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National Agenda : Former Foes Unite for Sake of Survival : Some ex-Contras and Sandinistas put aside bitterness and mistrust to look for solutions to economic problems.


OCOTAL, Nicaragua — Luis Alejandro Espinosa spent 10 of his 30 years in the mountains around this provincial Nicaraguan capital, fighting against the Sandinista government.

During that grueling decade, the peasant from Jalapa who had taken up the Contra cause never imagined that he would one day march into the town sharing common goals with those who defended the Sandinista regime.

But two years after he laid down his American-bought weapons and returned to civilian life, Espinosa--along with 100 other former Contra rebels from the northern Nueva Segovia region--did just that.

The locals dubbed the combined forces "los revueltos"-- the scrambled ones. Politics had made them fight, but economics--the struggle for survival in the postwar depression--brought the ex-Contra fighters and hundreds of demobilized Sandinista soldiers together.

Together, the rearmed, uniformed veterans seized strategic points in Ocotal last March and demanded that the government provide land, loans, housing and other support services for veterans from both sides of Nicaragua's protracted, bloody guerrilla war.

What happened in Ocotal is part of an admittedly tentative but hopeful phenomenon in this Central American country.

Confronted with similar hardships during a period of severe economic stagnation, at least a few Nicaraguans have put aside lingering feelings of bitterness and mistrust to forge tentative alliances with their former war enemies, hoping to resolve mutual problems.

"It's quite incredible, isn't it?" Espinosa said of the joint takeover of Ocotal. "For us, it seems like something in a dream. But it's easy to understand it. We are all living with the same problems."

These new relationships are not always comfortable or easy. But participants say that their poverty has left them few other choices.

"It's the only solution we have left. There is no other," explained Carlos (Chino 85) Garcia, head of the Assn. of the War Disabled of the Nicaraguan Resistance, as he sat in the Managua offices of the Sandinista Organization of the Revolutionary Disabled. "Before we were enemies to the death, but now, we are united in our suffering."

The Assn. of the War Disabled and the Organization of the Revolutionary Disabled represent Contra and Sandinista war disabled, respectively. Together they are lobbying the government to increase the meager $25 to $30 monthly pensions provided for those who suffered permanent injuries in the war.

The groups have also put together job training programs, sports activities and other support services for the disabled fighters, who all participate together.

Garcia, who fought with the Contras for more than a decade and lost his leg during the war, acknowledged that "it is a little strange" sitting in an office filled with portraits of Sandinista heroes, discussing strategy with his onetime enemies.

But Favio Herrera, one of the leaders of the Sandinista organization, explained: "They have their own political principles and we have ours, but this does not come before the reality of work for the disabled. We have a fight in common."

In response to their pressure, the government has set up an agency to examine the problems of the disabled and to try to find solutions. After the takeover of Ocotal, government negotiators agreed to try to comply with many of the demands of los revueltos.

But whether the financially strapped government can actual fulfill its promises remains to be seen.

Some independent experts feel that what has passed for revueltos actions were, in at least some cases, orchestrated by the Sandinistas to further discredit the government.

However, the hesitant spirit of cooperation extends beyond groups of war veterans. It is also at work in scattered towns and farming communities, where neighbors with different political sympathies are sharing equipment or working on community improvement projects such as water systems and new housing.

"The most important thing for reconciliation is for people to work together for their own well-being," said Leobardo Sanchez, 33, a member of the municipal council of Somotillo, a solidly Sandinista town near the Honduran border, where more than 106 former Contra fighters and their families resettled after the war.

About a year after their arrival in Somotillo, after the election of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the former Contra fighters teamed up with residents of an adjacent Sandinista community to extend the town's drinking water system.

After the success of that project, community leaders from both areas began to discuss how to raise money to add on to the overcrowded neighborhood school.

Neighborhood leader Renee Mondragon Vargas, 43, a Sandinista sympathizer whose brother was killed by Contras in 1987, has been one of the driving forces behind the effort to unite the two communities through work projects.

"My problem is only with one or two of them, not with all of them," Mondragon said of the former Contra combatants.

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