Nicaragua paid for American YouTubers to 'observe' an election that critics say was a sham

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A portrait of Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega with the word "asesino" written on top.
  • Daniel Ortega was a military commander who helped overthrow a US-backed dictator in 1979.

  • Since returning to power in 2007, however, he has cracked down on his opposition.

  • Many of Ortega's most prominent critics were once members of his Sandinista National Liberation Front.

A "pantomime election," US President Joe Biden called it. Peru's left-wing government agreed, saying it didn't even meet "the minimum criteria" for a free and fair vote.

But Craig "Pasta" Jardula, an American invited by the Nicaraguan government to observe what critics say was a formality - the reelection of leftist-revolutionary-turned-centrist-strongman Daniel Ortega - said the November 7 election was a model for self-styled "patriots" in the United States to follow, citing its requirement that voters show identification.

"They take election security seriously," he said.

Jardula isn't just a random observer. He's a podcaster, his show The Convo Couch transcending traditional notions of left and right, from boosting Bernie Sanders during the Democratic primaries to campaigning against vaccine mandates today.

On January 6, he and his cohost, Fiorella Isabel, another state-sponsored Nicaragua election observer, went to Washington, DC, and provided sympathetic coverage of Trump supporters crying fraud ("No, not at all," he said when asked if the 2020 election was free and fair).

That pedigree is what led the two to Nicaragua.

"Our friend who invited us to come down let us know that he might be able to put a word with the foreign ministry, let them know who The Convo Couch is, what we do," Jardula told Insider. "And the foreign ministry industry let us come here as observers to see the whole process."

That friend, according to Jardula, was Caleb Maupin, a political commentator at RT, the Russian state broadcaster. Moscow is a close ally of the Nicaraguan government.

"He thought it was important for us to get the opportunity to come here and do what we do," Jardula said.

It is not clear what Maupin's relationship is to the Ortega government. On Twitter, he posted that he was there as part of a "delegation to Nicaragua," which included two others, sent by the Center for Political Innovation, a group he founded to promote "the construction of American Socialism."

Neither he nor the Nicaraguan government responded to requests for comment.

What appears to be clear is the benefit Managua sees in having populist "influencers" and self-styled independent journalists legitimize its election. After all, almost no one else will do that.

But their observations should not be confused with those of credible witnesses. While "The Convo Couch" hosts were flown around to polling stations in Nicaragua, experienced observers from Europe and the Organization of American States were denied access, per the Associated Press, the Ortega government preferring to invite 232 "electoral companions" to witness the non-transfer of power - including a correspondent for the Iranian government's PressTV and an independent member of the European Parliament. None of the invitees were critical of the process.

"I am afraid this can hardly be considered credible electoral observation," Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, president of the Washington Office on Latin America, a left-leaning think tank, told Insider. Credible election observation is a "highly technical process" that requires training and monitoring that begins months, not days, before the voting itself, she said.

Credible elections require free expression and political participation; in Nicaragua, critical journalists have either been denied entry or forced into exile. The government's fiercest opponents are accused of treason.

"Independent and impartial electoral observation would be denouncing this situation from the beginning," Jiménez said, "not applauding the complete disregard for the rule of law shown by Daniel Ortega."

Podcast host at Nicaraguan polling station
Craig Jardula of The Convo Couch is given a tour of a polling station in Bilwi, Nicaragua. The Convo Couch/YouTube

Whatever its faults, the Ortega government - Rosario Murillo, the vice president, is his wife - has demonstrated it knows the importance of social media. Days before the election, Facebook uncovered a massive propaganda effort on its platforms aimed at discrediting the Nicaraguan government's opposition - produced, in part, by state employees working out of the postal service's headquarters in Managua.

Jardula said he paid for his own flight to the Central American country, but that the Nicaragua government had "covered our rooms and food and that sort of thing." They also paid for a flight from the capital, Managua, to a polling station in the largely indigenous, northeast part of the country, allowing Jardula and his business partner to upload video of what they saw to their YouTube channel.

Officially, turnout in the presidential election was 65%, with three-quarters of those who voted backing the incumbent - after all viable opposition candidates were legally barred from participating, prompting calls for a boycott (Ortega returned to power in 2007 after receiving 38% of the vote). But Urnas Abiertas, a human-rights group in Nicaragua, said its observers witnessed a turnout of less than 20%. That tracks with opinion polls that show Ortega is widely unpopular following a 2018 crackdown on protesters that saw more than 300 people killed by the government and its paramilitary forces.

There were, certainly, no real lines to speak of for Sunday's vote, despite no one voting by mail - a fact that all sides agree on. "We clocked a voter at the busiest location," Jardula said. "It took that voter eight minutes to vote."

Jardula believes what he witnessed was state efficiency. He says he does not believe that perception has been influenced by who paid for his stay.

"I don't feel like I've been swayed in any way, shape, or form," he said.

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