WORLD

A WOMAN OF MEANS

A DECADE OF SANDINISTA RULE IN NICARAGUA ENDS WITH THE INAUGURATION OF VIOLETA CHAMORRO

ANDREW BILSKI May 7 1990
WORLD

A WOMAN OF MEANS

A DECADE OF SANDINISTA RULE IN NICARAGUA ENDS WITH THE INAUGURATION OF VIOLETA CHAMORRO

ANDREW BILSKI May 7 1990

A WOMAN OF MEANS

WORLD

It was the first democratic transfer of power in Nicaragua’s 152-year history as an independent republic, but it took place before a crowd as symbolically divided as the country itself. In a packed baseball stadium in Managua last Wednesday, supporters of outgoing Sandinista President Daniel Ortega sat on the left-field side, while supporters of president-elect Violeta Chamorro sat on the right. The left-field bleachers erupted into cheers when Ortega parked his black jeep and strode to the stage at home plate to make his last speech as Nicaragua’s leader. But, a few minutes later, as Chamorro entered the stadium on the back of a white truck to take the oath of office, water-filled plastic bags rained down on her from the left-field stands. After Ortega appealed for calm, he removed his presidential sash and ceremoniously draped it over Chamorro, 60, the leader of the 14-party National Opposition Union (UNO), which won the February parliamentary elections. With that, more than a decade of rule by the Sandinistas officially came to an end. Declared Chamorro: “This is the dawn of a new republic.”

A DECADE OF SANDINISTA RULE IN NICARAGUA ENDS WITH THE INAUGURATION OF VIOLETA CHAMORRO

In her inaugural speech, Chamorro announced her intention to remove most state controls from the weakened economy. She also said that the government will stop military conscription. As well, Chamorro offered unconditional amnesty to all of those involved in an eight-year civil war between the Soviet-backed Sandinistas and the U.S.-supported contras, a struggle that has killed 30,000 Nicaraguans.

Then, she provoked the first controversy of her six-year term by declaring that Sandinista Gen. Humberto Ortega, Daniel Ortega’s elder brother, would remain indefinitely as head of the country’s 100,000-member armed forces. That decision clearly angered many of her UNO supporters, two of whom withdrew from consideration for cabinet positions. Ortega’s reappointment threatened to lead to cancellation of a disarmament agreement signed on April 19 by contra commanders, Sandinista leaders and Chamorro’s representatives.

To appease her critics, Chamorro personally took over Humberto Ortega’s political office, the defence portfolio, and said that she would order the armed forces chief to institute sharp reductions in military manpower. Still, some rebel commanders said that they might not honor the agreement to surrender their arms to United Nations peacekeepers by June 10. Said senior political contra leader Aristedes Sánchez: “No one is willing to demobilize as long as Humberto Ortega stays.”

Attitudes among members of Chamorro’s own family reflect the political divisions in

Nicaragua. Violeta Chamorro’s husband, Pedro Joaquín, was a crusading newspaper editor who suffered exile and imprisonment under the dictatorial regime of Anastasio Somoza. His murder in 1978 by unknown assailants sparked the uprising that toppled Somoza and swept the Sandinistas to power the following year. Chamorro became one of the five members of the Sandinista junta in 1979, but resigned after nine months out of distaste for the revolutionary government’s Marxist ideology. She took over her husband’s newspaper, La Prensa, and became the most vocal critic of the regime.

Her elder son, Pedro Joaquin, joined the contras and her daughter Cristiana now edits La Prensa. But daughter Claudia is a Sandinista diplomat, and son Carlos Fernando is the editor of the official Sandinista newspaper,

Barricada.

The family’s divided loyalties help to explain Chamorro’s decision to retain Ortega. But the decision deepened a long-standing division within the UNO coalition. Six parties support Chamorro’s moderate policies, while the eight others say that they want to eradicate any vestiges of Sandinista influence.

Eli Altamirano of the Nicaraguan Communist party said that the division in the coalition could affect voting in the 92-seat assembly, where the 14 UNO parties hold 51 seats to the Sandinistas’ 39. Two seats are held by minor parties.

Chamorro also faces a daunting economic crisis brought on by the eight-year civil war, U.S. economic sanctions and Sandinista mismanagement. An estimated 30 per cent of Nicaraguans are unemployed. Hyperinflation—prices rose by 33,600 per cent in 1988—has made the local currency almost worthless. And the value of exports dropped to $233 million in 1989 at the height of the U.S. embargo—since removed—from $830 million in 1978, before the Sandinistas overthrew the 42-year dictatorship of the Somoza family. “She’s got herculean economic problems,” said Vice-President Dan Quayle, who led a 30-member American delegation to Chamorro’s inauguration. He added: “The country is devastated. It’s going to take a tremendous rebuilding effort.”

The new government has announced that it plans to increase the production of such vital export crops as coffee and cotton. As well, it wants to privatize the economy by eliminating cumbersome state controls, which government advisers say are at the root of the crisis. Chamorro’s task will be eased somewhat by

the lifting in March of the U.S. trade embargo, imposed by Ronald Reagan in 1985. Last week, President George Bush lifted the last remaining trade restriction, restoring Nicaragua’s 2.1-per-cent share of U.S. sugar quotas, worth an estimated $38.4 million annually.

At the same time, Bush invoked emergency powers to send $3 million in medical aid to Nicaragua. Meanwhile, as the Senate continued to debate Bush’s request for a $349-million aid package for the country, Quayle symbolical-

ly presided over the distribution of a shipment of flour and cooking oil. Washington is also trying to persuade other nations to give substantial financial aid to the Nicaraguans. “They need the cash,” said Robert Kurz, a Latin American specialist at the Washington-based Brookings Institution. “We’re talking around half a billion dollars a year for the foreseeable future.”

Chamorro’s close ties to Washington may help her to rebuild Nicaragua’s shattered economy. But the vast political divide in the country, and the urgent need to demilitarize opposing forces, will present an enormous challenge to the first elected female president of a Central American nation.

ANDREW BILSKI

WILLIAM GASPERINI

WILLIAM LOWTHER

Washington