Rural Violence and the Right Wing's Try for Chaos
Unable to undo from above the achievements of the revolution, the far right wages war not from below, but from the north.
The war that the Reagan administration unleashed against the Nicaraguan revolution capitalized on the discontent of Nicaraguan peasants, especially those in the north of the country. The sizable and isolated northern region, sparsely populated with small farmers, landless farmworkers and large landowners, was the bloodiest battleground of the war. The CIA knew how to take advantage of the contradictions generated by the errors and limitations inherent to an imperfect and besieged, but genuine revolution.
Nicaragua's old Liberal Conservative political dichotomy, historically imposed on the peasantry from Managua, was replaced with another: Sandinista vs. anti Sandinista. With varying levels of consciousness, the complex social peasant structure had earlier fed both Sandino's army and Somoza's National Guard; now it fed both the Sandinista Popular Army and the contra movement. But this new dichotomy took much deeper and more authentic root.
Violence: the Historic Solution A disposition toward violence seems to be the common denominator and specific contribution of our war hardened peasants to national history. This phenomenon is not explained by either cultural factors or congenital savagery, but by the high historical levels of oppression. Sandinismo's efforts to put an end to that oppression and, with it, to the violence, came up against both the counterrevolution's desire to maintain the old rural structures and the revolution's impatience to do away with them in one fell swoop. Throughout 10 years of war, neither one group nor the other could establish political military or ideological hegemony in that difficult northern region.
Independent of what was happening nationally, there was always carnage in the north: the Sandinista peasantry against the anti Sandinista peasantry. The war itself and the way it ended generated new hatreds that tainted everything, such that no peasant is free of being labeled one way or the other, and none is free of being menaced to join or collaborate with this band or that. All have handed out "punishments" to all, without differentiation.
The change of government in 1990 did not change this. Many accounts were still to be settled, particularly for the anti Sandinistas, backed since the UNO electoral victory by the returning large landowners. Lack of physical and economic security as well as historical and cultural tradition led the majority of the peasants to keep their arms, despite the loud calls from Managua and abroad for generalized disarmament. Sandinistas did not trust the new government, and ex contras did not trust either the army or the police.
Presage of Rural Civil War? In the early morning of February 14 ,1993, a rearmed group killed Sandinista peasant Juan Dávila on the Zinica Dos cooperative in Waslala, then killed his daughters Xiomara, 6, and Alma Nubia, 3, as they slept. Dávila's widow, Lucrecia Huete, went to Managua the following day to denounce the crime, carrying with her photos of her slain family, which Barricada published in full color on its front page.
No other crime by a rearmed group has had such an impact in three years. Even the US State Department condemned it. The reaction inside the country is partly accounted for by the gruesome photo of the little girls' bullet riddled bodies lying side by side in their bed, but it is also explained by the increasingly tense political moment.
Sandinista authorities blamed the assassinations on the recontra group led by "Nortiel." The ultra right shamelessly held Sandinista recompas responsible.
One week after that crime in Waslala, the massacre of another Sandinista peasant family, this time in El Guaylo, Estelí, again moved the country. Recontras operating in the zone savagely tortured and then killed the head of the Espinoza Alaniz family, his brother and eldest son, and gravely wounded two little sons. After these two events, daily combats took place between the army and the rearmed, as killings, tortures, threats, kidnappings and declarations multiplied throughout the region.
The rural revenge, massacres and general bloodshed did not begin with that murder in Waslala, however. And while these recent events are cause for general concern and sorrow, it is an exaggeration to proclaim that they are the beginning of a new period of generalized violence. Violence in the north is so endemic to the country's political cultural framework that it does not affect the fluctuations and struggles of urban political society.
Another war could only be sparked if a significant crisis were to occur in the political superstructure or if a foreign country had the desire and capacity to intensify the violence. Under these conditions, the entire country and its institutions could be even be drawn in. But unlike in 1981, there is no evidence that the US and Honduran governments aspire to overthrow the Chamorro government. And, unlike in the Sandino era, the revolutionary forces do not wish to oust the current pro US government either. The only ones willing to fan the flames of war in the north today are the far right parties that led Violeta Chamorro to the presidency in 1990. They are doing so to oblige the government, the US and Sandinismo to redistribute political and economic power to them.
