Feud between a widowed president, Jesse Helms snags U.S. aid to Nicaragua

MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — MANAGUA, Nicaragua -- From the rugged Nicaraguan mountains to the palace of President Violeta Chamorro, one "yanqui" name is familiar to guerrillas and government leaders alike: Jesse Helms, the Republican senator from North Carolina.

In recent months, Mr. Helms has assumed extraordinary sway in this struggling Third World country, which in the past 20 years has seen two bloody civil wars, earthquakes, tidal waves and a hurricane.


Because of a procedural quirk that allows a single senator to place an informal hold on foreign aid, Mr. Helms by himself has managed to freeze $116 million desperately needed by Nicaragua.

What has happened since then in this Central American nation graphically demonstrates how actions in Washington can profoundly affect the lives of ordinary people far beyond the United States' border.


On Oct. , Ms. Chamorro, citing the aid freeze, ordered Nicaragua's 10 percent sales tax raised to 15 per

cent. At the same time, she imposed a 15 percent tariff on telephone and electric bills.

Folks like Alvaro Reyes, a vendor in a Managuan market, are caught in the middle.

"Helms is a tough man. Very tough," Mr. Reyes said with admiration that turns to bitterness. "I've lost sales because people have stopped buying like they used to."

Mr. Reyes said the new taxes are one more burden in a tight economy that keeps people away from the table where he sells notebook paper,

rice, beans and toiletries.

Mr. Helms says Nicaragua's taxes are not his concern. He has to be a good steward of U.S. taxpayers' money, he says, and make sure it goes to governments that deserve it.

"That defiant lady"


"I will not back down. Too much is at stake," said Mr. Helms, who calls Ms. Chamorro that "defiant lady in Managua."

Mr. Helms wants Ms. Chamorro's government to return to U.S. and Nicaraguan owners thousands of

properties seized by the former Sandinista government during its 11-year reign. Mr. Helms also wants investigations into the deaths of 217 former Contra resistance fighters and the removal of top Sandinistas from Chamorro's government.

Information supporting the demands is outlined in a 157-page report published by Mr. Helms' Foreign Relations Committee staff Aug. 31.

Since then, the Chamorro government has established commissions to handle property claims and inves

tigate the deaths, and has removed some top Sandinistas. But that hasn't satisfied Mr. Helms, and the freeze remains in force.


The State Department, leery of tangling with the Republican senator at election time, says for the record that it takes seriously the issues raised by Mr. Helms' report.

Yet the report may have flaws. Its insinuation that Ms. Chamorro controls the country's press are laughed at by her own son, Carlos Chamorro, editor of a Sandinista paper that often criticizes her.

"Today we criticized her tax increase," he said. "And tomorrow, we have an editorial that criticizes her for not meeting with Rigoberta Menchu when she was in Managua."

Ms. Menchu, the Guatemalan human rights activist, recently won the 1992 Nobel Peace Prize.

Curtiss Hentgen, an Indiana native who has lived here 40 years, applauds Mr. Helms. "If it hadn't been for Senator Helms, nobody would have done anything," he said as he related how the Sandinistas took his 4,000-acre ranch.

L But others say Mr. Helms is endangering a fragile democracy.


"Does Helms want to start a new civil war?" asks Bill Goodfellow, director of the liberal Center for International Policy in Washington. "He is undermining the ability of Mrs. Chamorro and 'Tono' Lacayo [her top aide and son-in-law] to reconcile the nation after a very bitter civil war."

Nicaragua's last struggle was particularly bloody: from 1980 to 1990, it was one of the last battlegrounds of the Cold War. Contras directed by White House aide Col. Oliver L. North and backed by millions in U.S. funds fought the Soviet-supported Sandinistas. More than 30,000 combatants died.

Since 1990, when Ms. Chamorro won a democratic election that ousted Sandinista Daniel Ortega Saavedra, the United States has poured more than $600 million in foreign aid into Nicaragua to transform it from a state-run economy to free enterprise.

Still, the country remains desperately poor. Unemployment runs around 40 percent. There's no coin money because it costs too much to mint. "Gringos" in Managua, the capital, are besieged by beggars, from 4-year-old children to elderly women.

Mr. Helms' aid freeze might end after the Nov. 3 presidential election. Many speculate that President Bush -- who has the power to release the money -- is afraid to defy Mr. Helms and his right-wing constituency while North Carolina's 14 electoral votes are at risk.

The White House denies politics are involved. "In recent history, there is no precedent for a president to break a congressional hold -- be it Democratic or Republican," said Walter Kansteiner, White House deputy press secretary for foreign affairs.


The tone of the dispute between Mr. Helms and the Chamorro government is nasty. Mr. Helms' report on the Nicaraguan allegations calls Nicaragua a "country overwhelmingly controlled by terrorists, thugs, thieves and murderers at the highest levels."

Shared enemies

That brings an emotional response from Ms. Chamorro, whose husband, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, was assassinated in 1978 by hit men many believed were linked to former Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza. Pedro Chamorro's death outraged the nation, and helped the Sandinistas overthrow the dictator.

"I don't like assassinations at all," Violeta Chamorro said. "They killed my husband, just as in the United States, they killed President Kennedy . . . .

"When I came into power, I have a very big heart, and one of the first things I did was to send to the assembly a bill authorizing the release of the assassins of my husband. But the assembly vetoed that; that's democracy."

The aid freeze couldn't come at a worse time for Ms. Chamorro.


Her government is beset by problems. Her top aide has been linked to a fraud coverup. The National Assembly is paralyzed in a constitutional dispute. Top aides are resigning.

Mr. Helms' report has emboldened Ms. Chamorro's enemies. Alfredo Cesar, president of the 92-member National Assembly, is leading demonstrations around the country.

Others who support Mr. Helms' actions are armed guerrillas called Recontras, former Contras who have taken up arms again because they distrust Ms. Chamorro's government.

"We can't use our piece of land if our lives aren't secure," said Ali, a guerrilla who leads some 50 Recontras in northern Nicaragua. "We can't work the land if we don't feel safe."

Mr. Helms is a kind of "ugly American," said Ernesto Palazio, the Nicaraguan ambassador to the United States. He sees Mr. Helms as a figure of the Cold Warfighting a battle that is no longer relevant.

But Mr. Helms is adamant.


"The Sandinistas are still in control in Nicaragua," Mr. Helms declared in an interview.

"They have killed . . . freedom fighters. What are we supposed to do? Just sit back with our thumbs in our ears and pay no attention and send them millions of dollars? Not this senator."