Nicaragua's Polarization is Reaching the Boiling Point
Nicaragua demonstrates that the attempt to make a revolution can be as explosive and moving as the attempt to do the opposite: install a counter-revolution.
Nicaragua is demonstrating that the attempt to install a counterrevolution can be just as explosive as making a revolution. The following summary of the past four months' events illustrates that the laws of physics have little in common with the laws of politics. While a physical vacuum is characterized by absolute calm, a vacuum of political power creates tremendous turbulence.
Army Day, September 2. In her speech to the assembled officers, President Violeta Chamorro unexpectedly announced her "desire" that General Humberto Ortega retire in 1994. At the end of the formalities, former President Daniel Ortega, visibly shaken, crossed words with her in public. "You don't own Nicaragua!" he said angrily. "I'm the President and no one raises his voice to me!" she retorted. In another part of the hall, Major General Joaquín Cuadra and Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo had an equally heated exchange. "You sold out to the gringos!" accused Cuadra. "I didn't know anything about this!" responded Lacayo.
And that was only the beginning. It was followed by a communique in which the army chiefs of staff disputed the legal basis of the President's announcement, a reiteration of Chamorro's challenge, and a request by her government that the Organization of American States (OAS) analyze the situation. With this latest sequence of events, the national crisis has bored to the very crux of what holds the current political model together: the army executive axis or, to be more exact, the Humberto Ortega Antonio Lacayo alliance. Will an economic collapse be followed by a political one? Will the collapse of the FSLN government economic pact, which has been so negative for the majority of the population, be followed by a collapse of their political pact, a notably mature accomplishment?
A Twin KidnappingOnly a week earlier, the country had taken its first calm breath after six extremely tense days due to the back to back kidnappings that made world headlines. Those twin events were the clearest and most dangerous expression of polari zation since the change of government in 1990.
The first occurred shortly after midday on August 18. A delegation of 41 people, including Sandinista representatives on the National Assembly's human rights commission, government officials and 34 officers of the Special Disarmament Brigade, had gone to El Zúngano, on the outskirts of the northern town of Quilalí, in response to a message from "El Chacal" (the jackal) that he wanted to discuss the disarmament of his sizable and well armed recontra organization known as the "Northern Front 3 80." Once his men had ushered the delegation into a schoolroom, Chacal strode in and calmly announced that he was taking them all hostage, to be freed in exchange for fulfillment of his single "non negotiable" demand: sack Gen. Ortega and Antonio Lacayo.
At 7:30 the next evening, a former Sandinista army officer using the pseudonym "Comandante 31" led a takeover of UNO's political headquarters in Managua, during a meeting of that coalition's political council to discuss the possibility of an FSLN UNO dialogue. The commando announced that it would release the 33 political leaders, including Vice President Virgilio Godoy, in exchange for the freedom of Chacal's hostages.
The ultra right sympathized with Chacal, some brazenly and others more diplomatically. Many Sandinistas admired Commander 31, some openly and others with prudent silence. The government found itself caught in the middle, uncertain about how to take control of such a polarized and risk ridden standoff.
A Country DividedThe electoral results of 1990 divided even more a country already polarized by 11 years of revolution and war. Perhaps without the strict economic plan and the poverty it has brought, post election Nicaragua would have savored peace and reconciliation. But the political military war quickly turned into an economic one. And today, political military confrontation has again come to the forefront.
Except for brief periods, the polarization has grown steadily since April 1990. It is fed from below by the effects of an interminable structural adjustment, which impoverishes and excludes the majority of the population, holding out no hope of a better life. It is nourished from above by irresponsible political elites, who benefit from the adjustment and engage in equally interminable infighting for more or better quotas of power to administer it.
For over a year, almost all national leaders, both elite and grassroots, have analyzed the national situation as one on the edge of "a social upheaval with unpredictable consequences." And, in fact, the growing impoverishment of the majorities has already produced partial upheavals in the form of violent strikes, land takeovers, evictions, rearmed groups in the countryside and increasing anarchy. It has also produced a daily "slow motion" upheaval in the form of mounting crime, drug traffic, prostitution, sexual abuse, suicides and the like. But the poverty is so grinding that a greater, noisier explosion had been expected at any point. It finally came with the kidnappings in August, although more as an expression of political polarization than of economic desperation.
Paradoxically, those twin events created the possibility of a potentially depolarizing reflection and understanding, at least between the political elites. Will these irresponsible kidnappings finally force the opposing politicians to see that they, too, need to start acting responsibly? Even if that were to miraculously occur, the main questions could remain unanswered. Will a depolarizing dialogue rectify the course of the economy, which is pitting the rich few against the many, many poor? Can it forestall economic collapse? Will small rural producers, to say nothing of the tens of thousands of former combatants on both sides, have any voice in the national dialogue and the political decisions?
