How the U.S. Purchased the 1990 Nicaragua Elections

July 1, 1990

“Suppose that some power of unimaginable strength were to threaten to reduce the United States to the level of Ethiopia unless we voted for its candidates, demonstrating that the threat was real. Suppose that we refused, and the threat was then carried out, the country brought to its knees, the economy wrecked and millions killed. Suppose, finally, that the threat were repeated, loud and clear, at the time of the next scheduled elections. Under such conditions, only the most extreme hypocrite would speak of a free election. Furthermore, it is likely that close to 100% of the population would succumb.

Apart from the last sentence, I have just described U.S.-Nicaraguan relations for the last decade.”

–Noam Chomsky, The Boston Globe, March 4, 1990

U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, under President Bush, eagerly testified at his Senate confirmation hearings in January 1989 that covert actions “would not be inappropriate,” including provision of “covert support for a political party or candidate to influence the outcome of another’s elections.” (Los Angeles Times story published in San Francisco Chronicle, Jan. 19, 1989). This policy, of course, is consistent with decades of U.S. tampering in various ways in the elections of other countries. Bush’s CIA Director William Webster warned of increasing unrest and “coup plotting” in Latin American countries and declared that a bipartisan policy must be developed to support covert action in the region (Los Angeles Times story published in San Francisco Chronicle, Feb. 9, 1989). Perhaps Mr. Webster needed to be reminded just how popular bipartisan support for covert action is with the Republicans and Democrats, i.e., the Republocrats.

These statements set the tone well for President Bush’s foreign policy. The same old policy of previous presidents: intervention in various forms violating the sovereignty of other nations. But the level of funding for creating and sustaining the opposition parties in Nicaragua in preparation for its February 1990 elections perhaps exceeded all prior experiences of electoral intervention. The bipartisan openness may also reveal a new confidence in tolerance for “non-lethal” covert and overt intervention.

Historically the CIA has been influencing numerous foreign elections, such as in Chile, Poland, El Salvador, and Indonesia, to promote regimes supporting U.S. economic or geopolitical interests. In fact the CIA in the past has spent one-third of its covert action budget on “election support” (Village Voice, Feb. 16, 1976, citing a leaked House Select Committee’s report of government intelligence activities). More recently, the U.S. created a newer mechanism for carrying out many of these political activities in other countries — the National Endowment for Democracy (NED). Created by Congress in 1983, the Endowment is a private, but publicly funded non-profit group to give grants to those organizations that promote “democracy” overseas. It claims to have already supported the “democratic process” in more than forty countries (New York Times, Sept. 13, 1989). It is run by a board composed of leading Democrats and Republicans. According to ex-contra leader Edgar Chomorro and ex-CIA analyst David MacMichael, both with the Nicaragua Election Monitoring Project of the New York-based Institute for Media Analysis, Inc., “NED now carries out overtly the majority of the CIA ‘s formerly covert political activities.”

The U.S., through the CIA and NED, orchestrated a process to consolidate a number of Nicaragua’s opposition parties into a so-called unified effort, the United Nicaragua Opposition (UNO). In attempting to tabulate the total amount of money provided by the U.S. government between 1984-1990 to the “opposition” parties of Nicaragua, one must add up the known covert aid with the identifiable overt funds provided to both the CIA and the NED. If the truth were known, the total might approach $50,000,000. Fifty million dollars in Nicaragua, a country of 3.5 million people as of the mid to late 1980s, is equivalent to $3,550,000,000 in the United States, a country in 1990 of nearly 250 million inhabitants. Over 3.5 billion dollars! During the 1988 U.S. presidential elections, Bush and Dukakis received $46.1 million each in federal campaign financing. When adding up all the campaign costs for the presidential race, 435 races for the House of Representatives, and for the 34 Senate campaigns, it is believed to be well under $500 million. The U.S. is pouring the equivalent of 7 times this amount into tiny Nicaragua. In effect, the U.S. is spending nearly $14 for every Nicaraguan citizen, and $28 for each registered voter. This is an incredible amount. If the total costs of all campaigns during the 1988 U.S. presidential year amounted to $500 million, that would equal $2 for every U.S. resident, or about $2.80 for each eligible voter.


