Violeta Barrios de Chamorro
Violeta Barrios de Chamorro; drawing by David Levine


I finally understood that the Sandinista National Liberation Front was likely to lose the national elections in Nicaragua to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro’s opposition coalition after I talked to a young Sandinista policeman on February 24, the night before the balloting. The policeman, in his beige shirt with the red and black Sandinista arm patch, was standing at a large intersection on the southern side of Managua at about 10:30 at night, trying to hitch a ride, and I picked him up in my rental car.

As soon as he was settled in his seat he began to tell me anxiously that he was an hour late reporting for the night shift at a police station on the outskirts of the capital. His infant daughter had come down with fever convulsions earlier while his wife was away working at her day job. He had waited for hours with the sick baby at the seedy emergency room in the state-run hospital near his house, only to discover that the hospital did not have in stock the medicines that were needed. Since it was a Saturday night no public buses were running, and he had been forced to take a cab to work. The cab took him only halfway, then charged him more than a day’s worth of his salary, which was the equivalent of about $20 a month.

The young man told me he had been drafted, reluctantly, into the Sandinista army, but after much maneuvering had been allowed to do his service with the Managua police. He found, however, that his commanding officers treated him “like filth” because he was not a career policeman or a Sandinista party activist. He nevertheless managed to finish his compulsory two-year term of service and was ready to return to civilian life last October when, he said, he was advised that he would not be honorably discharged until after April 25 when, his superiors were certain, Sandinista President Daniel Ortega would be inaugurated for a second term.

The only time his voice brightened was when I asked him what he thought about the elections. He carefully limited himself to saying he was confident that the presence of hundreds of international observers would ensure a secret vote. But by the time he had climbed out of my car after a ten-minute ride, I was certain that he was one Nicaraguan who looked like a Sandinista, but who was going to cast his vote for Chamorro’s National Opposition Union, called UNO.

By midnight the following night, after a peaceful day when some 87 percent of Nicaraguans went to the polls under the scrutiny of more than 1600 international observers, UNO had won by a landslide that few diplomats or reporters—and no Sandinista leaders—had expected. The final results from the Supreme Electoral Council (which are still being challenged by UNO because of alleged irregularities in some races for assembly seats) showed that UNO won the presidency by 54.7 percent to the Sandinistas’ 40.8 percent. UNO will hold fifty-one seats out of ninety-two in the National Assembly, while the Sandinista Front will have thirty-nine. Two assembly seats went to small independent parties.

Reporters like myself who had long experience in Sandinista Nicaragua (I have been covering the story for more than seven years) were, I think, less able than others to imagine such a vast change. During the Sandinistas’ decade in power they and their Marxist-inspired creed were omnipresent. They ran not only the government, the armed forces, and the political police, but also the sugar mills, the beer factory, the airport, the telephone company, the art galleries, the restaurants, and much more. The Sandinistas built their party into a far-reaching, fast-moving machine. I thought that it could deliver votes in spite of the economic devastation Nicaraguans had been experiencing in recent years.

My last trip to Nicaragua before February was in May 1989, when I reported on the rally in the provincial city of Masaya. UNO hadn’t yet chosen Violeta Chamorro, the matriarch publisher of the opposition daily newspaper La Prensa, as its candidate. It was a forlorn demonstration, with barely 1,500 people. A dispute over who would be allowed to speak led to a fistfight on the podium between partisans of one minor opposition politician and another. On July 19, when the Sandinista Front held a celebration to mark the tenth anniversary of its rise to power, more than 100,000 Nicaraguans turned out. There seemed to be no contest.

But as a result of the electoral campaign, between midsummer of last year and this February Nicaraguan politics changed more radically than at any time since the early years of the Sandinista revolution. The competing rallies that UNO and the Sandinista Front, also known as the FSLN, organized in Managua to close their campaigns showed the kind of transformation that had taken place.


