Nicaragua Still Lacks Strong Leadership

EVERY Sunday in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua, Mrs. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro sits down with her four grown children for a family dinner. Unremarkable, you might say, and no different from a weekend scene reenacted in households around the world.

Except that Mrs. Chamorro is the president of Nicaragua, and her four children, although they remain on speaking terms, are split politically two-and-two between support of the Sandinistas who governed Nicaragua with Marxist rule, and of the opposition that ousted them after a bitter conflict.

Chamorro, the widow of a murdered newspaper editor, once served with the Sandinista government, but then broke with it. Ultimately, and after a bloody civil war, she led a diverse coalition to political victory over the Sandinistas.

Now that coalition is fraying and may fall apart. Some members are incensed by the extent to which Chamorro has cooperated with the defeated Sandinistas since the political transition.

Is she, as some of her lieutenants assert, a symbol of reconciliation, binding the various factions in Nicaragua together just as she strives to maintain family unity at her Sunday dinner table?

Or is she, as her critics assert, a weak and naive leader who is so intent on appeasing the Sandinistas that her leadership and her authority have become eroded to the point of ineffectiveness?

Says one observer who has known her for 30 years: "She is a very nice woman. Everybody likes her. But she is no Margaret Thatcher. Not even a Corazon Aquino. She is a powerful emotional force. But the problem is that the government she was elected to lead has no power. The weapons remain in the hands of the old Sandinista regime."

After her accession to office Chamorro left the police and the military under the control of Sandinista leaders. Specifically she retained Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra, brother of former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, as army commander.

This startled her coalition partners. They have become increasingly worried by the undiminished influence of the Sandinistas in the two years since the election took place.

The Sandinistas have called strikes at will, mounted demonstrations, and used their police and military force to pursue their own ambitions and harass their enemies.

When Chamorro's right-hand man, her son-in-law Antonio Lacayo, recently pitched a consultative group of the World Bank in Washington, he brought with him as part of the Nicaraguan delegation former President Ortega. Addressing the gathering, Ortega suggested that the revolution Nicaragua is undergoing is a continuation of the Sandinista government - a suggestion that Mr. Lacayo seemed not to deny.

This incensed members of the coalition supporting Chamorro, as well as Nicaraguan exiles, including bankers and businessmen, in Miami.

Now the coalition partners are threatening to withdraw their support from Chamorro.

But if all is not well in the Chamorro camp, nor is there unity among the Sandinistas. Many rank-and-file Sandinistas are repelled by the rapacity with which their leaders have seized buildings, estates, and other assets, to become millionaires. This contradicts the socialist idealism their leaders have long preached.

The popularity of the Ortega brothers is diminished. When the Sandinistas recently held elections for party leadership, the Ortegas dared not run as individuals but only as part of a nine-person slate on which there could be only an up-or-down vote.

"What we are seeing," says one observer, "is a redefining of the battle lines. It is less and less an ideological conflict between pro- and anti-Sandinistas, and more and more a class conflict between the poor and the rich.

The poor have not benefited from political change. They have not gotten land, or titles to property. They're not getting the imports of machinery that would increase agricultural productivity. Meanwhile the Sandinista leaders have stolen from the people and joined the upper classes."

The people of Nicaragua do not have the strong leadership they hoped for. Chamorro needs to curb the Sandinistas and fulfill some of the electoral promises she made to the people.

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