Nicaragua: Back To Square One?

SADDAM HUSSEIN doesn't have many international friends, but it was logical that one of them to show up for a mutual hand-wringing diatribe against the United States would be Daniel Ortega, the former president of Nicaragua. If Mr. Ortega had any advice for Mr. Hussein, based on the experience of the Nicaraguan Sandinistas, it must have been: ``Beat a strategic retreat if you have to, but remember that us bad guys never, never, really give up power.''

The Sandinistas may have undergone the embarrassment of losing an election. It is not deterring them from trying to maintain control of Nicaragua and using violence and manipulation to destroy the government of President Violeta Chamorro.

In the face of this challenge, Mrs. Chamorro's administration has responded weakly. Key advisers seem to have persuaded her to attempt compromise and conciliation with the Sandinistas, an approach which the Sandinistas have shamelessly abused.

Frustration is thus rampant among the anti-Sandinista coalition which won at the polls last February. Some lingering elements of the contras have reemerged with guns blazing to achieve the reforms and fruits of victory which the Chamorro administration has been unable to deliver. Nobody doubted that the road to democracy in Nicaragua would be a hard one to travel. The danger now is a diversion into another round of civil war.

When the Chamorro government assumed office it discovered that the Sandinista Front for National Liberation (FSLN) had systematically robbed the treasury before leaving. Cash, buildings, houses, cars and trucks, furniture from government buildings, had all been turned over to the Sandinista party and its supporters. Only $3 million was left in currency reserves. The state-run radio network was dismantled and individual stations given to Sandinista loyalists. The FSLN ended up with a network of more than 300 enterprises. Coupled with a network of businesses operated by the Sandinista-controlled military, the FSLN was in a powerful position to control the economy.

When the Chamorro administration launched a program of reform and tried to assert itself, it was met with a series of strikes and demonstrations by the Sandinista-controlled civil servant unions that brought government to a standstill. In successive campaigns to paralyze the government, the Sandinistas cut telephones and transportation networks, built barricades throughout the capital, and ordered strikes.

The Chamorro government caved in, awarded salary raises and job protection for returning strikers, and abandoned its campaign for the privatization of industry and the return of confiscated property.

The government was without military muscle because after winning the election it had agreed to leave Daniel Ortega's brother, Humberto, in charge of the Sandinista-controlled military. In this controversial decision, Mrs. Chamorro was much influenced by her son-in-law and principal adviser, Antonio Lacayo. Mr. Lacayo has consistently taken the line that the victors in the election have no choice but to work with the Sandinistas.

Many anti-Sandinistas think this has all gone too far. The contras, who disbanded and surrendered their arms (in theory) upon promises of land and aid, are so far empty-handed. Some of them have re-emerged with weapons to wrest land and booty from still-entrenched Sandinista officials. There has been fighting. There have been deaths. The Chamorro government is caught in the middle, so far looking helpless.

In a special report on post-election Nicaragua, the New York-based Freedom House likens the situation to a bad marriage. Says writer Douglas W. Payne: ``The Ortegas consider the marriage necessary because ousting Chamorro would bring world opinion down on their heads and mean a cutoff of international economic aid. The Chamorro government believes the marriage necessary to avoid civil war. The problem is the relationship has been one-sided from the beginning when Humberto Ortega outmaneuvered Antonio Lacayo on the prenuptial agreement.''

Says Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, one of Chamorro's main supporters: ``Right now the FSLN is running the country.''

It is a tragedy in America's backyard largely overlooked as Saddam Hussein and Daniel Ortega clink glasses in Baghdad.

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