Will Sandinistas loosen their rule or face more US pressure?

In the next few months, the Sandinistas have three alternatives if they want to lower tensions with their internal and international critics. They can: 1. Seek real progress in current negotiations with the United States.

2. Hold free and fair elections this November.

3. Respond to signals from Eden Pastora and other opposition leaders in exile. The opposition leaders have said they would be willing to come to terms with the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) if the Sandinistas moderate their course.

Any one or a combination of these alternatives could be used to satisfy most of their critics and to achieve a national reconciliation.

If the Sandinistas choose none of these courses of action by the end of the year, it is highly probable they will face increased pressures from the US and from the Latin American and West European governments run by Social Democrats.

Many Sandinistas feel that elections are the quickest way for the FSLN to obtain national and international legitimacy without having to concede much power.

In spite of popularity slips, the Sandinistas probably could win elections without resorting to outright fraud. Although there is much popular discontent, none of the existing opposition parties is likely to be able to capitalize enough on that discontent to win. The traditional opposition parties were kept weak by longtime dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and discredited by the revolution. Even many of the Nicaraguan common people who now dislike the Sandinistas still consider the old opposition parties as ineffective representatives of a discredited elite. Under five years of Sandinista rule the parties have been further weakened by harassment.

Furthermore, Sandinista control of Nicaraguan society is strong, and the Central American tradition of people voting as they really think is weak here. The Sandinistas probably have a large chunk of automatic votes already, just counting up the numbers of Army and militia members and public employees.

Thus many in the internal opposition and even some of Nicaragua's Social Democratic allies are arriving at the conclusion that elections alone will not be enough to satisfy the Sandinistas' critics at home and abroad.

The Nicaraguan opposition therefore is focusing not just on the holding of free elections in November, but also on the arrangements the Sandinistas are willing to make that would give the private sector, the middle classes, and opposition parties a share of power even after a Sandinista election victory.

The most prominent potential opposition candidate, Arturo Cruz Porras - a one-time member of the Sandinista junta and a former ambassador to the US - thinks of the election as a potential vehicle of ''national reconciliation'' regardless of who wins.

The strategy of the traditional parties is to register candidates and to campaign for office if the Sandinistas comply with certain minimum electoral conditions. The strategy calls for the parties to withdraw from the election process later if they think the Sandinistas are not sponsoring a free vote.

US policy, say Nicaraguan opposition leaders and American officials, has recently evolved from one of saying little about the vote to one of discreetly encouraging the parties to participate.

For the Sandinistas, the elections could be a vehicle for ''national reconciliation,'' or an excuse for radicalization. FSLN radicals reportedly are pushing for a strong anti-US campaign. Such a campaign could serve as a justification for a sharp turn to the left. The Sandinistas could also swing further left if opposition parties refuse to participate in the vote.

Any decision about concessions to be made in sharing power with non-Sandinistas after the election would probably widen the gap between the more pragmatic Ortega brothers (FSLN directorate members Daniel and Humberto) and the radicals.

However, with the announcement this week that Daniel Ortega will be the FSLN presidential candidate, the election will give him control of the government machinery while brother Humberto will remain chief of the armed forces. This arrangement would provide an excellent power base for the Ortegas to negotiate both reconciliation with the opposition and a settlement with the US. A complete failure of the election would make negotiations with the US more difficult.

The least predictable alternative is negotiation with Eden Pastora. Pastora has offered to lay down arms if the election is free. Unofficially Pastora indicated a willingness to negotiate and rejoin the Sandinistas if they remove some radicals from the directorate.

The first article appeared July 17.

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