After Three Years: a Stalemated Power Balance Three years after Chamorro's election, the correlation of political forces in Nicaragua has not changed to the degree or in the direction hoped for by the US government or Nicaragua's far right. A majority of the parties that comprise the anti Sandinista National Opposition Union (UNO) and important sectors of the US government persistently and increasingly accuse the Chamorro administration of continuing the FSLN government in spite of the mandate received from the people, thus betraying the UNO program.
Technically speaking, the current government is indeed a continuation of the previous one, since President Chamorro was elected under the constitutional framework established during the revolutionary years. Minister of the Presidency Antonio Lacayo said as much on one occasion: with the electoral defeat of the revolution, there was "a change of government," not "a revolution." But the Chamorro administration has implemented its program under the impetus of a neoliberal ideology incompatible with the spirit of the Constitution; paradoxically, it is the Constitution's own strongly "presidentialist" character that has allowed the government, with US support, to fashion an economic, political and social sector capable of overriding Sandinismo.
The government has not, however, been able to consolidate this sector, even though Sandinismo has suffered and continues to suffer a series of organizational unravelings. In 1993 it is already clear that the right wing has endured greater political erosion than Sandinismo. And though a more moderate right wing linked to the government has been economically strengthened, reconcentrating important quotas of financial power, it lacks both a strong, centralized party to impress coherence on its capital and an army it can count on to decisively defend its interests.
The popular sectors have won space through struggle and organization, but a large part of that space is thanks to the vacillations and provincialism that the Nicaraguan right has demonstrated throughout history. Neither the Marines nor Somoza nor the CIA with its armed contras nor now the Agency for International Development have been able to upgrade the right's mediocrity.
Sandinismo has not regained its status as a hegemonic force, and a large part of the peasantry remains disaffiliated from political society. A real shift in the stagnated correlation of forces will depend on who can attract and organize that sector. In the past decade the right wing did so, but only in the military sphere, only in certain zones of the country and only when Washington assumed the leadership of the war.
Unlike the FMLN in El Salvador, Nicaragua's right could not convert its military force into a political one. Once the combatants of the National Resistance (the contras) demobilized, the right abandoned implementation of its economic project to the government and returned to its internal and erosive squabbling. But to make that project viable, the government had to reach an understanding with the country's largest political force, Sandinismo.
Seen through the prism of Nicaragua's history, the government Sandinista political pact implied an immediate danger: that the politicians excluded from it would turn to the peasantry to "rectify" the balance in the distribution of political power. And that they have done. It is no coincidence that the virtual exclusion of the far right from government power has gone hand in hand with the intensification of violence in the countryside and, above all, with increased attempts to organize the peasants behind extremism and against the "Chamorro Sandinista" political power.
In Search of a Solution The army and the Chamorro administration have tried to use a "carrot and stick" approach to the rearmed peasants' villainy in the north. In January and February the government reiterated its willingness to negotiate a "carrot" with the rearmed population that would concentrate its forces in certain enclaves and its determination to apply a "stick" to those who would not.
The goal is to cleanly separate political rebels from common criminals, but the issue does not lend itself to such surgery. In this time of political crisis, one group or another may give its motivations a political appearance; in addition, all of the armed groups arise from poverty and desperation and are heirs to a war culture. Reality has been a vicious circle: Sandinista peasants responded to the recontras' armed presence and activity by organizing recompa units, arguing that the state's armed institutions were not protecting them. Yet any time the police or army did act, the rightwing media denounced them for repression and harassment in those same zones.
This situation has put the government, the army, the police, and even the FSLN in a jam. The government, however, has its share of responsibility: it has not fulfilled even half of its agreements with the disarmed turned rearmed. As just one small example, leaders of the Civic Association of the Nicaraguan Resistance say the government has only provided 5,700 of the 25,000 pensions it promised the contras when they demobilized nearly three years ago. At that, the pensions are virtually symbolic: between 50 and 100 córdobas ($8 $17) a month.
