Jose Ramon Hernandez lost his youth in combat and his farm in northern Nicaragua while fighting for the U.S.-backed Contras against Sandinista rule.
After ousting the Sandinistas in last February’s elections, Nicaragua’s conservative leaders achieved a peace settlement by offering Contras like Hernandez a new start. The 30-year-old peasant and thousands of other rebels exchanged their assault rifles last May and June for the promise of new farms and houses in what was to become a privileged resettlement community in the southeastern corner of the country.
Today, the government’s part of the bargain remains unfulfilled. Much to the dismay of 5,000 ex-combatants who languish in hammocks and subsist on international donations, the government is unable to obtain land for them in the new communities.
“I fought nine years so we could have democracy and work in peace, but it was all a waste of time,” Hernandez said. “I gave up my rifle and my ammunition, and here I am without a house, without land, without decent food and full of uncertainty . . . .”
His bitter comments one recent Sunday at a squalid campground in the town of El Almendro were echoed by other idled and ragged counter-revolutionary veterans, some of them drunk, who said they felt abandoned by President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro.
The Contras’ plight is a measure of Chamorro’s inability to satisfy even her staunchest supporters in a politically divided, bankrupt postwar Nicaragua. Not the least of her woes is a greedy scramble for choice farmland as peace increases mobility in the countryside.
United Nations troops reported disarming 19,720 rebels before ending their Nicaraguan peace mission on June 29. Each disarmed Contra became eligible for rice-and-bean rations until December, a change of clothing, farm tools and a $50 start-up grant, paid for by the U.S. Congress and distributed by the Organization of American States.
Encouraged by their leaders to stay intact, about half of the members of disarmed force lined up for resettlement land promised by the government--42,000 acres near Rio Blanco in central Nicaragua and 28,000 acres near El Almendro in the southeast. Both expanses were considered remote enough to keep the ex-rebels free from harm by vengeful Sandinistas or competition from rival settlers.
Security is turning out to be the lesser problem. Of all the disarmed rebels, six have been killed, under circumstances being investigated by the OAS. On the other hand, most former combatants who went to claim land in El Almendro and Rio Blanco found settlers already there.
“They gave us 28,000 acres with 28,000 problems,” said one former rebel.
It’s not clear if the unexpected settlers are squatters sent by the Sandinistas, as rebel leaders contend, or former owners who had been driven out by the war and are returning. In any case, the government has no title records to straighten out the mess. So far, only 200 Contras have been legally resettled and thus made eligible for housing materials. Nearly 6,000 who had hoped to get land have given up and left El Almendro, scattering to live with relatives throughout Nicaragua.
The Contras have formed a political party to lobby for their cause. But government ministers, accusing party leaders of seeking more land than can possibly be acquired, have ignored their demands and are trying to work directly with the rank and file.
“We are the government’s natural allies, but they treat us like enemies,” said party President Oscar Sovalbarro. On the phone recently, he warned Chamorro’s minister for resettlement: “All my men want is a piece of land and they won’t bother anyone. But, if there’s no solution, they will take up arms and go back to the mountains.”
Rebel frustrations nearly exploded last week after 156 disarmed combatants seized an abandoned Sandinista cooperative near El Almendro. As Sandinista-led police officers and army troops headed out to evict them, the Contras rallied 500 villagers to their side. A clash was averted with a negotiated withdrawal of the Contras--and a new promise of land.
“Now that the Contras are disarmed, they are no longer a priority,” said an international official who wonders how many of the idled rebels will eat after December. “I think it would take an armed confrontation for the government to pay enough high-level attention to solve this problem.”