CIA Funds

$13.0 Million — 1984-1987 for covert political spending inside Nicaragua. Source: Edgar Chomorro, Institute for Media Analysis, Oct. 25, 1989 statement, “High Intensity Political Intervention Replaces Low Intensity Conflict,” citing Donald Gregg’s now unclassified testimony to Iran-Contra investigators revealing that during Boland Amendment prohibitions, Congressional Intelligence Committees, nonetheless, secretly approved $13 million for such purposes.

$10-12 Million — 1987-88 for a covert “political” account designated for Nicaragua opposition activity. Source: Chomorro, Oct. 25, 1989 statement (See above); and Holly Sklar, “Washington Wants To buy Nicaragua’s Elections Again,” Z Magazine, Dec. 1989.

$5.0 Million — 1989 for Nicaragua opposition’s “housekeeping costs.” Source: Newsweek, Sept. 25 and Oct. 9, ’89.

Total CIA Funds: $28-30 Million


NED Funds

$100,000 — 1984 to PRODEMCA for La Prensa. La Prensa, a right-wing, pro-Contra daily newspaper, served as the Contras’ mouthpiece throughout the U.S.-waged war against the Sandinista government. PRODEMCA was established by the NED in 1984 to primarily coordinate an anti-Sandinista campaign in the U.S. PRODEMCA is an acronym for “Citizens’ Committee for the Democratic Forces in Central America.” Source: The Central American Fact Book, Barry & Preusch, Grove Press, 1986.

$200, 000 — 1984 to PRODEMCA for Nicaraguan Center for Democratic Studies. The Nicaraguan Center was created by the Nicaragua Democratic Coordinating Committee (Coordindrea or CDN), the reactionary coalition that boycotted the 1984 Nicaragua elections under pressure from the U.S. in efforts to delegitimize the election results. The Center trains Nicaraguans “in the skills needed to sustain an independent democratic presence in Nicaraguan life.” Source: The Central American Fact Book (see above).

$50,000 — 1987-88 to US Information Agency (USIA) to finance speakers to address Nicaraguan groups. Source: San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 5, 1988.

$1.0 Million — 1987-88 for trade unions, political parties and other anti-Sandinista efforts. Included was $170,000 for La Prensa. Source: San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 5, 1988.

$2.0 Million — 1988-89 for the internal opposition in Nicaragua. Source: San Francisco Chronicle, Oct. 5, 1988.

$3.5 Million — 1989-90 for NED and/or UNO (National Opposition Union) directly for opposition activity in elections. Many sources citing Congressional appropriations.

$9.0 Million — 1989-90 for NED and/or UNO for opposition activity in elections. Many sources citing Congressional appropriations.

Total NED Funds: $15,850,000


The following may or may not have been included in the above NED figures:


$220,000 — 1988 from Congress to NED, in turn through Delphi International (Washington, D.C.) to fund La Prensa. Delphi took over NED La Prensa grants in 1986. Delphi also administers NED grants for Nicaraguan broadcast media. Source: Edgar Chomorro, Institute for media Analysis, Oct. 25, 1989, statement, “High Intensity Political Intervention Replaces Low Intensity Conflict.”

$397,000 — 1988 from Congress to NED, in turn through Free Trade Union Institute (FTUI) to the AFL-CIO to aid non-Sandinista unions. FTUI was established in 1977 by the AFL/CIO to combat perceived left wing trade unions. Source: Chomorro, as above.

$290, 000 — 1988 from Congress to NED, in turn through the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) for various indoctrination efforts. NDI is the U.S. Democratic Party’s mechanism for receiving NED funds. Source: Chomorro, as above.

$174,000 — 1988 from Congress to NED, in turn through the National Republican Institute for International Affairs (NRI) for various indoctrination efforts. NRI is the U.S. Republican Party’s mechanism for receiving NED funds. Source: Chomorro, as above.

$1.5 Million — Sept. 15, 1989, NED approved this amount for Nicaragua, separate from the $9 million which was scheduled to begin on October 1, 1989 . Source: New York Times, Sept. 29, 1989.

Total: $2,581,000

The NED Grand Total is in the range of $15,850,000 to $18,431,000.

The CIA plus NED Grand Total is in the range of $43,850,000 to $48,431,000! ($43.85 million to $48.43 million).

