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The New President Faces a Country Divided by a Violent Past

October 27, 1996|Michael Shifter | Michael Shifter is program director for democratic governance at the Inter-American Dialogue and adjunct professor of Latin American studies at Georgetown University

WASHINGTON — The results of last Sunday's presidential election in Nicaragua have been interpreted as a triumph of the right over the left. But it is a mistake to exaggerate the role of ideologies and political symbols associated with Sandinista rule and the previous Somoza regime in moving people's votes. Fundamentally, what was on Nicaraguans' minds is how to live more decent lives.

Living more decently means two things: achieving some measure of economic and social progress, and enjoying political stability and reconciliation. By a margin of 48%-39%, Nicaraguans decided to entrust the next six years to Arnoldo Aleman, former mayor of Managua and leader of the Liberal Alliance. But they may be less worried about his ability to do the best possible job, within severe constraints, on the economic front than they are about his commitment to full political reconciliation.

Nearly seven years ago, when Violeta Barrios de Chamorro won the election that symbolized Nicaragua's move from war to peace, and from an authoritarian regime to a freely elected government, one of her central tasks was to tackle the country's profound economic problems. The results, however, have been disappointing. Today, despite a changed regional and international setting, Aleman confronts a challenge similar to Chamorro's. It is tough to imagine how the president-elect can preside over a successful government without delivering some tangible economic benefits to his country's overwhelmingly impoverished population, the second poorest, behind Haiti's, in the hemisphere.

The magnitude of Nicaragua's predicament is unmistakable. The country's per capita income is $470, more than 40% below the 1980 level. According to the Inter-American Development Bank, 70% of the population live in poverty, 42% in extreme poverty. In rural areas, economic deprivation is especially alarming. Unemployment exceeds 30%, and underemployment is high and on the rise.

Still, since 1994, Nicaragua has reversed more than a decade of economic decline, controlled inflation and reduced its foreign debt. This modest recovery can be attributed to an increase in the international price of coffee, Nicaragua's major export, as well as to growth in nontraditional exports. In the past two years, the government has also carried out a package of reforms--fiscal and labor, along with a privatization program--that has facilitated growth, though politics often has interfered.

Such economic progress, small as it is, perhaps underscored the choice faced by Nicaraguan voters: Which candidate could best keep growth alive? Aleman's calls for greater private investment, from Nicaraguan businessmen and foreign investors, at least held out some promise. The tough part is stimulating investment that translates into stable employment and improved social conditions.

Tougher yet will be the achievement of political reconciliation. The risk is that members of the governing Liberal Alliance and the opposition Sandinistas, led by defeated presidential candidate Daniel Ortega, will strive to fuel the country's polarization. Given the history of Sandinista abuses, some Aleman associates will be mightily tempted to exact vengeance. Yet, this course of action is hardly a formula for a successful administration and is bound to only intensify cynicism and frustration--and provoke violence--among sectors of Nicaraguan society.

Aleman's best strategy to achieve genuine reconciliation is to find some common ground with his political opponents. Although it appears that his Liberal Alliance will hold an edge in the National Assembly, Aleman should aim for as broad a base of support for his policies as possible. At the same time, he might soft-pedal those contentious issues that are apt to inflame old passions.

Toward this end, Aleman might fill his administration with officials prized for their qualifications and achievements, not their ideological purity. For a model, he might look to neighboring Guatemala, which is led by Alvaro Arzu, another former mayor of a capital city with a pro-business stance and who has assembled a highly skilled team with varied political backgrounds.

Two salient issues on Nicaragua's political agenda could, however, pose serious problems and reverse the advances made under the Chamorro government toward greater social peace and demilitarization. The first concerns civil-military relations. Although some political sectors linked to Aleman's Liberal Alliance object to the heavily Sandinista slant of the Nicaraguan army, now headed by former Sandinista commander Joaquin Cuadra, the army has been restructured and its manpower reduced from close to 96,000, at the height of the civil war in 1989, to about 13,000 today, making it the smallest national army in Central America. The Aleman government and Gen. Cuadra might cooperate to find more ways to bring the army under complete civilian control.

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