VIOLETA BARRIOS DE CHAMORRO is one of the two figures of national prominence in Nicaragua who are not Sandinistas. The other is Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. The publisher of the opposition newspaper La Prensa began her rise to prominence in 1959 when her husband, the famed Pedro Joaqu'in Chamorro, led a failed rebellion against dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle. Mr. Chamorro used his newspaper to focus popular resentment against Somoza, until he was killed by suspected assassins of the Somoza regime in 1978.
Chamorro's death touched off the last push of a long insurrection to depose the Somoza dynasty, and Chamorro became known as the Hero and Martyr of Public Liberties.
Dona Violeta inherited La Prensa and her husband's legacy as the ``noble widow.'' She was invited to join the first junta in July 1979 after Somoza fled, but resigned in protest in April 1980. She has remained a public and international figure in her battles with the ruling Sandinistas over censorship during the 1980s, and became a sort of martyr herself when the Sandinistas shut down the newspaper for 14 months beginning in October 1986.
Barrios de Chamorro's stature is due in some regard to her own flair for what makes good news. When the National Assembly passed a new media law, for example, she promptly burned a copy of it on the spot where her husband had been murdered. It made front-page news.
Her appeal as presidential candidate for the National Opposition Union (UNO), the main opposition group, stemmed from the fact that she had stayed aloof from party politics since she retired from the junta, say opposition figures and diplomats. As such, she was removed from the constant bickering that characterizes much of opposition politics.
With her stature as the widow of Pedro Joaqu'in and as a lone knight jousting with the Sandinistas, she had great appeal for the 14 parties in the opposition coalition that nominated her, most of which have a limited national profile.
But both supporters and critics say that while Barrios de Chamorro is the best candidate for UNO, she may not be the best equipped to be president. ``She is very charming,'' notes an admiring South American ambassador. ``But she has no political instincts and is not a political animal at all.''
Dona Violeta is known studiously to avoid discussing politics and policies in detail. She prefers generalizations and homespun philosophy. She can make her advisers wince when delivering extemporaneous remarks, but now reportedly has her speeches written for her.