NICARAGUAN President Violeta Chamorro cannot get a break these days. The recent deadly tidal wave was the second natural disaster to hit Nicaragua in months; a volcano erupted in April, also taking lives. But in United States policy toward Nicaragua, Mrs. Chamorro faces a man-made disaster of greater proportions. This one threatens the survival of her government and Nicaragua's best hope to build political stability and democracy.
Chamorro's 1990 election and the end of the contra war were hopeful achievements for Nicaragua. They were made possible because President Bush took a commendably more pragmatic approach to Nicaragua than Ronald Reagan. Unfortunately this has changed. The State Department, bowing to the Republican right, has reverted to a cold-war agenda in Nicaragua. At the request of Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, the State Department since May has withheld over $100 million in already-approved US aid to the ca sh-strapped Chamorro government.
The US has insisted that Chamorro first fire Sandinistas from Nicaragua's security forces and return expropriated properties to former owners. These are the demands of right-wing politicians and ex-contras in Nicaragua who backed Chamorro in 1990, but who oppose her strategy of working with the Sandinistas to foster stability, reconciliation and gradual institutional change.
Senator Helms will not rest easy until every last Sandinista is gone, and until Nicaraguans he backs are in power. He has never been a fan of Chamorro, and his recent maneuvers come as no surprise. What is surprising - and shameful - is just how far the Bush administration has gone in making Helms's agenda its own, weakening the very government it brought to power.
The State Department appears to be playing "good-cop, bad-cop," casting Helms as the heavy and limiting its own public criticism of Chamorro, while privately using the aid as a stick to beat concessions out of her. Chamorro has had little choice but to buckle to the pressure. Her successful anti-inflation plan will unravel, US Agency for International Development officials warn, should the funds hold continue past September.
Chamorro came to Washington at the end of July and struck a deal with the administration - so she thought. The US would release $50 million of the frozen funds and hold the remainder pending further talks. In return, Chamorro agreed to oust Sandinista police chief Rene Vivas and other commanders and to produce a plan to settle property claims by the end of the year - moves she has carried out in the past two weeks. (These are politically painful concessions that allow the Sandinistas to paint Chamorro as
servile to gringo pressure.) But now that Chamorro has made good on her side of the bargain, the administration appears to be reneging on the deal in order to please Helms.
Helms's staff just released a shoddy, one-sided report accusing Chamorro of heading a government of "terrorists, thugs, thieves, and murderers." Citing this report, the State Department immediately dispatched envoys to Managua to note US disappointment with Chamorro's police changes and to up the ante. It has been reported that the US demanded that Chamorro remove Sandinista Gen. Humberto Ortega from the head of the armed forces, and that she pack the Supreme Court to reduce the influence of Sandinista j udges.
The Helms report is no basis for making US policy. It does raise legitimate concerns, such as failure to prosecute the killers of ex-contras and 17-year-old Jean Paul Genie. But the report is badly skewed and manipulative in presenting the evidence. Written in the paranoid style of the Reagan years, it claims ludicrously that all Sandinistas are "armed with weapons of war, such as AK-47s," and that "Nicaragua is the most militarized society in Latin America, with the exception of Cuba."
Typical of the fancy factwork in the Helms report is its treatment of political killings since 1990. A disturbing number of ex-contras have, in fact, been killed, and the Chamorro government has failed to investigate and prosecute those responsible. But it is not true, as Helms claims, that 217 ex-contras have been "assassinated" for political reasons. Nicaraguan rights monitors and Organization of American States officials in Managua put the real number much lower, adding that many of the deaths came in
personal disputes, accidents, and in armed combat with government forces, Sandinista militants, and even other rearmed contras.
The Helms report also denies that Sandinista police and military personnel have been killed for political reasons by ex-contras. This flies in the face of public information from Nicaraguan rights groups and the State Department's own rights report. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights - which was not contacted by Helms's staff - counted 56 political killings of Sandinistas between May 1990 and September 1991 alone, some of security force members by contras. Revenge in Nicaragua is a two-way street.
One particularly vengeful ex-contra was Jose Angel Moran, who rearmed in 1991 as "Indomable" and led a group of "recontras" in a wave of killings and other crimes throughout northern Nicaragua. He is believed to have killed rival recontras and, in a 1991 ambush, a Sandinista police captain and his secretary. Indomable's reign of terror ended this spring when the Nicaraguan government paid him over $100,000 ransom and put him on a plane to Miami. In July a Nicaraguan paper reported that Indomable was kill ed by Army troops, but many knowledgeable Nicaraguans believe the death was faked. Yet the Helms report counts Indomable among the 217 assassinated ex-contras, noting blandly that he was killed "while traveling from Nicaragua to Honduras," and omitting the rest of his bloody history.
The Bush administration should give Chamorro the money without any further conditions. It should wrest control of its Nicaragua policy from Helms and the Republican right, a sector that continues to view this beleaguered country in simplistic, obsolete, and irrelevant categories of East-West struggle. Nicaragua is a real country, with difficult problems and a long way to go before democratic foundations have been solidly set. Chamorro, and her strategy of national reconciliation, remains Nicaragua's best
hope for achieving these ends. Using aid policy to undermine this strategy serves only to delegitimize a democratically elected government whose leaders are far better qualified than Helms to decide what's best for Nicaragua.