Rural Nicaraguans Have Doubts About Transfer of Power

POLITICAL passions have cooled substantially since Nicaragua's Feb. 25 election, as officials elected to the local municipal council prepare to transfer power to a new National Opposition Union (UNO) government April 25. But in this town of 10,000 in Nicaragua's northern mountains, the transition is not so smooth.

Like many towns across Nicaragua, San Juan del Rio Coco's Sandinista supporters took to the streets in the wake of the elections to express defiance after their party's loss.

Supporters of the victorious National Opposition Union (UNO) say they kept out of sight during several days of stone throwing and other incidents.

Roger Padilla, the deputy mayor-elect, is a former contra rebel who returned home three years ago under an amnesty program. Sandinista leaders say his presence on the UNO ticket is one reason for tensions in the town, especially given the continuing uncertainty about the contras' future.

``Even officials of the Bush administration are telling the contras they must disarm, yet we've detected larger groups of them in the area,'' said Carlos Manuel Morales, the top Sandinista official in the region. ``We're still in a state of war, and have to take appropriate measures as long as they remain a threat.''

Morales visited San Juan recently on a swing through the area to meet with locally elected leaders. He said he was making the visits to reassure Sandinista and UNO officials that the Sandinistas will observe the election results and yield power next month.

Talks on the transition continue in Managua over the same issues local officials throughout the countryside are grappling with: turning over both administrative duties and control over the security apparatus.

But in these northern areas close to the contra war, overcoming the deep mistrust of a decade of war is proving difficult.

``If we had wanted the war to continue, we never would have had elections,'' Morales said, sitting in the town hall of the neighboring village of Telpaneca. ``The Sandinista Front will live up to its word and accept the election results.''

But local UNO officials complain that despite these assurances, the Sandinistas are increasing tensions by passing out arms to supporters and warning that a new civil war could erupt unless the contras disarm.

The Sandinistas won a slim majority in the administrative region where San Juan is located, primarily due to a substantial victory in the capital city of Esteli. But the opposition won all but 5 of 26 regional municipalities.

As in the country overall, no one knows how the new political makeup will work in practice.

Another unknown is how far the UNO leadership will go to recuperate property confiscated from landowners who may now return to reclaim their land. Although advisers to President-elect Violeta Barrios de Chamorro say they will not evict people from hundreds of farms seized by the government after the 1979 revolution, many Sandinistas say they'll take no chances.

Many Sandinista supporters also say they fear the contras may seek to impose their will in isolated areas, whatever may be decided about their fate in Managua or Washington.

According to a recent agreement, the rebels are to begin demobilizing by moving into security zones to be established by United Nations peacekeeping troops.

But many say they will not give up their weapons at least until after the change in government April 25.

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