Three Depolarizing InitiativesNicaragua's political temperature has been climbing toward the boiling point for some months now. In 1991 the government promised an economic take off with an end to inflation, the arrival of foreign investments and a republic of successful micro entrepreneurs. Two years later this promise has lost so much credibility that the government has stopped voicing it. The neoliberal model, designed for but not in Nicaragua, does not function here, where a small privileged group insists on floating sumptuously through a sea of poverty. Never before has there been more recession, more unemployment and more economic paralysis. The economic model is washed up and the political model that has administered it is beached right alongside it. The army executive crisis is the final call to abandon ship.
Yet the government has insisted on maintaining both models. Just as insistently, the ultra rightists demand a transformation of the political one that would put them in charge of the economic one. The FSLN, in contrast, insists more on reforming the economic one although with ambiguities growing out of the personal interests of some than on altering the political one. And finally, in the United States, six months after the change in the administration, the ultra right heirs to the Reagan Bush policy have yet to encounter any real obstacles to their proposition or perhaps it is more accurate to say imposition of pressure and blackmail to guarantee that there is no backsliding on the economic adjustments and that the political transformations they and their local allies want are speeded up.
In the midst of the upheaval caused by the discovery of the Salvadoran arms cache in Managua in May, the Chamorro government launched three initiatives to give itself some breathing room.
* To cushion the most immediate effects of the economic crisis, it called all the productive sectors to a dialogue about the agricultural cycle as the arrival of the rainy season loomed imminent.
* To confront the growing phenomenon of the rearmed groups, it launched a carrot and stick campaign, combining military threats with a legally backed amnesty offer that would encourage or force the recontras and recompas to disarm once and for all.
* To debate the political and institutional problems euphemistically referred to as "modernization of the state" it called for an UNO FSLN government "National Dialogue" to begin in June, preceded by preliminary meetings to reach an agenda of common concerns and areas of possible consensus. The rains came, but economic reactivation, military disarmament and political depolarization stayed away. All three initiatives bogged down.
* The dialogue about the agricultural cycle reached relatively important accords, including promises to provide short and medium term financing for small, as well as large producers so they could make good use of what meteorologists promised would be the best rainy season in years. The rains were as predicted, but, as with many other initiatives, this one did not live up to its promises. Since some credits were given to big agricultural capitalists in the Pacific, the government claimed in subsequent meetings that it was complying with the accords while its opponents claimed that it was not, because the smaller growers did not get the credits promised.
* The problem of the rearmed groups continued along its complex road while the amnesty bill became entangled in heated debates about its scope and deadline. The right opposed including what it called "common criminals" (recompas), and the FSLN argued that the line between politicized actions and simple criminality had become so muddied that the law should include everybody or nobody. Even Americas Watch entered the fray, arguing that the inclusion of anyone who had committed a crime fostered impunity. In frustration, the government temporarily shelved its proposal. But, by that time, 1,065 of what the army estimated to be a total of 1,400 recontras and recompas were already in the designated security enclaves in the north, waiting for the bill's passage before disarming. Then, on July 21, a recompa group occupied the city of Estelí, and some surrendered in exchange for the promise of amnesty, which rekindled the whole debate about who should be included and within what time frame.
* The opposing agendas that the different political forces and economic organizations took to the preliminary round of the National Dialogue permitted a glimpse at the difficulty they would encounter in coming to any understanding during the main one. But they never even made it to the same negotiation table for that round. UNO had other plans.
The National Dialogue Runs AgroundThe dialogue process sprang its first major leak when UNO refused to sit down with the FSLN and the government before first extracting significant political concessions in bilateral talks with the government. Among its demands were substantial changes not only in the army but in all branches of government and the assigning of significant functions to Vice President Godoy.
But the bilateral talks themselves ran aground before those points were even broached. They foundered on UNO's first demand: that a commission, made up of Cardinal Obando y Bravo and United Nations and OAS representatives, be created to verify all accords coming out of their negotiations. The government roundly rejected the idea of assigning anyone, much less foreigners, to verify accords not yet reached. "We have to reach understandings among ourselves as Nicaraguans," President Chamorro repeatedly insisted. The government's counter proposal was that a commission be formed to observe the dialogue itself, made up of a bishop selected by the Bishops Conference and a university rector chosen by the University Council. But UNO clung steadfastly to its own plan, using the stall to hammer away publicly at its main demand: the ousting of the army chief and the minister of the presidency.
The polarization of the political elites was revealed in the endless black and white headlines about the dozens of sessions and estimated 1,000 people hours occupied in that sterile debate during May and June. But it came home in full color during the minute to minute TV coverage of the kidnappings in August.
