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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 Jan. 10, 1978, three gunmen presumably working for Somoza ambushed Pedro Chamorro's car on a Managua street and fatally shot the publisher. The assassination thrust Pedro's popular mantle upon Dona Violeta and plunged Nicaragua into a decade of nearly uninterrupted warfare.

The Sandinistas, a weak rural insurgency, quickly took charge of an anti-Somoza insurrection in the cities. Chamorro's older daughter, Claudia Lucia, and her younger son, Carlos Fernando, joined the Sandinistas, and the family contributed $50,000. With growing support from upper-class Nicaraguans chafing under Somoza's corruption, the rebels pleaded with Dona Violeta to lend her name and newspaper to the cause. She couldn't say no.

In July, 1979, Somoza fled the country and took refuge in Miami. In the free-for-all that followed, the honored lady of the revolution proved to be a political lightweight. She served on the first government junta but quit after nine months, citing health problems while complaining privately that the Sandinistas were denying any real power to the junta, expanding their victorious army and creating a Cuban-inspired Marxist state. "I felt like a puppet," she recalls.

As Chamorro turned her attention to publishing La Prensa, the growing debate over the Sandinistas' course divided her staff, her family and the country. Xavier Chamorro, her slain husband's brother, left in 1980 to start a pro-Sandinista newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, while Carlos Fernando became editor of Barricada, the official Sandinista party paper. Dona Violeta quickly made La Prensa the leading anti-Sandinista voice, aided by her two other children, Pedro Joaquin Jr. and Cristiana, and Cristiana's new husband, Antonio Lacayo. Sandinistas defaced Chamorro's home with graffiti and accused her of treason. The government closed her newspaper several times, calling it a mouthpiece for the Contra army being trained and funded by the Reagan Administration. Fleeing death threats, Pedro Joaquin Jr. moved to Miami in 1984 and later joined the Contras' political leadership. Dona Violeta hung on to fight.

But she let others present her ideas in the paper's editorials. And although she was easily the most popular opposition figure in Nicaragua, she remained aloof from politics--always more at ease expounding her husband's unfulfilled dreams of a democratic revolution based on free expression and free enterprise than offering ways to achieve them.

That proved to be an asset. In September, 1989, after a Central American peace plan had prompted the Sandinistas to schedule elections, leaders of 14 opposition parties met to pick a challenger to Daniel Ortega. Ranging from Communists to Conservatives, the politicians realized that only an outsider--this martyr's widow and matriarch of a divided family--could hold their fractious coalition together. Says her brother-in-law, Jaime Chamorro: "We were not looking for someone who could run the country but someone who represented the ideal (of democracy)."

Chamorro let the coalition write her platform and had Lacayo run her campaign. At every campaign stop, she invoked the memory of her husband, even claiming that he still spoke to her. "I am not a politician," she would say, "but I believe this is my destiny. I have to do this for Pedro and for my country."

DURING her campaign, Chamorro dismissed the notion that she was incompetent to lead Nicaragua. "There's no need to study how to govern a country," Chamorro said. "I have accepted the challenge to revive this country with love, peace, and according to the dictates of my conscience."

Questions about her competence, however, won't go away. After her election, she plunged into an executive routine--dedicating public works, chairing lengthy Cabinet meetings, peppering her ministers with questions. But even the routine has been puzzling and awkward for her.

The most basic facts about the government sometimes escape the president. Once she called Rene Vivas, the Sandinista chief of police, seeking the emergency admission of a family friend to the Military Hospital, which, as most people in Managua know, is run by the army. Sorry, not my department, Vivas told her. "Oh," she replied, according to an adviser who heard the conversation. "I thought the police and the army were all the same thing."

When Chamorro speaks from a text, she comes across like a gray-haired schoolmarm, rarely peeping over her half-moon spectacles. Her handlers encourage her to speak from the heart in her folksy manner, only to cringe at her slips of the tongue. To a man who complained that Nicaraguans were starving to death, she replied: "Yes, but they will die in a democracy!"

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