In a Land That Suffered a War Over Land, Fightin' Words Are Heard Once Again

IN principle, Gregorio Miranda and his 70 fellow coffee farm workers control a large plantation in Nicaragua's mountainous north. They hope to turn it into a successful collective enterprise.

There's only one hitch. The land was owned by former dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle and, so far, the farmers don't have a title with their names on it. ''We are fighting for this land to finally be ours,'' says Mr. Miranda. Unless they get that title - and soon - the farm workers say they will invade other properties.

Many farm workers and peasants are threatening to occupy private farmland. Nicaragua is in a tangle of legal rights over land four years after the ouster of the Marxist-oriented Sandinista rulers. The threats are so explosive that former US President Carter has tried to mediate the mess in recent weeks.

Some 18,000 families, proud but mostly dirt-poor, till this land. Unlike East Europe's former Communist parties, the Sandinistas confiscated only about 20 percent of Nicaragua's rich farmland during their rule in the 1980s. Much of what they seized belonged to the pre-1979 ruling family, the Somozas. The Sandinistas cobbled together state farms out of smaller pieces while turning over other land to peasants to form cooperatives.

In 1990, however, the Sandinistas were forced into an election that they lost, bringing to power a conservative. As president, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro faced many Somoza-era owners who wanted their land back.

During the next two years, the farmers who were given land under the Sandinistas battled to have their rights respected. Says Jose Adan Rivera, a leader of the Sandinista Farm Workers Association, ''In 1990 they thought we wouldn't last a week, but we are now the owners of 250,000 acres of ground.'' The reality, however, is more complicated.

The big collectives have been broken up, and some pieces were handed out to demobilized soldiers of the Sandinista army, others to ex-contras who fought against the Sandinistas. Still other chunks reverted back to Somoza-era owners. But a portion was turned over to the workers themselves to manage as they saw fit.

They have worked their coffee and rice farms, cattle ranches, and other properties in common in an attempt to preserve something of the Sandinistas' experiment. Says Rivera, ''We are demanding collective title so that the workers as a group will go on being the owners.''

But the government has given these farm workers a Catch-22: They can't get clear title because they haven't paid off their debts, while banks won't give credit because farmers don't have clear title.

Many operations are barely subsisting. And the government is pressing them to give up some 10,000 acres of prime farmland to a group of old-time owners who became US citizens while in exile. The workers threaten to use force to keep the land. They are backed by the National Cooperatives Federation. Due to Sandinista sloppiness about legal matters, many cooperatives share the farm workers' plight: They don't enjoy legal title to their holdings and thus are denied bank financing. Federation president Ariel Bucardo notes ruefully, ''We still have 20,000 members working 500,000 acres of land that are registered in the name of prerevolutionary owners.''

President Chamorro's solution for most Somoza-era landowners has been to offer them government indemnity bonds in compensation. But with the bonds' market quotation hovering around 20 percent of face value, some balk at accepting them and insist on getting their hands on the land itself.

Nicaragua's agrarian reform minister insists that slow progress is being made in titling the peasants' cooperative farms. ''This government has not given back properties already in the hands of peasants,'' says Alvaro Fiallos, stressing the government's commitment to respect legitimate beneficiaries of the Sandinista agrarian reform. All of them, he says, will be official owners by early 1997 when Chamorro's term expires.

In the meantime, the patience of many Nicaraguans is wearing thin.

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