Each party is trying to do its part to stop the escalation of the violence, however. The FSLN has attempted, with limited success, to convince its cadres and sympathizers not to rearm. But rural Sandinistas criticize the FSLN for having insisted on the disarming of the cooperatives, which, in their view, is what provoked the assassination of more than 200 Sandinistas, including cooperative members and former army and interior ministry personnel. All sides criticize the army and police for their inability to control violent crime the army because it is dominated by Sandinistas who allow recompas to go unpunished and the police because it is dominated in the north by ex contras who leave recontras unpunished. Neither body seems able to protect the security of Sandinista cooperatives or former contras, and local leaders on both sides, sometimes with their families, continue to be assassinated.
The number of civilian deaths is growing. In some northern regions, Sandinista cadre dare not leave the city limits to go into the mountains of their municipalities. To the majority of observers, the statistics clearly show that more Sandinista cooperative members have died than recontras. Rightwing human rights organizations and the Organization of American States' Verification Commission (CIAV) itself, however, claim that the main victims are former contras without distinguishing civilians from those who have rearmed and the perpetrators none other than former Sandinista soldiers. Thus, each side, with its own interpretation of events, has predicted a new peasant war.
The General's Dilemma At first, the army and government positions were the same; both were concerned about the damage to production in the north and to the country's image abroad, especially among international creditors and potential investors. But neither wanted to fall into the political trap of taking major military actions against the diverse and dispersed rearmed groups, which would merely result in elevating their political and negotiating profile.
Both sought to give the armed bands an eminently criminal and not political character, disassociating the violence in the north from the institutional crisis going on late last year in the National Assembly. Antonio Lacayo thus called the rearmed groups "criminals, armed civilians," distinguishing them from both recontras and recompas, who, in the earlier part of the year, had engaged in controlled and well conceived armed actions to call attention to their critical economic and social situations.
Given farmers' growing complaints, Chamorro officials and the army were forced to take action. Yet, when the army gave the rearmed groups an ultimatum at the end of January, threatening them with annihilation, even some Sandinistas were critical. They argued that the government's support for this option politicized the problem even further, making it a new example for the far right of Chamorro Sandinista collusion. "If the discourse calling the armed groups 'criminals' continues, it will most likely only facilitate their taking up arms," warned an FSLN political leader in Matagalpa.
But then the photos of the Waslala peasant and his two daughters, killed because of the father's "crime" of being a Sandinista, were splashed across the front pages of the newspapers. FSLN leaders demanded justice and an end to the impunity of those perpetrating what it called a selective campaign to eliminate Sandinista peasant leaders, directed in the interests of former large landowners and far right politicians. The FSLN called for army intervention, since in many northern districts the police force is entirely made up of former contras who turn a deaf ear to charges against their former comrades in arms, now rearmed.
The FSLN at a CrossroadsThe FSLN has insistently pressured the government to fulfill its agreements with the demobilized turned rearmed to provide them land, titles, credits, technical assistance and jobs. The sad reality, however, is that, with time, the situation of the demobilized is moving beyond the control of the government, the FSLN and even the far right which has thrown too much fuel on an already raging fire.
No political party or force in Nicaragua can reverse overnight the war hardened peasants' historic custom of resolving their problems with arms. And weapons are still abundant Nicaragua probably has more per capita than any other country. What every political force does seem able to do, however, is reverse the enormous efforts made toward peasant reconciliation.
The insecurity of Sandinista peasants is contributing to the confrontation. More and more have reached the conclusion that, given the unwillingness of either army or the police, each for its own political reasons, to defend them, they are left no other option than to rearm to defend themselves from the various bands, be they political or criminal. This vicious circle may well end up involving all of the peasantry, both because war wounds have not yet healed and because the historic distrust of institutions, particularly the FSLN, still predominates among the more isolated peasants in the north.
Politicizing the Recontras Following the historic tradition of Nicaragua's old political parties, UNO politicians excluded from the government threatened "to go to the mountains" to reinstigate the war and thus put an end to the "co government." To improve its negotiating position with the government, the right wants an armed rearguard. To get it, it is capitalizing both on grassroots discontent with the government due to the economic crisis and on the peasantry's distrust of the FSLN.
CIAV, still in the country after nearly three years, has served as a communication channel through which these politicians seek to influence the rearmed groups' behavior, encouraging them to be less criminal and more political. It is no coincidence that once the National Assembly crisis "ended" with the right wing losing that space, the far right tone of the "3 80 Front's" political demands became even more strident: using the same arguments used by UNO parliamentarians, it is now demanding that the government step down.
