Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 116 | Marzo 1991



Insurrection from the Right

Envío team

With its November uprising in Region V, Nicaragua's right wing demonstrated its ability to unite forces and pressure the government to the point of virtual blackmail by evoking the specter of war in order to exact concessions from the President. The groups linked to Vice President Virgilio Godoy were struggling for a share of real power in the government, hoping to detour it from the path of concertation with the Sandinista forces. Their vision of reducing Sandinista influence has as its cornerstone dismantling the Sandinista army, starting with the removal of General Humberto Ortega and other top officers.

Rightwing forces organized by mayors in Region V provoked an uprising against the government, taking advantage of the hundreds of former contra soldiers who, despite many government promises, face severe and mounting economic problems. While the government and the army, by combining flexibility and strength, were able to control the situation and avoid a generalization of the conflict throughout the country, the radical Right is neither defeated nor demoralized. Both the government and the FSLN were forced to pay political costs as well.

Three-way power struggle

The November "insurrection" put the government on the defensive against a rightwing bloc that threatened to bring together not only the former contras and the Region V mayors, but all the country's non-Sandinista malcontents. The "Save Democracy" movement spearheaded civic protests with the goal of achieving a greater political role in government for Virgilio Godoy as well as UNO's Political Council. It called for the removal of top Chamorro adviser Antonio Lacayo, who personifies the political line of conciliation with the FSLN and, thus, the "betrayal" of the original UNO program, which gave no role to the Sandinistas. Similar pressures came from the extremist UNO bloc in the National Assembly, which took on Alfredo César and his pro-Chamorro line, pushing for an openly anti-presidential position in the National Assembly. The Region V mayors were also supposed to pressure those UNO National Assembly representatives whose loyalty might be in doubt during key votes.

The imperative for the President and her allies was to buy enough time to block ultra-rightist unity without openly antagonizing the Left by appearing to procrastinate. Unfortunately for the moderates, and in particular the Assembly bloc headed by Cesar, the national budget—including the amount allocated for military spending—came up for a vote in December. It was a delicate issue, as Chamorro had committed herself to drastically reduce the military apparatus. Only weeks earlier, the army had reached an accord with the executive branch regarding the 1991 military budget, but that did not oblige the National Assembly either politically or legally to approve the agreed upon amount.

It was a unique opportunity for hard-line members of the UNO bench to attack the FSLN, in the name of further reducing military spending in a period of extreme economic crisis. Rejecting Chamorro's proposed $78.6 military budget, they proposed an additional $19.6 million cut. Alfredo César, intent on promoting his candidacy for National Assembly president, closed ranks with the recalcitrant UNO representatives at the last minute. President Chamorro was forced not only to veto the Assembly's budget, but, even more important, to again enter into negotiations with the far Right to avoid an override of her veto.

This time the Sandinista votes were not the swing factor. The FSLN representatives were squeezed out of the negotiation process and forced to trust the Chamorro group to continue complying with the March 27 Transition Protocol that already defined the terms of and timetable for the reduction of the army. They also had to trust the Sandinista forces to insist that the army and its command structure be respected as a constitutionally mandated institution.

A further reduction in the defense budget would have touched off chaos in the armed forces, which had already initiated an orderly reduction of personnel. The army issued a communiqué warning of the possibility of such national chaos if the Right insisted on dismantling the armed forces by attacks on the budget. It added that the budget was already so low it could not assure any but the most minimal assistance to the thousands of soldiers and officers who had been laid off in the first round of gradual reductions agreed to by the President and the armed forces.

After vetoing the Assembly cut, President Chamorro proposed an $8.5 million reduction of her original military budget. That broke the unity of the UNO bench, which could no longer muster the 47 of UNO's 52 votes needed to reject the veto and assure their initial budget cut. Yet neither was Chamorro assured a majority that would accept her veto and a new proposal.

President Chamorro thus had to negotiate with a commission of hard-line UNO representatives, who, in exchange for supporting her budget, demanded Humberto Ortega’s removal as army chief, the naming of a civilian defense minister and respect for the so-called Bambana agreement (named for a restaurant in Managua that served as UNO's press center during the campaign) signed before the elections. In that agreement, Chamorro had accepted UNO's extremist-controlled Political Council as the consultative body for any decisions should an UNO government be elected.

Rodolfo Mejía Ubilla participated in these backroom budget negotiations and wrote about it in La Prensa. According to Mejía, President Chamorro indicated that she could not, for both technical and political reasons, impose any reductions on the army beyond those it had already accepted, which were rapidly transforming it into the smallest military force in Central America with the exception of Costa Rica. She did agree to name a civilian defense minister in 1991 and added that Ortega's eventual retirement was still in the works, though she mentioned no specific date. She refused to cede greater powers to UNO's Political Council.

