US Conservatives Cool to Nicaragua Reforms

IN recent days, US officials have had encouraging words for Nicaraguan President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's latest government reform efforts. But words are almost all Mrs. Chamorro is getting; it does not look like $104 million in frozen US aid for Nicaragua is going to be flowing into that battered country soon.

The $104 million has already been approved by Congress and was supposed to have been spent by the end of September. But conservatives led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina have kept it bottled up for months. They say that Chamorro is a figurehead, and that supporters of the leftist Sandinist National Liberation Front still control too many powerful positions.

Last weekend's purge of the Sandinista National Police chief, plus 11 other policy commanders, did not impress the US conservatives.

"We weren't suggesting she take out one Sandinista thug and replace him with another Sandinista thug," says a key Helms foreign policy aide.

At the root of this dispute is Chamorro's policy of reconciliation between the Sandinistas, who controlled the government from the 1979 revolution until her 1990 election triumph, and the contra fighters who, with US support, once fought them.

As part of this policy Chamorro has left a number of key Sandinistas in positions of power, notably Army chief Humberto Ortega, brother of former Nicaraguan president and present Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega Saavedra.

Last week a report by Republican staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, prepared at the request of Senator Helms, charged that General Humberto Ortega, in league with Chamorro's son-in-law, Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo, is the "real power" in the country, and that the Sandinistas were successfully carrying out their threat that they would "rule from below."

State Department officials, while less pointedly critical, said they shared some of the concerns raised in the Senate report. A high-level State Department official was dispatched to Managua last weekend to try to iron out some differences, officials say.

"There was some progress," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Tuesday. As part of the shuffle, a new civilian vice minister was named to oversee the police; 70 properties confiscated from American citizens were returned; and the Nicaraguan government promised to work harder investigating the murders of former contras.

But as to timely release of aid, Mr. Boucher said only that "our consultations with the Nicaraguan government and the Congress will continue."

The police shuffle has been widely interpreted as part of a deal struck to unfreeze at least part of the aid. But US sources say that deal did not include the replacement of Sandinista Police Commander Rene Vivas with Fernando Caldera, another Sandinista.

One US official says it is not clear what will happen to the aid now. Perhaps the United States can still engineer a deal to release at least part of the money over conservative objections. But that is problematic in an election year when the president needs to shore up conservative support.

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