Old hatreds, poverty hamper reconciliation, revival of economy in Nicaragua


MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- Sandinista troops recently seized and executed a former contra commander, shooting him in the back and mutilating his body. Hours later, ex-contras kidnapped, knifed and shot a former Sandinista lieutenant, dumping his body on a nearby ranch.

Has nothing changed in Nicaragua?

Well, a few things. As contra veterans inaugurated a new computer-equipped political headquarters in Managua, President Violeta Chamorro lauded them for their main recent contribution to postwar life: boosting black bean production.

A year after 18,000 contras surrendered their weapons at the end of a nine-year, U.S.-financed war, most former fighters are poor, many feel betrayed, and a few fear Sandinista vengeance so strongly that they have recently taken up arms again. Yet diplomats say that, despite all that, the country continues to make gains in the painful transition from civil war to reconciliation.

With ex-contras living alongside Sandinista militants all over Nicaragua, scores on both sides have been killed in a year of shootings, ambushes, knifings and other bloodshed. "And the ex-rebels have gotten the worst of this violence," said Mateo Guerrero, the head of the Nicaraguan Association Pro Human Rights, a U.S.-funded rights monitor.

Organization of American States officials have documented the killings of 35 ex-rebels during the past year, and they believe that other deaths have gone unreported.

"But keeping in mind the hatred and polarization in this country after 10 years of war, I don't think this violence has been excessive," said Italo Murkow, the Colombian who has overseen the OAS's Nicaraguan operations.

Is Nicaragua on the verge of a new war?

"Definitely not -- unless I'm the most politically unperceptive person in the world," Mr. Murkow said. "Nicaragua, in its soul, is tired of war."

Most contras found the war's end last June a bleak letdown after a decade of sacrifices. Politically, the Sandinistas remained in control of the army, police, courts, trade unions, peasant organizations and other institutions.

Every contra fighter who surrendered received a change of clothing, a few farm tools, a $50 U.S.-financed start-up grant and a few months' rations of rice and beans.

The Chamorro government promised to donate vast tracts of land to the rebels, but few have benefited.

In one scheme, contra leaders predicted that former fighters would transform government-donated land near the village of El Almendro in southeast Nicaragua into a string of lush plantations and orchards.

"We're going to build a great city," Israel Galeano, the contra army's final commander, boasted last year.

But those dreams degenerated into fiasco. Nearly 7,000 rebels gathered at El Almendro seeking lands, but only about 200 ever got title.

The Chamorro government has had difficulty keeping other pledges, too, such as the pensions promised to the contra army's estimated 15,000 widows, orphans and disabled. The economy is still bankrupt, and U.S. aid -- despite generous speeches in Washington -- has been slow in arriving. President Bush promised a $300 million reconstruction package last year and $240 million for fiscal 1991. So far, only $206 million has been disbursed.

Contra frustrations led to armed clashes last fall when ex-rebels tried to seize cooperative farms defended by pro-Sandinista militants. The violence peaked when ex-rebels allied with

peasants blocked the country's main east-west highway for 18 days.

Those land conflicts left dozens dead and scores wounded, yet the killing of one man -- former rebel commander Enrique Bermudez, slain by a lone gunman in Managua on Feb. 16 -- aggravated the ex-contras' fears more than all the previous bloodletting.

Since Mr. Bermudez's death, several bands of former contras, complaining of Sandinista harassment, have rearmed themselves, threatening to continue the war.

Their first attack was reported May 2, when guerrillas fired automatic rifles at a Sandinista army road construction crew in Jinotega province. There were no casualties, but army chief Gen. Humberto Ortega responded with tough talk about smothering the renascent rebellion.

Several of the so-called "re-contra" leaders have used OAS officers to send demands to the Chamorro administration, according to a knowledgeable diplomat. After Francisco Cano Chavarria arranged an April 12 rendezvous with OAS officers in the Jinotega hamlet of Aguas Amarillas, the day's events illustrated how the fear and distrust that are the war's legacies can provoke new violence.

That morning, Mr. Chavarria's men dragged former Sandinista army Lt. Fausto Pineda out of his vehicle near Aguas Amarillas. Why is not clear; the diplomat said it appeared that Lieutenant Pineda had been investigating the re-contras' activities.

The same afternoon, Sandinista soldiers searching for Lieutenant Pineda surrounded Mr. Chavarria at his farm, ordered him to turn over his Browning pistol and shot him in the back when he refused.

OAS officials, waiting for the scheduled rendezvous with Mr. Chavarria only a mile away, found that he had been shot more than two dozen times and his eyes gouged out, the diplomat said. In retribution, the re-contras in the surrounding hills holding Lieutenant Pineda tortured him and shot him to death.

The Sandinista who investigated Lieutenant Pineda's killing was Mario Noguera -- and that underlined one of the re-contras' main grievances. During the war, Mr. Noguera headed the Jinotega unit of the Directorate of State Security, the secret police agency so hated that President Chamorro abolished it after taking office. Yet when the directorate vanished, Mr. Noguera reappeared as Jinotega police chief.

Not only in Jinotega but in dozens of towns, wartime State Security bosses -- who in many cases have been accused of atrocities -- were transformed into police chiefs, according to Raoul Shade, a journalist who studies rural Nicaraguan politics.

The re-contras' reliance on OAS officials to carry messages to the government illustrated another factor complicating the contras' transition to peacetime politics: Many ex-rebels distrust their former commanders.

In contrast to the penury suffered by the rank-and-file, the rebel leaders who negotiated the contra army's disarmament have accepted government jobs and now work in air-conditioned offices and own government-donated ranches.

Mr. Galeano is now "director of inter-institutional coordination" at the Ministry of the Interior. In an interview, Mr. Galeano said his job is to fly around Nicaragua talking to peasants in order to "identify their needs so that the government can solve them."

The re-contras "are not genuine guerrillas, just thugs and bandits," Mr. Galeano said, a striking characterization, since Sandinista officials a decade ago described Mr. Galeano and the other original anti-Sandinista rebels in precisely those terms.

The rebels' other top negotiator was Oscar "Ruben" Sobalvarro, today the deputy minister of repatriation and the top-ranking contra in the Chamorro government. He swept up to the lobby entrance of the Hotel Intercontinental for an interview in a new Land Cruiser; aides jumped out to open doors, and a public relations spokesman cleared the way.

Mr. Sobalvarro said ex-rebels are rearming because they fear attack from rifle-toting Sandinista peasants, but he minimized their numbers. The former rebels' largest problem, he said, is poverty.

"Our peasants need health centers, they need schools, they need financing, they need fair prices for their crops, they need roads," Mr. Sobalvarro said. Ironically, at the behest of the United States, the contras spent nine years blowing up health centers, schools and road-building equipment.

"Now, the problem is that the government can't provide these things. It's broke," Mr. Sobalvarro said.

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