In the Central American nation of Nicargua, supporters of Liberal Party candidate Enrique Bolanos are still celebrating his victory in Sunday´s presidential election. The official vote count continues, but reliable quick count results show Mr. Bolanos with a decisive lead over former President Daniel Ortega of the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front, who conceded on Monday.
Now that the election is over, the country and its new government, which takes office in January, face some critical challenges.
As the victory festival winds down, Nicaraguan political leaders are looking to the massive problems facing their country and the difficult road ahead. President-elect Bolanos says he is preparing for immediate action and will use his mandate to push for legislation to address the nation´s economic woes.
He says his victory in the election, with a large margin that would be called an avalanche in any country, represents a mandate from the Nicaraguan people. Mr. Bolanos says this also means he is obligated to fulfill his campaign promises. For this reason, he says, the National Assembly must approve the legislation he will send to it.
But whatever economic stimulus is contemplated in the Bolanos initiatives may not be enough to lift this nation of 4.5 million people out of its deep slump. More than 70 percent of the population lives in poverty and 44 percent of the nation's workforce is currently unemployed. Nicaragua has an international debt burden of $6 billion and is still recovering from the effects three years ago of Hurricane Mitch, which killed 3,000 people, left 18,000 homeless, and caused nearly $2 billion in damage.
On top of all this is the looming worldwide recession and a slump in prices for basic commodities such as coffee, one of Nicaragua's principal exports.
Adolfo Calero, a businessman and former leader of the Nicaraguan Resistance during the time of the Sandinista rule, from 1979 to 1990, says the situation is critical. "Our crops, their prices have gone lower and lower and lower. Coffee prices are disastrous now," he said. "It does not even pay to pick the coffee. Other raw materials that we export do not have very good prices. We have to really diversify and I believe (President-elect) Bolanos who is an entrepreneur, who worked the land himself, realizes that and will definitely push the Nicaraguan economy."
Mr. Calero, a longtime friend and supporter of Enrique Bolanos, says that more is at stake now than just the economy. He says people´s faith in democracy is also on the line. "We have to show the Nicaraguan people that democracy works, that freedom works, that free enterprise is the best economic system that there is and democracy is at play here in Nicaragua because if we do not," he said, "in the next five years, increase or better the economic and living standards of the Nicaraguan people, we will be in trouble."
Since the defeat of the Sandinistas in the election of 1990, the United States has played a crucial role in supporting the development of democratic institutions and economic development in Nicaragua. But some Nicaraguans have expressed the concern that, with U.S. attention focused elsewhere in the world as it fights the war against terrorism, Nicaragua might be forgotten.
A Republican Congressman from California, David Dreier, who was part of an observer delegation here during the election, says the terrorist attacks have made it all the more important for the United States to support friendly democracies everywhere.
"I think that we have learned from September 11th that the words of Thomas Jefferson are right on target, when he said 'the condition upon which God hath granted liberty to man is eternal vigilance.' I believe that the tragic events of the last few weeks have underscored the commitment of the United States to continue promoting democracy worldwide," the Congressman said.
Congressman Dreier says he will continue to maintain contact with Nicaragua and will support efforts to help the country through its current economic difficulties.
Between 1990 and 1998, the United States provided Nicaragua with around $1.5 billion in assistance. After Hurricane Mitch struck in November of 1998, the United States has given the country another $200 million for debt relief and hurricane relief. The United States is also Nicaragua´s largest trading partner and the destination for 42 percent of the nation's exports. But, with a per capita gross domestic product of $452, Nicaragua is second only to Haiti among the poorest nations in the Americas.