New Crackdown Foreseen on Nicaraguan Opposition
The leftist Sandinista government’s closure of the opposition newspaper La Prensa and harsh warnings made to other dissidents signal a new stage in the political war inside Nicaragua.
The Sandinistas were surprised by Wednesday’s vote in the U.S. House approving $100 million in military and other aid to the Nicaraguan guerrillas, known as contras, and they quickly responded that they will not tolerate internal dissident activities that they consider subversive.
Opposition leaders, equally stunned by the Sandinistas’ reaction to the House vote, are expecting a crackdown on their political parties, unions and business groups, which they say have done nothing illegal.
‘We Are Waiting’
“He who does not agree with the government will be considered a real or potential contra,” said Virgilio Godoy, leader of the Independent Liberal Party. “We are waiting.”
Late Saturday, the government took its next step by denying re-entry into Nicaragua to Msgr. Bismark Carballo, spokesman for the Managua archdiocese and for Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, the government’s most powerful critic. In Miami, Carballo said the government had asked the airline that was to take him back to Managua to deny him a ticket because he would not be allowed into the country.
President Daniel Ortega calls the vote in the House a “declaration of war by the United States against Nicaragua. “War . . . will be met by war,” he said during a rally here at week’s end.
Right after the House vote, Ortega said in a nationwide television broadcast that “the new situation” requires more stringent enforcement of a state-of-emergency proclamation issued last October.
Civil Rights Limited
The emergency decree, described as a wartime measure, limits a number of civil rights, including freedom of expression and assembly and the right of habeas corpus. Up to now, Ortega said, the decree had been applied “with excessive flexibility,” a practice that he declared would no longer continue.
To make its point, the government shuttered La Prensa, Nicaragua’s only independent daily newspaper, which the Sandinistas had often pointed to as proof that they tolerated opposition and political pluralism. A government communique accused the newspaper of being a mouthpiece for U.S. interests and of justifying U.S. aggression, although the stories it published had to pass through Sandinista censors.
It is not clear what other steps the government plans to take, but in a brief interview Saturday, Interior Minister Tomas Borge did not rule out the confiscation of the property of Nicaraguans who spend most of their time out of the country.
“There is no question in the minds of the Sandinistas whom these people (the opposition) are working for--the CIA--and that their operations are not neutral,” one foreign observer said. “They think it is dangerous as hell.”
The contras, first organized by the CIA in 1981, are fighting to oust the Sandinistas’ seven-year-old Marxist-led government.
The Sandinista Popular Army has largely contained the contras on the battlefield in the last year and a half, and army officials believe that U.S. aid will only prolong the war. Foreign political observers say the contras can be expected to try to expand their presence inside the country and move into the cities, which is what the Sandinistas aim to prevent with the state of emergency.
“The Americans will tell the contras they have to do some commando (operations) in the cities,” a foreign observer said.
“It is logical that the contras would go to the internal opposition for help. The Sandinistas are trying to create a situation where, when the contras knock on the door, the answer will be, ‘Not me, fella; go down the street,’ ” the observer said.
Lack of Clarity
Opposition leaders complain that the government’s new, harder policy does not make clear what they are allowed to do.
Some opposition leaders and observers believe that the Sandinistas are using the vote for aid to the contras as a pretext to consolidate a single-party socialist state here. Even before the House voted, they charge, the government had begun to use the state of emergency to stifle legitimate opposition.
They say that their leaders have been harassed and arrested, unfairly accused of being contras, and that their supporters have been intimidated by an elaborate state security system. The Sandinistas deny all such charges.
Lino Hernandez, spokesman for the non-governmental Permanent Commission on Human Rights, says at least 2,000 people, many of them from opposition political parties and unions, have been detained under the emergency decree for periods ranging from several days to months.
18 Being Held
Among detainees are 18 members of the Social Christian Party, including five who were arrested in Matagalpa last week for alleged contras activities, Erick Ramirez, the party’s president, said.
“This is a campaign to destroy our party,” Ramirez said. “They are innocent. They are only suffering for being members of our party.”
Godoy, of the Independent Liberal Party, said more than 100 of his party members are among those who have been detained, including 27 regional leaders arrested last month in the northern province of Nueva Segovia. Godoy said they have been accused of belonging to a so-called internal front of the contras, whose principal bases are across the northern border in Honduras.
Most of the recent detentions have been in rural areas where the contras have been active in planting mines, carrying out ambushes and engaging in economic sabotage.
Parties Not Targeted
Omar Cabezas, vice minister of the interior, whose ministry oversees state security, said the government is going after contras, not political parties.
“Some people in the political parties on the right have double militancy. They are active in a political party, but also they are active in the counterrevolution, with or without the knowledge of their parties,” Cabezas said.
He said he did not know how many people have been detained but added, “If we capture someone, it is not because he is a member of the Social Christian Party but because of contra activities.”
While those in the opposition say all their problems arise from Sandinista repression, some observers accuse them of contributing to their own weak position. They have failed to channel public discontent over economic problems and unpopular official policies into support for themselves, the observers say, and their organizations are showing signs of erosion.
Drop in Membership
A principal opposition labor union’s membership has fallen from 60,000 to 20,000. Before it was closed, La Prensa’s circulation had dropped from 80,000 to 65,000, and the principal opposition business group says hundreds of its members have left the country.
Observers say infighting has left the opposition deeply divided. There are four factions of Nicaragua’s traditional Conservative Party and three factions of the traditional Liberal Party, as well as a number of other groups, that cannot unite behind a single leader.
A foreign political observer said a coalition of six opposition parties and business groups made a major tactical blunder in 1984 when it pulled its presidential candidate, Arturo Cruz, out of the elections. Now, the six have no representation in the Legislative Assembly, which, while it is dominated by the Sandinistas, still provides a forum for political debate and legal protest.
Cruz, who had a popular following, is now in the United States, active as one of the leaders of the United Nicaraguan Opposition, an umbrella organization grouping the civilian leaders of the major contras organizations.
‘Figure With Potential’
An observer here said that the Independent Liberals’ Godoy “is the one figure with potential” for internal leadership of the opposition but that “none of the others trust him because of his years with the Sandinistas.” Godoy was labor minister in the Nicaraguan Cabinet until 1984.
In absence of charismatic political figures, Cardinal Obando has become the leading opposition figure in the country. Many who dislike the Sandinistas hang the prelate’s photograph as a symbol of their opposition.
Since last week’s vote in the House, Ortega in his speeches has chastised Obando and Bishop Pablo Antonio Vega, another critic of the government among the Roman Catholic hierarchy here. The two have made repeated trips to the United States during times when Congress was voting on aid to the Nicaraguan rebels, and President Reagan has quoted them in his speeches made on behalf of contras aid.
Another weakness of the internal opposition has been its graying image. Many of the Sandinista leaders are youthful and appeal to young people, who make up the majority of the nation’s population.