It is known as the Heroic City. Three times in 1978 and 1979, the people of Esteli rose up against Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle, who responded with an intense aerial bombardment which devastated the city of 30,000. Last week a still-scarred Esteli, 97 km north of Managua, was again the centre of attention as thousands of Nicaraguans gathered there to celebrate the seventh anniversary of the Sandinista revolution that overthrew Somoza. They came along a Pan-American Highway heavily guarded by government tanks and troops to prevent sabotage by the anti-Sandinista insurgents known as contras. And they came to demonstrate that special Esteli-style defiance at a troubled time: the aftermath of the U.S. House of Representatives vote last month to provide $100 million in aid to the contras. “They think we are afraid,” said Alejandra Flores Picardo, whose six sons have fought for the Sandinistas. “But not with $100 or $100 million will they destroy this revolution.”
That spirited loyalty is a welcome sign to the country’s Marxist leaders. But it is emblematic of their beleaguered revolution that they needed mas-
sive security measures just to throw an anniversary party—and that revellers were preoccupied with the prospect of a stepped-up contra challenge. An escalation in the fighting would increase pressure on a government already facing a crumbling economy, chronic food shortages and a small but persistent drumbeat of criticism. Following the U.S. vote, edgy Managua officials moved to silence dissent: they closed down the opposition newspaper, La Prensa, the next day. At the same time,
U.S. sources said that the Sandinistas have acquired as many as 15 Soviet-made MI-17 transport helicopters over the past two months, apparently in anticipation of a major rebel offensive.
When that assault might take place is still not certain. The U.S. aid package will go before the Senate the week of Aug. 4, and most observers expect the Republican-controlled body to pass the
bill and send it on to President Ronald Reagan for signing. But a small number of liberal Democrats are threatening a filibuster which could delay approval. Polls show that despite Reagan’s impassioned pleas, contra aid is not a popular cause with the U.S. public. And congressional investigations into charges of rebel profiteering, drug smuggling and gunrunning have damaged the contras’
case. Still, if the aid bill passes as expected, the funding could begin as early as Sept. 1, providing $70 million in military hardware and training to the contras, $27 million in food, medicine and clothing and $3 million to monitor the contras’ human-rights record—which critics contend is abysmal at best.
U.S. officials say that the program will be managed by the Central Intelligence Agency, although Congress barred the agency from control of the rebels after its mining of Nicaraguan
harbors came to light in 1984. The Senate intelligence committee has yet to decide whether to allow the CIA to add as much as another $300 million in aid from its own discretionary funds. In
any case, the CIA will face a daunting task in reviving the contras, who were organized by the agency in 1981 but are no match for the Soviet-armed Sandinista army of 60,000. Independent experts say that the contras number only 12,000 to 16,000, although contra leaders place the figure at 18,000 and predict that it will grow to 30,000 within a year of receiving the new U.S. aid. Over the past three years the U.S. army has built numerous airfields and roads in neighboring Honduras and stationed a rotating force of 1,200 troops there. It is now preparing to provide added logistical support to the contra war which is designed, in Reagan’s words, to make the Sandinistas “cry uncle.”
Within Nicaragua it is difficult to determine how much support each side has. Xavier Gorosteaga, director of the independent Managuabased Nicaraguan Institute for Social Economic Research, estimates that 15 per cent of the nation’s three million people strongly support the government,
15 per cent ardently oppose it, and the remaining 70 per cent fall somewhere in between. Nicaraguans interviewed by Maclean’s over the past few months expressed growing discontent with the Sandinistas but little inclination to embrace the contra alternative. “I love my country,” said a Matagalpa resident. “I fought in the revolution.
But now I’m tired of the violence, of broken promises.”
The contras’ terror tactics—often aimed at people who work in the government’s land reform, education or health-care programs— have alienated many Nicaraguans. Earlier this month, in the northeastern town of Bocay, 30 people—including 12 children—were killed when a truck being used as a civilian bus struck an antitank mine apparently planted by contras. “All these guys do is wreak havoc,” said Gino Baumann, a Swiss agronomist who has lived in Esteli since 1979. “But you don’t win support by killing teachers and doctors.” Two years ago contras kidnapped 19-yearold Lionidas Zamora Lopez near his family’s northern farm. His mother, Juana, who still does not know whether he is alive or dead, wept as she held up his photograph. “I am not a Sandinis-
ta,” she said. “I am not a contra. I am poor. The war has taken my son, and that has almost killed me. I just want the war to end so I can see him.”
The Sandinistas have also caused their share of heartache. Lino Hernandez of the nominally independent Nicaraguan Permanent Commission on Human Rights, said the government has been “capturing all people who are suspected of collaborating with the contras.” He said there have been 800 such arrests since December, and that detainees often have to wait months for a trial. “In the majority of cases,” said Hernandez, “there isn’t any proof beyond that provided by the security officer. They are often considered sus-
picious because they haven’t joined Sandinista organization.”
In fact, many people, particularly middle-class Managuans, have avoided the country’s military draft. Some have joined the contras, in some cases splitting families along political lines. Luis Fley, a Matagalpa businessman who fought for the Sandinistas in the revolution but later grew disaffected with them, is now believed to be a contra commander. His brother Francisco, meanwhile, has become an officer in the Sandinista army. “If I meet my brother in the mountains,” said Francisco, “I would defend myself and he would defend himself. That is what soldier must do.”
For Nicaraguan civilians, the problems are less dramatic but real none-
theless. The country has a 300-per-cent inflation rate and a scarcity of such staples as rice, eggs, beans and cooking oil. Government officials maintain that the chief source of the economic depression is the war against the contras. It has demanded manpower and money—the military gets more than 50 per cent of the national budget— that could otherwise go toward growing crops. But last February, Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega acknowledged that government mismanagement is also partly to blame for the economic crisis. Alfredo Mendieta, a large coffee farmer in the southern province of Carazo, is particularly upset by what he sees as the government’s often con-
tradictory approach to nationalizing private farms. “When they want our land they think of a way,” said Mendieta. “They say it is producing well and therefore the state needs it, or they say it is producing poorly so the state must expropriate it.” Complaints about government unfairness are widespread. Isabella Castro, a 37-year-old Managua cleaning lady, said that while the government gave her a place to live in a co-operative housing project, she cannot afford to feed her six children properly. As she spoke, her two-year-old daughter tried to suckle her dry breast. “She should be drinking bagged milk,” Castro said bitterly. “But there is no money for that. Only government employees get the [ration] tickets
to buy milk in the
But most Nicaraguans do not seem ready to revolt against their government. Rather, they celebrated the anniversary of their revolution with the knowledge that a larger war with the contras—and possibly the United States—looms ahead. “We will never give up what is ours,” said Francisco Blandón, a militiaman stationed outside Esteli. “If Reagan sends troops, we are waiting for them.” With that kind of combativeness, Nicaraguans seem prepared to meet whatever challenge the contras—and their U.S. sponsors—are likely to mount.
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