Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 105 | Mayo 1990



On the Verge of Peace, or Civil War?

Envío team

President Daniel Ortega turned over the presidential sash to Nicaragua's new president, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, on April 25, 1990, as promised. It was the first peaceful transfer of power from one rival party to another in the country's history. In speeches before 20,000 invited Nicaraguans and international guests in Managua's baseball stadium, after FSLN supporters threw water balloons at Chamorro and UNO supporters threw rocks at Ortega, both the outgoing and incoming presidents talked of the importance of peace and national reconciliation. But the most significant element in guaranteeing a truly peaceful transfer of power continues to be the counterrevolution, an unknown factor even after accords signed in the past two months agreeing to demobilization. The other unknown is the correlation of forces within UNO, who came in swinging on April 25—at each other.

The Toncontín Agreement

At Honduras' Toncontín air base on March 23, Nicaragua's Cardinal Obando y Bravo and representatives of the contras and of the incoming Chamorro government set April 20 as the deadline for contra disarmament. The Toncontín agreement is the first accord in which the contras agreed to their own demobilization, but the deadline deceptively applied only to troops located in Honduran territory. Those in Nicaragua would move 'simultaneously' into security enclaves, but the agreement set no date for their disarmament.

As could be expected, within days, thousands of heavily armed and newly uniformed contra troops began to move back into Nicaragua. Contra spokesmen said that the only people left behind would be family members and those too wounded or disabled to make the trek back to Nicaragua. In what, then, was hardly more than a symbolic ceremony, civilians and disabled contras turned in some 500 largely damaged and unusable weapons on April 18, in Yamales, Honduras, to ONUCA, the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Central America. The government of Honduras has said that the border is now closed to the contras, and that they will not be permitted to return.

The Toncontín agreement established the contras' general willingness to pursue a bilateral cease-fire (the FSLN reinstated its unilateral ceasefire after the February 25 election) and to concentrate their troops inside Nicaragua into security zones, both to be verified by Cardinal Obando, ONUCA and the International Commission for Support and Verification (CIAV). The delegation of the government-elect agreed to provide social benefits and pensions to the war-disabled, orphans and widows and to request international humanitarian aid for members of the contra forces.

After signing the document, the contras made clear that their intention was to remain inside the "security zone” enclaves in Nicaragua, fully armed, to pressure for additional concessions. Sandinista newspaper Barricada reported contra leader Aristides Sánchez as saying that it would take three months for the Chamorro government and the contras to select the security zones and for the contras to move into them; then, “the Resistance will begin, little by little, to disarm.” Witness for Peace reported that returning contras were telling rural resident that they would not disarm until the Sandinista army was dissolved; some insisted on “sharing power” in the UNO government, stating that it was they, the Nicaraguan Resistance, that guaranteed UNO's victory. Outside of Jinotega, contras threatened to march in and take the town on April 25. They were prepared to keep fighting until their demands were met.

Presidential Summit

Some people, including General Agustín Quesada, who heads the ONUCA forces, interpreted the Toncontín agreement to mean total demobilization by April 20; others agreed that it should. The Central American Presidents held their seventh summit meeting in Montelimar, Nicaragua on April 2-3. The most, and perhaps only, significant outcome of the meeting was the clear position taken on contra demobilization that it should begin immediately both inside and outside Nicaragua and culminate no later than April 25, 1990. The accord also states that the arms turned over to ONUCA should be destroyed at the site, in the presence of representatives of other Central American governments. The Presidents urged the US to channel humanitarian aid money through the CIAV. The problem, of course, is that the contras did not sign this agreement. Contra attacks continued.

Workers Strike for Peace

In the month of April, dozens of unions in state and private businesses went on strike to demand salary increases and workers' benefits and/or contra demobilization. Teachers, health workers, municipal employees, workers at the Corona cooking oil plant, the bus company, phone company, the banks, mining institute and the state radio network and professionals in all the government ministries are just some of those who joined the chain of strikes.

The CST (Sandinista Workers' Federation) has been an organizing force behind most but not all of the strikes. But why are there so many strikes for salary demands right now if, as the workers claim, they are not political in nature? The FSLN, for years, had been able to limit strikes, explaining the economic situation and calling for sacrifice in the present for a more just future for the poor in Nicaragua. After the UNO victory, this discourse was no longer valid. UNO makes little pretense of putting the needs of the poor before those of the business class. Workers did not trust that the new UNO government would respond to their demands; they wanted to take advantage of the last weeks of FSLN rule. Most of the strikes were resolved in a few days.

