Contras to Get Own Colony in Deal to Disarm
Contra leaders pledged Saturday to begin the stalled process of disarming their forces this week in return for the permanent demilitarization of a remote corner of Nicaragua where former guerrillas will settle as pioneer farmers with government aid.
The accord, announced at 1 a.m. after 15 hours of talks, was the first step by President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro’s 10-day-old administration to demilitarize Nicaragua after eight years of war between the U.S.-backed rebels and the previous Sandinista government.
Chamorro agreed to announce a plan to reduce the Sandinista-led army on June 10, the rebels’ deadline for surrendering the last of their rifles, and to put the plan into effect immediately. She promised to guarantee the safety of former rebels and to allow them to form a political party.
But the novelty of the accord was its offer to develop a vast but sparsely populated coastal plain in southeastern Nicaragua for former rebels who fear reprisals by Sandinistas if they disperse to their native towns and villages.
“We are going to build an exemplary society in that area,” said Israel Galeano, the top rebel commander, who like most of his men, is a farmer from the north. “We can adapt to any part of the country, and we will feel better staying together.”
The colonization plan appeared to remove the obstacles to an April 19 peace treaty that arose when Chamorro, taking office six days later, left the army temporarily in the hands of the Sandinista revolutionaries who lost the Feb. 25 vote to her center-right coalition.
Last month’s treaty established a definitive cease-fire in a conflict that has taken nearly 30,000 lives. It obliged the rebels to gather in seven small “safety zones” protected by U.N. peacekeeping troops, and to start disarming on Chamorro’s inauguration day.
By Friday, U.N. officials said, 13,900 rebel soldiers and civilian collaborators had reached the zones, and at least 2,000 more were on the way, but not a one had turned in his weapon.
Saturday’s agreement said that the rebels will start disarming on Tuesday, even though the ultimate size of the army they had fought since 1981 and the future of its Sandinista commander, Gen. Humberto Ortega, will remain unclear for another month.
Galeano, whose failure to sign last month’s treaty had cast doubt on its effectiveness, led the 23-man rebel delegation that took part in the latest talks. “There is a fixed date (for disarming), and we are disposed to comply,” he told reporters after the talks at Managua’s Olof Palme convention center.
Later, in a breakfast interview, the 30-year-old rebel chief who calls himself Comandante Franklin said his main worry all along was not the size of the army nor the permanence of Gen. Ortega but the safety of his Contras.
The new government satisfied that concern, he said, by agreeing to provide land, schools, health clinics, housing materials, farming tools and even new roads to help settle disarmed rebels and their families in the southeast corner of Nicaragua, and to remove the army from the area.
That was an unexpected concession to the rebels. It appeared to offer them a degree of control over roughly 7,300 square miles of timber-rich plains stretching along the Costa Rican border from Lake Nicaragua to the Caribbean Sea and including most of the province of Rio San Juan.
The written accord gave no details of the settlement zone. It said only that “poles of development” will be set up to “satisfy the material needs” of former rebels and that the boundaries would be defined by May 31.
But the plan to colonize Rio San Juan with former Contras was confirmed by rebel and government officials. They said that the area, now inhabited by about 5,000 people, could become home to most of the estimated 50,000 former guerrillas, family members and supporters seeking new homes. Other zones might be set up later.
Roberto Ferrey, a former Contra adviser who is Chamorro’s liaison to the rebel leadership, said that the area will be policed by a locally recruited armed security force, probably dominated by former guerrillas but responsible to the Ministry of Government in Managua.
He said the locally policed zone would probably exclude the towns of San Carlos, San Miguelito and El Castillo, which voted Sandinista in the Feb. 25 election and will be run by Sandinista mayors.
In the rest of the zone, Ferrey said, the government will offer money or land elsewhere to anyone who prefers to leave rather than live among former Contras.
It wasn’t clear whether Chamorro consulted Gen. Ortega, who was not part of the talks, about the decision to withdraw troops from the zone. During two years of peace negotiations, the Sandinista government ruled out any territorial concessions, and the Contras never demanded any.
One exception was a series of peace agreements that allowed Miskito Indian rebels to return to their villages along the northern Caribbean coast and keep their weapons as local self-defense forces under Sandinista army supervision.
Although he denied any ambitions to create a “state within a state,” Galeano spoke with proprietary interest in the future colony, which he said will be named “the Spring of Democracy, or something like that.”
“We’re not going to sit there and wait for food to fall from the sky; we’re going to work,” said Galeano, who wore a camouflage uniform and a U.S. Marine Corps drill hat but no weapon during the talks. “Instead of asking how many men we have for an ambush, people are going to ask how much food we’re producing per acre. We’re going to show we have as much capacity without arms as with arms.
“We’re going to look for direct support from other countries,” he added. “We’re going to build a great city. We’re going to have lots of beaches. In a few years you’ll want to come spend your summer vacation there.”
Government officials said they had commitments of $23 million from the European Community and $30 million from the Bush Administration to pay for Contra resettlement. They said benefits would be available to any former rebel, wherever he chooses to live.