At the final rally of the UNO campaign on the hot afternoon of Sunday, February 18, the feeling was unmistakable that a new force was present. The UNO crowd of about 50,000 was highspirited, though not especially large, and filled with Nicaraguans who said they had not turned out for a political event since the euphoric days of dictator Anastasio Somoza’s overthrow in 1979. An UNO supporter climbed to the bell towers of the national cathedral, which has been vacant since its roof collapsed during the 1972 earthquake, and rang the big bells. Whether or not it was true, people in the crowd swore that it was the first time the bells had sounded since 1979.

Virtually every social class was represented. I saw several members of the well-to-do Pellas clan, who had managed to preserve their fortune under the Sandinistas by selling Toyotas. I met a pharmacist, a graphic designer, a baker, and several farm laborers. Some UNO supporters said they were there notwithstanding the dismal reputations of the fourteen small parties, ranging from conservative to Communist, in the opposition coalition.

“No party represents us. All those traditional parties are just obsolete,” a thirty-year-old self-employed electrician named Raúl Fajardo told me.

Nor was the appeal of Violeta Chamorro uppermost in the minds of UNO supporters that day. For one thing, UNO’s sound system was so inadequate that only by standing within fifteen feet of the stage could one hear her at all. Using typical FSLN tactics, Sandinista customs agents at the Costa Rican border had vanished just when they were needed to approve the entry of the elaborate sound system UNO had rented for the rally. UNO had to find a substitute in Managua at the last minute. But few UNO supporters I talked to said they were supporting UNO because of Violeta Chamorro. They made it clear that UNO had grown into a movement for change whose whole was much greater than the sum of its parts.

The grievances of UNO followers tended to be concrete and not a matter of ideology. Raúl Fajardo complained that a drastic Sandinista program to fight inflation had induced a recession that left everyday Nicaraguans with no cash and Fajardo with no work. It didn’t impress him that UNO’s prospects for attracting American aid were infinitely better than those of the Sandinistas. He said he was already embarrassed by the “beggarly image” of Nicaragua under Sandinista rule. He wanted UNO to put him back to work again and to make the country more productive.

Arnulfo Sánchez Rivera, an aging onion farmer, said three of his six children were boys in high school who had been drafted into the Sandinista army. He was tired of worrying every day that they would be killed, especially since the war against the contra rebels seemed to have lost its purpose. “If they do get out alive,” he said, “they will have lost their love for books. I’ll never get them to finish their education.”

Sánchez said he had resisted pressure to merge his onion business with a Sandinista cooperative, and as a result he had been jailed twice by the political police on suspicion of being a contra collaborator. “They live by distrust,” Sánchez said of the Sandinistas. “They never taught us to be sincere with each other, or to live side by side accepting one another.”

Some UNO supporters were less subtle. Julio César Ortez, who seemed slightly drunk, saw my press pass and started yelling: “Viva George Bush!” When he calmed down, he told me he was a Sandinista government employee. The rally was the first time in years he dared to express his pro-American sentiments.

Chamorro responded to her supporters’ concerns by offering to end the draft, which the Sandinistas started in 1984 for the first time in Nicaraguan history, and to return the economy to private enterprise. Her delivery was stilted, like that of a headmistress reading a code of conduct to a class of raucous teen-agers. But the image of the handsome woman in white linen, with her straw fedora cocked to one side, stretching her arms to the crowd from the wheelchair she used since she broke her knee in January, seemed refreshing, elegant, and clean.

Alfredo César, a politician who since 1979 has been variously a Sandinista official, an exile, and a political director of the contras, and who is now one of Chamorro’s closest advisers, said four days before the election that UNO never needed to persuade Nicaraguans to vote for Doña Violeta. All UNO had to do, he said, was to “convince them that their vote can change the country.” César argued that UNO had only to establish that it could present a workable alternative to the Sandinista. And that was the secret many Nicaraguan voters took home with them from the final UNO rally. UNO was just big enough to win the elections.


