NICARAGUA'S new president, Violeta Chamorro, has begun her rule with a very high risk gamble indeed. She has left the army under control of Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra, the former Sandinista military boss, and brother of former President Daniel Ortega Saavedra.
It is supposed to be for a ``transitional'' period. Mrs. Chamorro's advisers speak of ``two to ten months,'' but are a little vague themselves about how long Gen. Ortega's control will last or how it will end.
A lot of people think this is a very bad idea.
The Bush administration went all out to try to head it off. This included a visit by Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson, a message to Mrs. Chamorro from President Bush, and a phone call to her from Secretary of State James Baker.
Nor is there much enthusiasm for the move among Mrs. Chamorro's own supporters, many of whom were critical during last week's inauguration ceremonies. The deal was apparently cut last March by her son-in-law and transition chief, Antonio Lacayo Oyanguren. He seems to be the only close aide who favors it within Mrs. Chamorro's own party. Among the other parties in the uneasy coalition that Mrs. Chamorro assembled to beat the Sandinistas there is open hostility to the decision - hostility that augurs ill for the cohesion and longevity of the coalition.
The strongest reaction of all may come from conservative legislators in the United States Congress. Senator Jesse Helms is already murmuring about stopping aid to any Nicaraguan government that contains communists. That hard-line position seems unlikely to stick, but there will be others who look askance at what Mrs. Chamorro has done.
American officials who have been involved in the dialogue with Mrs. Chamorro say she leaned heavily on her son-in-law in the decision-making and that her rationale for her action is a little woolly. The reasoning seems to be that she was unsure of her ability to neutralize the Sandinista security and police forces, unwilling to put her control to the test, and therefore tried to co-opt Gen. Ortega.
The hope was that he could be helpful in disarming more extreme elements within the Sandinista forces. Ironically, his retention has caused some contras, the guerrillas who fought the Sandinistas, to balk at surrendering their arms while a Sandinista general remains in control of the Nicaraguan army.
Can the Sandinistas, defeated at the polls, be relied upon not to sabotage Mrs. Chamorro's government? The signals are mixed. Former President Daniel Ortega delivered a rambling speech at the inauguration ceremonies, half conciliatory, half Sandinista campaign speech.
The mood at the inauguration was ugly. Banner-waving Sandinistas clogged one side of the stadium, Mrs. Chamorro's supporters the other side. Sandinista supporters tossed water bombs at Mrs. Chamorro and hissed ``assassin'' at Vice President Dan Quayle, the American representative.
Observers of the scene say the Sandinistas have attempted to maintain an infrastructure of their own within the new government and upon the eve of the changeover hardly behaved in a constructive manner. They launched a wave of strikes, raised salaries, and looted government property. Said one eyewitness: ``They stole everything down to the government typewriters, even sold government cars for a hundred dollars apiece.''
Thus the Sandinistas on the eve of their theoretical departure from the government, compounded the very difficult economic problems confronting Mrs. Chamorro. She inherits an economy run-down and badly mismanaged.
Inevitably, there is much likening of Mrs. Chamorro's task to that confronting Cory Aquino in the Philippines after she succeeded Ferdinand Marcos. She must rebuild a nation and, like Mrs. Aquino, she has not had much experience in government and seems ready to rely heavily on advisers.
There is one major difference. When Mrs. Aquino assumed power, she had the army on her side. It remains to be seen whether Mrs. Chamorro's daring gamble will bring the Sandinista army to heel in Nicaragua or simply have laid the groundwork for her own political downfall.