Land Conflicts: Godoy Backers Seize Cooperatives
A rutted dirt road leads to the farm, one of many in La Concha, an intensely cultivated area south of Managua. Several men watch suspiciously as newcomers approach. A trench and a makeshift barricade of tires and oil drums block the entrance to the farm. White letters, crudely painted on trees, spell the allegiance of those inside: 'UNO.'
The land belongs to the Carlos Fonseca cooperative, which received it from the Sandinista government in 1982. On July 10 this year, Vice President Virgilio Godoy held a meeting of his followers in La Concha, one of a series of meetings in this region. Three days later, Godoy backers organized the first takeover of a small cooperative. On July 19, about 100 UNO supporters seized the Carlos Fonseca coop while members were in Managua, celebrating the 11th anniversary of the Sandinista victory over Somoza.
The takeovers in La Concha are part of a wave of such actions against Sandinista cooperatives around the country by rightwing extremists within UNO, taking advantage of a very real need for land. Their implicit goal is to destroy the cooperative movement, long a solid base of Sandinista support. In La Concha, coop members say the invasions are part of a Godoy-inspired plan to break up all 11 cooperatives in the area. The seizures are occurring against a backdrop of heightened tensions in the countryside as the new government moves to roll back land reform by attempting to return confiscated land to former owners against the organized resistance of peasants and agricultural workers.
In La Concha, the squatters were led by Enrique González, a local representative of Virgilio Godoy's Independent Liberal Party (PLI), which has a real following in this politically conservative area. A primary teacher, González “has never known a machete,” according to one local farmer. Of the some 150 involved in the two takeovers, only 16 were actually landless peasants, according to the findings of a government commission sent to investigate. The rest were UNO political activists, merchants and townspeople from the urban sector of the community.
Observers say few participants were from the immediate area of the cooperatives, explaining there is little support among peasants—whether or not they back the Sandinistas—for the seizing of land from other small farmers. Though UNO mayors have played an active role in land seizures in other towns, here the mayor represents the more moderate UNO faction around President Chamorro and has kept a low profile.
The invaders claimed that the cooperatives in question were wealthy dens of FSLN influence and had far more land than they needed. “The people are dying of hunger and only [the Sandinistas] have food,” said Juan Hilario Carballo, a merchant and one of the occupiers at the Carlos Fonseca coop. His group demanded that the farm be divided into parcels and turned over to them. They also want the government to review all the land given away in the region under the Sandinista agrarian reform to determine if it is justly distributed.
Carballo says he does not consider the land titles given to cooperatives valid because they were signed by Sandinista Minster of Agrarian Reform Jaime Wheelock. Only the confiscated owner's signature would merit respect. While the squatters have been unwilling to talk to cooperative members, they have a different relationship with the former owners. Although they are supposedly championing the cause of the landless, occupiers say they are quite willing to negotiate with the “true owners.” These latter are very much in evidence: one led the takeover of the first cooperative; others have been present in negotiations between squatters and the government, representing their own interests.
The occupiers claim to be unarmed, but community residents say they saw a group of heavily armed men marching toward the Carlos Fonseca cooperative the night of the land invasion. There are reports of involvement by several ex-contras recently returned to the area, as well as some who were jailed and then pardoned by the Sandinista government.
No return to the pastMembers of the Carlos Fonseca cooperative are camped down the road on another part of their property. “If what they want is land,” said coop member Asunción Sánchez when asked about the UNO squatters, “we're here to support their demands,” He urged the government to find them idle land somewhere else because, with a total of 132 working adults, the coop has none to spare. “None of us thinks about becoming a big capitalist,” Sánchez said. “We just want to survive like we have been with the support of the land.” He and the other coop members were agricultural workers before they were given land. “If they take the land away, we would go back to being like slaves, selling our labor and earning miserable wages,” he said.
On July 26, cooperative members from La Concha, along with hundreds of others from their region organized by the National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG), marched to the presidential office building in Managua to demand government action to resolve the situation. A commission was hurriedly formed with representatives of the Agrarian Reform Institute (INRA), the Ministry of Government (which is in charge of the police) and local military authorities.
The commission held meetings with local UNO leaders, occupiers and cooperative members in La Concha. Government representatives informed squatters that their occupation was illegal and asked them to leave voluntarily. A plan was drawn up for the commission, along with coop members and the UNO partisans, to inspect and measure the farms to determine if there was excess acreage to distribute. The suggestion was also made that some landless families could be given land in the nearby town of Diriamba.
Within days, the talks reached an impasse. Though squatters reduced their numbers at each farm, they refused to allow commission members to inspect the land. They rejected the offers of land elsewhere and said they would divide the coop land among themselves even if it meant each family would receive less than an acre. In their view, it was the cooperative members who should go elsewhere; the Sandinistas had had almost ten years on the land and now it was the turn of those who had felt “trod upon” all those years—whether or not they actually needed the land.
Pushing From the RightThe squatters express bitterness about the role of Chamorro's government in the issue. “INRA and the Ministry of Government are just protecting the Sandinistas. The señora [Chamorro] made a lot of promises in the campaign, but now she's just an accomplice of Daniel Ortega,” said land invader Carballo.
He and fellow occupiers resent the upper-class nature of Chamorro's inner circle and see Godoy as their patron saint. They complain that Chamorro “doesn't want to let Virgilio into the government” and say she fears him because he would take a hard line with what they see as her Sandinista allies.
Cooperative members, meanwhile, fear occupiers will inflict extensive damage to their farm, adding to the already heavy burden of lost production. They are pressing for decisive measures. “The government is acting very passive,” said Juan Galán of UNAG, referring to the commission's failure to evict the land invaders. Peasant leaders point out that when agricultural workers occupied state farms to prevent their return to former owners, police were sent in right away to evict them.
That such action has not been taken clearly reflects the government's bias. Though the government has made promises to respect land reform titles, the occupiers represent part of UNO's social base. Undoubtedly Chamorro forces fear alienating them and driving them further into Godoy's camp by siding with the cooperatives. Beneath it all, UNO “moderates” share the extremists’ goal of undermining the Sandinista base in the cooperative movement.
With the government unwilling to move, the outcome of the standoff is not yet clear. Tensions in La Concha are high. There has already been one death, an UNO supporter killed in crossfire on the first day of the takeover. Several peasants report being kidnapped and threatened by occupiers on their way to do night watch at their own cooperatives, now possible targets of future seizure attempts. Community residents say they hear gunfire near the occupied coops and are afraid to go out at night. Rumors are rife, with both sides accusing the other of planning armed attacks. The UNO occupiers say they will call for US intervention if the issue is not resolved to their satisfaction.
What is clear is that Godoy has already had some success, at least in this region, in building a social base for himself and his reactionary politics by manipulating objective problems and historic resentments. The goal seems to be as much to push the government into confrontations that weaken its support from the right as to eliminate organized Sandinista opposition. While Chamorro does not have the same kind of organized base as Godoy does, the Sandinistas do. Though it may be too late in La Concha, the peasant movement has a significant role to play in articulating the demands of the landless—whether UNO or Sandinista—and undercutting Godoy’s hopes of becoming their champion.