Walking back from the rally I came upon several well-known former contra political leaders ambling down the street. One was Frank Arana, who has been a spokesman for the contras from their earliest years under the CIA and whom the Sandinistas deeply hate. Returned from exile, he was cheerfully chanting anti-Sandinista slogans in the street. We strolled under “The Hulk,” the Sandinistas’ most visible contribution to public art in Nicaragua, a gawky iron statue of a muscular young man raising a rifle to the sky. UNO supporters had scaled the figure and stuffed an UNO placard in The Hulk’s open mouth. A line of Sandinista riot policemen stood by watching in amusement.


“The big trouble in this country is there has never been a credible opposition.” This was the lament, during a briefing a week before the vote, of Alejandro Bendaña, the secretary general of the foreign ministry and one of the government’s most competent officials. Bendaña concern, which was shared by a great many Sandinistas, was that the FSLN would triumph by such a large margin that the results would not be credible to outside observers. Bendaña said all the available evidence, from FSLN political intelligence to independent polls, showed that it was “impossible” for the Sandinista Front to lose. As for defeat, Bendaña said, “I don’t think we have ever considered it seriously.”

I wondered about the accuracy of the Sandinista party’s readings after I ran into Alfonso Cano and four of his children on the clean-swept dirt patio in front of their woodslat house in a working-class barrio of Managua. The children were all wearing new T-shirts decorated with Daniel Ortega’s face. But they clung to their father and grinned mischievously when I asked him who he would choose on election day. Cano, it turned out, was one of the surest UNO supporters in Nicaragua, since he was employed as a security guard at the American ambassador’s residence. But he delighted in the joke he was playing on the Sandinista Front with the T-shirts, which had been handed out free.

“Anybody can wear one of those,” he said, smiling. “But we keep our feelings hidden.”

Tens of thousands of those T-shirts were on display by mid-afternoon on February 21, when some 200,000 Nicaraguans swarmed onto the grass of Carlos Fonseca Plaza, making it evident that the Sandinistas had succeeded in organizing the biggest public rally that anyone could remember in Nicaragua. But by 5 PM, even before Ortega started to speak, many demonstrators felt that they had done enough. The surge of people out of the plaza was almost as thick as the flow coming in.

It was hard to get people in the crowd to give personal views on politics. To be sure, most of them appeared to be eager supporters of the Sandinista. But many simply tended to repeat FSLN jargon, condemning Violeta Chamorro as a tool of the United States and a political ally of Somoza’s National Guard (a particularly absurd charge since her husband, La Prensa editor Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, was murdered in 1978 by gunmen believed to be linked to Somoza). It was also hard to find anyone in the crowd who had recently been converted to the Sandinistas. Nearly everyone I talked to seemed to have become a partisan of the Sandinista Front during the insurrection against Somoza or in the early years of the war against the contras.

A number of Sandinistas told me that they disapproved of the more open political atmosphere that had emerged during the election campaign. A university student, María Luisa García, blamed the near collapse of the economy on insufficient state control. “There’s been too much democracy. The government doesn’t have enough power over the private sector,” García said. She hoped that after the elections the new Sandinista government would make the opposition “show more respect” for the FSLN. Marta Martínez, a housewife dressed from head to foot in the black and red Sandinista colors, wanted Ortega to “get all those other parties out of Nicaragua” after he was reelected.

Some demonstrators were ambivalent. I was approached by a farmworker with a broad-brimmed cowboy hat pulled down halfway over his eyes who came from a Sandinista cooperative in the countryside. On the one hand, Francisco Zapata explained, he had a draftage son. On the other, the Sandinista government had offered him and other cooperative members twenty more acres of rich farming land—after the FSLN won the elections. The decision was agonizing.

At dusk Daniel Ortega—“the Rooster,” as he was called in Sandinista campaign propaganda—bounded onto the stage with awkward hops, reminding me of a late 1950s rock ‘n roller. He was wearing a passion-flower orange shirt and cowboy boots. He stopped his speech in the middle so that he and the players from a Sandinista-sponsored baseball team could bat balls out into the audience. The rally culminated with a gaudy blaze of fireworks including a large, sizzling portrait of Ortega himself.