All the while, the economic crisis continued inexorably up its growth curve. While new layoffs and small business closures occurred daily, the country's scant economic resources continued to benefit only large scale merchants, private banks and national stockholders in foreign companies. Perhaps the starkest example was the $2 million credit granted to a transnational cellular telephone firm's Nicaraguan representative none other than the Chamorro government's first foreign minister, Enrique Dreyfus. If there are no credits to plant corn, how can there be credits for a super luxury item that serves no higher purpose than to be a status symbol for a few wealthy Nicaraguans?
A Coup at the Helm of the Ship of State?Meanwhile, public awareness that Nicaragua is indeed heading for what the ultra right likes to call a "coup at the helm" continued up its own growth curve, as more and more people realized just how weak the government and its economic model are. All kinds of proposals sprang up about how to change captains: a plebiscite on the government's administration, the resignation of the current government to make way for a "government of national unity," the holding of extraordinary elections for a Constituent Assembly that would take power as a transition government and reform the Constitution while it was at it, a moving up of the elections scheduled for November 1996...
It was only logical that the US government would deal itself into this game. In late July, the US Senate, using the discovery of the Salvadoran arms arsenal as a pretext, froze $50 million in economic aid until the Chamorro government could prove that none of its civilian or military officials had any links to the arsenal or the "international terrorist network" supposedly revealed in documents also found there. It was an ideal mechanism to add its own pressure to that of Nicaragua's far right for a "housecleaning" of the armed forces, starting but surely not ending with General Humberto Ortega.
Three Emergency InitiativesHemmed in on all sides, particularly after the army's heavy handed response to the taking of Estelí by a recompa group on July 20, which fueled criticisms of its behavior not only by the ultra right but also by grassroots Sandinistas and even stained the nearly immaculate image of the President herself, the government tried again to get some breathing space.
* It pulled its amnesty bill back off the shelf, reworking it so it would erase the past and give everyone who entered the enclaves a fresh start. The Sandinista bench together with some of the center group voted the bill through in mid August, while the UNO bench refused to vote. (Ironically, there were enough defections by the center group that UNO could have blocked the bill's passage had it not been so obstinate.) Notwithstanding the right's acrid criticism of that law, it held out hope to a country still reeling from the tragic events of Estelí that the use of military force to deal with the rearmed groups could be avoided.
But then, barely a day after the new law's passage, almost as if in mockery of it, the country was hit by the double kidnapping the first by a recontra group not a bit interested in disarmament or amnesty and the second by former army personnel who had rearmed only thinking to protect the lives of the recontras' hostages. Yet again, the efficacy of such an amnesty law was a subject of debate. On the other hand, some analysts believe that today's army numerically smaller and with a different morale than during the war years would find it tough to militarily defeat the myriad rearmed groups.
* Presidential minister Lacayo made an urgent trip to Miami the second week of August to give Assistant Secretary of State for Interamerican Affairs Alex Watson the first part of the government's "white paper" demonstrating that Nicaragua is not a "center for international terrorism." On his return, Lacayo summarized Watson's position, which differs in stress but not in substance from Senator Jesse Helms' well known hawk stance. Watson's reported criteria are that if Nicaragua's armed forces knew about the arms cache and the international kidnapping ring, they are "accomplices"; if not, they are "inefficient." No "white paper" can be expected to satisfy a US government that determined to damn Nicaragua's top army and police brass one way or another.
* Lacayo officially called a halt to the National Dialogue on political and institutional issues, tacitly recognizing that it had accomplished nothing. At the same time he announced another phase of the dialogue for September: a government encounter with economists of all tendencies to review aspects of the economic plan and try to hammer out a common national position to take to negotiations with the international lending agencies in November.
What, Me Worry?To prepare for that encounter, the Cabinet held a closed door "retreat" on August 6 7. Rumors, however, leaked out about a serious debate over what, if any, fundamental changes the government would have to make to respond to the UNO US offensive and break out of its own paralysis. That was followed by vague promises of changes in the economic model, to be discussed in the meeting with the economists. But, so far, the only changes are in the packaging of the model for public consumption, not in the model itself. One image that the government sought to reinforce was that Nicaragua needs much more aid, when the real issue is where the substantial financing already received has gone and how well the government has administered it.
At the moment of the two kidnappings, then, the Chamorro government already had its back to the wall. The only weapons of real use to it in such a national disaster political will and social sensitivity were both too blunt to fend off its multiple opponents: rearmed groups tired of repeating their socioeconomic demands and only receiving an amnesty offer strongly opposed by the ultra right; a new Democratic administration in the US as willing and able as the Republicans to pressure with economic blackmail; local rightwing extremists emboldened by the smell of blood; a Sandinista grassroots base that sees no rhyme or reason to its leaders' alliance with the group in power; and a general population ready to take almost any road that offers a way out.