The recontra leader "Chacal" openly demanded the removal of Antonio Lacayo and Humberto Ortega, the progressive reduction of the army until it completely disappears and the replacement of the police with former contras in conflictive zones. These demands are not only those of the far right but also of CIAV, which is very involved in the conflict, brags about maintaining constant communication with these groups, accuses the army of abuses of authority against former contras and is pressuring the government to negotiate with this "Chacal."
The government hasprotested to the OAS about CIAV's actions, since anti Sandinista sectors in the US Congress have used its interpretations. Those sectors, which have already made corruption charges against Lacayo, have now added accusations of government passivity arising from supposed Sandinista hegemony in the government toward those who repress former contras.
If the most disturbing thing is the politicization of the recontra leaders' discourse, a close second is the leap in organizational regrouping that has taken place in zones like Quilalí, Río Blanco, Bocay, Waslala and the entire belt between Jinotega and Estelí, where recontra leaders have been able to bring together what were previously only dispersed bands. This, too, is partly due to the improved communications channels.
The third disturbing feature is the growing numbers of rearmed people on all sides, and the increasing belligerency of some. At the end of January, the army reported only 700 armed people scattered in dozens of dispersed groups, but General Humberto Ortega later stated before the National Assembly that in the first months of 1993 the number of rearmed people, "including recontras, recompas and 'punitives'"* had risen to 2,000.
* The self named Punitive Forces of the Left (FPI) acted for the first time in October 1992, when it detonated an explosive alongside Managua's Monument to Peace. Shortly thereafter it took responsibility for the assassination of Arges Sequeira, president of the Association of Confiscated Property Owners. In February the FPI made its first public appearance, in a highly publicized press conference for foreign journalists "in the mountains of Nicaragua." There, former Sandinista Popular Army officer Frank Ibarra introduced himself as the head of the organization. Ibarra has been accused by the police as the main person responsible for Sequeira's murder.
The violence itself, however, does not depend on either the number of people in arms or on agitating political rhetoric, but on the generalized economic and social poverty, which breeds many who see rearming as a means of survival. Not all those who have taken up arms are former contras, or even necessarily former combatants. That is perhaps what Santiago Murray, CIAV director in Nicaragua, was referring to when he called them the "third generation" of armed groups in the northern mountains.
Up the Far Right's Sleeve The far right's greatest aspiration is to turn Nicaragua into a Somalia to provoke a state of anarchy and violent lawlessness that would lead to international military and "humanitarian" intervention, in turn leading to a redefinition, from outside, of the country's political framework. Short of that, the right aspires to generate enough chaos that the government would have to accept UNO's current "solution": the President's resignation and election of a Constituent Assembly to redistribute quotas of power with US Embassy support.
In this context, a November Miami Herald report that "Chacal" was receiving financing from Miami generated concern. The Sandinista army has also revealed that the rearmed groups receive supplies by air, although it did not disclose the location of the planes' departure point. The army has further acknowledged that the "3 80 Front" has a dozen or more Red Eye surface to air missiles, with which it can down any kind of plane.
Unable to dismantle the revolution's achievements from above, the far right is doing battle not from below, but from the north. Extremist politicians are implementing their plan to generate confrontation by involving not only the rearmed groups but also the mayors in the north, local UNO authorities, the Association of Confiscated Property Owners and sympathetic national media, thus recreating the organization they built during the 1989 90 electoral campaign, and increasingly adding the military component.
In February, to fan the flames even more, the far right spread the rumor that the government was going to reinitiate the draft. The government reacted to this false information with an energetic publicity campaign to the contrary, and the FSLN announced that it would introduce a bill in the National Assembly to repeal the constitutional article establishing military service. No one underestimates the sensitivity of this issue. For a majority of peasant families, military recruitment was what initially set off their rebellion and, later, was the main reason they voted for Violeta Chamorro. Confrontation among politicians is one thing, but a confrontation among peasants and the dismantling of peace efforts founded on creating a single class based peasant consciousness is another, much more serious one.
