Waslala: Anatomy of a Conflict
For three days at the beginning of October, the town of Waslala on the agricultural frontier 95 miles northeast of Managua teetered on the brink of anarchy. Angry mobs of former contras and UNO supporters took the streets. They attacked known Sandinista sympathizers, looted Catholic church buildings and ousted a revolutionary priest from the town. After an attack on the local police station left four ex-contras dead and nine wounded, enraged UNO partisans forced both Sandinista police and the local army battalion to withdraw. FSLN supporters fled the town with their belongings.
Waslala is but one of a number of rural areas where tensions over land have reached the breaking point. Nationally, some 70,000 families, including peasant ex-contras, are demanding land, according to the pro-revolutionary National Union of Farmers and Ranchers (UNAG). The former contras pose a particular social problem. Concentrated in several rural areas originally planned as development zones, they are unemployed, uprooted from family support networks and dependent on international agencies for a monthly food allotment. The Chamorro Government promised them land, housing and other aid, but, aside from a one-time 50 córdoba oro payment, they are still waiting.
Frustrated with government inaction and often incited by local UNO politicians and large landowners, many of them have taken action to press their demands. Though their leaders in Managua claim that land takeovers are not their policy, more than 25 state farms and 20 cooperatives around the country have been invaded. The result heightened insecurity, social conflict and, in a few cases, violence. “The countryside has virtually become a no-man's land,” said UNAG president Daniel Núñez.
Divisions run deepWaslala straddles the highway from Matagalpa to the northern Caribbean region. The town itself is a commercial center that swelled with war refugees in the last half of the eighties. East and west of the town a series of cooperatives, product of the Sandinistas' agrarian reform, are strung like beads along the road. On each farm, cooperative members grow cattle, cacao, bananas and basic grains. The town's Catholic priest, Enrique Blandón, and his pastoral team work actively with these cooperatives and other poor farmers, training them in agricultural techniques and preventive health care. The parish maintains 500 lay pastors, known as delegates of the word, in 65 villages throughout the mountains. Blandón, a committed Sandinista, was threatened many times by the contras during the war. He was kidnapped in 1987 for 11 days while visiting Waslala's rural communities with an evangelical pastor to promote peacemaking on a local level.
Despite support for the FSLN on the cooperatives and among the war refugees in town, commercial interests, wealthy farmers and peasants from deep in the mountains gave UNO a solid 70% victory in the municipality. A number of the local UNO leaders have personal or family connections to the contras and make no secret of their virulent anti-Sandinista feelings. They are joined by prominent evangelicals in town, several of whom also sit on the Municipal Council as representatives for UNO.
The tensions in Waslala have their fundamental roots in the issue of land and the needs of a mass of poor peasants differentiated primarily by the side of the war they fought on. The tragedy is that two groups who should be allies have been successfully divided and their objective needs manipulated for rightwing political purposes.
Guess who's coming to dinner? In mid-August, Waslala's Ministry of Government delegate, Jose Rizo, began work with a local former contra leader called “Dimas” and representatives from the Institute of Agrarian Reform to define what land in the municipality could be given to the demobilized contras now moving into the area. According to church workers, rather than approaching large farmers, Rizo's commission visited the cooperatives and pressured them to “lend” land to the ex-contras for six months while a road was being built to give access to undeveloped terrain in the mountains. Rizo combined Christian language about “sharing with our brothers” and veiled threats about what the contras might do if the cooperatives refused.
Uncertain, cooperative leaders approached staff from Blandon's church for advice. Pastoral workers told them they should do what seemed best, but that because they had legal title to their land, they had every right to refuse. When they did, Rizo was furious and threatened the church for interfering. Weeks later, on September 15, the first ex-contra land takeovers began.
In short order, some 2,400 demobilized contras had squatted on land belonging to 6 or 7 cooperatives along a 20-mile stretch of road east of town. There they camped, in an uneasy coexistence with outnumbered cooperative members fearful for the future. The ex-contras stole government trucks for their own use, set up roadblocks and siphoned gas and stole belongings from passing vehicles. Coop members complained that their livestock and food stores were disappearing and that they were afraid to go out to work in the fields for fear their homes would be appropriated. Some members fled, dismantling flimsy wooden houses and carting them away to safer territory.
