Nicaragua is hostage to a broken peace No jobs, no land after years of war


ESTELI, Nicaragua -- In an abandoned school house outside this northern mountain town, a thin 30-year-old man sits with an automatic assault rifle in his lap and tries to explain the violence that continues to grip this country, once one of the the Western Hemisphere's principal ideological battlegrounds.

He goes by the common name of Jesus. The dual kidnappings that have hit Nicaragua since Thursday when former contras seized 38 government officials and Sandinista politicians, and leftist gunmen retaliated by kidnapping Vice President Virgilio Godoy and several other conservative politicians, wouldn't have surprised him.

Jesus spent most of his adulthood with a gun slung over his shoulder as a fighter for the leftist Sandinista army during its bloody war against the U.S.-financed contra guerrilla force.

He was uneasy about surrendering his weapon in 1990. But the Sandinistas, partly financed and guided by Cuban President Fidel Castro, were voted out of office in an upset election. The new government was determined to forge peace.

Jesus said he believed in President Violeta Chamorro's promises of land on which he could build a new life, so he quit the Sandinista army and waited.

Two years later, unemployment had risen to 60 percent. There were no new schools and clinics in poor villages throughout the country. And while a large number of former combatants had received land, they were not given the economic assistance or training they needed to work that land.

Now Jesus is carrying his gun again.

He and 1,500 former combatants from both sides of the civil war have been accused of hundreds of kidnappings, murders and assaults. They have scared off potential foreign investors and nearly halted agricultural production in the northern part of the country.

"We gave time to the government to prove that they could deliver what they had promised," says Jesus, camped out with about a dozen other rebels. "But each day that passed, things got worse.

"The government deceived us when they promised us land and education," he says, looking down at his AK assault rifle. "These arms are to stop the deception. We want serious and honest dialogue.

"This gun is a guarantee of my life."

Groups like his are seen as common thugs by many law-abiding citizens, but the rebels insist that they are driven by rage over the government's failure to comply with promises to provide the economic assistance they need to start peaceful new lives.

The hostage crisis in Nicaragua is only the latest manifestation of the fierce disgruntlement of former fighters on both sides of the 1980 civil war in which the U.S.-supported contras fought against the Marxist-led Sandinista government forces.

Ex-Sandinista soldiers

Last month 150 former Sandinista soldiers attacked the police barracks and robbed three banks here. They were driven out a day later by government troops, in a fierce gunfight that killed an estimated 45 people.

In each of these incidents, rebels have made political demands. The "re-contras" say that although the Sandinistas lost the presidential election in 1990, President Chamorro has allowed them to maintain too much power in the new government. They are particularly adamant that Gen. Humberto Ortega be forced to resign as head of the army, a post he held under the Sandinistas.

But at the root of their demands is the extreme poverty that plagues the country.

During her presidential campaign, one of President Chamorro's most important promises to the former fighters was land and economic assistance to build peaceful lives. They were expected to farm at least enough to feed themselves and their families.

The government hoped that the more ambitious among them would form farming cooperatives on which they could grow TTC export crops such as coffee and sugar.

But the program has instead generated the same sort of distrust and violence that led to war in the 1980s.

"Land is the most volatile issue in the country," says an official of the Organization of American States in Nicaragua. "And it is the one that has been handled with the least amount of responsibility. It continues to cause fights and deaths."

Government officials say their worst mistake in the distribution of land was that in their haste to introduce former combatants to peaceful lifestyles, they proceeded too quickly. About 22,000 contras surrendered their weapons, and 70,000 soldiers were forced to retire from the Sandinista Army.

Almost all the former contras have been assigned land, but there has been no money for the paperwork so that titles for the properties can be completed. About 70 percent of the new landholders are awaiting titles; in the meantime, they are ineligible for loans to help them buy seeds or basic farm tools.

Lack of land titles

Many criticize the nation's banks for applying First World loan standards to farmers in developing countries. The requirement of a title is unfair, they say, when the government is not able to give titles to all those who have received land.

Juan Alvaro Munguia Alvarez, president of the Development Bank of Nicaragua defends the bank's actions, saying that it cannot ignore the poor repayment record of farmers who received loans in the 1980s.

"The bank is not the solution to all the country's problems," he said. "We must be profitable, or we will never be able to win foreign credit."

And while the United States government supports the fair distribution of land to former combatants as an important part of consolidating peace, the U.S. Congress is threatening to cut off critical economic aid because of lingering grudges against the Sandinistas.

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Senate voted to suspend $98 million in aid to Nicaragua because of concerns that the Sandinistas, who still control Nicaragua's army and police forces, are maintaining ties with terrorist groups around the world.

Lately, the Clinton administration has threatened to cut aid unless Sandinistas are purged from powerful positions in the military and the police.

Ironically, the aid cut would make it even more difficult for the Chamorro government to accomplish the tasks, such as the land program, designed to end the conflict in Nicaragua.

It would also make it more likely that people like Jesus would keep carrying guns.

"Our lives have not gotten better. They have gotten worse," he says. "When we were soldiers, our children went to school and we had food."

Amnesty for 1,500

Hoping to quell the tensions, President Chamorro had offered amnesty to an estimated 1,500 rebels if they put away their weapons by the end of this month. Officials have not said whether that amnesty will apply to the groups responsible for the current hostage situation. However, forgiveness is a trademark of the Chamorro administration, and it does not always go down well with their victims.

Mario Castillo, a cattle farmer in Esteli, frowns at the thought of leniency. In April, as he was driving toward his farm, he was ambushed and taken hostage by a group of five rebels. They insisted that their actions were politically motivated, explaining that they needed money to further their efforts to build popular support so that President Chamorro would make good on her promises of financial assistance to ex-combatants.

"They told me they wanted $30,000," Mr. Castillo remembers during an interview in his home. "I told them I didn't have that kind of money. They settled for $4,000."

Instead of going to the police after he was freed, Mr. Castillo went to his bank, withdrew the ransom and left it where his kidnappers had ordered.

"I told the police that there was no guarantee of security here for anyone so I didn't want to give statements," he said. "No one is ever punished."

Two weeks later, his cousin was kidnapped and released after agreeing to pay a small ransom. But Mr. Castillo blisters at the suggestion that the kidnappers' crimes are sparked by desires for equitable distribution of wealth.

"These people aren't looking for fairness and a decent living. They want money," he said.

While she supported the legislation offering amnesty to the rebels, Sandinista legislator Dora Maria Tellez says if such actions continue, the trends will be irreversible.

"Struggling to survive does not justify the use of violence. When a group takes up arms for any reason, then the army must act," she said. "The government cannot keep negotiating with people because there are many people who are desperate in this country. If we are not careful, they will all decide to arm themselves."

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