Nicaragua at War with Itself

August 26, 1993

Nicaraguan President Violeta Chamorro's gamble that she could share power in good faith with the Marxist-inspired Sandinistas she defeated in 1990 elections is tearing her country apart and placing her own hold on office in jeopardy.

Her attempt to govern by reconciliation is taken by her many enemies on the right as well as the left as a fatal weakness which cries out for exploitation. The result is thuggery in the countryside, international terrorism operations in Managua, poverty and disaffection all around, and now this: aid-cutoff pressure from a Clinton administration that is losing patience with Mrs. Chamorro.

Matters have reached what could be a breaking point with tug-of-war hostage taking by extremists on both sides who would willingly break the frayed rope that has kept an uneasy peace. The situation no longer has the stark simplicity of the civil war period between 1982 and 1990. Conservatives now oppose the government they helped into office. Sandinistas feud among themselves, as duplicity triumphs over ideology. Demobilized warriors, both Contras and Sandinistas, find common cause in fighting any kind of authority.

In the midst of this chaos comes good advice for Dona Violeta, as she is known with affection or condescension, from Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the archbishop of Managua. "She was elected by the people and should strongly take the helm of the ship," he declared. "These are very difficult times. What she has to do is save the ship."

To move "strongly," Mrs. Chamorro should use force to overwhelm both groups of hostage-takers simultaneously, even at risk to their captives. She should dispense with plea-bargaining and promises of amnesty, figuring her tormentors do not want to create martyrs among their foes. Most important, she should tell Gen. Humberto Ortega, army chief of staff and brother to former Sandinista President Daniel Ortega, that either he takes out the hostage-takers or he is out of a job.

Mrs. Chamorro's fateful decision to allow the Sandinistas control over the security system as their price for peace was wrong in 1990 and is wrong now. It undercut her position. It alienated the business interests whose cooperation was essential to an economic rebound.

So the Nicaraguan president is in a predicament. There is danger in firing General Ortega flat out if it is seen as a concession to the right-wing ultras. But she can't govern unless she gets rid of the Sandinista infection. So she has to "save ther ship" by demonstrating she is indeed the last, best defender of the battered Nicaraguan center. Then even the Clintonistas may realize there are no better alternatives and many a lot worse.

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