While they sent police to oust pro-Sandinista occupiers from large private farms elsewhere in the province, Ministry of Government officials in Matagalpa took a benign view of the situation in Waslala. “Wherever they go, they behave well,” said Ministry representative Sergio Cruz of the contras. “More than anything else, [their occupation] is a way to demand an immediate response because their situation is critical.”
Fighting fire with fire Feeling that their situation, too, was critical, Waslala's cooperative farmers attempted to negotiate with the occupiers. In July, UNAG president Núñez had broken new ground by meeting with ex-contra leaders, “Franklin” and “Ruben” and backing their demands to the government for land and aid. “[The contras] are brothers of the same class, independent of the fact that they were used by the United States,” Núñez said in a recent interview. This meeting helped foster further contacts at a grassroots level in places like Waslala.
Only a week before the town exploded, meetings were taking place and reconciliation among peasants in the area seemed a real possibility. “Before, all it took was a bullet, Dimas told a reporter, after a meeting with regional UNAG leaders. “Now we're in a new stage. It doesn't do any good to get angry because we don't solve our problems.” “We are with those who support us. If the Sandinistas offer help, why should we refuse?” asked ex-contra “Cat Colindres.”
But talk was cheap, it seemed. “The contras would say they wanted peace, love and reconciliation, then they'd go and take another cooperative,” said pastoral worker Leone Bicchieri. Just days after the meeting with UNAG, ex-contras took the San Pablo Cubali cooperative. At another called Cusuli, members were prepared. When 40 to 50 ex-contras showed up in a truck, they were greeted by farmers armed with sticks and machetes. The intruders beat a hasty retreat.
Faced with this growing pressure, government indifference or outright hostility and the sense that if they didn't make a move, they would lose their farms, leaders from 13 cooperatives in the area drew up a joint plan. On September 29, at a regular meeting of their coordinating body held at the Catholic church, they decided to occupy the mayor’s office and other municipal buildings to draw attention to their plight. They would demand that the ex-contras be evicted from their cooperatives and given land somewhere else, because “they are human beings just like us,” as participant Aida Orozco expressed it. The group asked the church's help in transporting their members to town.
On Monday morning, October 1, some 30 to 50 cooperative members armed with sticks and machetes marched from the Catholic church to the town hall where the Municipal Council was meeting. Despite the weapons, the takeover was accomplished without violence. Unlike the ex-contras' occupation, however, this one lasted less than an hour. Rizo rejected attempts to dialogue and ordered the group removed by force. The peasants were chased out by an angry mob of ex-contras and townspeople led by UNO activists, including councilman and La Prensa correspondent Vidal Hernández, who several witnesses saw waving a gun.
Anti-Sandinista backlash The demonstrators scattered; 10 or 15 took refuge in the Catholic church and a crowd of some 200 people, half of them ex-contras, gathered outside. According to witnesses, in the course of the day the crowd stopped cars inbound from the east, beat on hoods, dragged occupants out and frisked them. A smaller group stoned an elderly Sandinista supporter until church workers came to his rescue, and US development worker Scott Renfro was beaten and his camera stolen as he attempted to take pictures of the crowd.
Blandón says UNO and evangelical leaders actively incited the crowd. Rizo claims he and other authorities were trying to control the situation and protect the victims.
By mid afternoon, the crowd had broken through the fence into the church compound. They beat several people inside, destroyed the health center and ransacked the parsonage and the nuns' residence, stealing $5,000, medical equipment and a shortwave radio belonging to the US group Witness for Peace. Father Blandón and his pastoral team were given half an hour to leave town. After they left, shots were fired from a Sandinista home at a crowd, leaving two wounded.
Next day the violence continued. In the mid-afternoon, several hundred ex-contras, many armed with pistols and other weapons, came into town on trucks from the cooperatives. Emboldened by the events of the day before, they marched toward the police station, where seven or eight Sandinista police had retreated. When the crowd tried to take the building, two of the attackers were killed and nine wounded. Though there were conflicting versions about who fired first, the front of the police station is sprayed with bullet holes, and a grenade left damage inside. Two ex-contras were killed in a shootout with a small group of police a few blocks away.
