more natural one.

The legal authority for supervision by the United States was contained in an executive decree promulgated by President Diaz on March 21, 1928, after Congress had refused to pass a transitory law containing similar provisions. Facing downfall through revolution, the Conservatives in 1927 gladly acceded to the proposal for a supervised election in 1928. But once the danger of revolution had been removed, the prospect of a "free" election lost its attraction to some of the government leaders. By order of General Chamorro, who had been warned by the United States that because of his violent seizure of power in 1925 and 1926 he would not be recognized if elected president, but who commands a strong personal following in the Conservative party, the passage of the necessary provisions was defeated in the lower house of Congress, although the upper chamber approved them. Legislation by executive decree thereupon became necessary to fulfill the government's commitments to the Liberals, who in 1927 had surrendered their arms and returned to their homes to await the verdict of the ballot box.

The executive decree of March 21 suspended the normal election law of Nicaragua and authorized the new National Board of Elections to adopt substitute regulations with full force of law. Each of the two parties had one representative on the National Board; the chairman was General McCoy, who properly possessed the deciding vote. In each of the thirteen departments a departmental board with bi-partisan membership was organized under a United States chairman. In the same manner local precinct boards were established under the immediate jurisdiction of the departmental boards, in the ratio of one board to approximately five hundred voters. On each of the 432 precinct boards a Marine private or non-commissioned officer sat as chairman. The departmental chairmen were United States Army and Marine officers. General McCoy's executive and advisory staff were also United States Army officers, with three exceptions. Like the departmental chairmen, they had been carefully chosen, knowledge of Spanish and previous experience with Latin peoples being among the required qualifications.

Opponents of our Nicaraguan policy have criticized the employment of the military upon a mission of this kind. Army officers are said to be brusque and autocratic, and a certain percentage of army officers may indeed be. With respect to the Nicaraguan electoral mission, however, the present writer can say that he has served on other similar missions and that never has he found a group which individually and collectively displayed such a thorough understanding of their mission and such knowledge of Latin psychology and sympathy for the Latin viewpoint. General McCoy himself was the soul of patience and courtesy. He willingly spent long hours in conversation with Nicaraguans of all ranks and creeds. No complaint was too frivolous to receive his personal attention. Meetings of the National Board, which could easily have degenerated into choleric recriminations (for Liberals and Conservatives generally have no political dealings with each other), were conducted with good nature and at least surface friendliness. With two exceptions all decisions of the National Board were unanimous -- a creditable feat, as anyone conversant with Central American politics will agree.

As the United States Government was at first determined that it should be a civilian election, the problem of personnel for the 432 local boards seemed the most difficult of all. No one knew how a sufficient number of Spanish-speaking Americans could be secured to serve as precinct chairmen and alternates. At best, such a large group of miscellaneous civilians would have been an irresponsible lot, attracted by the novelty of the work or by the pay, some with unfortunate habits, unable to maintain themselves and quick to succumb to malaria and other hazards of the rainy season in the jungle. Furthermore, the salary and transportation expenses of more than four hundred American civilians, as, if and when obtainable, appeared prohibitive.

The problem of satisfactory personnel was solved by the Nicaraguans themselves. On their own initiative both parties proposed that Marines serve as chairmen of local election boards because, they said, "the Marines are so much more impartial than the other Americans who come here." While this must not be interpreted as any reflection upon Americans in Nicaragua, other than that some do become more or less acknowledged partisans, it was recognized that the Marines were a disciplined organization, each member of which could be held strictly accountable for his conduct. When our government was advised of Nicaraguan sentiment, permission to use the Marines as election officials was readily granted. Happily, the service of the enlisted personnel proved eminently satisfactory. It became necessary to remove but two precinct chairmen for misconduct, a gratifying record which could not possibly have been equaled had a miscellaneous civilian personnel been employed.

The electoral regulations promulgated by the National Board followed in general the Nicaraguan law of 1923 which modernized the country's electoral machinery. Five days of registration were provided and each prospective voter was required to register personally in the precinct in which he lived. Full opportunity was given for challenges at registration and election, with appeal from the decision of the precinct boards in challenged cases. Since seventy percent of Nicaraguan adults are illiterate the ballots were so designed as to enable a man to mark the party of his choice even if he was not able to read and write. Although illiterates had the right to request assistance in marking their ballots, few did so. This, together with the fact that complaints and contests generally had been settled before election day, enabled the voting to proceed expeditiously and uneventfully. No case of disorder occurred in connection with the voting, in itself a record for Nicaragua.