While some UNO extremists refused to accept Chamorro's concessions and voted against her, she was able to win enough support for her compromise budget. Mejía Ubilla came to the conclusion that "...the advantages enjoyed by the FSLN do not have their origins simply in doña Violeta's good will. Her government came to power without weapons, without soldiers, without a police force and without money, facing an opposition party that has all those things."

Learning about carrots and sticks

The Chamorro group has skillfully used the extreme Right to exact a quota of flexibility from the FSLN and the popular movement, while at the same time playing the FSLN off that Right to strengthen its own hand. The government is not the only group playing this game. In the January elections for leadership of the National Assembly, the FSLN emerged as powerbroker, throwing its votes behind Alfredo César's candidacy. The bulk of the Sandinista bloc (there were three abstentions) supported César in his bid for National Assembly president, thus displacing the "independent" far Right. Amidst the serious threats to governmental stability coming from inside the UNO coalition itself, the government was learning to resolve the coalition's internal contradictions through cooptation and a carrot and stick policy.

With the Cabinet changes in early January, for example, the government clearly demonstrated this new political style by ratifying nearly all the original ministers (including those who could be described as extremist) in their positions, thus dashing expectations on the part of the far Right that they would be given an increased share of power. However, the most dramatic move was the naming of two pro-Godoyists and leaders of the Region V uprising—Oscar "Rubén" Sobalvarro and Boanerges "Pepe" Matus, both former contra leaders—to important positions in the Repatriation Institute.

No doubt these appointments were made in exchange for an oath of loyalty to the President. Rubén, who several weeks earlier had expressed his allegiance to UNO extremists, declared after his appointment that his principal objective had not been to oppose the government, but rather to work with it "so that it can fulfill its promises to us. We don't need COSEP or the mayors to make our demands for us." The extremist faction of the former contras thus committed itself to share government responsibility for resolving the rural demands of former contra soldiers. These demands have been supported both by the Godoy sector and representatives of the Union of Farmers and Cattle Ranchers (UNAG), who are now working with the contra faction headed by Israel "Franklin" Galeano.

The Chamorro group represented in the National Assembly by Alfredo Cesar also tipped its hand to the parties that had supported it in the Assembly's executive board elections in January, thus isolating Virgilio Godoy and COSEP even further from important bases of support. Although this strengthens the executive branch, it does not guarantee it a way to better confront the country's social and economic crisis: it needs the FSLN's cooperation to do that. But the FSLN is alert to the temptation to become, as former contra leaders Rubén and Pepe did, part of a "co-government."

Government stability is not the same as national stability, however, and no amount of carrots or sticks will buy the latter. A January 11, 1991, Barricada editorial warned, thinking of some Sandinistas who were urging "co-government" formulas unacceptable to the majority of the FSLN: "Giving out governmental patronage and quotas of power could end up in a government style that, far from 'modernizing' the country's political system, could sooner or later end up in the institutionalization of political corruption."

The general in his labyrinth

While the Right was weakened, the army did not come out ahead in the wake of the crushed rebellion in Region V. COSEP and Godoy supporters amply demonstrated their own ability to "govern from below" (as Daniel Ortega declared in February that the Sandinistas would do), using pressure, organization and even violence to improve their political and negotiating positions vis-à-vis the Chamorro group.

Though the extreme Right did not get Lacayo, Ortega or Government Minister Carlos Hurtado removed and, in fact, saw Miriam Argüello defeated as National Assembly president, the government did not want to appear completely insensitive to its anti-army position. That position is undoubtedly shared by some Lacayo backers, who are prepared to wait for a better moment for a new round of confrontation and negotiation with the FSLN. At President Chamorro's insistence, the army acquiesced to some of the demands made by the Region V mayors, including a reduced military presence in the region, the closing of half the region's military bases, replacement of some local officers and, in general, a greater share of regional power for the mayors.

As could be expected, the US Embassy was hardly on the fringes of these political events. Former President Daniel Ortega accused the Embassy of having pressured legislators to try to force President Chamorro to speed up the reduction of the armed forces and get rid of Humberto Ortega as well as other high-level officers. Many also suspected that the "delays" in disbursing some of the USAID funds already promised to Nicaragua were linked to this ultra-right pressure campaign, carried out in alliance with those who would "govern from Washington."

The missile crisis

The army-government-US confrontation came to a head with the discovery that missiles used by the Salvadoran guerrilla forces belonged to the Sandinista army. US officials leaked to The New York Times that they had received confirmation from the Soviet government that the SAM-15 missile that downed a Salvadoran Air Force plane was from a lot the Soviet Union gave to the Sandinista army several years ago. Under the terms of the agreement, the Nicaraguan government is prohibited from transferring equipment to third parties without Soviet consent. The Soviets told Washington that they would demand an explanation and investigation by Nicaraguan authorities.