That night and the next day, heavily armed contras patrolled the streets as Sandinistas took cover inside their homes. Cruz Padilla, widow of a Sandinista soldier and mother of one of the participants in the cooperatives' protest, says 25 ex-contras came to her house, led by an UNO member who rents land to her. They kicked her door in, searched the house and threatened her with a knife.
A high-level military commission, which had come to town to try to find a solution to the crisis, was disarmed and held hostage in the mayor's office by town authorities until they signed an agreement to withdraw troops and Sandinista police. Early Wednesday morning, after all-night negotiations, the army and police left the town in the hands of the Rural Police, a force of ex-contras trained to patrol the areas where demobilized forces were to settle.
Many Sandinista sympathizers took refuge in the mountains or in nearby settlements where some talked of “putting on their war paint.” Others stayed indoors, sending each other messages with their small children, asking whether everyone was all right. Bicchieri, who had stayed in town after Blandón's departure, hid out in a swamp for hours while contras searched the farm where he was hiding. He then disguised himself and walked to the next town.
Divide and conquer The version UNO politicians tell reporters and repeat to their followers in mass meetings is that the goal of the cooperative members' town hall takeover was “to destabilize the government.” As Matagalpa Ministry of Government representative Cruz put it, “They wanted to take advantage of the situation to demand more benefits than they already have.”
Protestors acted “under the priest’s orders,” according to Cruz, who said Blandón had a “communist line.” Rizo said Blandón was “trying to pull a coup against the local government.” Another UNO leader said the priest “initiated the massacre.”
By scapegoating Blandón and distorting the real motives of the protestors, rightwing activists skillfully deflected blame for their own lack of initiative in solving the ex-contras' problems. They are obscuring the potential common interests among poor peasants—both cooperative members and ex-contras—and undermining possibilities of reconciliation and building a social base for their own political ends.
Clearly one of these ends is the dismantling of the cooperatives as a strong and organized base of support for the Sandinistas. Another is the removal of Blandón and his activist pastoral team. Though the priest denies he planned the protest, the church’s work clearly gave cooperative members a sense of their rights and the courage to resist. “We're like stones in their shoes,” said one member of the pastoral team, referring to UNO leaders and the large landowners who support them.
Fanners of the flames A growing number of observers point to wealthy coffee grower and Matagalpa Ministry of Government delegate Jaime Cuadra as being behind a coordinated plan to foment land conflict throughout the region, including Waslala. Mass rallies have been held in the city of Matagalpa demanding his removal. To date, Minister of Government Carlos Hurtado has backed Cuadra.
Cuadra's local delegate is José Rizo. Though his behind-the-scenes role has been decidedly partisan, Rizo disputes his role as a rabblerouser in the recent events, publicly talks a moderate line and complains that people see him as a “sellout to Sandinismo.” Other UNO leaders are less coy in public. Assembly of God pastor Narciso Laguna, speaking at a mass meeting two days after the attack on the police station, congratulated the crowd for their “decisive spirit.” He went on, “If the people don't rise up, who will defend them?”
Another evangelical, Andres Castro, whipped the crowd into a fury. “Is this all you want?” he cried, referring to the departure of Blandón and the army. “No!” they thundered back. “It's like drinking half a glass of warm water when you're thirsty,” shouted Castro. People in the crowd went on to demand the total disarming of al! Sandinistas, claiming their own side was already disarmed.
Religious overtones inject a particular fervor into the Waslala conflict and help explain the internal cohesiveness of the forces involved. The local Catholic church was a clearly visible target for the anti-Sandinista backlash. Aside from its activist role in the community, it is by far the biggest and wealthiest church in town and had just built a new church building. The Catholics are also responsible for a significant flow of aid into Waslala, a fact certain to provoke jealousies and charges of favoritism in distribution, justified or not.
The base of the Catholic Church is primarily the poor, whereas the dominant forces in the evangelical churches are the large landowners and the commercial interests whose small shops line the main street. “The evangelicals are the ones with the money here, and they don't like the priest because he helps the poor,” said Cruz Padilla.
A blanket on the blaze Twenty-four hours after army troops were evacuated from Waslala, they were back, helicoptered in along with a high-level commission charged with finding a solution to the conflict. The delegation included former contra commander “Franklin,” Vice Minister of Government Jose Pallais, regional military, police and FSLN leaders and representatives of CIAV, the international organization responsible for providing humanitarian aid to the contras.
