La Prensa: the feisty paper that stands up to Nicaragua's junta

A combative and distinctly noncommunist newspaper thrives in the midst of Nicaragua's revolution. In its 55-year history, the family-owned La Prensa has survived closures, two earthquakes, the assassination of its editor, tank and machine-gun fire -- and, most recently, the threat of mob action.

Until his death at the hands of unidentified gunmen on Jan. 10, 1978, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Cardenal, La Prensa's editor-publisher, was the leading opponent of the Somoza family dynasty. Today, a son with the same name carries on the tradition as one of the most outspoken critics of the new regime.

Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Jr., currently a co-director of La Prensa, has inherited his father's blunt, no-nonsense ways. A brash 29-year-old with a degree in sociology and political science from Mcgill University in Montreal, he seems to relish his gadfly role.

Since taking power 20 months ago, the ruling Sandinistas have imposed increasing restrictions on the press. But Nicaragua's new leftist rulers apparently have to exercise care when it comes to La Prensa.

The popular Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Sr. was jailed several times by the Somozas. His assassination helped to unite and radicalize the moderate opposition to President Anastasio Somoza Debayle as nothing else did. Although he was anti-Marxist, the slain editor believed, as his son puts it, in "living with the Marxists to overthrow Somoza."

"He believed we could have a regime of democratic pluralism," said the son, who has shared with his father a belief in what might best be called social democracy.

But the revolution has split the family. Last year, Xavier Chamorro, brother of the slain editor, became editor of El Nuevo Diario, a new paper that is supportive of the junta. And the slain editor's younger son, Carlos Fernando Chamorro, is a Marxist who edits Barricada, official newspaper of the Sandinista Liberation Front.

Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Jr., says that La Prensa, with average daily sales of 60,000 to 70,000, consistently outsells Barricada and El Nuevo Diario combined.

Chamorro says that he gets along well with his brother but that they rarely see each other. Carlos, he says, is busy with political work late into the night.

Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, too, is a busy man. One day recently, he attended a press conference given by the junta, wrote three stories, and edited much of the paper. He and two other editors take turns running the paper for three-day stretches.

Chamorro's staff now works out of several improvised barracks-like structures. When General Somoza's National Guardsmen attacked the paper, they tried to burn the presses; these now require major repair. A loan of $550,000 has come from a West German foundation.

Chamorro says that La Prensa tries to be positive about Sandinista accomplishments. He thought the government's literacy campaign to teach more Nicaraguans to read and write was a worthwhile effort, even if it involved Marxist indoctrination. He believes that most Nicaraguans are intelligent enough to resist such indoctrination. But he thinks the Sandinistas have made a mess of the economy and have expanded the bureaucracy and the Army beyond reason. He also believes that the Sandinistas are losing popular support.

Many Nicaraguan officials may despise these opinions, but the paper can be seen on many government desks.

La Prensa's latest trouble came on March 14 in the form of what looked like a Sandinista rent-a-mob. Sandinista Interior Minister Tomas Borge Martinez advised editors that it might be wise to withhold publication of the paper for a day. According to Chamorro, Borge offered "protection" for the paper but asserted that if it appeared on the streets the next day, "the anger of the people" against the paper might be so great that "they wouldn't be able to control themselves."

Someone noticed that many in the mob wore Army boots under their civilian trousers and what looked like military-style haircuts.

When the paper reappeared March 16, it came on strong, reporting details of the mob actions, shock over the attacks on the radio stations, and the Sandinista-inspired disruptions of preparations for an opposition rally. The paper sold 90,000 copies, a third more than normal.

"Whenever we're closed or have to stop printing, we always start out again selling a lot of papers," said the delighted Pedro Joaquin.

More pressure is likely, he said. "But we cannot give the impression that we're frightened. . . . We have to give the impression that we're strong.

"We'll be ready for them next time," he said, grasping a piece of steel pipe that he keeps next to his desk.

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