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Carter Helps Monitor Nicaragua Presidential Election


International groups are monitoring the Nicaraguan election. Hundreds of observers from the Organization of American States, the European Union, and the Carter Center are on hand to observe the vote. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter himself is in Managua and joins me now. Welcome to the program, Mr. President.

President JIMMY CARTER: Well, it's good to be with you and all the folks who listen to NPR.

ELLIOTT: Have observers there found any problems so far?

President CARTER: Well, minor problems. I went out early this morning before the polls opened and we were there when they did so. There were some delays at the beginning because the officials are so meticulous and careful that it takes them a long time to get started. But once the lines started moving, they've been moving quite well.

ELLIOTT: Why is it that groups like yours wanted to be in Nicaragua for this vote? Were there indications that there could be some trouble there? What exactly were you there to look for?

President CARTER: Well, I personally and the Carter Center have been here for three previous elections beginning in 1990 when the contra war was still in progress. And then we were back here for two more elections subsequently. We're very interested in this country because it has had a troubled and a controversial past. In 1990, for instance, the country was highly polarized between the Sandinistas and leaders who had been revolutionaries along with Daniel Ortega who were running against him. And as I said, in that case the United States was still waging the contra war against Nicaragua. In fact, there were more than 40 counties up near Honduras that couldn't even vote because the contras were still fighting the Sandinistas. And so that was a troubled time, and that was when the Carter Center was most deeply involved here, just to bring a peaceful election.

In 1996, and later in 2001, there were a lot of problems in the central election commission actually disqualifying candidates who were qualified in our opinion. But I think that almost all of those past problems have now been corrected, so I think this present election is very likely to be much better than we've seen in the past.

ELLIOTT: After the break, we'll have more of my conversation with former President Jimmy Carter.

(Soundbite of news)

ELLIOTT: This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. We continue our conversation now with former President Jimmy Carter in Managua. He says the United States has done all it can to prevent Daniel Ortega from being elected, while on the other hand...

President CARTER: The leaders from Venezuela have seemed to prefer the election of Daniel Ortega.

ELLIOTT: In fact, President Chavez has actually offered cut-rate gas and fertilizer to Sandinista officials there.

President CARTER: That's correct. They have authorized the distribution of some oil through the government itself and also fertilizer at a lower reduced price to some of the farmers, and in that case the Sandinistas distributed the fertilizer.

ELLIOTT: Should the U.S. be concerned about the prospect of an Ortega presidency?

President CARTER: I don't think there's any doubt that Ortega has attempted to change his reputation. In the past, for instance, the elections, say, in 1990, his colors were a vivid red and black, his symbol was a fighting rooster, and his words were very harsh. This time his campaign manager is his wife Rosario, and now the major colors used on his billboards are pastels, and his major appeal is to peace and reconciliation. He endorses a principle of free enterprise instead of socialism. So he's tried to change his attitude in the public's mind, and whether he'll succeed we won't know until the votes are counted.

ELLIOTT: Now, the Nicaraguan government changed the election rules this year, seemingly making it easier for Daniel Ortega to win without being forced into a run-off. Is that fair?

President CARTER: Yes, it's a very - well, it was passed with the approval of the people and their parliament. Yes, it is an interesting election - if you get 40 percent, you win. If you get 35 percent, you win, provided you're five points ahead of the next candidate. So that means that there are going to be some very critical numbers that have to be considered when the votes are counted - the 40 percent, the 35 percent, the five percent difference. And then you got another very complex question of who is the second candidate? So you might have four different numbers to be determined that could make a very interesting outcome.

ELLIOTT: Mr. President, one final question, if you will. Here in the U.S. we have a very hotly contested election on Tuesday that could change the balance of power in the Congress, and voters across the country are concerned here about the voting process. Is there a need for a poll-watching system of outside observers at U.S. elections?

President CARTER: But there's no doubt in my mind that the United States electoral system is severely troubled and has many faults in it. It would not qualify at all, for instance, for participation by the Carter Center in observing. We require, for instance, that there be uniform voting procedures throughout an entire nation. In the United States you've got not only fragmented from one state to another, but also from one county to another. And there's no doubt that there's severe discrimination against poor people because of the quality of voting procedures presented to them.

Another thing in the United States that we wouldn't permit is that we require that every candidate in a country in which we monitor the elections have equal access to the major news media. In the United States, as you know, it's how much advertising you can buy on television and radio, and unless a candidate can raise sometimes hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars, they can't even hope to mount a campaign. So the United States has a very inadequate election procedure.

ELLIOTT: Former President Jimmy Carter, an observer of today's presidential election in Nicaragua. Thank you so much for being with us, sir.

President CARTER: I've thoroughly enjoyed talking to you. Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.
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