In his speech Ortega declared himself president-elect and said the vote would merely ratify this fact. He used biblical references, comparing himself to Solomon and asking God for the wisdom to govern well. Ortega addressed no specific issues, and by the end the rally had degenerated into a ritual incantation of slogans by Ortega and the crowd. Some of Ortega’s aides said later that the president had intended to make a concession on the draft in his address, but when he saw the size of the crowd he decided that it was unnecessary.

Unfortunately for the Sandinistas, practically every Nicaraguan knows that Ortega, who has been constantly in the public eye for more than a decade, is not at all like Jerry Lee Lewis, but is rather an unexpressive man with simple tastes. Nicaraguans know as well that, notwithstanding his recent appeals to God, he and his party have relentlessly belittled and insulted the traditional Catholic Church. Also, in view of the real hunger many Nicaraguans were experiencing for the first time during the last few years of Sandinista rule, even fervent Sandinistas must have left the plaza wondering what the fireworks cost and where the money came from.

Although the Sandinistas began as guerrillas with Marxist ideas, during the last five years the main working principle of Sandinismo has been improvisation. For example, in 1988 when 36,000 percent inflation was undermining the socialist state, they adopted a radical austerity program, returning to a free market in domestic commerce and laying off thousands of state workers. Having few economic experts of their own, they had to rely on foreign advisers (including several Americans) to design their program. When it came to the election campaign, they improvised again, since they are revolutionaries with no electoral tradition. But the campaign they produced was a caricature, a superficial rendering of how Sandinista militants think campaigns are run in Western democracies, including, ironically, the United States.

By February 1990 it was hard to define Sandinista ideology. What was left in Nicaragua that was still distinctively Sandinista was the party’s large internal organization, its penchant for dealing in rhetoric before reality, and a lingering vanguard party elitism. The FSLN campaign manager Bayardo Arce, one of the nine top comandantes who head the Sandinista Front, boasted to the press, a few days before the election, of the 2,816 local headquarters that had been opened and the hundreds of block committees that had been formed, equating the fact of organization with popular participation. Right up to election day the Sandinistas continued to work on the arrogant assumption that their original revolutionary victory automatically endowed them with superior political judgment. They communicated with Nicaraguans by using aggressive catch-phrases (“No More National Guard!” referring to UNO, and “One Single Army!” referring to Nicaragua.) Like the deafening sound system they deployed at their final rally, they could make noise, but they couldn’t listen.

That was why Xabier Gorostiaga, a Jesuit academic who contributed ideas to the Sandinistas, offered a bet just before election day to UNO’s top economic adviser, Francisco Mayorga: ten to one odds that the Sandinistas would win, with a minimum bet of $100. The Sandinistas believed that every Nicaraguan who wore a Sandinista T-shirt would cast a Sandinista vote.


Long before the elections, Nicaraguans found a way to cope with autocratic leaders who presume to know what the people want. A Nicaraguan folk play from the colonial era, called El Guëgüense (a satiric version of the Spanish word for “Nicaraguan”) shows how Nicaraguans confounded and controlled a colonial ruler. They simply never let him know what they are thinking. In the play the Nicaraguans flatter the Spanish governor, nodding and bowing to feign servility. While deflecting his attention, they play a series of verbal tricks on him that ultimately make him powerless.

Nicaraguans resorted to the same strategy before the vote, which damaged the reputations of a number of American public opinion experts, among them the Washington Post–ABC pollsters, whose survey two weeks before the balloting missed UNO’s final percentage by twenty-three points.

But once the ballots were cast Nicaraguan voters became more willing to talk and the central issues on their minds became clearer. Their overriding hope was for a formal peace. Some just wanted to be rid of the draft. Others believed that the Sandinistas would always be at odds with the United States, and therefore the prospects of more fighting and of living in a garrison state would not go away. The longing for peace was central to most Nicaraguans’ economic hopes as well. They saw an end to bloodshed as the first condition for economic recovery.