The Voice of the JackalFrom the start, José Angel Talavera (Chacal's real name) demanded nothing other than the firing of Lacayo and Ortega in exchange for the release of his hostages; he later added Colonel Lenín Cerna, head of military intelligence. Chacal claimed that his actions which, for media purposes, he dubbed "a homeland with no army" sought to create world awareness "about the problem in Nicaragua." For him, as for the ultra right, that problem is not economic but political. More concretely, it is militarism, co government, "a weak government held hostage by an armed party." Even more concretely, it is the Sandinistas, who, he claims, never stopped governing.
On July 30, three weeks before the kidnapping, General Ortega tried to cool down the debate about the army's actions in Estelí with a long speech in which he criticized virtually all of the national sectors. At bottom contradictory in substance and temperamental in tone, his speech only fueled his adversaries' arguments and added new ranks to those who question how long he should remain at the head of the army. For the first time in both cases, a New York Times editorial, as well as one in Barricada signed by Violeta Chamorro's Sandinista son Carlos Fernando, expressed the need for Ortega to retire.
This unending campaign had acquired more force than ever by the time Chacal came down from the mountains to add his own voice to it. And that voice had a particularly long reach, given the newsworthy sensationalism of his hostage caper, which, by definition, carries with it an implicit threat of death. The action was designed to provide an international microphone for the ultra right's most central idea and Chacal accomplished that objective in full. He was front page news all over the world for several days.
Chacal requested that Cardinal Obando, together with economist and former Central Bank president Francisco Mayorga and elderly rightwing poet Pablo Antonio Cuadra, be the only mediators. The latter two belong to the "Civilist Movement," which argues not only that Ortega withdraw, but that the entire national army be dissolved. Of the three, Mayorga accepted immediately, Cuadra was unable to participate, and Obando's participation was delayed for several days.
Twenty four hours into the kidnapping, it was hard to imagine how the government could dismantle such a well assembled propaganda stunt without caving in to Chacal's demand and/or risking the hostages' lives. But one person thought he saw a way.
The Kidnapping in ManaguaRight after the kidnapping, former Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) officer Donald Mendoza (a.k.a. "Comandante 31") pulled together half a dozen ex comrades in arms to evaluate this complex new situation. Like the rest of the Sandinista base, they were particularly moved by the kidnapping of Sandinista National Assembly representative Doris Tijerino, who had already suffered tremendous brutalization by members of Somoza's National Guard before the revolution. Fearing for the safety of this legendary Sandinista leader, the group felt that the challenge was more to Sandinismo than to the government. Since they also saw the government as weak and indecisive, they decided to act themselves, as interpreters of the Sandinista base.
Political logic, as well as the testimonies of several mediators in the conflict, indicate that neither the design nor the evolution of the Managua kidnapping grew out of orientations from the FSLN leadership, much less the EPS. The audacity of the group, which called itself the "Dignity and Sovereignty Commando," combined with the UNO politicians' failure to take even minimal precautions, despite the tensions sparked by the Quilalí situation. Meeting in their Managua headquarters as usual, they were easily taken by surprise.
This spectacular and improvised "eye for an eye" action caught them, the government, and even the FSLN leaders off guard. It should be recalled that this biblical law is most correctly interpreted not as a synonym for barbarity, nor as approval of a spiral of violence. On the contrary, in a world where things are resolved by force rather than by law, this principle, which imposes a punishment exactly equal to the offense, seeks to halt violence and put a limit on vengeance. While Mendoza's group made use of the extensive media coverage to back the economic demands of demobilized army and "contra" personnel, it never lost sight of its fundamental purpose: the fate of its hostages would exactly match the fate of those held by Chacal.
Mendoza's armed action was tactical, a means to its own defined end; Chacal's was a well prepared piece of a larger strategy. Mendoza's expressed the indignation of grassroots Sandinistas, not that of the FSLN leadership; Chacal's pounded home the already open demand of the entire UNO political council.
Even during the unpredictable days before the last hostages on both sides had finally been released, some pro Sandinista analysts and media commentators tempered their sympathy for Mendoza's motivation with criticism of his method. Their criticisms ranged from ethical considerations to those regarding the political efficacy of the action. Even Mendoza himself publicly apologized for what he called the "human error" of one of his men, who reacted to commotion outside by making three UNO leaders strip to their underwear and stand in front of the window to deter what he believed to be the onset of a military assault.
Quite rightly, not even Mendoza's most uncritical sympathizers attempted to justify his recourse to violence. But it must be said that the word violence, like many other terms, blankets a wide spectrum of very dissimilar situations. Particularly in these unipolar neoliberal times, the left risks falling hostage to the right's discourse, concepts and interpretation of words.
