Nicaraguans in a Turf Fight Over Just Who Owns Land

President-elect vows to pursue property seized by the Sandinistas

As Nicaragua's Sandinista National Liberation Front has continued to challenge the Oct. 20 presidential election it clearly lost, speculation has run rampant over why the Sandinistas are putting up such a fight.

One theory has to do with property.

The rejected Sandinistas, the reasoning goes, are worried that President-elect Arnoldo Alemn plans to make good on a campaign pledge to require Sandinistas to either pay for or give up properties they took before leaving power in 1990. The speculation is that Sandinista leaders - including former president and defeated challenger Daniel Ortega, who picked up a fine house in the land grab now known as "la Piata" - want guarantees from Mr. Alemn, who takes office in January, that he'll leave the properties alone in exchange for post-election tranquility.

The theory may or may not be true, but it reflects the extent to which private-property issues mark Nicaraguan life. With more than 8,000 cases of properties expropriated by the Sandinistas in dispute and with laws on property rights fuzzy, uncertainty reigns.

That's hardly surprising. In little more than a decade the country has gone from an entrenched oligarchy under the dictatorship of Gen. Anastasio Somoza to a Marxist dictatorship under the Sandinistas to a democratically elected government under President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.

As Marxist idealists, the Sandinistas confiscated huge holdings of the very rich. But they seized small and medium-sized properties - about 40 percent of agricultural land - in a quest to create cooperative state farms. As the unpopularity of such moves became increasingly clear with the rising strength of the United States-backed contra rebels, the Sandinistas set about handing out lands.

President Chamorro's primary goal when she took over in 1990 was to consolidate peace and democracy, rather than confront divisive issues such as property rights. But neither real economic growth nor stable social peace will be possible, many observers insist, until property issues are resolved. "Our largest single problem remains property," says Gerardo Salinas, president of Nicaragua's High Council for Private Enterprise. "If our economy is to grow sufficiently to meet our needs, we will require foreign investment. But for that we need secure property rights."

Land-title horror stories

Stories abound in Nicaragua of frustrations and hardships stemming from the property tangle: a Pizza Hut for Managua that almost failed for lack of a piece of land with a clear title (the restaurant finally opened); thousands of acres of farmland left fallow by property disputes in a country once an agricultural powerhouse; exiled families returning home after the 1980s war to find their farms divided up or their houses inhabited by somebody else.

Government officials estimate that up to a third of the country's farmland is caught up in ownership disputes and sits untilled.

The Chamorro government claims it has resolved nearly 80 percent of the property disputes. But analysts point out that this only means that a clear title has been validated. It doesn't mean that a dispute has been settled with either restitution or compensation. "We don't hear any specific figures for how many people have actually settled an offer" and received compensation, says a foreign official close to the property issue.

Owning property produces stability

In most cases property is not returned, leaving the government scrambling to make compensation. At one point the Chamorro government proposed issuing compensation bonds for up to $650 million - in a country with a gross national product under $2 billion. Another idea was to dedicate proceeds from the privatization of Nicaragua's phone company to compensation. But that privatization has been put off to at least next year.

In his presidential campaign, Alemn suggested an international assistance program of $400 million to $500 million. But that idea incited little foreign interest and has not appeared at the top of the future president's to-do list.

There is good reason to believe that settling property disputes will make Nicaragua more stable and prosperous. In the formerly war-torn north, ex-contras and demobilized Sandinistas alike have put down arms to work lands they gained after the war.

"With these ex-combatants working [land that] they know is theirs, there's less violence, greater security, more family stability, more long-term thinking," says Normn Montenegro, a regional program director in Matagalpa with TechnoServe, a United States foundation helping former fighters from the contra war develop farming skills. "We're also helping them to gain title to their land, so that too means more stability." The program has helped nearly 1,000 ex-combatants take title to land.

In Quilal, a contra hotbed during the war, TechnoServe has helped a group of ex-contras develop a coffee plantation. Near Matagalpa, mostly ex-contras now work a cooperative on land the Sandinista government confiscated from an American. "For the first time in my life, I'm taking part in a productive activity, and it's because we have the assurance of benefiting from our land and the work we do," says Pablo Montenegro, a cooperative member and former contra soldier.

But Nicaragua also needs a strengthened judiciary, observers say, capable of enforcing its rulings, if the issue of property rights is to be finally resolved. In many cases judicial property decisions simply go unenforced.

Others emphasize that it will be no good addressing the property problem without taking into account issues such as agricultural reform and rural development.

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