Now Congress Is the Peace Obstacle

There is an energy in Nicaragua and a confidence--unsupported by any evidence--that something will turn up, which has kept that battered land running on empty well beyond what seems reasonable. Time and again, the energy and confidence have produced results that analysts denied were possible. Free elections were, indeed, held in February, and a coalition of parties hostile to the ruling Sandinista party did, indeed, win.

After repeated false starts, the soldiers who make up what's left of the American-sponsored Contras have agreed to stop roaming the countryside and hand over their weapons to a United Nations peacekeeping force. That has not happened yet, but Contra leaders and Sandinista Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, the hard-line brother of President Daniel Ortega, have signed on. That would mean a peaceful transfer of government to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the president-elect, on Wednesday--another once-improbable event.

But nature has now imposed a rigid deadline on one crucial aspect of Nicaragua's reconstruction, which means that if Congress isn't careful, it could wind up derailing the very recovery it says it wants for that long-ravaged country. Washington has lifted its trade embargo, putting Nicaragua in a position to resume exporting bananas, beef, coffee and other products that can earn dollars in the United States. With the spring planting season already upon them, farmers have to make decisions about crops. They need money to draw down some of Nicaragua's debts so that they can borrow for seed and new farm equipment. Yet Congress is sitting on President Bush's request for $300 million, money that would let them get that fresh start.

Keeping the peace and forging a real government from a coalition of 14 fractious groups of supporters that include conservatives and Communists are challenges enough for Chamorro. But no matter how smoothly she might manage those tasks, Nicaragua's economy is the key to the future of the nation and to its fragile new democracy. Unemployment runs about 30%. If not uncountable, the inflation rate is unthinkable. Nicaragua can miss spring planting this year and still get back on its feet. But that might well take some of the edge off its sense of confidence. Congress must not let that happen.

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