Steamboat Springs Two days before American voters hit the polls for the Nov. 7 Election Day, a group of students from a Colorado Mountain College political class witnessed firsthand a historic election in Nicaragua.
In a rare opportunity to observe an international election, the CMC contingent traveled to the Central American country for an eight-day stay surrounding Nicaragua's Nov. 5 presidential election.
Many of the students were from CMC's Alpine Campus in Steamboat Springs.
Between friendly greetings of "Welcome," "Hey dude, how's it going?" and "'Sup?" and casual banter with locals, the students in professor Bob Gumbrecht's Political Issues class spoke to various Nicaraguan political party officials and toured the headquarters of the country's four major parties - the FSLN (Sandinista Front for National Liberation), the PLC (Constitutional Liberal Party), the ALN (Nicaraguan Liberal Alliance) and the MRS (Sandinista Renovation Movement).
Former President Daniel Ortega of the FSLN party won the election with 38 percent of the vote. Runner-up Eduardo Montealegre of the ALN party finished with 28.3 percent of the vote.
An estimated 85 percent of the approximately six million Nicaraguans turned out for the election.
"I've never seen people care so much," CMC student Alex Mowery said.
Student Kenny Grove equated Election Day in Nicaragua with a holiday in terms of the excitement and festive atmosphere.
Many illiterate people made the effort to learn how to write so they could sign their name on their ballot. The Nicaraguan voters' thumbs were dipped in indelible ink at the polls; many voters walked around holding their thumbs up as a sign of pride after casting a ballot.
"The people were so excited," Grove said. "They were so happy."
The CMC group traveled around Nicaragua on Election Day, visiting Managua, Granada, San Juan de Oriente and Nueva Vista. The students and adults traveled with the Center for Global Education at Augsburg College in Minneapolis.
To prepare for the trip, the CMC students held several classes and read "Nicaragua: Living in the Shadow of the Eagle."
But Wilton said the classes did not prepare her for the poverty she saw in the developing country. Nevertheless, passion for the election was high throughout the electorate. People proudly wore the colors of their candidate's party, and signs, banners and billboards were plastered on every available space, Gumbrecht said.
The CMC group initially thought it had obtained certification to be official observers of the election, which would have given the students access to polling locations. But before the students left, they learned they had been denied official observer status because of a change in election rules passed down by the country's Supreme Electoral Council. The FSLN and PLC parties control the council, so many perceived the new rules as an attempt to limit impartial observation.
Still, many outside observers from Europe, South America and Nicaragua were on hand to ensure it was a fair election.
"It's extremely beneficial to have impartial, outside observers watch," Gumbrecht said. "It ensures all votes are counted and there is no mistreatment. It calls out the fraud. We should take a lesson from new democracies."
The group returned to the U.S. in early November and debriefed and held a presentation for the public.
"It was a whole different perspective," Grove said. "It was huge for me."