Nicaragua is hostage to a broken peace No jobs, no land after years of war

August 25, 1993|By Ginger Thompson | Ginger Thompson,Staff Writer

ESTELI, Nicaragua -- In an abandoned school house outside this northern mountain town, a thin 30-year-old man sits with an automatic assault rifle in his lap and tries to explain the violence that continues to grip this country, once one of the the Western Hemisphere's principal ideological battlegrounds.

He goes by the common name of Jesus. The dual kidnappings that have hit Nicaragua since Thursday when former contras seized 38 government officials and Sandinista politicians, and leftist gunmen retaliated by kidnapping Vice President Virgilio Godoy and several other conservative politicians, wouldn't have surprised him.

Jesus spent most of his adulthood with a gun slung over his shoulder as a fighter for the leftist Sandinista army during its bloody war against the U.S.-financed contra guerrilla force.

He was uneasy about surrendering his weapon in 1990. But the Sandinistas, partly financed and guided by Cuban President Fidel Castro, were voted out of office in an upset election. The new government was determined to forge peace.

Jesus said he believed in President Violeta Chamorro's promises of land on which he could build a new life, so he quit the Sandinista army and waited.

Two years later, unemployment had risen to 60 percent. There were no new schools and clinics in poor villages throughout the country. And while a large number of former combatants had received land, they were not given the economic assistance or training they needed to work that land.

Now Jesus is carrying his gun again.

He and 1,500 former combatants from both sides of the civil war have been accused of hundreds of kidnappings, murders and assaults. They have scared off potential foreign investors and nearly halted agricultural production in the northern part of the country.

"We gave time to the government to prove that they could deliver what they had promised," says Jesus, camped out with about a dozen other rebels. "But each day that passed, things got worse.

"The government deceived us when they promised us land and education," he says, looking down at his AK assault rifle. "These arms are to stop the deception. We want serious and honest dialogue.

"This gun is a guarantee of my life."

Groups like his are seen as common thugs by many law-abiding citizens, but the rebels insist that they are driven by rage over the government's failure to comply with promises to provide the economic assistance they need to start peaceful new lives.

The hostage crisis in Nicaragua is only the latest manifestation of the fierce disgruntlement of former fighters on both sides of the 1980 civil war in which the U.S.-supported contras fought against the Marxist-led Sandinista government forces.

Ex-Sandinista soldiers

Last month 150 former Sandinista soldiers attacked the police barracks and robbed three banks here. They were driven out a day later by government troops, in a fierce gunfight that killed an estimated 45 people.

In each of these incidents, rebels have made political demands. The "re-contras" say that although the Sandinistas lost the presidential election in 1990, President Chamorro has allowed them to maintain too much power in the new government. They are particularly adamant that Gen. Humberto Ortega be forced to resign as head of the army, a post he held under the Sandinistas.

But at the root of their demands is the extreme poverty that plagues the country.

During her presidential campaign, one of President Chamorro's most important promises to the former fighters was land and economic assistance to build peaceful lives. They were expected to farm at least enough to feed themselves and their families.

The government hoped that the more ambitious among them would form farming cooperatives on which they could grow TTC export crops such as coffee and sugar.

But the program has instead generated the same sort of distrust and violence that led to war in the 1980s.

"Land is the most volatile issue in the country," says an official of the Organization of American States in Nicaragua. "And it is the one that has been handled with the least amount of responsibility. It continues to cause fights and deaths."

Government officials say their worst mistake in the distribution of land was that in their haste to introduce former combatants to peaceful lifestyles, they proceeded too quickly. About 22,000 contras surrendered their weapons, and 70,000 soldiers were forced to retire from the Sandinista Army.

Almost all the former contras have been assigned land, but there has been no money for the paperwork so that titles for the properties can be completed. About 70 percent of the new landholders are awaiting titles; in the meantime, they are ineligible for loans to help them buy seeds or basic farm tools.

Lack of land titles

Many criticize the nation's banks for applying First World loan standards to farmers in developing countries. The requirement of a title is unfair, they say, when the government is not able to give titles to all those who have received land.

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