Chamorro Splits Coalition With First Hard Decision


TALK about a short honeymoon. Violeta Barrios de Chamorro had hardly entered the Managua stadium for her inauguration ceremony Wednesday when militant Sandinistas began hurling plastic bags filled with water and orange soda at her. A smiling Mrs. Chamorro persevered, her spirits and her dress undampened by the barrage.

But shortly after being sworn into office, Nicaragua's new president was stung again by the silent disapproval of her own followers when she announced that Sandinista military leader Humberto Ortega Saavedra would remain temporarily as Army chief. One flag-waving Chamorro supporter sitting next to a reporter stomped from the stadium in disgust.

With hard-liners harping on both sides, Chamorro is carving out a conciliatory course and heeding some sage advice: Forget the honeymoon, just try to save the marriage.

``The extremes in Nicaragua have always had the tendency to grab the process and feed each other,'' says Robert Pastor, a former Carter administration official involved in the transition process. ``But if the two sides fall back into a confrontational mode, then all that's been done will be at risk.''

Chamorro and her top advisers have tried to avoid conflict with the Sandinista Front, not out of love, but respect. The Sandinistas, after all, control 100,000 armed men as well as the country's strongest unions and popular organizations. Excluding them from negotiations would open up the possibility of a violent backlash.

But in the rush to negotiate with their former foes, Chamorro's advisers - led by Antonio Lacayo Oyanguren, minister of the presidency - have allowed their own political coalition to fall apart.

The fragile grouping of 14 parties ranging from conservative to communist moved a step closer to chaos Wednesday after Chamorro announced that the Army would remain in Gen. Ortega's hands. Ortega, older brother of ex-President Daniel Ortega Saavedra, is seen as the chief Sandinista strategist and architect of the Sandinistas' military buildup.

Angered by the concession and lack of consultation, two nominated Cabinet ministers and a would-be vice minister refused to assume their posts Wednesday. Several independent labor unions threatened to protest. Even leaders of Chamorro's National Opposition Union (UNO) blasted what one called her ``weak-kneed betrayal'' of the Nicaraguan people.

``We're going to have a serious problem,'' says Jaime Bonilla, a top deputy of marginalized Vice President Virgilio Godoy. He says there will be ``anxiety and popular unrest that we ourselves would be willing to lead in order to preserve the democracy and rights that we won ... with the elections of Feb. 25.''

Says one European envoy, ``The people voted for change, but they're seeing continuity.''

They may also expect a continuation of the contra war, since Ortega's presence creates a Catch-22: Ortega is supposed to stay only until the contra army is demobilized, which would be by June 10 according to an agreement signed last week. But contra troops said Wednesday they would not turn in their weapons until Ortega himself is out of power. (See Story to Left.)

US officials offered only a muted public reaction. Vice President Dan Quayle said Chamorro ``obviously feels that Humberto Ortega can help her. That's her decision and we support her.''

The dispute has also spilled over into the Sandinista ranks. The nine-man Sandinista directorate is reportedly split over whether Ortega should collaborate with the new government. A source close to the directorate said that some hard-line comandantes, including former Interior Ministry Tomas Borge, think it would be shameful for Ortega to preside over the dismantling of the Army he built.

But up to this point in Nicaragua's delicate transition, pragmatic voices seem to have prevailed over the hard-liners. Mr. Borge, for example, has been ousted and his Interior Ministry, the center of the Sandinistas' security apparatus, will be dismantled.

Mr. Godoy has been so isolated that he has little influence over policy.

``On both sides, the extremists are being marginalized,'' says analyst Mario Arana.

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