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Political Novice Winding Up Bid to Dislodge Ortega

Second of Two Parts.

February 19, 1990|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MASAYA, Nicaragua — For three hours, they had converged on the tiny plaza, thousands of Nicaraguans eager for a glimpse of the gray-haired widow seeking to overturn the young leaders of the Sandinista revolution.

"Come hear Dona Violeta Barrios de Chamorro," a man shouted into a microphone. "Come hear her message of love and reconciliation, of freedom and democracy."

"Ortega, you tyrant, your end is near!" the crowd chanted.

Then the main challenger to 44-year-old President Daniel Ortega in Sunday's election came into view--tall, aristocratic, clad in white and seated in a wheelchair on the back of a pickup truck, covered with a canopy that accentuated her regal bearing.

Suddenly the rhythm changed--"Violeta! Violeta! Violeta!" they screamed--and the truck bogged down in the thickening crowd. Chamorro's handlers realized they had a maddening logistical problem: How to get the 60-year-old candidate, hobbled by a broken kneecap, to the speaker's platform two blocks away.

Chamorro's dramatic entrance to this provincial capital, cradle of the urban guerrilla uprising that brought the Sandinistas to power a decade ago, underscored the hopes and frustrations of her campaign. It is an improvised and troubled effort that has been propelled forward, in spite of itself, on a tide of popular enthusiasm.

Her Nicaraguan Opposition Union, known as UNO, combines 14 parties ranging from Communists to old-line Conservatives in an awkward, 9-month-old coalition that is no match for the Sandinistas' military efficiency. UNO's leaders quarrel openly with one another, and the candidate is a political novice whose advisers sometimes wince at her absent-minded, off-the-cuff remarks.

Last month, her campaign nearly disappeared when $3.3 million promised by the U.S. Congress was held up, other funds ran out and Chamorro went to Houston for knee surgery. A week before the election, few billboards or photographs of her are visible in the streets.

But since her comeback in the wheelchair on Jan. 20, she has drawn thousands of people on foot, bicycle and horseback to see her all over the country. Although her rallies are fewer, the turnouts rival those of Ortega, whose party delivers many of its crowds in state-owned trucks.

"Our shortcomings are minor compared to the overwhelming desire for a change in this country, and that is what mobilizes people," said Emilio Alvarez Montalban, a leading Conservative ideologue. "It is a desire that surpasses the capacity of the politicians."

On the streets of Managua and other cities, the campaign has brought such sentiment to the surface. When a reporter tried to take an informal poll near Managua's Eastern Market, he was surrounded by people shouting their grievances against the Sandinistas.

"Viva la UNO!" some yelled.

"We are hungry because they have so many weapons, and that's what they want us to swallow," said Teresa Romero, 33, an Eastern Market merchant who voted for Ortega in 1984 but who became disillusioned when the state farm cooperative she belonged to failed. "The best food goes to the army now, and all we eat is leftovers."

Last September, opposition leaders decided that Chamorro, the widow of a popular newspaper publisher, was the candidate best qualified to mobilize discontent with the Sandinistas and achieve through the ballot box what successive U.S. Administrations and a Contra army had failed to do through economic pressure and counterrevolution.

The murder of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro 12 years ago broadened popular unrest against the Somoza dictatorship that he had vigorously opposed and fueled the Sandinista-led insurrection. When President Anastasio Somoza fled in July, 1979, the young revolutionaries named his widow, along with Ortega, to a five-member governing junta.

She quit nine months later and assumed her late husband's role as publisher of La Prensa to resist what she called the Sandinista march toward a Marxist-Leninist system and to cultivate his legacy as a lost ideal.

By reaching outside the political parties for Chamorro as their candidate, UNO is trying to turn the election into a referendum on the revolution. She says her government would be less militaristic than Ortega's, more tolerant of dissent, more reliant on private enterprise, friendlier with the United States and better able to draw international aid to revive the shattered economy.

But the campaign has been hurt by friction in the coalition, caused in part by her reliance on family advisers for election strategy. These tensions surfaced recently when Antonio Lacayo, her son-in-law and campaign manager, engaged in a shoving match with an aide to Virgilio Godoy, her running mate, over who would lead a UNO march.

And her weak grasp of details of major issues has reinforced the impression that, as president, she would be a pawn in a power struggle among factions of an unwieldy movement--one that is already divided over how far to go in reversing the Sandinista revolution.

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