FACING internal dissent, apathy, and disarray, Nicaragua's Sandinistas are looking to a seemingly unlikely source for help: Washington.
Recent overtures signal a conspicuous new stand by the Sandinistas toward their former "Yanqui enemy," part of what observers point to as an attempt to redefine the party in the wake of its devastating 1990 election defeat and the end of the cold war.
On Jan. 14 Army chief Humberto Ortega Saavedra stunned Nicaraguans by pinning the Gold Order of Camilo Ortega on a departing United States military attache, Lt. Col. Dennis Quinn. Named for General Ortega's brother Camilo, who died during the Sandinista revolution, the medal is the military's highest honor, previously reserved for
acts of courage by Sandinista soldiers against the US-backed contras.
Ten days later, Sandinista Comandante Henry Ruiz met in Washington with Bernard Aronson, assistant US secretary of state for inter-American affairs.
And earlier this month four US military experts arrived in Managua to advise the Sandinista-trained Army on arms-security measures, the first such collaboration between the two former enemy forces.
"If we don't have this new type of relation with the United States, we will be offering the people, for 1996 [elections], more war and blockade, and nobody will support us," Sandinista Directorate member Sergio Ramirez recently told members of the Sandinist National Liberation Front (FSLN).
Such initiatives have sparked bitter internal debate and a series of unusual public disputes between Sandinista leaders, with much of the controversy centered on Humberto Ortega.
The brother of former Nicaraguan president and FSLN leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra, Humberto was retained as Army chief after Violeta Barrios de Chamorro was elected president two years ago today. Despite his Sandinista background, the general has repeatedly pledged support to Mrs. Chamorro's government, and has overseen measures to reduce and professionalize the Army.
His decision to award the nation's top military honor to a US attache provoked outrage among many Sandinistas. Calling the action a "political error," Directorate member Luis Carrion pointed to the "indignation and hurt among broad sectors of the population" that it had produced.
In response, Ortega castigated "the leftist minority that attempts to manipulate the sacred patriotic sentiment ... to provoke fanatic and risky confrontation between Nicaraguans and the United States," further citing as "a radical minority" those who recruit the poor to participate in "destabilizing plans that only make their miserable situation worse."
Observers here point to the general's actions as an attempt to curry favor with the US as he seeks to professionalize his Sandinista-trained and formerly East bloc-supplied Army.
"Humberto is very clever, and he knows that the equipment he has and the Army he has are kind of an embarrassment now. His goal is for both himself and the Army to be recognized as professional by the United States," notes one foreign observer here. "That is the strongest card US policy has in Nicaragua."
Yet to those who question Ortega's loyalties, such ties only strengthen an institution they want dismantled.
"By coming here the US military advisers are only legitimizing Humberto," says Marco Antonio Real, a businessman who spent much of Sandinista rule in exile. "We don't want or need an army in Nicaragua."
US Embassy spokesman Stedman Howard emphasizes that the advisers are here at the request of the Nicaraguan government to help improve arms security following incidents of arms shipments to regional rebel groups. He says US policy toward the Sandinistas remains unchanged.
"To the extent that the Sandinistas act within the democratic system ... we are willing to have the same contacts with them as we do with democratic opposition parties around the world," says Mr. Howard. "Unfortunately the Sandinistas continue to use violence and intimidation to oppose President Chamorro's freely elected government."
The debate over relations with the US comes amid a profound identity crisis within the FSLN. In recent weeks even the Sandinista newspaper Barricada has taken to noting the party's ills, citing "drowsiness and apathy" within the ranks and a "pathetic" level of participation in Managua.
Mr. Carrion acknowledges that elections currently under way for local party posts have been delayed in some areas due to lack of candidates and says the party is running a monthly deficit of between $25,000 and $30,000.
"There's a lot of confusion in the air. The National Directorate is not succeeding in solving the ideological contradictions in the party.... We haven't been able to present an alternative to the government's economic plan and this is critical," stated the comandante in an interview.
Attempting to fill the void, a group of party members led by Rafael Solis recently presented the Sandinista leadership with a proposal for reform signed by 18 prominent party members.
The controversial document calls for a more centrist approach to develop a "national project" that would reflect consensus between the Sandinistas, other parties, the government, and private industry. Rejecting the use of violence to resolve conflict, the group supports Chamorro's economic adjustment plan, although it calls for measures to alleviate the plan's negative effects.
"The majority of members of the [FSLN] are not in agreement with the politics of confrontation," says Mr. Solis, a former Sandinista legislative leader. "They want to see a more mature approach by the front that will help stabilize the country."
The document has provoked contradictory responses from the Sandinista leadership.
While Carrion and Mr. Ramirez appear receptive to the initiative, party leader Daniel Ortega this week launched a bitter attack on the movement in a four-hour discourse on Sandinista station Radio Ya. Denouncing the reformists as "opportunists," he said that "if they don't like an anti-imperialist FSLN ... they should look for another party to belong to."