Washington's accusations against the Sandinista army, made to the Chamorro government, had long been an agenda point in official US-Nicaragua discussions. Now, armed with proof for the first time, and with the imperative of neutralizing further use of the missiles, the US State Department put heavy pressure on the Nicaraguan government to arrest both the Nicaraguans and Salvadorans involved in the missile transfer. In a January 5 press conference, Daniel Ortega charged that Washington had also insisted, to both Managua and Moscow, on the turning over of all missiles in the hands of the Nicaraguan army as well as the removal of top-ranking Sandinista army officers.

In the longstanding tradition of US-Central American relations, the US Embassy held direct meetings with the Nicaraguan army in which, according to The New York Times, the army admitted the missile transfer and the violation of its accords with the Soviet Union. In a January 1 communiqué, the Nicaraguan army stated that four former army officials, acting as individuals, had illicitly taken missiles belonging to the army and turned them over to the FMLN. Because of this action, the four men, along with eleven Salvadorans living in Nicaragua, had been detained.

The Nicaraguan Foreign Minister declared this an "involuntary" violation of both the Esquipulas accords and the arms agreements with the Soviet Union, explaining that neither the government nor the army had been aware of the incident. The Soviet foreign minister said that handing over arms of any type to third parties was "inadmissible" and expressed his hope that Nicaraguan authorities would prevent similar incidents in the future.

It was also revealed that a Soviet delegation would make an on-site investigation and would, presumably in response to pressure from Washington, exercise stricter control over the missiles. The Soviet government reiterated its policy of "a total cessation of arms shipments to Central America," emphasizing that such shipments to Nicaragua had been suspended since 1989. At the army's request, the Nicaraguan government asked the United States for the registration numbers of missiles it had sent to the contra forces during the war, so as to make a thorough inventory of the missiles in the country.

Daniel Ortega characterized as "irresponsible" the statements made by the detained army officers that the transfer of missiles reflected their "revolutionary principles"—a position supported by the Sandinista Youth organization. In a January 5 press conference, Ortega said that their actions and attitudes ignored the systematic and organized solidarity that the Sandinistas had historically offered to the FMLN, at great cost to the Sandinistas, adding that no army or revolutionary organization can permit the transfer of arms behind its leaders' backs, whatever the reasons given for doing so. He said that this "illegal, undisciplined and irresponsible" action put at risk the professionalization process underway in the army, which in turn is one of the country's cornerstones of stability.

According to the army, the incident also put the country's own defense capabilities at risk by threatening relations between the army and the Soviet government and opening the way for the Soviet Union to demand that Nicaragua return the anti-aircraft weapons. This, the army said, would leave the nation virtually defenseless in the event of an air attack.

The missile episode naturally gave new life to the campaign by extremists and the United States to dismantle the army. Should this succeed, Daniel Ortega said, it would endanger the revolutionary process itself and thus the Salvadoran revolution as well. He pointed out that nobody should underestimate the enormous pressure the US government can exert on the Soviet and Nicaraguan governments, both vulnerable given their severe economic crises. The army explained the situation in its communiqué: “This small group of officers, blinded by their political passions and led by extremist arguments, have damaged the honor of the armed forces and its loyalty to the High Command, which is the same as damaging the sacred and revolutionary patriotic interests of Nicaragua, which today continues its efforts to strengthen a climate of peace and stability so critical to economic recovery and to satisfy, in a just manner, the most pressing needs of the country's humble working people.”

US officials boasted that they had extracted an official admission of responsibility from the Sandinista army, insisting that the incident had taken place with full knowledge of the High Command. As the extreme Right had done, they directly accused Sandinista leaders of complicity, charging that as long as the Chamorro government does not exercise real control over the army, it will be unable to control what they claim is an ongoing flow of aid to the Salvadoran guerrillas. The Salvadoran army claimed that, in addition to delivering missiles to the FMLN, the Nicaraguan army had trained Salvadoran guerrillas in the use of the SAM-14 and SAM-7 missiles and that arms shipments had been systematic. The Sandinista army denied these accusations and stated that if any Nicaraguans had been collaborating with the Salvadoran guerrilla forces, they had done so as individuals and without the knowledge of Sandinista military authorities.

For its part, the FMLN emphasized in a January 4 communiqué that Comandante Joaquín Villalobos had not been involved in any arms transactions. The communiqué stated that: “The FMLN reaffirms its gratitude to and fraternal links with the Nicaraguan people, and with the Sandinista National Liberation Front and its membership which, during these last 10 years of revolutionary war in El Salvador, have displayed exemplary solidarity in the search for a political and just solution to the conflict facing our country. Specifically, the FMLN calls on the Nicaraguan, Salvadoran and international revolutionary movements not to be confused about recent events, a product of the objective reality in which our processes are unfolding, which in no way questions either the revolutionary character of the Nicaraguan or Salvadoran revolutionary processes or the fraternal and firm relations between the FSLN and the FMLN.”