Vice President Virgilio Godoy and former National Assembly president Alfredo César appear at the head of this extremist campaign, which has openly called President Chamorro a traitor with no legitimacy. On February 28, after a month of feverish grassroots and media mobilizing efforts, the UNO parties brought together what were variously estimated at between 15,000 and 30,000 protesters (UNO organizers themselves claimed over 50,000). A large number of the protesters were peasants brought to the capital from outlying towns by local activists. In the rally, the featured speakers Godoy, César and Managua mayor Arnoldo Alemán heatedly repudiated Violeta Chamorro's "co government" with Sandinismo, called for a paralysis of the country "in civil disobedience," and demanded a "change at the helm."
One glaring feature of the demonstration was the discrepancy between what demonstrators who were interviewed as they entered the plaza said they hoped to communicate to the government, and what UNO politicians themselves said. Without exception, the demonstrators, many of whom appeared to be there fully by choice, focused on unemployment and the general economic and social deprivation. Equally without exception, the UNO politicians focused exclusively on a demand for raw power. While several key speakers sparked occasional energetic applause in the crowd with their bitter jabs at Sandinismo, not one of the myriad UNO speech makers so much as referred to the unanimous economic concerns of the demonstrators.
While this demonstration was the largest the right has yet pulled off, it did not match the efforts put into it, much less the predictions of its organizers. One envío reporter who attended an organizing rally in a five neighborhood area of Managua that had voted largely for UNO witnessed at least Virgilio Godoy's lack of draw. Even though trucks with loudspeakers had driven through the streets announcing the rally all day, only some 30 people gathered around him that night. And when the Vice President of the country screeched that "the people are tired of this inept government!," only a dozen people applauded, and then halfheartedly.
Military or Political Response? While some rearmed groups have indeed adopted the far right's discourse, they still demand direct talks with the government. The government needs to guarantee through negotiation and, naturally, through the habitual perks the disarmament of the main bands that have regrouped with strategic intentions. If this were to occur, perhaps they would stop repeating the demands of UNO parliamentarians and would make other, more material and immediate ones, such as social benefits, flexible credit policies or municipal development projects.
By insisting that it will not negotiate with groups that do not enter the designated security enclaves, the government is recognizing that there are those among the rearmed who have political military proposals. But this is no more true than the fact that many peasants in the north have taken up arms because they still distrust the army, or that leaders of both sides of last decade's military confrontation left numerous weapons in hidden caches. The spiral of violence may stem from different factors, but the resulting generalized violence is the same.
Time is not on the side of the government or of stability. As former contra leaders have pointed out, 1993 is the government's last chance to resolve the problems of land and extreme poverty in the north and in the rest of the country. In 1994, once the political parties choose their electoral candidates, programs and campaigns, they will polarize the rural situation even further.
An impartial analysis of this complex problem is not feasible in such a convulsive political arena as Nicaragua's. All kinds of nouns are used to refer to the rearmed groups patriots, criminals, social outcasts, deviants, opportunists, heroes depending on the particular perspective of the urban group doing the talking. The truth is that the UNO political parties excluded from the government have stirred up the conflict in the north politically, and the government's economic policies or lack of them have stirred it up socially. The respective task for the army and the FSLN is to put out the fires militarily and politically.
A lot, however, is in the hands of the peasants themselves, in their capacity to organize a civic and conclusive struggle for their own demands. And while rural conditions may be the same as or even worse than in previous years, the consciousness level of the peasantry armed or no is not. That is their immunization against open manipulation. At a minimum, former contra combatants have not forgotten that, while they were struggling and dying in the confrontation with the army, their "political leaders" were living comfortably in Miami. Now they see history being repeated, because the majority of the legislators who claim to support them would not renounce their Assembly salaries or privileges for anything. Reality is also different for their followers: former contra leaders no longer have the blind and passive obedience of those who were once their foot soldiers or social base.
Sandinista Dilemmas, National Dilemmas The prerequisite for a national crisis would be to irre parably damage the image of the government and the President. While that has not happened, particularly to President Chamorro's personal popularity, the lack of governmental coherence continues to be the government's own worst enemy in facilitating that prerequisite. Because of the clashing class interests involved, the greater quota of government power and influence assumed by the FSLN has not increased this coherence.
