LATE last year, readers of Barricada, Nicaragua's morning newspaper, were stunned by a banner headline: "Humberto retires!" The news produced more than a few sighs of relief. But the relief was only momentary.
It was "Dia De Los Innocentes," the Latin April Fool's Day, and further reading revealed that "Humberto" was not Humberto Ortega Saavedra, the controversial Sandinista Army chief, but Humberto Sanchez, director of Radio Sandino. Once again, many felt, the joke was on them.
A year after her election, President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro has made progress remaking Nicaragua's Sandinista-trained Army, eliminating the draft, slashing the number of active troops by more than 60 percent, and moving to professionalize one of Central America's most partisan institutions.
But her decision to retain General Ortega, the former Sandinista commandante and party strategist who ran the Army under his brother, Daniel Ortega Saavedra, remains controversial. It is proof to many Nicaraguans that the Sandinistas are still in charge a year after their electoral defeat.
"Nicaraguans can put up with a lot. But this isn't right," says Candida Rodr 146&gt;guez, a nurse in Managua. "Humberto Ortega is the one running Nicaragua, not Violeta." Demands that the general resign surface repeatedly here.
Chamorro's moves to restructure the armed forces illustrate the pressures she faces as she tries to reconcile Nicaragua's highly polarized populace and to demilitarize the country after 10 years of war and one-party rule.
The Army the president inherited last April was a highly politicized institution, forged as a guerrilla force during the 1979 Sandinista revolution, trained by Cuban and East-bloc experts and hardened by the contra war. Under the Sandinistas, the line separating party from Army was hazy.
Chamorro has moved to professionalize and trim the corps, once the region's largest. The transition accord signed by the government and the Sandinistas last March prohibited Army members from keeping positions in the Sandinista Party. General Ortega subsequently resigned as a Sandinista official. Cuban military advisers were sent home.
At her inauguration, the new president announced the end of the unpopular military draft. About 5,000 officers were retired late last year with promises of land, aid, and retraining.
Trimming the Army
These measures cut Nicaragua's Army to 28,000 from 80,000 members a year ago, according to government figures. Chamorro says the Army will be reduced to 25,000 members by year end.
Early last month, the president brought the armed forces under her direct command by amending a Sandinista law granting broad authority to the Army chief. Such changes have been applauded within Nicaragua and throughout the region.
"It's no small feat to convince a revolutionary, ideological Army to reduce itself," says a Latin American diplomat based here. "People here want it done overnight, but I don't think that's possible. Violeta deserves a lot of credit for what she has done."
But critics say the changes are not all they appear. Retired officers, for instance, remain on active reserve. "These guys may be militarily demobilized but they're not politically demobilized," says a Western diplomat.
And Army allegiances remain in question. In an incident embarrassing to the government, three Army officers and a cashiered major recently admitted selling 28 Soviet-made surface-to-air missiles to Salvadoran guerrillas last October in violation of regional peace accords.
The Army quickly distanced itself from the four men. Stating that the men were "blinded by their political passions," Army spokesmen condemned their actions and asserted the missiles had been stolen.
Earlier this month, the officers were sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. They are seeking amnesty from the government.
Despite the Army's assertions, the arrests sparked fresh debate over the loyalty of the Sandinista-trained corps, with critics focusing on General Ortega.
With Humberto Ortega still at the helm, and the Army's high command intact, many here believe the most important changes remain to be seen.
Those on the right point out that the same Humberto Ortega who pledges loyalty to Chamorro was little more than a year ago threatening "neutralization" of opposition members if the US invaded Nicaragua. Could the general change so much in so short a time? Many say "no."
"This is the time to stop Humberto, before he becomes another dictator," says Emilio Alvarez, a Conservative Party politician, who has called for Ortega's resignation.
Additional arms shipments have fueled the controversy. On Feb. 22, the Honduran Army intercepted a truck coming from Nicaragua with 35 Soviet-made rocket launchers and 2,000 bomb detonators hidden under a load of bananas. In interviews since his arrest, the truck driver said the Sandinista Army gave him the weapons and a safe-conduct pass.
The United States State Department says the arms were headed to a group trying to overthrow the Honduran government.
The Bush administration asked the Soviets earlier this month, to end aid to the Nicaraguan Army unless it promises to halt such shipments.
The murder last month of Enrique Berm 156&gt;dez, the former contra military chief, also raised speculation here that the Sandinistas, and perhaps members of the Army or police forces, may have been involved. The Sandinistas vehemently deny this and few details have emerged.
Chamorro responds to criticism of the Army and General Ortega in particular by repeating her inauguration statement that the general's assignment is temporary. Recently, however, her moves appear to have consolidated his position. Contrary to promises made to the nation's mayors last fall, for example, the president decided not to appoint a civilian defense chief this year.
Ex-soldiers want jobs
In a recent showdown with the National Assembly, Chamorro sided with the Army, vetoing legislation to cut military spending for 1991 to $58.7 million from $177 million a year ago. The figure approved was $70 million, not far from the $78.6 million the Army had requested.
"Our country could not immediately absorb thousands more demobilized soldiers without the risk that it would produce profound social conflicts as well as unnecessary political tensions," explained the president in a message to the nation, pointing out that thousands of former Sandinista and contra soldiers are already looking for jobs.
Government officials appear convinced that the only way to transform and reduce the Army is gradually, with Ortega assuring a peaceful transition.
"It's a very difficult job," says National Assembly President Alfredo Cesar, a key Chamorro adviser. "It's a job that is not out of danger, in all senses."
Nevertheless, many Nicaraguans see that danger differently.
"Violeta believes in Humberto, but in reality he is her enemy, not her friend" says Nurse Rodr 146&gt;guez. Using a Nicaraguan saying she adds, "Es como tener el alacran en la camisa."
It's like having a scorpion under your shirt. One false move, she explains, and you're stung.