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The Shooting Is Over, but Nicaragua Is Still Polarized : Central America: More than two years after voters ousted the Sandinistas, the masses continue to suffer.


MANAGUA, Nicaragua — In President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's Nicaragua, everything has changed and nothing has changed.

Or does it just seem that way?

Toyotas outnumber Russian-made Ladas now, but they still have to steer around horse-drawn carts--about 70% of Nicaraguans live in poverty. The mayor of Managua has put up road signs to the country club and airport. But many streets remain nameless, and Managuans' memories are still dotted with landmarks that no longer exist.

Nicaragua remains a polarized country. In the 2 1/2 years since the conservative Chamorro took office after beating Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega in a stunning election victory, Nicaraguans have ended their bitter eight-year guerrilla war and demilitarized the country. Chamorro has adopted policies of free enterprise and national reconciliation. But the country has yet to recover from war and economic ruin.

The National Opposition Union, or UNO, the coalition that supported Chamorro's candidacy in 1989, is now her opposition. And her old nemesis, the leftist Sandinista National Liberation Front, has helped to sustain her weak government. The Sandinista-led army has backed Chamorro's reconciliation policies, while the UNO-dominated National Assembly has shut down in a confrontation over them.

The masses, meanwhile, are fed up with the bunch.

"If Daniel rules or Violeta does, it all ends up the same for me," said Alip Centeno, 25, a vendor selling watches and auto seat covers. "Some days I don't earn a thing."

Centeno was one of more than 50 vendors found at a stoplight on the highway to Masaya one recent morning, peddling everything from chewing gum and combs to spider monkeys and parrots. Among the vendors' ranks could be found both Sandinistas and their old U.S.-supported enemies, the Contras.

"The Sandinistas and UNO can both go to hell!" shouted a monkey vendor listening to Centeno's conversation.

While in power, the leftist Sandinistas railed against the United States for its support of the Contra insurgents, and when the U.S. Congress approved $100 million in aid to the Contras, the Sandinista regime closed Chamorro's opposition newspaper, La Prensa. Now, Chamorro and La Prensa lash out at a Republican senator from the United States who has managed to hold up $100 million in U.S. aid to her government.

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) issued a scathing report on the Chamorro government in August, asserting that the president is only a "titular head of state" and that all real power remains with the Sandinista Front, which he says rules through the army chief, Gen. Humberto Ortega, and Chamorro's minister of the presidency, Antonio Lacayo, who is her son-in-law. Helms says that except for the disarming of the Contras, nothing has changed in Nicaragua under Chamorro.

Helms echoes the views of Alfredo Cesar, Lacayo's brother-in-law and president of the National Assembly. Cesar--a former Sandinista, former Contra, former Chamorro supporter--is leading the UNO push against the president. He sees himself as a bulwark against Sandinista power, while government officials view him as an opportunist, already campaigning for the 1996 presidential election.

"Some people would like to surrender national sovereignty, and others dream that the government will become part of the office of a Republican senator in Washington, as in times past," Chamorro said in a recent speech to the nation.

"Helms," added Chamorro spokesman Danilo Lacayo, "doesn't accept that Sandinistas live in this country. As far as he's concerned, they have no rights here. But they do have a right to live here. The Somocistas (followers of ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza) killed Sandinistas, and the Sandinistas sent Somocistas into exile. This is a new era."

The Sandinistas led an insurrection against the U.S.-supported Somoza that toppled his family dynasty in 1979. The ruling junta that replaced him included Daniel Ortega and Chamorro, but Chamorro quickly grew disillusioned with the Sandinistas and resigned.

Ortega was elected president in 1984. Many UNO members left the country during Sandinista rule and supported the Contra fighters, most of whom were peasants angry over arbitrary land confiscations and state control of the economy. Chamorro opted to oppose the Sandinistas legally, inside the country.

The Helms report charges Chamorro's government with corruption; human rights abuses; failure to remove Sandinistas from the military, courts and bureaucracies, and delays in resolving claims on confiscated lands.

"The report is an extraordinary concoction of truth, half-truth and unsupported innuendo," said a Western diplomat who asked not to be identified. "This is a very different country. There is freedom of speech, assembly and action. That's a huge change that, at times, makes things very difficult for the government."

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