The weeks preceding the election were busy ones for the American personnel. Scores of complaints were filed by both parties. Although it was obvious that many were based on groundless rumors, each one was immediately investigated and the facts reported to the complainant. Dozens were found to be without basis in fact, but if the complaint was well founded and the fault lay with the American personnel, corrective measures were taken at once. If the trouble related to a government official, prompt representations and a request for correction were made to the appropriate government authority. The fact that the old partisan police, often more feared than the criminals they were supposed to suppress, had been replaced by the new non-partisan Guardia Nacional under American officers, simplified the police problem and removed an ancient means of repression and abuse. Although countless disquieting rumors were investigated, it is to the credit of both political parties that at no time was any evidence of wholesale or organized fraud discovered.

Free use of the national telegraph and telephone services, which heretofore had been the exclusive perquisite of government propagandists, was extended to Liberal electoral officials as well. Depositories of aguardiente, the national alcoholic beverage, were put under the control of the National Guard to prevent withdrawals for bribery or other illicit purposes. Sale of liquors was prohibited before and during registration and election days, a measure which did much for peace and order on these occasions. At the request of both parties, a red stain was adopted to mark the fingers of voters on election day to prevent repeating. In every precinct the voting was over before the fixed hour. The count of the ballots was made in the first instance by the precinct chairmen, whose reports were reviewed by the departmental boards. The final canvass was made by the National Board and involved no serious differences of opinion.

The Conservative party, in power since 1910, came to the election torn by factional fights and supporting a compromise ticket. General Emiliano Chamorro and Dr. Cuadra Pasos, the party chiefs, are rivals of long standing. The former had used his full power to defeat the law in Congress giving control over the election to the Americans; the latter favored the fulfillment of the party's promise of 1927 and was himself a candidate for the nomination. Chamorro, unable to make himself the party's nominee because of our government's warning that he would not be recognized, selected a rich though politically unknown coffee planter to contest the nomination with Cuadra Pasos. After weeks of struggle the party united on don Adolfo Bernard, the sugar king of Nicaragua. He had never before been active in politics and is held in high respect by all. However, he did not take an active part in the campaign other than to contribute heavily to the party war chest. He is not a dramatic figure and the internal strife within his party plus the grievances accumulated against it during its eighteen years in power worked his defeat.

General Moncada, the Liberal candidate, was general-in-chief of the Liberal revolutionary army of 1926-7, and as such negotiated the agreement with Colonel Stimson which brought the revolution to an end. His military exploits made him a natural contender for the nomination and he was chosen unanimously by the Liberal Grand Convention as the party's candidate for president. He proved a sagacious leader on the electoral field as he had on the field of battle.

Having suffered eighteen lean years under Conservative governments, the Liberal party workers forgot, for the duration of the campaign at least, their personal quarrels and concentrated their complete energies upon winning by legitimate means. On the other hand the Conservative party carried the burden of an open breach between its two national leaders and of innumerable personal quarrels between minor chieftains. The Conservative party furthermore was in the unfortunate position of a party which though in power was unable to utilize many of the traditional methods of a government party. In so far as President Diaz and the American supervisors frustrated the overt efforts of the government's followers to employ unfair methods, the Conservative party lost prestige with the voters. To an ignorant voter a government which could not favor its workers was not entitled to respect, and in the last days of the campaign a tendency to climb on the Liberal bandwagon became apparent.

A word as to stories afloat that third parties, particularly those opposed to the intervention by the United States in Nicaragua, were denied places on the ballot and thereby were deprived of an opportunity to voice sentiments which might be embarrassing to our government. There are two and only two political parties in Nicaragua. No third party able to maintain a continued existence has ever appeared on the scene or has for a moment threatened the dominant position of the two historic parties. The war of 1926-27 was between these two parties and the supervised election was a means of settling a two-party dispute and bringing peace to the country. In Central American countries it is not uncommon for politicians to undertake to organize ephemeral third parties and sometimes to proceed so far as to put their names on the ballot. But the effort has generally sprung from a desire to use the new party for trading purposes or as a stalking horse to reduce the popular vote of one or the other of the two historic parties. Moreover, the Nicaraguan constitution provides that if a presidential candidate does not receive an absolute majority of popular votes the election devolves upon Congress, and in this fact may often be found the reason for the sporadic efforts to inject a third party into elections.

