Political Stalemate Hurts Nicaragua
Moving from socialism to a market economy continues to raise conflicts
MANAGUA — AFTER a month of effort, Nicaragua's contentious forces have managed neither to arrive at a political compromise nor to find a formula for reactivating a stagnant economy.
Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, half way into her six-year term as president, is facing difficulties in her drive to pacify Nicaragua and start economic development. Opposing her are disgruntled ex-contras, cashiered Sandinista military officers, restive unions, and right-wing United States politicians.
Last month Mrs. Chamorro and her advisors made two decisions. They gave the remaining bands of armed ex-soldiers plaguing Nicaragua's interior until June 1 to move into designated safe zones and begin laying down their arms. They also called together Nicaragua's fractious political and economic forces for a national or "all-party" dialogue, intended to get at the underlying causes of the unrest and instability.
Neither initiative is going well. Not only did the June 1 deadline pass unheeded by most of the ex-contra irregulars ("recontras") and the bands of ex-Sandinista Army officers ("recompas"), but much of the northern interior was left incommunicado after recontras blew up a telecommunications tower.
The all-party dialogue also has stalled, mainly because the players differ radically on where they think Nicaragua's problems come from and how they should be solved.
On the right, the National Opposition Union, which backed Chamorro in 1990 but now opposes her for being soft on the Sandinistas, says that the unrest in Nicaragua could be quelled if only the government had enough coercive power to do it. They want agreements that will strengthen the government's hand by reducing bastions of Sandinista power.
On the left, the Sandinista Front and its leader, former President Daniel Ortega, argue that violence and unrest in Nicaragua result from the Chamorro administration's stringent International Monetary Fund-style economic policies, spawning unemployment and social problems and failing to spark a significant recovery of output.
"Anyone who doesn't understand that Nicaragua's biggest problem is hunger has lost touch with reality," Mr. Ortega said recently.
The Sandinistas want the dialogue to focus on economic issues of interest to their constituents, who have been badly hurt by Chamorro's turn from a semi-socialist to a market economy.
They also want the government to spend more on jobs for unemployed workers and provide credit for small farmers, even if the IMF disapproves of the outlays.
The stakes are high. International donors have extended an economic lifeline to the Chamorro government over the last three years but are anxious to see some payoff. As a member of one of Managua's international missions says: "Our affection for Nicaragua is tinged with impatience for it to get going with its development."
The challenges of forging a national consensus are formidable. Two rounds of bilateral talks between the Chamorro government and the National Opposition Union (UNO) have produced little agreement. Christian Democrat Luis Guzman, an UNO leader, says: "I don't think the government is seriously seeking an accord with us."
Behind the impasse, Mr. Guzman and others argue, lie two factors. One is the reliance of Chamorro and her chief advisor, Presidency Minister Antonio Lacayo, on Sandinista Army Chief General Humberto Ortega, and to a lesser extent other Sandinista leaders, for help in keeping extremists at bay.
The other is Gen. Lacayo's intense dislike of his brother-in-law, UNO leader Alfredo Cesar who, with help from US Sen. Jesse Helms (R) of North Carolina, engineered last year's suspension of $100 million in US aid to Nicaragua. This year Mr. Cesar actively lobbied the Clinton administration to keep aid suspended, actions Lacayo considers treasonous.
The UNO's refusal to compromise seems to stem from resentment over being shut out of a governing role, as well as the belief that the coalition has the leverage to negatively influence American policymakers, who must decide whether Nicaragua is worthy of receiving further aid.
Diplomats in Managua view the stalemate as evidence that Nicaragua's leaders are not up to the task of pulling their country together.
Negotiations aimed at resolving economic differences have fared slightly better, but their impact is uncertain. Roundtable discussions among dialogue participants, including union and business groups, have led the government to relax IMF-imposed economic restraints, which were the price for IMF loans to Nicaragua, and offer expanded credit and lower taxes to the nation's farmers who will have to be the power behind any economic takeoff.
Policy changes will help, Sandinista farm leader Juan Tijerino says, but "they don't reach down to the really poor peasant who has been selling his land because he can't get bank financing."