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The GREAT CONCILIATOR : President Violeta Chamorro Reconciled Nicaragua's Warring Armies. But Can She Deliver Anything Else?

January 06, 1991|RICHARD BOUDREAUX | Richard Boudreaux is the Managua bureau chief for The Times.

ON INDEPENDENCE DAY, last Sept. 14, the leader of war-weary Nicaragua staged a ceremonial farewell to arms. With a deafening clatter, 15,000 rusting automatic rifles slid from 10 dump trucks into a pit dug along the shoulder of the Pan American Highway in Managua. With funereal solemnity, President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro tossed red flowers one by one onto the guns, and concrete poured from a hose to seal the giant tomb.

"We are burying these weapons so that peace can shine in our country," Chamorro declared. The U.S.-backed Contras had surrendered their weapons after an eight-year insurgency. The Sandinista army, now under her orders, was trimming ranks and collecting guns from its civilian supporters. "Here," she told the TV cameras, "we will build an enormous monument for peace, to show the world that Nicaraguans want no more bloodshed."

For such a hopeful milestone, the setting was bleak. On either side of the highway, weed-covered lots and the hulks of buildings testified to the poverty of a capital city unable to rebuild since the 1972 earthquake. From the slums amid the ruins, about 200 onlookers had gathered to watch the show. They listened impassively, offering restrained applause.

Then, after Chamorro led the singing of the national anthem and turned to leave, the audience suddenly came alive. As she walked away, they converged on her, shouting affectionate saludos and desperate appeals--for jobs, medicine, better housing, cheaper food. "Thank God we have peace, Dona Violeta, but when can we eat?" cried a young woman wearing a torn dress and holding the hand of her barefoot child.

Chamorro never stopped. Smiling and waving behind a line of aides and security guards, she ducked into her chauffeur-driven Volvo and rode away.

The ceremony and its aftermath provide a telling glimpse of the woman who last February became the first Nicaraguan president chosen in open, competitive elections. Nearly a year after upsetting incumbent Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front with 55% of the vote, Chamorro is still popular among Nicaragua's 3.7 million people as the conciliatory mother figure who ended their deadliest war. Yet, in a nation plagued by poverty and political instability, she seems maddeningly aloof, without meaningful solutions to any postwar problem.

Now her government appears adrift in a storm of hardships and criticism. Chamorro has chosen to rule by preaching a single guiding principle--national reconciliation--which has brought her into collaboration with the Sandinistas while her own 14-party coalition, the National Opposition Union, howls in protest. She has been unable to stem increasing crime and feuds over farmland as idled soldiers from both sides scramble to make a living. The long recession inherited from a decade of Sandinista rule refuses to end. And as the battle against inflation has stripped away price subsidies, the poor have gotten poorer.

And Dona Violeta can only offer hope:

"The people believe that I have a wand of virtue, and that, like Aladdin and his lamp, I can make everything marvelous. They have to understand that I received a country in bankruptcy . . . a disaster. But I do not lose hope that this country, in a year, or two years, or three years, is going to be completely better. We Nicaraguans put up with 50 years of dictatorships. . . . We have to have a little patience, no?"

WELCOMING a visitor to her second-floor office in the downtown skyscraper Casa Presidencial, the 61-year-old Chamorro is eager to show how she has brought the room to life since Ortega's departure. "He left it empty except for a beat-up desk and four rocking chairs," she says, her brown eyes scanning the space warmed by potted plants from her garden. There are 12 rockers now, for informal meetings, and a long table for Cabinet sessions. Ortega's desk was replaced after a rough edge tore the president's dress. So were the violet chair cushions that she suspects Ortega had installed as a joke on her name. Photos of Pope John Paul II and her late husband, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, now adorn the walls, beside crucifixes and framed newspaper headlines proclaiming her election.

With equal attention to style, Chamorro is trying to put her stamp on public life and government in Nicaragua. Black tie has replaced the tropical guayabera at official receptions, widening the fashion gap in a country where thousands of combat veterans have nothing to wear but tattered olive fatigues. Secretaries at Casa Presidencial no longer sport miniskirts or address visitors as companero , the preferred Sandinista greeting, but as senor or senora . And the Roman Catholic Church, treated with coolness and suspicion by the agnostic Ortega, is back in the mainstream.

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