The voters also sought to punish the Sandinistas for forcing a frequently incompetent and often intolerant state into their lives and then reducing them to penury. “After the [1979] insurrection we were all Sandinistas. But everything they did was a lie. They made the workers poor,” said Juan José Castro, a farmworker I interviewed at a polling precinct among cotton fields near Masaya. He added: “We always had to say yes to the revolution. If we said no, we got into big trouble.”

The Sandinistas lost many votes among the groups they thought were their most solid supporters, including the young, the urban poor, and even the military. The FSLN was defeated by UNO in a precinct near Apanas, a large military base in the northern war zone. Even at the military school in Managua, the FSLN won by only about fifty votes out of nearly one thousand cast.

If any single strategic mistake was decisive for the Sandinistas, it was probably their failure to demilitarize rapidly after the United States cut off military aid to the contras in February 1988 and a series of regional peace agreements resulted in a sharp decline in the fighting in Nicaragua. General Humberto Ortega, the president’s brother and defense minister, insisted on maintaining an army of about 70,000 regulars until the contras, who have been largely idle in camps in Honduras for eighteen months, were formally disarmed. The commitment of exorbitant amounts of resources to defense blocked any appreciable economic upturn, while the unpopular conscription system continued. Nicaraguans came to doubt whether the Sandinistas ever intended to reduce their army.

By the same token, the dwindling of US-supported contra warfare inside Nicaragua seems to have been crucial in increasing the electoral opposition to the Sandinistas. The lack of a highly visible American hostility toward the Sandinista government under the Bush administration made the elaborate military and security organization of the Sandinistas seem superfluous, and permitted even nationalist Nicaraguans to concentrate on their economic plight and turn their anger on their government.


Only a few brief hours after the returns came in Daniel Ortega shed his campaign persona. In his nationally broadcast concession speech at six-thirty in the morning of February 26 Ortega both gracefully accepted his party’s defeat and also restated the more appealing elements of the Sandinista cause: their commitment to social justice and national self-determination:

We have never been wedded to power…. We were born poor and will be satisfied to die poor…. The principal contribution we Sandinistas are making to the Nicaraguan people is to guarantee a pure and clean election…. I call on you to act today more than ever with steadfast conviction in the knowledge that the steps we have taken are right, that we have been true to our principles.

The implications of this address were enormous for a nation that has never before had a peaceful transfer of power through elections in its modern history. By the end of it a roomful of hardened foreign reporters (myself included) were struggling to hold back their tears. Jimmy Carter and his assistant, Robert Pastor, shuttled during the night between Ortega and Chamorro to make sure the election results would be accepted. Pastor said in an interview that Ortega had never hesitated to do so. Ortega asked that Chamorro delay her victory speech until the elections council had counted a significant number of precincts so that his own followers would be convinced of the outcome and not react violently. Chamorro did so.

Other Sandinista leaders reacted with equal dignity. Right after Ortega’s speech I ran into Dora María Téllez, the minister of health who had been the second in command when Sandinista guerrillas seized Somoza’s National Palace in 1978. Dora María attended the president’s concession speech in combat boots, her hands thrust low in the pockets of her shiny black baseball jacket.

“I’m only thirty-four years old. I still have a lot of earth to haul,” she said. “Besides, I say that if all we did was to make Nicaragua into a nation, that was still the most extraordinary thing we could have achieved.”

In fact, during the first days after the elections there was an unmistakable sense of relief among the Sandinistas. “We are passing the burden on to them,” Ortega told his followers on February 27. “And it is heavy.” Ortega and his closest advisers immediately perceived that the FSLN would never have had the same opportunity to attract foreign aid and stabilize the economy as the UNO can be expected to have now. Almost instantly the Sandinistas saw that if they could return to power in an election after Chamorro’s six-year term, and if Nicaragua had meanwhile had some economic growth, their legitimacy would be unimpeachable and they would have a new basis from which to launch a campaign for their egalitarian social programs.

