Former Foes in Nicaragua Band Together for Protests
Contras and Sandinistas block roads, occupy farmland. NICARAGUA
MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — TWO years after her stunning election victory, Nicaraguan President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro might be forgiven for feeling that, politically speaking, the world has gone askew.
Members of the Nicaraguan resistance - the "contras" who played a key role in her rise to power in 1990 - have teamed up with some of the Sandinistas who were once their arch-enemies and have been protesting against her.
The tactics of the new allies are keeping the political cauldron in Nicaragua boiling at a moment when President Chamorro desperately needs stability to attract investment and revive her country's stagnant economy.
The motley mix of former contra fighters and Sandinista Army soldiers call themselves revueltos. In Spanish, the word means both "jumbled up" and "agitated."
In the last three weeks, they have blocked highways in numerous areas of the country with makeshift barricades, bottling up four provincial capitals and more than a dozen smaller towns in Nicaragua's hinterlands for days. They have also seized 100 farms in Nicaragua's mountainous north. Though largely unarmed, the revueltos have forced the government to negotiate demands for land titles, housing, bank financing, and other benefits promised to them.
Contra leader Francisco Valdivia, who goes by the nom de guerre "Dimas," asserts: "The government promised us a pile of things when we demobilized .... It hasn't delivered on a single item. Not one square inch of land or one dwelling."
Interior Minister Alfredo Mendieta insists that "we are doing everything in our power to fulfill our agreements," citing the purchase by the government of farmland for 535 former combatants. But he admits that "the bulk of the commitments remain outstanding." Understanding among peasants
Dimas commands the loyalty of several thousand former contra troops, hundreds of whom have repeatedly blocked the highway leading north from Managua. On May 3, they shifted tactics and began seizing farmland near the northern town of Jinotega. Dimas's collaboration is significant - he was one of the first to rise against the Sandinista government in the early 1980s.
According to Dimas, the February agreements led the two sides to recognize their common interests. "We realized that while the government sat in the easy chair, we peasants were killing each other," he says. "We started to talk and understand one another. That led us to unite."
His new sidekick is former Army Lt. Arturo Mairena, who warned during one of the disturbances that "if the Army and the police attack us, we will have to respond."
Most revueltos are peasants and almost all are unemployed. While some have been given land by the government, they say they cannot get loans to make the land produce. Another former Army lieutenant in the city of Juigalpa, which has also seen protest on the roads, says, "Some of us don't have a roof over our heads or a place to eat. Others eat only once a day."
Economic policies, many here say, are contributing to the current despair and hence to the widespread protests. Strict limits on government spending and credit stanched Nicaragua's hyperinflation last year, winning plaudits from the International Monetary Fund. But they have also pushed total unemployment and underemployment to 52 percent of the workforce, even higher in some rural areas. Ortega demands 'minimum plan'
"The government's failure to keep its promises lies in the nature of the structural economic adjustment it is promising," economist Oscar Neira says. Along with increasing unemployment, the economic policy package has affected rural areas by slashing credit to small farmers and eliminating farm support prices.
Though in favor with the international aid agencies, economic policies have crimped the government's ability to respond to the demands of all those who are presently protesting.
Factors like these led former President Daniel Ortega Saavedra to argue last week that the country was on the edge of a social explosion and to demand a "minimum plan" of fulfillment by the government of its unredeemed pledges.
Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo, Chamorro's son-in-law, has been less categorical about the threat of social turmoil but has acknowledged that the potential for such an explosion exists.
Mr. Lacayo also recognized that using force would only aggravate matters. The government, he said April 29, "is not willing to restore order over people's dead bodies."
Business and political leaders of the governing coalition, however, have criticized the government for its less-than-energetic handling of the disturbances. Some even accuse the Sandinistas of orchestrating the protests behind the scenes.
But high government officials and observers from the Organization of American States discount this charge, crediting Sandinista leaders with helping to defuse the tense situation.
The revueltos may dissolve as an organized protest group once their grievances are addressed. But the Sandinista-contra farmer collaboration represents an underlying political realignment and likely will endure. In late February, thousands of other former contras united with pro-Sandinista farm groups to create a National Peasant Alliance, which is calling on the government to make sweeping changes in its rural policies.
Alliance coordinator Luis Fley insists that "we are making an effort to unify all the peasants, leaving aside political differences from the past."