As April 25 approached, the strikers also took on the issue of contra demobilization. Many companies, including Sandinista Television, instigated temporary work stoppages for several minutes or several hours, to demand immediate demobilization. Intentionally or not, the strikes made it clear that the people have the capacity to bring the country to a halt. In the spirit of national reconciliation, the FSLN leadership consistently called for moderation, a calm transition and an end to the strikes, while not going out of their way to stop them. The people are still the FSLN's greatest weapon.

Even after an April 18 agreement with the contras on a new deadline for demobilization, union leaders from over 100 different companies met on April 25 and agreed to continue partial work stoppages as “an element of pressure and state of alert" to force demobilization and defend revolutionary gains. They adopted the slogan “Total disarmament or general strike!" if the contras do not comply.

June 10 Deadline Buying Time?

In an April 17-18 meeting between contra leaders and both the outgoing and incoming governments, with Cardinal Obando and CIAV as observers, the contras agreed to a cease-fire, the delineation of and immediate movement into security zones, and a final deadline for complete demobilization of June 10, 1990. The cease-fire agreement, signed by the Ortega and Chamorro governments and the contras, established a bilateral cessation of hostilities as of noon, April 19, with verification by ONUCA and the cardinal. The contras agreed to proceed immediately to seven security zones of about 500 square kilometers each. The Nicaraguan government agreed to remove all military, paramilitary and security forces from a 20-kilometer radius around those zones. Even the police in population centers located inside the zones must be disarmed. The contra forces agreed to concentrate in the zones by April 25.

A separate agreement, signed only by the contra leadership, the Chamorro government and the cardinal, sets June 10 as the final date for “full demobilization" of the Nicaraguan Resistance. It also, somewhat contradictorily, stresses that arms will be “voluntarily” turned over in the presence of ONUCA, CIAV and Cardinal Obando, while demobilization itself is not qualified as voluntary.

In a speech after these agreements were signed, President Ortega stressed that, for logistical reasons, ONUCA had requested the postponement to June 10. Ortega repeatedly urged the Nicaraguan people to trust the agreement; that the contras would comply. If the contras refused, he added at the end of his long presentation, the Sandinista Army would still have the arms necessary to enforce it. The general response, however, was near-total skepticism.

It was not ungrounded. By the following day, the contras were already making additional demands to guarantee their compliance. Antonio Lacayo, top adviser to Violeta Chamorro, head of the team that negotiated these most recent agreements and designated minister of the presidency, responded publicly that the contras should disarm without making any new demands and would be given no positions in the government or army. In a press conference after the accords were announced, a contra leader known as “Wilmer” warned that “Violeta” should “distance herself from Lacayo,” known as a moderate within the UNO coalition who has negotiated key aspects of the government transition with the Sandinistas. The contra chief added that there could be serious obstacles to achieving peace if Lacayo “continued operating as the real power,” instead of her. Undoubtedly, the contras think they can influence, or manipulate, Chamorro more easily than they can Lacayo. Commander “Rubén,” who signed the accord for the contras, said that they would not lay down their arms unless their demands were met—in addition to the removal of Lacayo, the drastic reduction of the Sandinista Popular Army (EPS) and the removal of all high-level military leaders tied to the FSLN. These demands were not mentioned at the recent negotiations, he said, because they did not want to discuss them with the Sandinistas, only with Chamorro after she took office. Other contra leaders have reportedly made the same demands.

When Chamorro took office on April 25, it became clearer why Ortega was careful to ask the people for a calm transition—in return, the Army would remain intact. In her acceptance speech, she announced that Comandante Humberto Ortega, Minister of Defense under the Sandinistas, would remain as head of the armed forces until the contras were demobilized. She, herself, would assume the role of Minister of Defense, thereby subjecting the military to civilian authority as previously promised. As this issue of envío goes to press, the announcement has driven the divisions between different factions within the UNO coalition even deeper.

UNO-Farther from Being One

Transition Protocol. The first major post-election dispute within the UNO coalition occurred over the protocol for the handing over of government, signed on March 27 by the Sandinista and Chamorro negotiating teams. The teams were headed by Antonio Lacayo for UNO and Humberto Ortega for the FSLN. The document emphasizes national reconciliation, stability and unity to strengthen the democratic process and assure a definitive peace, and promises full respect for the Constitution (which the UNO coalition does not have the votes in Parliament to change, though some members would like to throw it out entirely).