Violence adopts many forms. Has the government's economic policy not also been a form of violence against the people? Was the FSLN government pact regarding that policy not a bomb bound to explode sooner or later, shattering as well the political pact and the little bit of stability achieved after the war and the change in government? And did that economic pact not also take open and frank political debate hostage?
In the end, the Managua kidnapping had quite contradictory, and in some aspects as yet unclear results. What the fate of Chacal's "unconditional" demand to say nothing of his hostages would have been without this counterweight can only be guessed at; the fact remains that he ultimately released all the hostages unharmed without winning that demand outright. In addition, to what is surely Mendoza's satisfaction and Chacal's dismay, their dual kidnappings shook even the most intransigent politicians into publicly recognizing if perhaps only momentarily that the polarization was getting out of hand. As one UNO lawyer noted, "If the ship goes down, all of us will drown."
The Germ of a Tripartite DialogueOnly hours after the second kidnapping, government and FSLN leaders, together with the heads of eight UNO parties who for one reason or another had not attended the ill fated meeting that evening, met with President Chamorro. After a seven hour discussion, they signed an accord committing themselves to a joint effort to free all the hostages.
Joined by top officials of the OAS Verification and Support Commission (CIAV), Catholic Church representatives and the country's three human rights organizations, the government, the FSLN and UNO formed two commissions that same night. One would approach Chacal's group in Quilalí and the other Mendoza's group in Managua, to hear their respective positions and see if they could be persuaded to be more flexible.
The three political forces also signed what Antonio Lacayo called a "historic decision." That document states that "we are in agreement that initiatives be assumed immediately that will lead to reaching a national accord. To this end we commit ourselves to remove all obstacles that have thus far impeded institutional, economic and social normalization and the search for the common good." Many saw in that document the germ of what this time could be a genuine national dialogue. Even in the middle of all the uncertainty and danger, some began to think that this dark cloud, too, might have a silver lining.
Drama, Tragedy or Comedy?For the next five days, the media provided 24 hour coverage of the unfolding events. The TV channels constantly broke into their scheduled programming to offer the latest images from Quilalí or Managua. At the start, most reporters, while careful to condemn both actions, were as partisan and sensationalist as Nicaragua's long divided media typically are. But the two journalists' unions quickly comprehended their pivotal role in this powderkeg situation. For the most part, journalists on both sides reined in their emotions and acquired unprecedented professional neutrality.
As tense and dramatic as the climate was, it had its picturesque moments. "The situation is serious...but not too serious," President Chamorro told foreign journalists with her customary flair for optimism. The New York Times characterized the events as "tragicomedy." To the developed world, it was an ideal news piece for the sweltering month of August, a bit of extravagance to perk up lazy vacationers. Even many Nicaraguans found the humor to agree that it was "the most gripping soap opera on TV."
For some time the nation's politics had been reduced to abstract speeches by party leaders, or back room politicking in the National Assembly. In this real life but theatrical crisis, people had the sense of being able to participate. The round the clock media coverage offered not only kidnappers, kidnapped and mediators, but also the general public an opportunity to take the mike and win a tiny spot in political history. And that vicarious participation was not limited to offering opinions and taking sides. Every Managua neighborhood was full of potential Comandante 31s, ready to act if things went awry. And in many rural areas, potential Chacals mused about emulating Talavera and getting as much "camera" for their own views.
A Happy ending?The mediating commissions' work was hard in both kidnappings, although once Cardinal Obando personally arrived in Quilalí, things began to move forward in the negotiations with Chacal. In Managua, Nicaraguan Human Rights Center (CENIDH) director Vilma Núñez de Escorcia and her team played a decisive role from start to finish.
The numerous improvisations by Donald Mendoza and his group caused a few very dangerous moments. One of the most publicized and unfortunate though not the most serious was the placing of Luis Sánchez, Humberto Castilla and former National Assembly president Alfredo César in front of the window in their underwear all duly shown on TV as it occurred. Sympathizers promptly protested what they called an "unqualifiable burlesque." While the victims maintained their dignity throughout, their defenders lost a grip on their own as they raved on about the three men's "sublimeness" and "heroism," only for having been forced to undress for a few minutes.
The hostages were released without a scratch, a few at a time and simultaneously over the course of the five days: so many in Quilalí, so many in Managua. Finally, on August 25, at 8 pm in Quilalí and three hours later in Managua, the two groups released their last five hostages in both cases those with the most political weight. Nicaragua began breathing again, because, all things considered, the drama had a happy ending.
In exchange for freeing their hostages, Chacal and his men were given a 60 day truce, during which time the army would back off completely. They could remain fully armed in and around El Zúngano, where they have strong peasant support. Chacal made no commitment to disarm after the two months are up.
