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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.

Chamorro declines to comment on the meeting. She repeats her inauguration day promise that Humberto Ortega's mission--to halt military conscription, reduce the army, disarm the country--is temporary and will end whenever she pleases.

Such assurances did not impress the Contras, who had fought not only to change the government but to defeat the Sandinista military as well. After Chamorro's election, rebels had closed their base camp in Honduras and marched into Nicaragua, ready to surrender their weapons to United Nations peacekeeping forces. But they balked at news of Humberto Ortega's appointment. The sudden prospect of renewed fighting created a new crisis for the president.

In the weeks of bargaining and bluffing that led to the rebel army's demobilization in late June, Chamorro presided over talks in Managua. She greeted each rebel negotiator with an embrace and a kiss and sat through two rounds of all-night talks; after one session, she had everyone to her house for breakfast. This time, the woman who had brooded silently over the power of a Sandinista general was articulate about what she wanted: The Contras had won the political battle; now they had to take the first step to demilitarize Nicaragua.

"Dona Violeta played the role of the mother anguished to death over her children," says Emilio Alvarez, a Conservative politician who was there. "She addressed the Contras as \o7 mis muchachos \f7 and asked them to do (this) for their country."

Chamorro was, say the Contra leaders, the only one whom they could trust. Lacayo and Humberto Ortega negotiated security arrangements for the rebels, but it was Chamorro who persuaded the Contra leaders to accept them in exchange for food, housing materials and farms for resettlement. "Dona Violeta clearly assumed her responsibility for our safety," says the top rebel commander, Israel Galeano. "So we decided to take this important step."

Less than two weeks after declaring the war over, Chamorro awoke on a Monday to find new battles raging in Managua. Militant Sandinista unionists, fighting for their government jobs, had torn up paving stones all over town to enforce a general strike. To her dismay, UNO activists and former Contras confronted them. Gunfire crackled across burning barricades, and anarchy reigned. Four people were killed.

For the first time, Nicaraguans worried that Chamorro was in danger of being overthrown. It quickly became evident that police could not or would not clear the streets. Only the army could save her, but would it?

The president huddled with Lacayo that day and ordered Humberto Ortega to call out the troops. The army complied, with timid force. Not until Wednesday did the strikers retreat--as did Chamorro, who initially had refused to negotiate with them. Later, her government abandoned a plan to fire 15,000 public employees.

Chamorro's advisers say the gamble on Humberto Ortega's loyalty paid off, that his deployment of Sandinista-trained troops against Sandinista protesters not only restored order with a minimum of bloodshed but also deepened divisions in the opposition party.

But to many people in Managua, the president had lost. Her dependence on Humberto Ortega was apparent, as was the Sandinista unions' veto power over her economic policy. Her low public profile and private outbursts of insecurity during the strike did little to boost confidence in her leadership. Alarmed members of her coalition summoned her and asked who was really in charge.

It was her most humiliating moment of the crisis, says a sympathetic politician who attended the stormy coalition meeting. "I know you think that I'm a stupid old lady, that I'm being manipulated, that I'm betraying you," he quotes her as saying. "Well, I'm sorry you feel that way."

TO THOSE who know Violeta Chamorro, her struggles and her successes have come as no surprise. She has lived most of her life at the center of Nicaraguan politics and yet never become a politician.

Violeta Barrios grew up on a sprawling cattle ranch in southern Nicaragua. One of seven children in a rich, conservative family, she had a carefree childhood. Her father sent her to a Catholic school in San Antonio, Texas, and to Blackstone College in Southside, Va.

But her father's death in 1948 brought her back to Nicaragua, and she never completed her studies. Instead, at age 19, she met Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, an intense young man from Managua who would become publisher of his family's newspaper, La Prensa, and the outstanding opposition leader of his generation. She became his wife, mother of his four children and loyal companion during his crusade against the Somoza dynasty, which had dominated Nicaragua since 1936. During a 27-year marriage punctuated by her husband's frequent imprisonments and exile, Chamorro remained more a helpmate than a co-conspirator.

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