With respect to the armed forces, the protocol establishes that they will be subject to civilian authority; their size and character will be readjusted to the country’s economic capacity and social needs; they will have a professional character and will not pertain to any political party; and active duty officers may not be officials of any party. The Chamorro government promises to respect the integrity and professionalism of the Sandinista Popular Army and Interior Ministry, including “ranks, hierarchy and commands,” in accordance with the Constitution and the law.

The new government also promises to respect the right of Nicaraguan families to urban and rural state property received up to February 25, 1990, while establishing some form of compensation for people whose property was confiscated by the revolutionary government. (The agreement does not protect the hundreds of land takeovers that occurred between February 25 and April 25). Unions, associations and community organizations will enjoy established constitutional and legal guarantees; monuments to fallen Heroes and Martyrs will be respected. The FSLN agrees that weapons will be only in the hands of “the armed institutions of the Republic.” The agreement guarantees job security for government officials and employees based on efficiency, honesty and years of service, and both teams agree to increase efforts to obtain international economic aid. The document names the members of the seven transition teams that later established the formal transfer of all ministries and state institutions to the new government.

The 13-point protocol was roundly criticized by the UNO Political Council, partly for content, partly for process. The Political Council, made up of representatives of the 14 political parties in the alliance, chose Violeta Chamorro as their presidential candidate, who, they claim, agreed to consult them on all major decisions. But the protocol was negotiated by her advisory team, set up during the campaign, without Political Council representation. A majority of the council members are aligned with Vice President Virgilio Godoy, to the right of those who back Chamorro and her more moderate and pragmatic Advisory Council. The animosity between the two councils before the elections led even to a public fist fight at one of UNO's last campaign rallies.

The content of the agreement angered not only the Political Council but also the third UNO faction, the far-right business sector tied to COSEP (Superior Council of Private Enterprise). These two factions fundamentally see negotiation with the “enemy" as traitorous, do not want to recognize the existing Constitution and would reverse all revolutionary gains; their most extremist elements would promote death squad activity to do away with the Sandinistas once and for all. They recognize that the only way to return to the past is by eliminating the Sandinista army.

Ministry of Defense. In early April, when rumors began to circulate that Humberto Ortega might resign from the FSLN National Directorate in order to stay in his position as defense minister, the Political Council issued a communique stating, "It is unacceptable that members representative of the FSLN continue in high-level positions in the Army, Interior Ministry and other government structures.” Radio Corporación, a rightwing station tied to the COSEP faction, and Radio Católica also heavily criticized the possibility, making it the focus of radio commentators and listener call-in shows for several days. (Though COSEP and the Political Council are both to the right of Chamorro's faction on the political spectrum, COSEP is more at odds with the Council than with Chamorro's moderates. In an amusing knee-jerk reaction that demonstrates the animosity between the two, Radio Corporación's primary news commentator initially responded to the Council's communiqué by saying it would not be great but would not be that bad to have Ortega remain in his post!)

Chamorro put an official stop to the rumors a few days later by announcing that Ortega would not be defense minister and that there would be no Sandinistas in her cabinet. The Right was not pacified, however, because the fundamental contradiction—whether the integrity of the military and its constitutional right to exist should be respected or not—still remained. Ortega was simply an easy target; after him would come demands against the vice minister and the chiefs of staff, for the integration of contra troops, and so on. The pending selection of National Assembly and Cabinet posts moved the discussion of the military temporarily off the center stage of UNO's internal struggles.

The Cabinet. The debate over the selection of Cabinet members initially centered around the Political Council's concern that it would not be consulted. Council members first demanded that ministers be political experts (themselves) and the vice ministers technical experts (COSEP), but backed down after realizing that ministers should not have to run to their seconds every time they are asked a technical question. They also insisted that positions go to those who have stayed in Nicaragua for the last 10 years, not to returning exiles.

It is unclear if Chamorro and the Political Council ever actually came to much agreement on the Cabinet posts. Any conclusions reached in a long closed-door meeting the weekend before Chamorro took office were never made public. They clearly did not agree about General Ortega. Neither the Council nor COSEP reacted publicly to Chamorro's Cabinet selections, which include very few Political Council members and do include several exiles. The more moderate and younger CORDENIC business association (several are on Chamorro's advisory team) far outweighs COSEP. The reaction may yet come.

