ONE year ago Violeta Chamorro was sworn in as president of a war-weary, depleted, and bitterly divided Nicaragua. After more than a decade of civil war, distrust was high. Though defeated at the polls, the Sandinistas vowed to ``rule from below,'' and through strikes waged guerrilla war against the government's economic policies. Mrs. Chamorro made a pivotal decision to pursue a policy of national reconciliation, rather than to use the power of government to force rapid change. She left the Sandinistas in charge of the security forces, and she yielded to demands of Sandinista-dominated unions to buy labor peace.
She has paid a price for her policy. Concessions to the Sandinistas have angered elements in her 14-party coalition, members of the former contra resistance forces, and the Bush administration. High levels of public spending and delay in bringing about free-market reforms have deepened Nicaragua's economic distress.
Yet it's hard to fault Chamorro for her decision. In a country so split and so lacking a political culture of democracy and compromise, forceful attempts by Chamorro to impose controversial policies would have been ineffective at best, possibly explosive. The Sandinistas remain the largest single political force in the country and have the strongest and best-organized military capability.
Moreover, the policy of accommodation has paid dividends. The military has been reduced by two-thirds, and the Sandinistas have somewhat moderated their resistance to reducing the state's role in the economy. If they don't exactly qualify as a ``loyal opposition,'' nor have they been provoked into belligerent disloyalty.
But Chamorro's success in preserving social peace and restoring civil rights could be undermined if she fails to turn around Nicaragua's dismal economy - perhaps the worst in Latin America after Haiti's. The US can lend an immediate hand by leading a consortium of countries to relieve Nicaragua's international debt burden, giving it access to both the credit and the development advice of the World Bank and other lending agencies. President Bush promised to do this during Chamorro's visit to Washington l ast week. He should lose no time in fulfilling that promise.