“Of course, if we had won these elections we would have been very happy. But our revolution would always have been questioned,” Ortega told an audience of foreign volunteers on February 28.

Some Sandinistas were able to recognize the reasons for the rejection. “In ten years the Front adopted the psychology of a party in power,” said Dionisio Marenco, Ortega’s deputy campaign manager, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. “We lost our capacity to converse, to listen, to criticize ourselves, the capacity to measure.” Others were less cool. Campaign chief Bayardo Arce, the Sandinista comandante most thoroughly discredited by the defeat, accused the Nicaraguan people of “betraying” the Sandinistas. Interior Minister Tomás Borge had said in an interview published in the independent Nicaraguan weekly La Crónica a few days before the vote that the idea of UNO taking over his ministry was “totally inconceivable” and had warned that his employees would never accept a new minister named by UNO. After the election The New York Times reported some impromptu remarks Borge made suggesting he might in fact be willing to step down peaceably, and then through his spokeswoman Borge denied having made them.

Across the rural provinces, rank-and-file Sandinistas, who had not been in any way prepared for the electoral loss, resisted the results and took to the streets to harass UNO followers. “The people want these elections to be annulled,” said Sergeant Antonio Muñoz, a Sandinista army officer in charge of a coffee co-operative near Jalapa, in northern Nicaragua. In Jalapa Sandinista gangs attacked the houses of UNO followers with automatic rifles and machetes. In another northern town, Jinotega, Sandinista army helicopters dropped a hand grenade on the roof of the house of an UNO activist, injuring his two daughters. In Estelí, a provincial capital, the pro-Sandinista gangs, or turbas, burned down the UNO headquarters.

I saw the potential for violent local vendettas during a visit to the home of Father Eliar Pineda, the Catholic priest who presides in the Jinotega cathedral, and whose family members were UNO supporters. On the Friday night after the vote Sandinista turbas held a noisy but ultimately harmless demonstration at Pineda’s house, which was flying UNO banners on its rooftop. While I was talking to Pineda, a veteran Sandinista militant, Walter Baquedano, came by to apologize and to assure the priest that the FSLN was doing what it could to control the actions of those Sandinistas “who haven’t succeeded in calming their passions over the elections results and could yield to fanaticism.”

But Father Pineda, whose elderly mother had been frightened by the attack, was little mollified. “I have a rifle,” he warned Baquedano. “I’m not violent, but if provoked with violence I will respond with violence. I will have to protect my house like the man I am.”


In early March Sandinista Front militants fanned out across Nicaragua to curb the violence and begin to get their followers back under control. At the same time however, the FSLN began distributing rifles to its most trusted members, who are expected to form party militias throughout Nicaragua. The Front moved rapidly to establish the terms under which it would cooperate with the transfer of power.

What their initial bargaining position comes to is that the Sandinista Front will allow Violeta Chamorro and UNO to take office and govern as long as they follow Sandinista policies and do not dismantle the Sandinista system. Using the strength of their 41 percent minority, the Sandinistas intend, in Ortega’s words, to “govern from below.” According to a declaration of February 27, endorsed by virtually every top Sandinista, they will fight to preserve the structure of the Sandinista army, which is entirely staffed with Sandinista officers, and will not accept any rollback of the agrarian reform program or of the system of nationalized foreign trade.

Even while the news photograph of Ortega and Chamorro embracing was still on the front pages, I saw the collision course the two sides were on after talking one evening with Dámaso Vargas, a leader of the Sandinista Workers’ Central, the main labor federation, and with Francisco Mayorga, the UNO economic adviser. The election left Vargas in a somber mood. Gone were the pat phrases I always heard from him in the past. He started off mildly: “Some things in UNO’s programs could be beneficial for our workers,” he mused.

