THE peaceful resolution of the Nicaraguan mass kidnappings by extremist factions on Wednesday produced street celebrations, a thanksgiving ecumenical service, and a collective sigh of relief here.
Whether the five-day ordeal becomes a cathartic turning point for this Central American nation, or merely what one local diplomat calls "a dangerous descent into chaos," remains to be seen.
The last five hostages (out of 38 seized) were released on Wednesday by ex-contra rebels in northern Nicaragua, followed by the remaining five (out of 34) held by ex-Sandinista soldiers in Managua. "I'm very happy that all Nicaraguans understand that the best solution...is achieved through dialogue and reconciliation," beamed President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
"I'm just relieved it's over," said Managua resident Carlos Reyes, as the conservative National Opposition Union (UNO) hostages were freed. For nearly a week, he had to endure sporadic gunfire and dozens of jumpy police and journalists trampling his shrubs. "Some good has to come of this," Mr. Reyes said. "What these hostages, the politicians, have been through has to change their perspective for the better."
Roberto Menendez, an Organization of American States (OAS) official, is less sanguine about such a change. He is working at resettling the ex-contras and helped coordinate mediation of the hostage drama. "We may pass through a period of rest, like the eye of a hurricane. We won't go back to civil war. But there are serious doubts about where the country is going." He says it is a "very slow, complex process [in] a society which accepts violence as a normal way of problem-solving... You advance on some fr onts, but not on the others."
But political scientist Oscar Rene Vargas believes the hostage episode may present a rare opportunity to make some progress. "Nicaraguan politicians have been too focused on personal ambitions or party interests to see what they must do for the country. The kidnapping crisis has created a moment where both sides are being forced to reevaluate their positions," he says. "But if they fail to seize the moment, then Nicaragua will dissolve into Lebanon, Haiti, and Somalia all rolled into one," he says.
President Chamorro rightly judged a need to pursue a policy of reconciliation in 1990 after a decade-long civil war, diplomats here say. But, according to many in her 14-party UNO coalition, allowing the Sandinistas to run the military, police, courts, bureaucracy, and recently the legislature, smacks of capitulation more than reconciliation. The result has been a series of crises including increased violence by ex-soldiers on both sides upset by broken promises of compensation, land, and security.
Mr. Vargas, who is close to the Sandinista National Liberation Front, believes the left is ready to deal. "The strongest current within the Sandinistas wants dialogue, wants to arrive at an accord with the right and pursue the economic modernization process. If the right doesn't realize this now, the far left will regain control," he says.
During the first days of the ordeal, leaders of the major parties sat down for the first time and signed a document committing themselves to work together to solve Nicaragua's problems.
But far-right Managua Mayor Arnoldo Aleman denounced the political pact, saying it was invalid because party leaders had reached it under duress - "with a gun pointed at their head."
Nonetheless, the head of the OAS, Joao Clemente Baena Soares, believes it is the appropriate time to visit Nicaragua to keep the reconciliation process going.
Meanwhile, Jose Angel Talavera and his rebel troops will be taking stock of the deal cut in exchange for releasing hostages. The OAS and the Roman Catholic Church promised to beef up their presence in the area, monitor police activity, and ensure a climate of security for the ex-combatants trying to return to civilian life. Mr. Talavera did not succeed in securing his demands for the resignations of Army Chief Gen. Humberto Ortega Saavedra; presidential minister Antonio Lacayo; or Lenin Cerna, director o f state security. Still, diplomats and analysts believe Mr. Ortega's days are numbered.
The Nicaraguan right and conservatives in the United States Congress have been agitating for his removal. While Sandinistas don't want to be seen as caving in to such demands, members of his own party see Ortega as a political handicap. "For the good of the country, he should withdraw from the scene," says Vargas. "He should have left last year."
The Sandinistas' dissastisfaction with Ortega grew in July when he turned the Army loose on ex-Sandinista soldiers who robbed about $4 million from banks in the northern town of Esteli. Some 50 people died in the skirmish.
There has also been speculation recently that Chamorro may not last until the end of her term in 1996. She has yet to fulfill the expectations that she might unite the country as she did her coalition party to win the election. "It's important she last until 1996 for the sake of democratic consistency," says Vargas. "Nicaraguan political forces feel the need for a queen mother. Look at it like England; the queen endures but the prime ministers come and go. The question should be, will Antonio Lacayo last
until 1996?" he adds.