In an earlier comment to the national media, "Esteban," Chacal's brother and a member of his high command, acknowledged that the Northern Front 3 80 was in permanent contact with members of Congress and with anti Castro Cuban groups in Miami; he specifically mentioned the Cuban terrorist group Alpha 66. In the TV images, Chacal's men always appeared in spiffy new uniforms and armed with new semi automatic rifles they even have very costly ground to air missiles. They admitted getting 500 córdobas (about $80) a month from their chiefs. This caused The New York Times to suggest that the Clinton government look into Chacal's connections, to see how he was receiving US support.
After handing over its last hostages, the Managua commando, protected by the mediating commission, was flown by helicopter to the Estelí mountains, where recompas in the Revolutionary Front of Workers and Peasants (FROC) which staged the Estelí takeover exactly a month earlier were waiting to receive amnesty. Mendoza went to meet with FROC leader "Pedrito el Hondureño," whom he called a "brother in struggle," and announced that he would try to meet with Chacal afterward. The amnesty law will cover both groups.
The "hostage crisis" created such tensions and expressed so succinctly some of the country's problems (polarization, ungovernability, the debility of the political model, the need for changes, etc.) that it acted as a catalyst, opening some new passages to a way out and closing others.
In his last declaration as he left the UNO headquarters, Mendoza said the kidnappings showed that the discharged army and police personnel and the demobilized Nicaraguan Resistance were key elements of the country's polarizing contradiction. The two groups each with tens of thousands of members are still largely estranged from each other, but both suffer massive unemployment and are unrepresented in any decision making forum.
Once released from captivity, some UNO politicians particularly Godoy, César and current rotating UNO coordinator Duilio Baltodano blamed the top FSLN and EPS leaders for everything that had happened. They also minimized the importance of the accord signed during the crisis by the government, the FSLN and the minority group of UNO leaders. With some nuances, their position coincided with statements made in the middle of the event by Managua mayor Arnoldo Alemáan, who had attended neither the meeting in the UNO headquarters nor the one with Violeta Chamorro in which the document was signed.
Arriving back in Managua well after midnight, Doris Tijerino, far and away the most popular and respected of the Quilalí hostages, told Mendoza: "I want to thank you very much for your solidarity, but this was not the correct method; one error is not amended by another." In her impromptu speech to the crowd of Sandinistas waiting for her in front of the National Assembly, she made no criticism of UNO, the Chamorro government or the United States. She spoke only of Sandinismo, insightfully and self critically. "We left behind us in Quilalí peasants dying of hunger, peasants who never understood our message during 10 years of revolution. We learned up there how much we Sandinistas failed in our political work with the peasants."
The "Violence" of CorruptionFour days before the first kidnapping, the National Assembly had made public a report by a prestigious auditing firm that detailed significant misuse of public funds by Alfredo César during the two years he presided over the parliament. More than a million dollars are unaccounted for, some of which went to unnecessary or padded expense accounts, paying off journalists and the like. It is one of the few cases of administrative corruption to become public intentionally and in such documented detail. But the UNO kidnapping, coming quickly on its heels, gave César a halo of heroism, or at least of respectability, blotting his serious act of institutional violence out of everyone's mind. Mendoza, in one of his many impressive speeches during the kidnapping, had quite correctly called state corruption one of Nicaragua's central problems, but he never formulated any demand around it.
The Economic "Violence"To say that Nicaragua's problem is fundamentally economic is to say something very true, but perhaps too general. It is more exact to say that the Chamorro government's corruption plagued management of the neoliberal model in itself designed to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few is leading Nicaragua to the very brink. Almost everyone complains that little credit is available for production, but few dare point out that there has been no lack of credit to set up, for example, half a dozen private banks that speculate in international trade and, just in the first quarter of 1993, transferred $60 million to the United States and Mexico. The otherwise polarized political elites seem at least to share a common reticence to be pinned down about what they consider the essential economic problems.
The double kidnapping also erased from memory the government's invitation to the economists to dialogue, which could have helped specify these problems. That meeting, if held with seriousness, could have served to make important corrections in the economic plan and articulate a more united and forceful position from which to negotiate with the economic dictatorship today represented by the multilateral lending agencies. It could have particularly helped in renegotiating payment on the foreign debt, ever more burdensome to Nicaragua's weak economy.
The encounter with the economists had already been postponed several times prior to the kidnappings, and finally disappeared from the horizon altogether. But, regrettably, that did not hold true for the economic emergency that motivated the meeting in the first place. The country's scant hard currency reserves are still dwindling and the US economic aid is still being held up. The financial gap is still $200 million, and the government is still just putting mismatched patches on its threadbare economic plan. One such patch was its announcement in August of increased gasoline prices, a transitory measure that only deepened the structural recession. Another was its decree the same month of new and costly taxes for license plates and vehicle possession, just to put a few more pesos into the fiscal coffers. The recession is so serious that few can afford these new taxes; a civil disobedience campaign is even growing in favor of not paying them.
