Ryan, Phil. 1990. Peace and recovery: New president must live up to high expectations. Ottawa Citizen, April 25.
(This is the version submitted to the editor, and differs slightly from the published version.)
A crowded Managua bus, 1984. I hear a woman telling a friend how pleased she is that her newborn child is a daughter rather than a son, because “the baby belongs to me, not to the military service.”
1985. Many Nicaraguans are referring to their country as “the land of ‘there isn’t any'”: anyone can name a long list of products that have disappeared from the supermarkets. Government offices will empty when word goes around that eggs can be bought at a nearby store. Hyper-inflation is beginning: my partner and I buy a house for a million córdobas, an amount that, thirty months later, will not buy a meal for four at a good Managua restaurant.
La Sorpresa, northern Nicaragua, 1987, picking coffee with fellow office-workers from Managua. Every morning we walk past the twisted wreckage of a farm truck: weeks earlier, an American landmine had left two young women without husbands, seven children without fathers. Outside the shack in which we sleep, there is a small wooden cross, a reminder of the night two years earlier when contras had murdered sixteen unarmed coffee pickers in this very spot.
Doña Violeta Chamorro will assume the presidency of Nicaragua today, the first time in that country’s history that power has changed hands through elections. Her electoral victory was in large part the result of the “low intensity” war that the United States waged for almost a decade through its local proxies, the “contra.” This war, though short on spectacular attacks that would capture the outside world’s attention, played like a dripping tap on the nerves of Nicaraguans.
The military conscription introduced by the government in 1983 polarized Nicaraguans, much as it has polarized Canadians twice in this century.
The war also crippled an economy already weakened by falling world prices of coffee, cotton, and sugar (Nicaragua’s main exports), and by tensions between the Sandinistas and the private sector. As the war intensified, the government panicked, and launched an erratic series of economic reforms and adjustments that probably did more harm than good.
The Sandinistas campaigned for the February 25 election with the slogan “Everything will be better.” For many voters, apparently, this was too much to swallow. The U.S. gave no sign that it would respect a Sandinista electoral victory, and thus Nicaraguans had no reason to believe the contra war would ever end as long as the Sandinistas were in power.
Under these conditions, it is not surprising that Daniel Ortega lost the election. On the contrary, it is remarkable that, after all his country has suffered, the Sandinistas managed to win the same 41% share of the popular vote as Brian Mulroney did in his 1988 landslide.
Both the Sandinistas and their opponents agree that on February 25, Nicaraguans voted for peace and economic recovery. The question now is whether the new government can deliver. Chamorro does not seem to be the stuff leaders are made of, being heavily influenced by those around her at any given moment. While serving in the Sandinista-led government in 1979-80, she referred to the Sandinistas as “our vanguard,” and expressed the hope that revolution would soon sweep over El Salvador as well.
After leaving the government, however, she presided over a rabid opposition newspaper, for which Ronald Reagan could do no wrong and the Sandinistas could do no right. (Her daughter Cristiana, one of the paper’s editors, refused to condemn U.S. aid to the contras, on the grounds that this was a matter for the U.S. Congress to decide, and she did not want to interfere in the “internal affairs” of another country.)
But the problems of the new government will have less to do with Chamorro herself than with the legacy of the contra war. Nicaragua’s economy is a mess, and the maintenance of even this wretched condition has required over half a billion dollars of foreign assistance per year throughout the 1980s, exclusive of military aid. Exports have paid for only a quarter of imports, the balance being covered by aid, a level of aid dependence unmatched in Latin America.
The Soviet Union has footed Nicaragua’s oil bill for the last several years. If someone does not step quickly into the economic void created by the loss of this free oil, buses will grind to a halt and Doña Violeta’s speech-writers will be working by candlelight before the year is out.
The key question here is the U.S.’s willingness to clean up after itself. The precedents, be they Vietnam, Cambodia, Grenada or Panama, are not encouraging. A sad aspect of American political and constitutional reality is that it is much easier for a President to find money for making war than for building peace. The emergency funds that Congress is now approving for Nicaragua are but a fraction of what will be required to generate economic recovery.
A second legacy of the contra war is the contra themselves. One problems with using proxies to fight wars is that one’s puppets can escape control. Though Bush has asked them to lay down their arms, it is clear that many contras have no intention of doing so. With squads of contras roaming the country, a well-armed Sandinista People’s Army, and tens of thousands of rifles in the hands of peasants, the U.S. nightmare of “another Cuba” may be replaced by the reality of “another Lebanon.”
These are the challenges facing President Chamorro. Should she fail, her failure will hurt all Nicaraguans, Sandinistas and anti-Sandinistas alike. Should she fail, the long-standing instability in Central America will be prolonged to the end of this century.