There were 3.5 million Nicaraguan residents in 1990. About 1.75 million registered to vote. The infusion of unspeakable amounts of money, in Nicaraguan peasant terms, for the 1990 election, revealed the following in per capita terms:


A range of $12.53 to 13.84 for each of Nicaragua’s 3.5 million citizens.

A range of $25.06 to $27.68 for each of Nicaragua’s 1.75 million registered voters.

Again, a comparison with a U.S. equivalent is instructive to indicate how staggering these figures really are! The ClA plus NED grand total range for Nicaragua has the following U.S. equivalents (the U.S. has 71 times the population of Nicaragua):


$3,113,350,000 to $3,438,601,000 ($3.1 billion to $3.4 billion)

In other words, if the U.S. law would allow funds from other governments to finance U.S. elections (which it definitely does not), a country like the Soviet Union, for example, would have contributed $3.1 billion to $3.4 billion to either the Republicans or Democrats, or a third party, in an attempt to purchase an election whose party winners would reflect the interests of the Soviet Union. I wonder how many citizens, whether in the U.S. or elsewhere, upon reflection, would accept the prudence of such policy. Nicaraguan’s election laws were changed in 1989 to allow contributions from outside Nicaragua. This policy change was motivated primarily to preempt further U.S. accusations of unfairness in the Nicaraguan election campaign, hoping to remove all possible justifications for continuation of hostile U.S. intervention. It was thought that the U.S. could not cry foul if it had such opportunity to try to buy the election. The U.S. undoubtedly would not have accepted the legitimacy of Nicaragua’s election results anyway, if the Sandinistas had won. The U.S. was determined to overthrow the Sandinista Nicaraguan government at all costs.


It is of further interest to briefly examine part of the UNO budget as it was earlier presented to Congress:

$600,000 — for 20,000 poll watchers

$140,000 — for invitations to international observers

$50,000 — for UNO “leaders” to travel abroad

$1.25 Million — for salaries and benefits to UNO “leaders”, including over $335,000 for paid vacations

$1.35 Million — for purchase of Toyota jeeps, pickup trucks and buses, and Yamaha motorcycles. (Interestingly, U.S. taxpayers were purchasing Japanese vehicles because the U.S. trade embargo prevented import of U.S. automobiles. One U.S. Congressperson remarked that the opposition could rent 2250 Japanese vehicles a month at $20/day.)

Total of Miscellaneous for UNO: $3,390,000

[Source: Los Angeles Times, Oct. 17, 1989; and Edgar Chomorro statement, Oct. 25, 1989 (see above).]

Edgar Chomorro, a non-Sandinista Nicaraguan, believed that the decision of the Nicaraguan government to allow U.S. or other foreign monies into the election process was a serious mistake. He articulated four clear points:


  1. It seriously distorts the integrity of the process.
  2. It tends to corrupt individuals and institutions.
  3. It creates dependency upon foreign power centers.
  4. It is an essential violation of the principle of national sovereignty.

The extraordinary U.S. intervention into Nicaragua’s election process was only one of three prongs in the U.S. strategy to overthrow the Sandinista led government. The second prong was economic strangulation through the economic embargo and associated U.S.-imposed trade and credit blockades that continued to force most Nicaraguans to suffer significant misery. The U.S. hoped that, in the process, more and more of Nicaragua’s citizens would “cry uncle.” The third prong, of course, was the continued financial and military support of the Contras as a terrorist military force operating throughout the country. The terrorist campaigns continually caused widespread suffering and damage through ambushes, assassinations of various community leaders, kidnappings and disappearances of other important citizens, and attacks on cooperatives. The Contras intimidated peasants in many areas to either vote for UNO candidates or to abstain during the elections. They did this at gun point. The U.S. continued to fund their terror, even though the Central American Presidents had earlier agreed that, for there to be peace, the Contras were to have completed demobilization by December 5, 1989, two and a half months prior to the scheduled election.

During 1989, the Bush administration had stated its intention of “keeping the Sandinistas guessing” through secret intelligence operations (New York Times, June 11, 1989) aimed at influencing the election. New monies for the opposition parties were justified in order to “level the playing field” to boost the U.S.-created opposition forces’ chance of ousting Sandinista President Daniel Ortega (Miami Herald, Oct. 18, 1989). President Bush had promised in November 1989 that the devastating trade embargo against Nicaragua would be immediately lifted if the U.S.-backed presidential candidate, Violette Chamorro, was elected by a majority of the Nicaraguan people (Washington Post, Nov. 9, 1989).

