Vital Nicaragua harvest upset by rebel raids

In Nicaragua, a day in the mountains picking coffee is a symbol of support for the Sandinista government as well as an act of production. Fully armed militia units are harvesting the coffee fincasm (farms) nearest the Honduran border, over which anti-Sandinista rebel groups are making almost daily raids into Nicaragua. And militias are guarding thousands of students and city dwellers who are responding to a Sandinista call for volunteers to assist with the harvest in the northern battle zone.

This is the second year the fincasm have experienced a severe labor shortage. The main coffee region is in Jinotega and Matagalpa - but these areas also see the most aggressive counterrevolutionary raids.

The threat of attack has kept some parents from sending their children into the fincas, and in the most dangerous areas, a significant portion of the labor force is required for defense of the coffee plantations.

This year the northern harvest has ripened early due to unusual weather, overlapping with the country's west coast bean harvest and further taxing the nation's labor supply.

Ironically, the land reform program - one of the major programs promised by the Sandinistas - has contributed to the problem. The program has given thousands of formerly landless peasants their own plots of land, effectively pulling them from a traditionally large harvest labor pool.

For the nation's Sandinista leaders, the harvest is critical. Coffee is the main product of Nicaragua's agro-export economy. In 1981, coffee accounted for $ 137 million, or 27 percent, of total export earnings. Dollar income is necessary to pay for imports and to service the country's mounting foreign debt, which is more than $2.5 billion.

But a diminishing supply of consumer goods and medicines is a rising source of discontent among Nicaraguans - a problem that could erode support for the government.

Several Nicaraguan leaders have traveled through the coffee region encouraging workers and joining in the harvest activities. Pro-government newspapers El Nuevo Diario and Barricada carry front-page articles almost daily on the progress and defense of the harvest.

Thousands of volunteers from Managua and other urban centers have joined in the harvest so far. Up to 60,000 are expected to participate before the last red bean is picked in February.

Nicaraguan Defense Ministry sources recently disclosed that attacks by Somocista ex-National Guardsmen have stepped up dramatically since mid-November. Groups of up to 400 ''contras'' cross over from Honduras, often in apparent efforts to disrupt and halt harvest activities.

Another conspicuous absence from the harvest force is migrant laborers from El Salvador. Until the civil war in El Salvador and tensions between Nicaragua and Honduras terminated cross-border migration, several thousand Salvadoreans migrated annually to pick coffee and cotton.

Labor unions and other organizations in Managua have sent truckloads of volunteers to the mountains for week-long picking shifts. Many students gave up traditional family celebrations at Christmas and New Year's in order to pick coffee. Many observers say the big response to the Sandinista call for assistance with the harvest indicates the government still enjoys strong support , despite the nation's severe economic problems and growing warfare with counterrevolutionaries.

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