Along with local leaders, they held a mass meeting with townspeople to announce their plan. While the Sandinista Police would not return and the Rural Police would remain in control of the town, several hundred army troops would also be present in the barracks on a hill outside of town. As tensions diminished, they would be withdrawn. A commission in charge of land would immediately begin work on the following three options: buying land from large private landowners, working out agreements with cooperatives that have idle land and opening up land on the agricultural frontier.
Both “Franklin” and Pallais gave speeches intended to calm spirits and promote reconciliation, in line with the discourse of President Chamorro and her immediate advisers. Pallais condemned both pro- and anti-Sandinista actions in Waslala and criticized mayor Juan Valdivia. “We must demand that he behave like a man of peace. If not, there can be only war.”
The crowd—mainly ex-contras and UNO backers—responded more like backers of Vice President Virgilio Godoy. “We don't want that army. They’re the ones killing us!” shouted a local store owner. One ex-contra yelled at “Franklin,” "Why don’t you ex-commanders pressure the government to disarm the Sandinistas just like you pressured us to disarm?” The crowd roared approval.
Down to a smolder Days later, things were quieter. CIAV had come up with a new shipment of aid, and the land commission was out visiting coops and private farmers. Miraculously, a few large landowners, including evangelical Andrés Castro, were stepping forward to offer hundreds of acres for sale. Mayor Valdivia said at least a third of all the contras already had land somewhere else, but admitted there were no mechanisms to determine need before doling out land. Exasperated, he suggested that each contra be given 500 córdobas oro to go buy land where he/she wanted because “it's hard to get land for all these people.”
The army presence has dwindled to some 40 to 60 troops who keep a low profile. A team of four—a rural policeman, an army soldier and FSLN and UNO representatives—had searched a number of houses for weapons, and turned up a few.
Father Blandón returned to Waslala to give Mass on Sunday, accompanied by the bishop, and was given an emotional welcome by 500 parishioners. “The priest and the nuns are the only ones who hear us,” said parishioner Petrona Urbina. For the time being, Blandón has plans to go back every week. Other Sandinista supporters, too, are returning, though they face harassment and it is not clear how long they will stay.
A new kind of struggle One of the many tragedies in the Waslala conflict is the way the ex-contras were manipulated. “Someone wants to use the ex-combatants as instruments against the Sandinistas in order to further their own political interests,” said ex-Commander Franklin after a visit to the area. Though their immediate leaders are highly ideological and were outspoken in mass rallies in Waslala, the rank and file does not uniformly share these commitments. A number of them sidled up to church workers at the coops to whisper that they were unhappy about the occupation and were only “following orders.” Said cooperative member Orozco, “The contras wouldn't behave this way if the evangelicals in UNO weren't inciting them. They died at the police station because of them.”
While a particularly venomous set of local UNO political leaders played an important role in the events in Waslala, questions remain about the effectiveness of the outreach done by pro- Sandinista forces to the ex-contras camped on their land. Besides the talks between UNAG and the contras in Waslala, there had been other efforts at reconciliation. The church had involved a number of ex-contras as health brigadistas and invited them to join other projects. Did these efforts fail, or did they simply not carry the weight that a military chain of command still does? Why did communication with ex-contras break down? Had the cooperative members made the painful choice to wait and risk further takeovers, would it have been possible to form an alliance with the ex-contras to demand land and aid, avoiding the intensified polarization?
Nearly too late, some solutions to the demand for land are being found in Waslala, but only after lives were lost and hatreds rekindled that will take years to extinguish. Elsewhere, while specifies vary, the fundamental dynamics are the same: a combination of real needs, lack of government response and vicious political manipulation. Nationally, UNAG has proposed extending the agrarian reform, taking land from large landowners, the state sector and the agricultural frontier. Whether government inaction on these proposals is due to financial constraints, a reluctance to offend powerful interests or a deliberate attempt to pit poor constituencies against one another, the result is the same and the list of casualties keeps growing.
“The big landowners want to keep the best of the land, to keep all their properties intact, while they set the poor to fighting like cats and dogs,” said Daniel Núñez. “If there is going to be confrontation here, let it be the Resistance peasants and the Sandinista peasants against the large landowners who set them to fighting.”