There was talk, early in 1928, of the formation of an autonomista party opposed to United States' participation in Nicaraguan affairs, but nothing ever materialized. The local newspapers, with more perspicacity than some American observers have shown, recognizing the personal interests of the autonomista leader (who by playing both ends against the middle in years past found himself for the moment without a party home) laughed him out of court. After unsuccessful efforts to secure signatures to autonomista petitions (the papers reported that only two hundred signatures could be secured) the whole matter was dropped.

Several months later the so-called Liberal-Republican party requested that the National Board of Elections grant it a place on the ballot. This group was organized in 1924 by Dr. Luis Corea who returned to Nicaragua, after many years' absence in the United States, for the express purpose of running for president. In that year, however, Dr. Corea failed to gain ten percent of the votes, which under the old electoral law of Nicaragua was necessary to establish his group as a continuing party. Between 1924 and 1928 his party maintained only a paper organization and presented no candidates in the intervening Congressional elections. In the absence of evidence that there existed any public opinion seeking expression through a Liberal-Republican party, such as might have been evidenced by popular petitions, newspaper support or statements of political leaders, the National Board of Elections ruled that in accordance with the precedent of Nicaraguan law Dr. Corea's party should not be deemed a continuing party. Dr. Corea is not an autonomista, and his sudden resumption of interest in Nicaraguan politics in 1924 and 1928 (he had become an American citizen during his residence in the United States but resumed his Nicaraguan citizenship when he ran for president in 1924) has never been explained.

The fact is that in the 1928 election the realistic voters of Nicaragua, recognizing that a free election was a call to fundamental party loyalties, refused to take any third party movement seriously, and held the contest within the old party lines.

The problem of maintaining law and order was most acute in the northern jungle departments where life and property have never been as secure as in the rest of the republic. Banditry, which has always been more or less common there, prospered amidst the disturbed conditions of the late civil war and several roving bands still prey on the inhabitants. Sandino, whose shrewd publicity methods have rendered him a more important figure in the United States than at home, is the nominal commander of two or three small detachments which occasionally engage marine patrols but live by looting their own countrymen. As a result of bandit threats and more particularly in consequence of the cruel murder of a Liberal propaganda group by one of Sandino's lieutenants, many rumors of general disorder arose and the citizens in the troubled area became greatly alarmed. At once Marine and Guardia forces were augmented and special measures were taken to prevent a repetition of the outrages. These measures were so successful that registration and voting in the remote departments were heavier than in 1924, the only year in which conditions had previously approached a free election. For this the Marines and Guardia deserve great credit. Their task was more difficult than anyone unfamiliar with jungle territory and the operation of bandit bands can readily appreciate.

During the electoral period the enforcement of simple police regulations and punishment of criminal offenders in even the most peaceful departments became a problem of great delicacy. Deserved arrests for drunkenness, theft, assault, and sometimes even murder frequently brought complaints from the party leaders that law enforcement was in fact political persecution. If the offender happened to be a person of some local importance politically it was most difficult to convince his associates that his arrest was not for the purpose of discrediting their party. The members of the Guardia Nacional had therefore to perform their police duties with the greatest care, avoiding in all respects the appearance of evil. It is to the credit of this young organization that charges of favoritism and partisanship were received about equally from both sides during the heat of the campaign.

The supervised election has provided for the time being a basis for peace in the century-old political feud in Nicaragua. When the result was known the defeated Conservative candidate promptly congratulated the victorious Liberal, an act of courtesy unprecedented in Nicaraguan politics. On inauguration day precedent was further broken when the retiring President and the President-elect rode together to the inaugural ceremonies. President Moncada has promised the Conservatives that they will not be molested in life or property under the Liberal régime and that it will not be necessary for them to flee the country, as defeated leaders have usually done after a change of government. While many Conservatives are uneasy, indications are that the majority will remain to test the President's promises.

Even if one election has not transformed the political habits of the people it at least has provided a physical exhibition of a new method of changing governments and should form a useful precedent for those Nicaraguans who regret the bitterness and irrationality of the traditional party struggles and who wish to eliminate the unhappy cycle of destructive revolutions.

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  • H. W. DODDS, Professor of Politics at Princeton University; Technical Adviser to the United States Electoral Mission in Nicaragua, 1928; Technical Adviser in the Tacna-Arica plebiscite
  • More By H. W. Dodds