Nicaragua: Chamorro's Healing Powers Have Run Out

In 1990, Violeta Chamorro floated over bloody Nicaragua, pronounced it healed and was elected president.

She had appeared as if from heaven -- a still beautiful grandmother, almost invariably dressed in white, who traveled the rutted dirt roads of that heavily Catholic country in a vehicle designed to resemble the "pope mobile."


The non-charismatic Mrs. Chamorro even managed a semblance that tight, benign smile peculiar to Pope John Paul II. And for a while, the 64-year-old newspaper publisher was the saintly embodiment of the nation's desire to bind its wounds.

But as last week's hostage-taking demonstrated, Mrs. Chamorro's ability to reunite the country appears to have run out of string. Indeed, the hostage crisis was resolved almost entirely without her help, the key talks being handled by Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo and Daniel Ortega, the ex-Sandinista president she defeated.


After the resolution, many of the liberated right-wing hostages, including Vice President Virgilio Godoy, were furious. They indignantly accused her of not lifting a finger to free them from leftist captors who delighted in showing them off in their underwear.

The captives, both left and right, say it was she who brought on the hostage crisis by failing to deliver on promises of jobs and land. And it was she who agreed to adopt measures favored by the World Bank to rid the government of its padded payroll and five-digit inflation rate. But the draconian measures, together with other factors, came with a price: 6 out of 10 people were out of work.

Old combatants, unable to feed their families, were beginning to dig up their guns from an estimated 30,000 that remain in the hands of civilians. Retread revolutionaries, some in their 50s, stalk the land as "recontras," "recompas" (Sandinistas) and "revueltos" (a mixture of both).

While no one is predicting a resumption of the war, there are disturbing signs that the country is disintegrating into zones of influence controlled by armed bands. Earlier this month, "recompas" killed 45 people in the northern city of Esteli, in what amounted to a glorified bank robbery to which the security forces turned a blind eye

The latest shootings and kidnappings are yet another reminder that Mrs. Chamorro has failed to achieve her primary goal: ending the civil war.

Nicaragua had just endured two civil wars, the first to overthrow a hated dictator, Anastasio Somoza (he fled in 1979), and the second a surrogate East-West conflict that pitted U.S.-backed contras against the Soviet-backed Sandinista government.

Mrs. Chamorro lost her revered husband, a leader of the $H democratic opposition to the Somoza dictatorship, in the first civil war and her family was badly fractured by the second. Though she comes from upper-crust stock, she did not cut and run like many of her rich compatriots who spent the '80s talking tough into martini glasses in Miami.

But having stayed and been elected president was not enough for Mrs. Chamorro to accomplish her goal. Her style was unfortunately more Queen Elizabeth than Margaret Thatcher. She had no party, no power base; her strength was in the perception that she was the savior of her nation, the lady in white who could call George Bush on the telephone.


She was soon betrayed by politicians of both left and right who found her ethereal posturing scant substitute for the meat and potato accomplishments that yield votes.

In her patrician zeal not to offend anybody, she had offended everybody, including her own newspaper, which now questions her ability to rule.

By an odd turn of events, she also had alienated the rightist coalition that put her in power, and climbed into bed with the Sandinista National Liberation Front, the same Marxist-led party that vowed to undermine her authority by "governing from below."

But these fine points of Nicaraguan politics are not of consuming interest to her. She is more at ease discussing grandchildren, recipes and the millionaire families of the old ruling elite. She is totally reliant on Antonio Lacayo, her son-in-law, who serves as a kind of prime minister while getting rich selling cooking oil.

It was Mr. Lacayo who suggested that the Sandinistas keep control of the army, the police and the intelligence service. (To have done otherwise would have been difficult -- if not impossible -- since all officers and noncoms were Sandinista party members.)

Under the deal, Gen. Humberto Ortega, brother of former President Ortega, would head the army, while Mrs. Chamorro assumed the portfolio of defense minister.


General Ortega, in turn, was to resign from the Sandinista party and begin cutting the security forces that had grown to more than 100,000.

Though heavily criticized by the right and Washington, the deal seemed a brilliant stroke toward reunification. General Ortega managed to cut the forces down to just 15,000, but on May 23 much of his image of altruism was blown sky high.

On that day a Managua garage exploded revealing what amounted to an arsenal for international terrorism, an arms cache so huge that it had obviously been known to the Sandinista-controlled security forces long before Mrs. Chamorro took office. Among other things, the arsenal contained dozens of blank passports, tons of automatic weapons, plastic explosives and 19 surface-to-air missiles.

The evidence linked the arsenal to: A) a branch of the supposedly disarmed Salvador guerrilla front; B) one of the Arab defendants in the plot to bomb the United Nations headquarters; and C) a leftist international kidnapping ring.

The garage-arsenal was exactly the kind of evidence needed by Sen. Jesse Helms to lower the boom on the Chamorro administration. Mr. Helms had been trying to do that ever since she allowed General Ortega to stay on.

The exploding garage and Mrs. Chamorro's refusal to fire General Ortega led the Senate to halt $97 million in aid.


Yet this episode appeared to show only half the equation.

While the Sandinistas were keeping quiet about the arsenal, right-wing Cuban exiles in Miami were re-equipping contra groups such as the one involved in the hostage taking.

Thus, the reality beginning to emerge from Nicaragua was far from the peaceful reconciliation envisioned by the grandmotherly president.

The bleak future of Nicaragua would seem to favor men like Arnoldo Aleman, the mayor of Managua, and other no-nonsense right-wing politicians. People who once recoiled at the excesses of the U.S.-backed Somoza regime now recall his rule as a time of peace and prosperity.

They have forgotten Mr. Somoza's behavior during the 1972 earthquake that leveled Managua. He didn't just distribute the international aid that poured into the capital, he sold it to the victims.

John McClintock, a copy editor for The Baltimore Sun, was The Sun's Latin American correspondent from 1987 to 1992.