Report: Sandinistas retain power


WASHINGTON -- Nicaragua remains firmly in the grasp of the Sandinistas more than two years after their revolutionary government was ousted by a democratic election, says a Senate report to be released today.

The Sandinistas, who waged war for a decade against U.S.-backed contras, still control the army and police, retain thousands of confiscated properties and are systematically assassinating disarmed contras, the report alleges.

The 153-page document, compiled by the Republican staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the tutelage of Sen. Jesse Helms, R-N.C., promises to test the nerves of backers of Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro.

It already has put the Bush administration on the defensive and is prompting some lawmakers to question continued U.S. aid to Nicaragua.

While many conclusions of the report -- obtained in advance by the Miami Herald -- could not be immediately confirmed, even critics of the ultra-conservative Mr. Helms say it might frame future debate on U.S.-Nicaraguan relations.

Was President Bush correct at the Republican convention this month when he proudly asserted that "free elections brought democracy to Nicaragua"?

Or was Sandinista Commander Daniel Ortega closer to the truth when, as he agreed to hand over the presidential sash to Ms. Chamorro in 1990, he predicted his Sandinista National Liberation Front would continue to "rule from below"?

Such questions divide Nicaraguan exiles, Bush administration officials, even the very coalition Ms. Chamorro rode to power. They threaten to revive the bitter policy disputes in Congress that characterized debate for a decade.

Officially, the U.S. government is firmly behind Ms. Chamorro -- it has disbursed more than $1 billion in aid and debt relief to the country in the last two years. But privately, some U.S. diplomats are gleeful that Mr. Helms has blocked more than $100 million in additional aid from flowing.

The State Department declined to comment on the Senate report Friday.

According to the report, Ms. Chamorro made a "tragic mistake" in failing to dismantle the Sandinista government and military apparatus in the wake of her landslide electoral victory.

On the advice of her son-in-law and chief adviser, Antonio Lacayo, the report says, she allowed "the Sandinistas to retain control of the Sandinista Popular Army, the National Police, the courts, the intelligence services and all major bodies of government."

Mr. Lacayo, who credits the Chamorro government with stabilizing the economy and restoring civil liberties, said Nicaraguans are placing pragmatism over politics. For the first time in Nicaraguan history, he said recently, power is shared.

"This is a true government of national unity," he said. "In the past, one group always governed for itself and against another group. And because of that, we never made progress. Now we are governing for all Nicaraguans."

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