The U.S. funding of the Contras in April 1989 to continue to preserve them as a fighting force until after the February 25, 1990 scheduled Nicaragua elections openly defied the Central American peace plan signed August 7, 1989 in Tela, Honduras. These accords required that Contra demobilization be completed by December 5, 1989. Robert Pear of The New York Times (in a story published in the San Francisco Chronicle, Nov. 3, 1989) summarized four actions by the U.S. documenting this defiance:


  1. Government statements that they wanted the Contras to remain intact as a fighting force until after the elections;
  2. Active distribution of cash to Contras inside Nicaragua at a rate of $150,000 to $200,000 per month;
  3. Government statements that they were aware of movement of large numbers of armed Contras into Nicaragua; and
  4. Consciously ignored and allowed Contras to carry out hostile acts they hoped would provoke Ortega to do something “int

I was personally travelling with a small delegation in Nicaragua during December 1989, beyond the mandated December 5 date for completion of Contra demobilization. Visiting nine of Nicaragua’s fifteen departments, we documented numerous up-to-the-minute Contra terrorist activities. These included assassinations of FSLN leaders in a number of communities, destruction of a cooperative including the murders of several of its members, and an ambush of a public transport, killing or wounding over 20 civilians. Additionally, a number of the roads we desired to travel on were considered too dangerous due to roving bands of Contras. Furthermore, we learned that the U.S. was continuing regular reconnaissance overflights providing Contras with photographic intelligence of positions of Nicaragua Army units and their transportation patterns. On January 1, 1990, just seven weeks before the elections, the Contras ambushed a vehicle in the Rosita mining region, killing two nuns, one a U.S. citizen, Sister Maureen Connelly from Wisconsin.

Thus the U.S. intentionally defied the Tela accords, keeping the Contras as a fighting force in violation of international law to remind the Nicaraguans what they would continue to face if the Sandinistas won the elections on February 25.

Thus it was understandable, though tragic and disappointing, that the majority of voters chose the U.S. candidate in the elections. Ten years of an all-encompassing war that had included sustained economic deprivation as well as military terrorist attacks killing more than 30,000 mostly civilians had worn down the Nicaraguan people. There was a realization that as long as the Sandinistas remained in power, the U.S. embargo and Contra terrorism would never relent in their campaign to overthrow them. President Bush had virtually told them this. Paul Reichler, a U.S. lawyer representing the Nicaragua government at the time, concluded that “Whatever revolutionary fervor the people once might have had was beaten out of them by the war and the impossibility of putting food in their children’s stomachs” (L.A. Weekly, March 9-15, 1990).

Some critics of U.S. policy depressingly warned that this electoral coup d’etat in the context of a ten-year terrorist war, was a future “blueprint” for successful U.S. intervention in the Third world. The Pentagon agreed, declaring, “It’s going right into the textbooks” (Jacqueline Sharkey, “Anatomy of An Election: How U.S. Money Affected the Outcome in Nicaragua,” Common Cause Magazine, May/June 1990)


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5 Trackbacks

  1. […] Brian Willson, who lost his legs in civil disobedience protesting the US contra war in Nicaragua, reported that the US funded opposition parties and NGOs in the 1990 election. The CIA alone poured in $28-30 […]

  2. […] Willson, who lost his legs in civil disobedience protesting the US contra war in Nicaragua, reported that the US funded opposition parties and NGOs in the 1990 election. The CIA alone poured in […]

  3. […] Brian Willson, who lost his legs in civil disobedience protesting the US contra war in Nicaragua, reported that the US funded opposition parties and NGOs in the 1990 election. The CIA alone poured in $28-30 […]

  4. […] who lost his legs in civil disobedience protesting the US Contra War in Nicaragua, reported that the US-funded opposition parties and NGOs in the 1990 election. The CIA alone poured in […]

  5. […] who lost his legs in civil disobedience protesting the US Contra War in Nicaragua, reported that the US-funded opposition parties and NGOs in the 1990 election. The CIA alone poured in […]

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