National Assembly Officers. The same weekend before the inauguration, UNO's National Assembly representatives met to vote on two slates for Assembly president and other officers—the slate of the Godoy aligned faction proposed Popular Conservative Alliance leader Miriam Argüello as president while the faction headed by former contra leader Alfredo César, one of Chamorro's top advisers, was promoting César himself. After a mud-slinging debate, the Godoy slate won the majority; all representatives signed a document promising to vote for the Argüello slate at the first session of the new National Assembly on April 24. César promised not to promote his own candidacy again.

The very day after the vote, Violeta Chamorro's La Prensa reported that two representatives who had voted for Argüello sent letters to Chamorro saying they had been pressured by Godoy. One wrote, "Doctor Godoy threatened me, like other delegates, saying that he would be president within a year and would make those of us who did not vote for Argüello pay.” La Prensa responded in a scathing editorial that “lamentably, the first public presentation of the future delegates did not promise brilliant parliamentary actions, nor demonstrate democratic convictions among its members." It criticized the presence of the "future Vice President at the meeting, accusing him of being there to keep an eye on the representatives' behavior.

The stage was set for a heated discussion in the National Assembly. The Supreme Electoral Council, presiding over the meeting, decided in favor of a secret vote after a long debate between the Godoy faction, in fierce opposition, and the Sandinistas, who proposed it. After Argüello was nominated, the FSLN shook up the room by nominating Sergio Ramírez, Daniel Ortega's alternate in the Assembly. Some Argüello supporters feared the UNO representatives that voted for the César slate over the weekend had cut a deal and were actually going to vote for a Sandinista president.

After a long recess and what became a long night, a deal was, in fact, cut. Ramírez gave his votes to Argüello, who was unanimously elected Assembly president, but she was isolated. Of the remaining six positions, two went to the FSLN and four to César’s slate. César was elected first secretary and thus controls the agenda.

With COSEP represented by the parties on César's slate, Radio Corporación praised the democratic representation of different factions and parties in the Assembly's Governing Council. The Godoy faction was furious. Neither Argüello nor Godoy were present at the diplomatic reception the next evening, leaving Chamorro as lone representative of the just-inaugurated government to greet the guests.

Passions within UNO flared again when Chamorro announced in her inaugural address that General Ortega would head the armed forces until the contras demobilize. The Political Council and Radio Corporación reiterated that it was unacceptable, and two COSEP leaders, Gilbert Cuadra and Jaime Cuadra, resigned from their new Cabinet posts in protest. Some contra leaders have already announced with new vigor that they will not lay down their arms if Humberto Ortega remains in his post.

Having already promised to respect the integrity of the rest of the military, Chamorro's at least temporary retention of Humberto Ortega as head of the armed forces was a concession to Sandinista strength. Her advisers rightly calculated that even greater unrest—possibly civil war—would result if she capitulated to the far Right. For the Left, Ortega is the guarantee of contra demobilization and disarmament, and, therefore, the only guarantee that contras will not become the army or the death squads that repress them. For the far Right, he represents the greatest obstacle to the return to somocismo and a symbol of ongoing Sandinista power.

Tensions are on the rise. Peasants on self-defense cooperatives in the security zones are being disarmed, according to the agreements, while the contras are threatening to "return to war" if their demands are not met. In Northern Nicaragua the day after Chamorro's inauguration, 150 contras took advantage of the EPS departure and moved out of their security zone into San Rafael del Norte; ONUCA troops are trying to convince them to return to the enclave as this issue of' envío goes to press. Contras are telling journalists they "want to talk to Violeta." Will they demobilize? If they do, what concessions will they wring from the new government in exchange? ONUCA troops, expected soon to total some 800 in the country, are entering the security zones. The contra forces, many of whom are poor peasants who just want to go home, are now based closer to home than ever before. The Sandinista army will remain intact, except for current draft recruits, until the contras demobilize. In his speech at Chamorro's inauguration, Daniel Ortega stressed that June 10 is the final deadline for demobilization, and there is an unequivocal feeling in Nicaragua that the date is no longer postponable. The pressure is on.

Print text   

Send text

<< Previous   Next >>


On the Verge of Peace, or Civil War?

Whither Central America? Coopted Negotiation or Participatory Democracy?

The Monroe Doctrine and the End of Torrijismo

Costa Rica
Showcase for Democracy and Economic Reformism?

Low Intensity War and Revolutionary Maneuvering

El Salvador
Forcing Negotiation

Neoliberalism Unopposed

Challenges to the Military Model

Final Reflections
Envío a monthly magazine of analysis on Central America
GüeGüe: Web Hosting and Development