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Sandinistas Rethinking Their Place in Nicaragua

After 11 years, party faces declining popular support, disunity in ranks

By Jennifer Bingham HullSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / July 19, 1990


SINCE their stunning February electoral defeat by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, Nicaragua's Sandinistas have been a party divided, confused, and in search of a new identity. Last week they found one.

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As the party celebrates the 11th anniversary of Sandinista revolution today in the wake of a violent nine-day strike by government employees, the banner that the Sandinistas are likely to hoist highest will be the one defending workers rights. The workers were demanding higher wages and protesting a move to redistribute land to those who owned it before the Sandinista revolution.

Observers here say party leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra's direct participation in the settlement that ended the most serious threat yet to Mrs. Chamorro's government, has brought the Sandinistas increased political leverage and greater unity in the ranks at a time when other forces threaten it with disarray.

``Little by little the party is recuperating. The strike and the settlement have bolstered the Sandinistas' organization,'' says Adolfo Delgado, a Sandinista sympathizer who lives in Managua. ``Every time the government takes action against the workers it strengthens the party.''

But the cost of gaining political leverage with the government has apparently come at the expense of broader popular support.

Gaining ``political space doesn't necessarily translate into popular support,'' says a Latin American diplomat. ``On the contrary. People in this country don't want more violence. And they know that if this strike had gone any further it would have been an insurrection.''

Such assessments come as the Sandinista party enters what promises to be a long and difficult period of restructuring and self-analysis, as it struggles to reestablish itself along more pragmatic and less ideological lines.

It is not clear exactly what role, if any, Sandinista leaders played in actually launching the strike. Party officials and workers say the action was called by the union.

``They [union leaders] didn't ask us if they should go ahead, and I think that even if they had asked us they might or might not have followed our advice,'' says Commandante Luis Carrion, one of eight members of the party's ruling directorate.

But when violence erupted in the streets of Managua ``the Sandinistas saw the gravity of the crisis and sought negotitations,'' says Oscar Ren'e Vargas, a political analyst close to the Sandinistas. ``The party didn't start the strike but it took advantage of it once it was under way.''

Such distinctions are lost on many Nicaraguans to whom the Sandinistas look more like spoilers than defenders of the working class, as they wreak havoc on Chamorro's economic plan just 11 weeks after she took office.

``This poor country is in ruins, and now, with all of the trouble the Sandinistas have been making, it's just going to get worse,'' says Maria Zamora, a domestic worker who lives in Managua. ``All the Sandinista's want to do is get back into power.''