Fundamentally, the government's tactic for dealing with the rearmed groups is no different than what it has used against its other rivals, be they rightwing or leftwing (including the FSLN): divide and conquer. More concretely, it has promoted the formation of a "center group" with which it can reach an understanding, thus neutralizing the possibilities for concerted action among its opponents. With regard to the FSLN, the government with US Embassy help, according to some is promoting this divide and conquer tactic by capitalizing on tensions within Sandinismo, largely produced by the economic situation, the FSLN's historic heterogeneity and the country's new political social reality.
There is no concealing the differences between individual or cooperative Sandinista farmers, mainly congregated in UNAG, and Sandinista farmworkers, historically robbed of their land and now unemployed, even if those differences have not taken on ideological or organizational embellishments. Some have even accused organizations such as UNAG of supporting government positions in return for favorable concessions to farmers, at the expense of the worker peasant alliance. There are also differences between those who have received property titles and credits and those who have not; and between those favored by the privatization process and those who were not because the government returned a sizable number of lands and enterprises to their former owners.
A large percentage of the popular classes are unemployed and a large percentage of those who are employed did not benefit from the privatization to workers of state enterprises. Thousands of state employees, including those retired from the army and interior ministry to whom the government has not given the lands it promised, have been left without any economic security. This grassroots majority is wondering what advantage co government has for the poor. If the FSLN has entered into a truce with the government, they reflect, where is the truce the government should enter into with the people, particularly when it is not even complying with the agreements it has signed? At the end of February, 10,000 sugar workers from the 6 sugar refineries in the Pacific began a series of work stoppages in the middle of the harvest in response to the government's failure to comply with the privatization accords it signed with the union in March 1992 and then, only after a similar massive strike during that year's harvest. The conflict this time began in the San Antonio refinery, which produces half of the country's sugar. On March 2, police anti riot squads got into a violent confrontation with the workers that left 1 dead, 6 wounded and more than 60 detained.
But even if the government had fulfilled all its promises, which is far from the case, the priority given by the FSLN and the unions for many long months to the struggle to privatize a significant portion of state property to the workers has relegated other important popular demands to the back burner. Property came first, jobs second, wages third, and so on. It has been impossible for the FSLN or the unions to take on everything.
The democratization of property has advanced, but not at the same speed or with the same benefits for all sectors. Whether premeditated on the government's part or due simply to inefficiency on the part of Sandinista union negotiators, it has generated conflicts with the grassroots sectors who were left empty handed.
And while the FSLN's rapprochement with the government has lessened some contradictions, it has accentuated others. The stability demanded first by Sandinista parliamentarians and producers and now by the new Sandinista worker owners is no priority for un or underemployed workers or for peasants demanding land. Nonetheless, the above sectors and others demand unconditional support from all Sandinismo for their positions.
These contradictions are resulting in an increasingly open debate within Sandinismo. But they do not remain only at that level; they are expressed daily in the diverse methods of struggle adopted by different sectors: some support calm dialogue with the government in the hopes of a harmonization of interests, while others block traffic and take land by force, damaging both the government and the small or large Sandinista producers in the city and the countryside. While each sector may consider the other's demands just, their methods of struggle differ from and contradict each other.
For many months, national and regional Sandinista leaders have spent the majority of their time seeking ways to avoid the worsening of confrontations within Sandinismo, especially clashes between protesting workers and the security forces the government sends to repress their protests. Police and soldiers, themselves of humble origins and now trying to make do on starvation wages, probably share the workers' demands, but the constitutional framework and the neoliberal government has ordered them to disown these methods of struggle.
The Battle for Cohesion Neoliberalism has opened gaps among the exploited and marginalized, undercutting their traditional organizational schemes and offering some of them the paradise of micro enterprises financed with US aid in exchange. This situation is forcing a revamping of revolutionary thought and methods of struggle, to find channels for coordination and joint action among the currently autonomous and atomized popular sectors.
The old vanguard verticalism is now seeking, slowly and with great difficulty, to transform itself into a coordination born of frank and mutually respectful discussion. Everyone recognizes that, without a minimal regrouping, it will be impossible not only to fight for changes in the government's neoliberal policies but also to lay foundations for regaining power through elections. The FSLN is still searching for a strategy that could convert its social influence into a political victory. The "co government" in the National Assembly is but one more way to move toward this goal, although it, too, is not without its serious pitfalls.