The New Dialogue: For Real or for Show?Will the new Tripartite Dialogue "without conditions and without exclusions" that the government called for at the end of the hostage crisis be just another show, another image game? "All of us in Nicaragua are still held captive by Comandante Poverty and Commando Violence," stated Antonio Lacayo as he presented the eight point agenda that the government will take to the dialogue. The last point was a discussion of "an economic policy leading to growth with equity."
Almost all Nicaraguans agree that a national understanding is necessary if the country is to pull itself back together. But, for the majority, "pulling itself together" means having work, or titles to their lands, or free health care. It has nothing to do with changing the National Assembly board or reforming a dozen or so articles in the Constitution, or naming five to nine new justices to the Supreme Court or getting rid of the Sandinistas in the electoral branch. A "summit" meeting between UNO, FSLN and government leaders might be historic, since it would be tripartite for the first time, but will it lead to the country "pulling itself together" the way the majority wants and needs?
Do the various institutional reforms insisted on by one or another of the three forces reflect what the people are insisting on daily in the cities and countryside? Do those who will sit around the dialogue table debating proposed changes represent the country's productive base or are they just urban elites who represent transnational interests, big commerce or speculative capital? Are not the political leaders almost exclusively urban and the country's major problems fundamentally rural? Is not Nicaragua's problem more the political leaders' lack of austerity and exemplariness than it is political insitutionality?
The Crisis Goes InternationalDespite all these open questions, it is still positive that the hostage crisis ended up creating greater awareness of the need for a national accord. The international reverberations of the crisis, however, were so strong that its larger resolution has escaped national hands. The other Central American governments have asked to play an active role in the reaching of an accord, and President Chamorro was obliged to cede the point.
While the hostage crisis was still unresolved President Chamorro had a several hour visit in Mexico with President Salinas de Gortari, then attended a meeting in San Salvador with the Presidents of Central America. There, she agreed to let the six foreign ministers of Central America and Panama verify and oversee the process that would hopefully lead to a national accord between the government, UNO and the FSLN. "A kind of mini Esquipulas has been formed," noted some analysts, recalling the crucial role Central America played in changing the course of the Nicaraguan situation starting in 1987. But if the objective of the Central American right then was to force Sandinismo to its knees, it now seems more bent, at least at this first stage, on forcing the visceral anti Sandinista sentiments of the UNO ultra right to the mat.
And at a later stage? Although Nicaragua's crisis affects its neighboring countries, we Nicaraguans should be realistically cautious and not let our guard down about this new initiative by countries so dependent on Washington.
Nonetheless, whatever else the Central American governments may have up their sleeves, they are genuinely and increasingly concerned about Nicaragua's instability, as the Honduran government was the first to express. The regional economic integration process, with open borders and free circulation between one country and another, is being seriously affected by Nicaragua's unpredictable explosiveness since the country straddles the very center of the isthmus.
The region's foreign ministers formed what they called the "group of friends of the dialogue process," and said they would come to Managua at the end of August to witness the beginning of the Tripartite Dialogue.
The day they arrived, they stressed that they were not here to judge or to impose any procedures or deadlines, but they all expressed a sense of urgency and worry. "This country is a time bomb," declared Costa Rican Foreign Minister Niehaus upon returning to San José, "and the fuse is very short. The flare ups from another explosion will ignite all of Central America. We are at the front line of responsibility to lend assistance to our neighbors."
The Executive EPS Flare UpThe fuse was even shorter than he had imagined. A week after the hostage crisis had been deactivated, the lid blew off of a new and more complex and dangerous crisis, this time an institutional one at the very crux of the current political model's stabilizing axis.
President Chamorro's unilateral announcement about General Ortega's "retirement" in 1994 had not been previously agreed to with the army chiefs of staff. Given that she made it in front of them at the formal Army Day celebrations gave it more significance and made it even more shocking to the assembled officers. In a hasty press conference after the act, General Ortega stated that his retirement depended on the term established in the new Military Organization bill, which had just been turned over to President Chamorro to send to the National Assembly for debate and passage. "I said to the journalists," General Ortega informed the President, "that one thing is your desires and another is what the law establishes."
After the verbal clash between President Chamorro and Daniel Ortega, the military celebration came to an abrupt end and the EPS chiefs held an emergency meeting to draft a response. In their communique, they insisted that any change in the armed institution should be governed by either the law now in effect or by the new one, once approved. They also underscored that making such changes due to internal pressures (by UNO) or external ones (by the United States) would set a dangerous precedent for Nicaragua.