But then he quietly laid down his conditions. “We understand that this is a change of government in a country which already has an established political and economic system with deep popular roots. That system must not be overturned,” Vargas said. For Vargas, the Nicaraguans already had democracy under the Sandinistas. Thus he drew a parallel with the United States, where, he observed, one president doesn’t throw out democracy when taking over from another.

“The first thing we will do,” the ebullient Mayorga announced two hours later at his office in a Managua business school, “is to transform the economic system from a highly state-controlled, authoritarian one to a new economic democracy.”

Neither man seemed to have any notion of the obstacles represented by the other. Mayorga is a Yale-trained economist who is thrilled at the opportunity to apply his theoretical knowledge to privatizing what he views as a partially communist economy. Vargas is a proletarian seasoned by a decade of barefisted battles to impose Sandinista dominance in the labor movement.

The sticking points were numerous. Although the UNO platform says it will accept the Sandinista agrarian reform, which handed out land to peasant families, Mayorga said that confiscated properties that are deemed by UNO to be “idle” will be returned to former owners who petition for them. Such claims could lead to bitter disputes in many parts of Nicaragua. (One property that Mayorga hopes will be restored to its former owner, he told me, is a 490-acre Pacific Coast cattle ranch that belonged to his own family. Mayorga believes that the property will qualify as “idle,” although, by his account, a Sandinista administrator is working it.) Mayorga referred to the Sandinista agrarian reform minister, Jaime Wheelock, as “the Attila the Hun” of Nicaraguan agriculture, charging: “Wherever he walked, nothing ever sprouted again.”

Vargas said that workers loyal to him, who control labor-management committees in a number of key state-owned factories in Nicaragua’s limited industrial plant, will not even consider having them be sold to the private sector. Mayorga plans to issue shares in the factories, and offer a portion of the shares to the workers, who could be given credits with which to buy them.

“If we offer the workers shares of stock in their companies and the Sandinistas tell them not to take them, then the workers will see who is really defending their interests,” Mayorga said. But Vargas observed that Sandinista workers might not see any reason to pay for a factory they already consider to be theirs. Whether Sandinista workers actually consider that state ownership means their ownership would therefore seem a question that will recur during the coming months.

The Sandinistas are thus prepared to turn over the presidency and the ministerial offices to UNO, but they intend to wage house-to-house political warfare to preserve their hold on the power bases that the revolution brought under their control. During the transition to the April 25 inauguration, they will try to negotiate with UNO to affirm their position of control over the armed forces. They can also be expected to make large transfers of state resources to their party, to fortify themselves for the prolonged contest to come.


The temptation to compare the election in Nicaragua to the demise of discredited and obsolete Marxist regimes in Eastern Europe is great. But Nicaragua is very different. The Sandinistas lost the elections primarily because of their mistakes as the party in power and not because they were socialists. They do not in the least consider themselves to be a spent force, and in fact remain the single largest party in Nicaragua. Thus the Sandinista Front organized what was undoubtedly the most energetic and determined street rally of its campaign in Managua two days after its defeat at the polls. Observing all the fist-waving that went on that day, an uninformed bystander would have thought the rally a victory party.

The principal UNO leaders recognize the Sandinistas’ continuing influence and are prepared to make some accomodation with it. The reality, after all, is that they do not control any arsenal. Before the election Alfredo César told me that it would not be inconsistent with the Nicaraguan constitution for Humberto Ortega to continue to serve as a general and the top army officer, if he will answer to the Chamorro-appointed civilian defense minister. “It is not our intention to destroy the army,” César said, “but to reduce defense spending drastically and gradually to reduce the army’s size.” UNO leaders envision a retraining program supported by US economic, not military, aid to ease the soldiers’ return to civilian life.

Antonio Lacayo, Chamorro’s son-in-law, her closest aide, and the manager of the transition team, said on the morning of UNO’s victory, “When it is so clear that the people want a change you don’t negotiate [with the Sandinistas], but you do try to find what they need to feel secure in the future Nicaragua.”

