Pennies for Nicaragua

April 20, 1991

The U.S. visit by Violeta Chamorro was the first by a Nicaraguan president to Washington since 1939. That is symbol enough of the self-respect and respectability to which this elected leader has brought her war-torn little country. She and Nicaragua deserve American help. The most important thing President Bush could do, as well as the least, was receive her. That he and Congress did.

But beyond fending off right-wing contra carping at her policy of national reconciliation, which the Bush administration also did, it might also have coughed up a lot of money. It would have in earlier years. This the administration did not and could not do now.

Mrs. Chamorro took over a country bankrupted by Marxist misrule, swollen military expenditure and civil war. Inflation and unemployment are horrendous. The ousted Sandinistas still "rule from the bottom" to some extent through control of unions and armed forces. But efforts to open the economy have been genuine, as have gestures of reconciliation. Mrs. Chamorro came seeking a permanent aid commitment and relief on a $365 million debt payment arrears that the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank insist be cleared up before lending another $200 million.

The United States has pledged $541 million over two years since Mrs. Chamorro's election last year, and it has given about $207 million of that amount. Mr. Bush did not add to those figures, though he spoke of augmenting the $50 million in debt forgiveness promised for this year. His real promise was to lead an effort to get debt relief elsewhere, that is, to ask other countries to write off some of Nicaragua's $9.5 billion debt.

This will be noticed by the United States' friends and clients and by regimes thinking about it. The power that led the effort to roll Iraq back out of Kuwait militarily, the only power that could, is a debtor and in no position to play Lady Bountiful with even a Nicaragua, small as it is. The message: We won't fill your tambourine; the best we can do is pass it for you; we are not without influence in the world.

Nicaragua produces less than it did in 1980 and exports much less. It needs more of what Mrs. Chamorro has begun, including peace and reconciliation, integration of contras into the national effort, privatization of state enterprises and hard work in industry and agriculture undistracted by crisis and war. Mr. Bush gave moral support. It is a mark of the limitation of this country's undoubted power that he is not able, and Congress is not disposed, to give more.

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