UNO spokespersons considered the EPS declaration an "act of insubordination" and even a "technical coup d'etat." They urged President Chamorro to dismiss Ortega immediately, without waiting for any law.
The government held its own emergency meeting that same night. Out of it came a call to the OAS by Nicaragua's foreign minister, asking it to urgently convoke its member nations to analyze the situation. At midnight, the President addressed the nation, reiterating the whole content of her speech and calling Daniel Ortega's comment "disrespectful" and General Humberto Ortega's claim "inopportune." The following day, the OAS plenary expressed its "unrestricted support" for President Chamorro. The EPS and the executive crossed two new communiques, essentially maintaining their original positions.
Was it all a tempest in a teapot? Many inappropriate words have been exchanged by top FSLN and government leaders over these three tense years. The Nicaraguan idiom tends to become irreverent and informal in spontaneous emotional situations, as President Chamorro's own frequent examples show. Daniel Ortega's brash and inexcusable remark should be put alongside the times that the President has been publicly "disrespectful" to him, particularly since former Presidents have a diplomatic status similar to that of President in all democratic countries.
The problem was not the verbal clash. It was just an early warning sign that, even outside of the "teapot" of those cross words, a real tempest is brewing.
The current law governing changes in the army offers sufficient legal loopholes to permit the President to "legally" dismiss Humberto Ortega. A few days after this crisis, the executive issued a communique affirming that the decision to dismiss General Ortega was a "political" one, just as it had been to keep him on as head of the army for three and a half years.
The battle over the law's interpretation is important, but it could wear down the government, the military institution, the FSLN and the country's remaining stability. The only winners of such a protracted legalistic fight would be UNO and the US ultra right. The real problem is political and the most serious part is that the government turned to the OAS, converting the conflict into an international sporting match. The recourse to the OAS indicates at least one of the following possibilities: the government's extreme weakness, an irrational and disproportionate indignation on the part of the President and her Cabinet, or an inexplicable fear of the army, which, despite its guerrilla, Sandinista and anti imperialist origins, has been carefully faithful to the country's constitutional framework and its elected government over these past few years.
A Dangerous StrategyWas it a precipitous government error to take the case to the OAS or have we just witnessed the first step of a calculated strategy? Pitting civilian power against military power which is such a strong contradiction in many Latin American countries does not aim to deal with that contradiction in Nicaragua, but to deal with the fact that Sandinistas hold the lever of military power.
The strategy is made in the USA. When Senator Helms proposed cutting economic aid to Nicaragua in July, the US government itself, not just the Reaganite sector, declared through the State Department that "if the civilian government in Nicaragua does not impose its control over the security forces, it will be extremely difficult to make any progress in releasing the economic aid." And immediately after President Chamorro concluded her remarks about General Ortega's retirement, US Secretary of State Warren Christopher had his own declaration ready: "We applaud the bold steps taken by the President to impose civilian control over the armed forces."
Elliott Abrams, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter American Affairs during the Reagan administration and a sad reminder to Nicaraguans for his responsibility in the counterrevolutionary war, came to Nicaragua in August as a journalist. When one interviewee asked why the United States continued pressuring Nicaragua, thus destabilizing it further, he gave two answers. First, he said, because "we are suffering a kind of post Vietnam syndrome: we lost the war with the Sandinistas and they still have power in the army and the police." And, second, because the US government is worried about the FSLN's political rise, which could mean its victory in the next elections.
The strategy to get rid of Humberto Ortega, then, is nothing other than the US government's knee jerk anti Sandinista views, which are the same ones that Nicaragua's own ultra right opposition to the Chamorro government falsely dress up as a civil military contradiction.
The US economic blackmail is obvious. So is the irresponsibility of the political class toward the crisis, and its willingness to hand the nation's destiny over to international "mediators." Will the executive and the FSLN be able to deactivate the ultra rightist strategy of the United States and UNO? Will the executive, the FSLN and UNO be capable of forging minimum agreements in the nation's favor and in the interests of the majority of its citizens? Much more dust will have to settle before the answers to those questions become clear.
At this writing, it is not certain when or even that the Tripartite Dialogue will actually take place. With the six Central American foreign ministers, the OAS secretary general, and the foreign ministers of the Group of Three (Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela) already in Managua to attend the opening session of this historic dialogue, UNO suddenly announced yet again that it would only participate in a tripartite dialogue once it had negotiated bilaterally with the government.
The government agreed, and went into session with UNO at 4 pm on August 30, two hours before the inaugural trilateral session was scheduled to begin. Since the FSLN had not been advised to the contrary, its delegation duly arrived at 6 pm, where it cooled its heels for some time before one UNO participate left the other meeting and announced in passing that the tripartite dialogue was provisionally rescheduled to begin six days later if "satisfactory" accords were reached with the government by then.