It is impossible to predict how the Sandinista Front will do in opposition. Many of the hangers-on have begun to fall away, though this may turn out to be an advantage. Intense debates that could split the party will almost certainly occur. But it seems to me that UNO may have a harder time maintaining its effectiveness and cohesion. Already there have been tensions between Chamorro’s American-educated advisers like César and Lacayo, who favor tassel loafers, and the Managua pols who sit on the council that represents the fourteen parties in the UNO coalition. (Lacayo once came to blows with one of them over the order of events in a campaign rally.) How will the Communist party and the other left-wing members find common ground with the rest of the largely conservative alliance?

UNO will be under pressure to respond to the demands of Nicaragua’s businessmen, who are now rancorous after the decade of abuse under the Sandinistas and may not all share Alfredo César’s views on accommodation. “I hope that nothing will be left of Sandinismo but a bitter aftertaste,” said Enrique Bolaños a leader of the main private enterprise association. Arguing that Chamorro will be at the high point of her political popularity and power right after her inauguration, Bolaños urged that no concessions be made to the FSLN. He suggested that Chamorro should demote Humberto Ortega to sergeant and order him to “go out and sweep the streets.”

Nor is it clear how strong a president Chamorro will be. During the campaign the sixty-year-old grandmother was more a symbol than a decisionmaker. An interview in Denis Lynn Daly Heyck’s new book captures both Chamorro’s strengths and her weaknesses.* Violeta discusses her tireless efforts to care for her four, now politically divided, children and her lifelong devotions to her slain husband and to the Virgin Mary. She shows her intuitive dislike for foreign meddling in Nicaraguan affairs. Referring to the US backing for the contra war, which she always opposed, Chamorro says, “Because I live here in Nicaragua and because I am Nicaraguan, I’m not in favor of any external plan.” Her principles are simple ones but firmly held: freedom of expression, pacifism, democratic practice.

Ms. Chamorro also described herself in the interview as “half-crippled” with osteoporosis, a bone disease which was probably the cause of her knee fracture during the campaign. She was almost as petulant about the Sandinistas as they have been about her, dismissing the revolution as “all brainwashing and lies.”

“All this is a responsibility that has come to me: I did not seek it, but as I said, one does what one can,” Chamorro said in her 1988 interview. Not a few observers have made comparisons between Chamorro and Ronald Reagan. Her presidency will succeed if she can continue to project her appeal to Nicaraguans while her government is managed by her vice-president Virgilio Godoy, the Liberal party leader who has a reputation for shrewdness and persistence, and by her advisers.

Once she takes office, the Nicaraguan constitution, which was written by the Sandinistas, will give both sides considerable power. The Sandinista assembly delegation, headed by Daniel Ortega, will have enough votes to veto amendments to clauses that establish the Sandinista Popular Army and spell out the agrarian reform. But the president’s daily prerogatives are also broad.

The main threat to a peaceful transition comes not from the Sandinistas, but from the contras camped in Honduras. Chamorro and the Sandinistas have a mutual interest in their being disarmed immediately: the Sandinistas to protect their followers from attack and Chamorro to get on with the task of disarming the Sandinistas, which promises to be a difficult one in any case. One of the first statements made by Chamorro as president-elect was that the contras should now disband. But the contras, defeated militarily by the Sandinista army and politically in Washington, are demanding the small satisfaction of returning to Nicaragua with the Sandinistas out of power.

If the obstacles standing in the way of Ms. Chamorro’s inauguration are overcome, what seems likely to emerge is a government divided between two opposed centers of power, something roughly comparable, perhaps, to a left-wing version of General Augusto Pinochet’s Chile, with the Sandinistas, as Pinochet has done, maintaining control over the armed forces. The chances for full-scale civil war are limited by the Nicaraguan people’s clear rejection of it at the polls. But consistent with Nicaraguan traditions, the coming political conflict promises to be constant and furious.

March 15, 1990

This Issue

April 12, 1990