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Living With Contra War's Legacy


DURING seven years of civil war, about 60,000 Nicaraguans have been killed or wounded, tens of thousands have been displaced, orphaned, or disabled, and damages have run into hundreds of millions of dollars. But there are also many costs that cannot be calculated in numbers: the daily fear in which many Nicaraguans have lived since the war began; the suspicion sown between neighbors; the ignorance and early deaths of children who live within walking distance of schools and health centers that lie abandoned because workers have fled or been killed.

All in all, the most successful strategy of the United States-backed contra rebels - ruining the economy - has meant the further impoverishment of an already poor people. And ultimately, say foreign and Nicaraguan observers, the country's opposition as well as its Sandinista government and civilians have suffered.

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According to numerous diplomats and political and military sources, all that the contras can claim as a victory up to now is the Sandinistas' commitment to hold early elections in February 1990.

But even this gain seems due more to the pressure and diplomacy exerted by other leaders in Central America (through the August 1987 peace plan known as Esquipulas II) rather than to the contras' military prowess.

Last February, the region's five presidents agreed to dismantle the contra army in exchange for limited political reforms and early elections in Nicaragua. The accord was seen as a repudiation of the contras - and US policy - by Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Guatemala.

At a regional summit scheduled for August, the presidents are due to come up with a detailed plan for relocating the 12,000 Honduras-based contras. Some observers say agreement is unlikely because of US pressure and disagreements among the presidents.

In any event, a well-placed regional observer says, the peace plan has left ``the contras like a group of children sitting on the floor while the adults stand and argue over them. Everyone is talking about them, not to them.''

With the contras' voice stifled at least for now, it has been left to the internal opposition to take up the slack. But political divisions inside Nicaragua's polarized society have prevented the civilian opposition from presenting a united front.

``The war has kept the opposition - all these years - from really plunging into the work of political parties: organizing a social base, making programs to govern, etc.'' says a Latin American ambassador. ``Instead, the war has divided them morally, and handicapped them politically because it offered a reason for some of them to stay outside of politics, to refuse to accept the revolution as a reality, while awaiting the outcome of the war,'' he said.

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As a result, this ambassador and other diplomats say, the opposition has not shown itself ready to take full advantage of the opportunity that elections present.

``We are not ready to govern, yet,'' an opposition leader admits candidly. ``We've spent all these years yelling at the Sandinistas and waiting to see what the contras would do ... instead of setting out policies on agrarian reform, investment, and financing.''

The opposition's more moderate wing - eight parties - is represented in the National Assembly. But the hard-line Democratic Coordinator coalition did not participate in the 1984 elections.

Despite popular discontent over Nicaragua's grave economic crisis, the opposition faces an uphill battle against the Sandinistas. This is in part because the war has been a mild political blessing to the government, providing a convenient teflon shield to protect the Sandinistas from shouldering full blame for their mistakes.

``When we are under attack from a nation like the United States, the `great colossus' to the north, how can you not blame everything on the war?'' asks an economist sympathetic to the Sandinistas. ``It may not always be true, but how can you resist it? You Americans don't understand how big your country is from the view down here.''

In a nation where half the population is under the age of 18, the war has allowed the Sandinistas to draft thousands of young men into the Army where they receive a political education. The opposition terms it ``brainwashing.'' Most young men who complete their two years of service return home ``in a Sandinista frame of mind,'' as one diplomat says.

``And if the Sandinistas successfully frame the elections as a contest between them and the `lackeys' of the United States ... who will all these veterans vote for?'' the diplomat asks.

BUT having a foreign super-power to blame its own failings on is coming back to haunt the Sandinistas. ``US aggression'' is used as an excuse for inefficiency and incompetence by bureaucrats across the country.

Ward Forbes, an Atlantic Coast Creole and a former transport official, offers an example: At a national meeting of regional transport directors, Mr. Forbes says, each related the poor state of transport and blamed it all on the ``US aggression.''

But Forbes differed. ``I got up and said ... if we are not doing enough it is our own fault, and we should stop blaming foreigners.

``Well you could've heard a pin drop in that place,'' he says. ``Total silence until the minister [of transport] looked up and pointed at me and said `I agree 100 percent with that man.'''

While the war is a ready-made excuse for many Sandinista failings, it has also cost them time and support. Following a valiant campaign to bring literacy, health centers, and schools to isolated communities, many of the gains of these programs have been lost. Schools and centers were destroyed or damaged, and teachers and health workers were withdrawn from areas where they had become targets of contra attack.

``The result was that for many of these people the only representative they see of the Sandinistas is the Army,'' says an American priest working in a war zone. ``And soldiers at war or state security [agents] are not the best representatives of politics or the government's desire to improve people's lives.''

The Army and state security have also committed human rights violations. And while Nicaragua is the only country in Central America which vigorously prosecutes some of its own soldiers and officers, ``many more people hear of the abuses than they do of the prosecutions,'' the priest notes.

A long-time Sandinista explains the feelings that haunt Nicaraguans a decade after the revolution that ignited popular hopes for rapid change and progress.

``The US government came up with a policy to raise the contra army and use it against us. And when that policy failed you packed it up and went home,'' she says. ``But for us it was no policy. It was lives wasted and resources lost and friends and family killed.

``In many ways 1982 to 1989 are lost years, some kind of parenthesis in the revolution. And when it is over we will not be at the same place before we started. We will be even further behind.''

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