The Challenges for Chamorro

INCOMING Nicaraguan president Violeta Chamorro, an inexperienced politician at best, faces major challenges upon taking the reins of her battered Central American nation. Her most difficult task may be maintaining unity in the United Nicaraguan Opposition (UNO). UNO, a fractious assemblage of parties from the extreme right to the far left, holds 51 of 92 seats in the National Assembly. While tilted in favor of conservative parties, the UNO delegation's power is widely distributed. Five parties each hold five seats; six others hold three seats apiece.

By contrast, the more unified Sandinista party (FSLN) controls 39 seats - the largest party. If the FSLN block remains cohesive (likely, but not certain), they can forge alliances with UNO's progressive factions and to block UNO legislation. The Communist, Social Christian, and Socialist parties, who control nine UNO seats, are ideologically closer to the FSLN. While certain to vote with UNO to reduce FSLN influence over the army, they may vote with the Sandinistas to stymie attempts to dismantle the health care system, agrarian reforms, or other social advances.

Chamorro's ability to pass legislation depends on keeping UNO together. In the campaign, UNO's squabbles led to public shoving matches. Her vague platform emphasized economic hardships and a need for reconciliation - themes that touched a nerve among Nicaraguans. But her coalition is far from united behind her economic program.

Meanwhile, powers accruing to the new autonomous regional assemblies on the Atlantic, as well as new municipal councils, foreshadow a decentralized political structure in Nicaragua. The diverse peoples in the sparsely populated eastern half of Nicaragua will decide a range of regional issues for themselves.

Elected municipal councils will assume a political space the Sandinistas had controlled through appointed officials organized in a top-down chain of command. UNO will control the councils in Managua and in all but 4 of 16 capitals. Empowered to impose and collect local taxes, these municipal councils can initiate local projects - to the extent they can extract money from impoverished constituencies.

Here again, the fractious UNO coalition must reckon with political diversity as each council elects its own mayor and makes taxing and spending decisions. While a skeptic might complain these councils multiply possibilities for patronage and corruption, the opportunities for hundreds of local Nicaraguan leaders to gain experience in constituent political processes are greater.

Unfortunately, the contras are still a dangerous wild card that threaten a peaceful transition. On March 23, rebel representatives signed an accord with Chamorro's envoys, promising to demobilize. Under the agreement contras in Honduran camps were to hand over their weapons to a United Nations commission no later than April 20. Rebels inside Nicaragua were to gather in enclaves and eventually turn over their arms to the UN commission which will facilitate their reintegration into civilian life.

But within days of the March 23 pact, many rebels began moving into Nicaragua with arms and supplies. ``We really don't trust the Sandinistas,'' said Aren Castro Gonzalez, a 21-year-old rebel.``It could be that there will be more fighting.'' Few contras and fewer weapons remained in Honduran camps when UN peacekeeping forces recently dismantled them.

Contra leader Aristides Sanchez estimated about 20 percent of those soldiers - basically armed peasants - would ignore the demobilization plan. Contra leaders appear lax in enforcing discipline on their troops to fulfill the agreement they signed.

On April 19, rebel leaders signed an agreement to demobilize by June 10, the date they have committed to disarm completely. In essence, they won their demand to remain armed until Chamorro demonstrates authority over the Sandinista army.

The Bush administration acknowledged that armed rebels were streaming into Nicaragua, but did nothing to stop them. Now the White House should pressure its proxy army to live up to its commitment to disarm. As a lever, US-supplied food and funds, now distributed by the US Agency for International Development (AID), should be funneled through the UN commission that oversees demobilization.

Chamorro assumes power as the nation enters its crucial planting season. Unfortunately, the new government is unlikely to receive US aid quickly enough to get seeds into farmers' hands. While US funds will help, her ability to govern effectively is based on keeping UNO unified, working in a spirit of reconciliation with the FSLN, and disarming the contras within Nicaragua - some of whom could leave weapon caches in the mountains. In short, Chamorro's ability to cultivate peace in this war-torn nation will be sorely tested.

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