MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Three weeks ago, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro assumed the presidency on a promise to reconcile this war-divided nation and revive its prostrate economy. That task, one of her advisers said, required three immediate conditions: a disarmament pact, labor peace and emergency cash.
But after her early apparent success in persuading the Contras to start handing over their rifles, her vision has been darkened by the country's most disruptive strike in 11 years and frustrated by the delay of $320 million in promised American aid.
"My country is bankrupt," Chamorro pleaded in a letter to President Bush a week ago as Sandinista unions began shutting down government ministries, banks, air and bus transport, phone lines and schools. She asked Bush for a $40-million stopgap loan "to avoid a critical situation that may be looming" while Congress debates his Nicaraguan aid proposal.
On Wednesday, after Bush replied that he could not legally provide the loan, Chamorro's government backed away from its threat to fire the strikers, withdrew the riot police and met most of the union's demands for wage hikes and job security.
The labor accord, which ended the weeklong strike Thursday, confirmed a central fact of life in post-revolutionary Nicaragua: Without massive foreign aid to jump-start the economy, the cost of social peace for Chamorro's center-right administration is an unofficial tax allowing the Sandinistas, through negotiations, to shape many of her policies.
"After the elections the (Chamorro) government thought it had all the power," said Father Cesar Jerez, president of Managua's Jesuit-run Central American University. "But that power turned out to be more formal than substantive. The Sandinistas showed that nobody can govern this country without taking them seriously."
Sandinista unions representing 50,000 public employees who struck won a 100% wage increase to offset Chamorro's first currency devaluation. They won the right to take part in drafting the procedures for implementing a civil service law that Chamorro had wanted to modify unilaterally so that she could fire some senior Sandinista holdovers.
The settlement is unlikely to give her beleaguered government much relief. Sandinista leaders, including former President Daniel Ortega, are demanding a withdrawal of two other decrees that would undermine cherished revolutionary programs by returning some expropriated farmlands and industries to private hands.
After losing the Feb. 25 election, Ortega vowed that his Sandinistas would "govern from below" as a legal opposition. They are well equipped to do so. They dominate the army, the police, the Supreme Court and have well-organized support among trade unions, farmers and students.
Acknowledging some of that power, Chamorro's advisers signed a March 27 transition agreement to leave the army's Sandinista officer corps intact. Gen. Humberto Ortega, the defeated president's brother, was kept as chief of the army under a mandate to reduce its numbers after the Contras disarm. But the deal caused an uproar in Chamorro's 14-party coalition, bringing pressure on her to act forcefully on other fronts.
Said one adviser: "It created an image that this government was weak, that the Sandinistas were still running things. We had to strike hard."
What angered Chamorro and prompted her to attack, the aide said, was the discovery, as she took office, that the departing Sandinistas had stripped the state of millions of dollars in assets--vehicles, real estate, cattle, radio stations--and had left just $3 million in the central bank.
Quickly, Chamorro's majority in the new National Assembly repealed an amnesty that the Sandinistas had passed in their lame-duck days to immunize themselves from corruption charges. Then she issued a decree "suspending" a civil service law that had made it impossible to fire many of those blamed for the looting.
In the poisoned political climate, Chamorro was branded a dictator--compared to the late Anastasio Somoza--for bypassing the Assembly. Her decree set off the public employees' strike May 10.
The strike was pushed by a radical Sandinista faction that declared war on a "bourgeois counterrevolution." Chamorro's hardened stance moved Daniel Ortega, who had shown interest in a smooth transition, to rally behind their demands.
"The Sandinistas knew they had to strike now, before the recovery comes," said Louis Sanchez Sancho, a leader of Chamorro's forces in the Assembly. "When people see McDonald's hamburger stands popping up all over, that kind of thing, support for the revolution is going to collapse. People are going to forget about ideological slogans."