Defanging the Cobra

Thursday, October 30, 1997

A giant black silhouette of Sandinista namesake General Augusto César Sandino still dominates the center of the capital city, Managua, standing beside the headquarters of the relabeled but still Sandinista army. This massive symbol of Sandinismo casts a dark shadow across the presidential palace at its feet.

But for Nicaraguans today the Sandinista presence is more than just symbolic. Liberal president Arnoldo Alemán's challenge is to exorcise this shadow by submitting the Sandinista army to civilian authority and by taking control of intelligence services that remain hermetically sealed in the hands of opposition militants.

Litany of Woes

Mr. Alemán is Nicaragua's best hope to enter, finally, the democratic era. But his litany of woes is extensive. His predecessor as president, Violeta Chamorro, left him with an almost empty treasury, a budget deeply in the red, a national debt triple the country's gross national product, and double-digit inflation. Nicaragua's foreign aid is falling, its trade deficit is 25 percent of its gross national product, and its economy, recovering but anemic. To succeed, he needs to perform a dozen tasks simultaneously--stare down the Sandinistas, bring Nicaragua's security forces under control, jump-start the economy, reduce unemployment, entice exiles to return, and solve thorny property rights problems left over from the revolution. He cannot accomplish all these tasks on his own and will need strong international support, especially from the United States.

As if these political migraines were not enough, Mr. Alemán also faces other serious hazards. His legislative coalition is paper-thin, making it nearly impossible to change basic laws or to resolve such issues as the property ownership problem. In addition, former president Daniel Ortega's postelection temper tantrums did not merely demonstrate an inability to comprehend democracy but were also open warnings of the Sandinistas' willingness to substitute minority militancy for the majority's will by taking to the streets whenever things don't go their way.

President Alemán will need help, expecially from the United States

An equally dangerous if more sophisticated threat comes from the undemocratic stance of aristocrat-cum-revolutionary General Joaquin Cuadra, who has been dancing the army just beyond the reach of elected authority while advancing his own presidential aspirations. These hazards constitute powerful barriers to President Alemán's authority.

Finally, two as yet dimly perceived but major scandals loom on Nicaragua's horizon. The first is financial. Since 1990, Nicaragua has received more than four and a half billion dollars in foreign aid. Most, directly or indirectly, was American money. Apart from enriching a few thousand former members of the aristocracy, this aid has done little for Nicaragua. Investigators reportedly have begun uncovering the reasons: misuses and diversions of funds during the Chamorro administration on a scale so massive that insiders call them the Second Piñata, after the Sandinistas' infamous 1990 end-of-revolution land grab.

The second scandal is political. Since 1979, Nicaragua's security forces have committed human rights violations on a scale that makes Argentina's "dirty war" look like a Sunday school outing. The victims were almost all faceless peasants; international human rights activists have thus far remained indifferent. Senior aides to the president are fervently praying that Nicaragua can avoid a season of moral purging, lest the Sandinistas destabilize the country in self-defense. But whether Nicaragua can escape its season of accountability remains to be seen.

Until Mr. Alemán takes action, Nicaragua will remain unable to bring back its exiles, convince citizens to repatriate their capital, or attract foreign investment.

Mr. Alemán's popularity recently topped 70 percent, but his honeymoon may be short; a recent trip to Spain for the Inter-American Development Bank meetings was extended for two weeks, noticeably slowing his momentum. A few weeks in power are too short to judge; but hopes tarnish quickly, and many Nicaraguans are already beginning to question his slow start.

Taking Action

Thankfully, there are signs that more forceful action is in the offing. The Defense Ministry, until now engaged mostly in disarming contra groups, hopes next to disarm equally dangerous, thinly disguised neo-Sandinista death squads, known as Re-Compas, and to insist on painful budget cuts for the army. Rumors abound that Intelligence chief Lenin Cerna may soon be "invited" to accept an ambassadorship abroad--Somalia has been suggested--and President Alemán is considering the creation of a parallel civilian intelligence system. The Finance Ministry is discussing an economic stabilization package with the International Monetary Fund, and plans are almost ready to reduce and depoliticize Nicaragua's bureaucracy.

There has been some judicial reform, but the police remain a major headache in terms of both corruption and unprofessionalism. Furthermore, serious human rights violations continue, albeit on a smaller scale. To address this particular problem, Mr. Alemán is establishing a human rights ombudsman, but his new system may not be effective for several years since its success must await civil control of the army and police as well as further strengthening of the judiciary. Until now, some protection has been provided to the most victimized groups by the Organization of American States (OAS) through its International Commission for Verification and Assistance, an effective observer group. Mr. Alemán, President Clinton, and the U.S. Congress must urge OAS secretary-general César Gaviria to extend the commission's mandate until the reforms take hold.

Some of Mr. Alemán's advisers are clearly reluctant to confront Nicaragua's most dangerous problem--the control of its security apparatus by Sandinista militants. Given Sandinista spitefulness, this is understandable. But until this problem is resolved, Nicaragua's future will remain hostage to its past. Civilian control and the rule of law must become the norm, not the exception. Yet they are not attainable if those with coercive power remain unaccountable. Mr. Alemán needs to take full command of this situation. Until he does so, Nicaragua will remain a risky venture, unable to bring back its exiles, convince Nicaraguans to repatriate their capital, or attract serious foreign investors. Mr. Alemán's election generated hopes. These must not be dashed on the rocks of hesitancy.

As the 1996 electoral campaign closed, Nicaragua's immensely popular Roman Catholic cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo delivered a Sunday homily about a compassionate and overly trusting pilgrim who found a cold, ailing cobra. He held it to his bosom to warm it back to health. Once warm, the cobra killed him. The warning was clear: If one must sleep with cobras, they must first be defanged while still cold. It is a parable Mr. Alemán would do well to ponder.