The missile incident, the deteriorating situation in El Salvador and the deaths of three US military personnel whose helicopter was downed by the FMLN in early January made it relatively easy for the Bush Administration to free up frozen aid for the Salvadoran military. One of the helicopter crewmembers was killed in the crash, while FMLN guerrillas executed the other two in an action strongly condemned by FMLN leaders. The two responsible are in FMLN custody for mistreatment of prisoners of war.

The missile episode gave new life to the campaign by extremists and the US to dismantle the army. These events, particularly the missile crisis, also gave the US government new reasons to mobilize its resources and influence behind the revenge-driven politicians of Nicaragua's extreme Right and to exert even more pressure on the government to replace General Ortega as army chief. But the government once again resisted the pressure. In early January, during his announcement of the Cabinet shifts, Antonio Lacayo praised Ortega's handling of the missile incident. And on January 10, during the swearing in of the new Cabinet members, President Chamorro ratified Ortega's position while he repeated his oath of loyalty to Nicaragua's Constitution and to her as President. Although some suspected that this was the price paid by the government to assure the Sandinista bloc's support for Alfredo César's National Assembly candidacy, Antonio Lacayo defended the President's decision, underscoring that the professionalization of the armed forces and Ortega's continued presence had been critical elements in the country's stabilization process.

All relations still rocky

The government's rocky relations with both the extreme Right and the army have continued. At the beginning of January, La Prensa announced the removal of Cristiana Chamorro (Violeta Chamorro's daughter and Antonio Lacayo's wife) as director of La Prensa. Though she will stay on as head of La Prensa's board, Cristiana Chamorro will no longer have a daily hand in the paper's editorial line. This move was a victory for the radical Right that had sharply questioned the paper's pro-government line. Horacio Ruiz, the new director, is a hard-line anti-Sandinista and long-time collaborator with the US Embassy.

Then in mid-January, while Godoy and Managua mayor Arnoldo Alemán vied for leadership of the reactionary Right, UNO mayors went on the attack again. In a meeting sponsored by the National Endowment for Democracy, 104 of the country's 143 mayors demanded that President Chamorro broaden municipal powers to include the formation of "municipal police." They accused her of overseeing a government of bureaucrats incapable of resolving the population's problems. The government refused to send an official representative to the event, but Vice President Godoy and former National Assembly president Miriam Argüello attended. Godoy called on those present to "build democracy at the base," adding that in the municipalities, "the mayor is president.” Argüello accused Alfredo César of ordering the mayors belonging to his Social Democratic Party not to attend the event. Others charged that "government officials" had pressured them to not support the "Save Democracy" movement.

Although the mayors and their supporters left the meeting demanding the removal of both Humberto Ortega and Antonio Lacayo, the commonality of positions between these two officials was not as obvious as one might assume, particularly around military issues. Humberto Ortega insists that the reduction of the army is close to its limit, declaring that without stability in the country, international financing for the laid-off officers and an accord regarding regional security in the Central American region, there can be no further reductions, despite the army's willingness to do so. The army demands that the other Central American armies also begin reducing their own forces to come in line with the reduction already effected by Nicaragua. For his part, Lacayo stated that President Chamorro would not name any civilian—apart from herself—as minister of defense until the army has passed through this "critical" stage of the reduction process. He emphasizes that the major efforts carried out to date by the army were "surprising" given their "delicate, risky and even dangerous" nature.

The army and government had requested and received both technical and financial assistance from the Spanish government for the reduction process. The Ministry of Government also requested assistance to form an anti-drug unit and its own special intelligence unit to be trained by "one of the friendly countries that has offered to do this," according to ministry spokesperson Frank César.

Although the Right declared that the FSLN blackmailed the President by linking respect for the army to the country's stability, in reality very few people underestimated the impact that thousands of newly unemployed soldiers could have on the country. Another potential danger is the resurgence of armed groups throughout the country. In December, former contras took up arms and attacked the military post in Jalapa. Former contra leader Franklin confirmed that, in spite of his efforts, dozens of ex-contras had rearmed and were holed up in the mountains of Wiwilí and El Cuá in response to the misery they face given government noncompliance with promises to give them land and credit.

In spite of the discussions and agreements among high-level leaders, including former contra chiefs, the population's social and economic demands are reaching increasingly intense heights. With the arrival of the IMF mission in January, the consensus the government hoped for was endangered by the serious conflicts touched off by the possibility of a standard IMF adjustment program that would mean even greater economic suffering for the country's poor. The nation is only beginning to pay the price for all the effort spent on achieving a facade of political stability. Discontent is mounting and, with it, economic and social conflict, as groups across the political spectrum discover that the IMF demands have pushed the concrete demands of the majority of the population to one side.

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