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Next Step : Requiem for a Revolution? : Nicaragua's Sandinistas, who once toppled a dictator, now must adjust to electoral defeat. They vow to regain power--the question is how.


MANAGUA, Nicaragua — A day after conceding defeat in Nicaragua's first democratic elections, President Daniel Ortega faced 5,000 defiant Sandinistas in Managua's Revolution Plaza. Stunned and angry, many in the crowd refused to believe that their party, which a decade ago had toppled the Somoza dictatorship after an 18-year guerrilla struggle, was leaving the government. "Don't give up power!" they demanded, raising fists in the gathering dusk. "We've got the guns!"

The scene was a haunting reminder of the Sandinista National Liberation Front's guerrilla legacy, so threatening that supporters of President-elect Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who takes office Wednesday, have yet to hold a public celebration of her victory two months ago. In the tumultuous days that followed, throngs of belligerent young Sandinistas, many of them armed, seemed to own the streets. In one provincial capital they burned the headquarters of Chamorro's pro-American coalition. In another, a Sandinista helicopter blasted a coalition leader's home with a grenade.

Sandinista officers, alarmed by desertions from their army after the Feb. 25 election, handed out rifles to thousands of loyal civilians. Party leaders now admit that scores of Sandinista combat veterans formed an illicit underground network to resist the Chamorro government. "Companero, when are we going back to the mountains?" a security guard at the Foreign Ministry asked an official there. "I'm ready."

These fitful bursts of Sandinista hostility pose a major challenge not only to Chamorro as she tries to govern a war-divided, economically crippled Nicaragua, but also to Ortega as he tries to transform his revolutionary vanguard movement into a legal opposition. In the hot, dusty plaza that day, he used a mix of tough and conciliatory rhetoric, trying at once to whip up the party's defeated spirit and to quiet its simmering rage.

"We are willing to contribute to peace and stability as long as the people are respected and not threatened, because the people have enough power to crush anyone who comes intent on revenge," he declared. "The great winner of these elections is the Sandinista Front because we brought democracy here. . . . The day will come when we will return (through elections) to govern this country. In the meantime," he added, "we will govern from below."

Can Ortega transform a party that never formally abandoned its commitment to armed struggle as a means of achieving social change? Will Chamorro's free-market advisers be able to dismantle the Sandinistas' state-owned enterprises without a violent backlash? Will anything of the Sandinista revolution survive in a democracy? Can the party remain united enough to defend its programs, or will it fall apart in defeat?

In recent interviews, 16 Sandinista leaders--from comandantes to neighborhood cadres--said that their party had mellowed, irreversibly, during its decade in government. They expressed the unanimous view that a return to clandestine resistance after their electoral defeat would have brought a Panama-style U.S. invasion and finished their movement. The constitutional route, they said, is now the way to defend their revolution and regain power in the next elections, in 1996.

"I don't know if there is another example in the world of a revolutionary party that comes to power by force of arms and passes peacefully to the opposition," Vice President Sergio Ramirez said with a mixture of pride and resignation now echoed at all levels of the party. "For this country, that's an immense step forward."

But the Sandinista promise of peaceful politics is still fragile; it depends on good behavior by about 8,000 U.S.-backed Contras and, say some party activists, by the Bush Administration. Many are skeptical that the rebels, who signed a definitive cease-fire last Thursday after eight years of fighting the Sandinista-led army, will fulfill their pact to disarm and disband by June 10.

"If the Contras don't disarm, then we have to disarm them," said Ramon Cabrales, the outgoing vice minister of economy, who has kept a rifle since his days as a guerrilla commander. "To refuse to hand over the government would be to commit mass suicide. But it's healthy, mentally, to keep open the armed option, as long as there are Contras, as long as the U.S. government is going to have more influence, more presence, in our society."

Even with peace, the Sandinista opposition that Chamorro could face during her six-year term is daunting.

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