The GREAT CONCILIATOR : President Violeta Chamorro Reconciled Nicaragua's Warring Armies. But Can She Deliver Anything Else?

Richard Boudreaux is the Managua bureau chief for The Times.

ON INDEPENDENCE DAY, last Sept. 14, the leader of war-weary Nicaragua staged a ceremonial farewell to arms. With a deafening clatter, 15,000 rusting automatic rifles slid from 10 dump trucks into a pit dug along the shoulder of the Pan American Highway in Managua. With funereal solemnity, President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro tossed red flowers one by one onto the guns, and concrete poured from a hose to seal the giant tomb.

"We are burying these weapons so that peace can shine in our country," Chamorro declared. The U.S.-backed Contras had surrendered their weapons after an eight-year insurgency. The Sandinista army, now under her orders, was trimming ranks and collecting guns from its civilian supporters. "Here," she told the TV cameras, "we will build an enormous monument for peace, to show the world that Nicaraguans want no more bloodshed."

For such a hopeful milestone, the setting was bleak. On either side of the highway, weed-covered lots and the hulks of buildings testified to the poverty of a capital city unable to rebuild since the 1972 earthquake. From the slums amid the ruins, about 200 onlookers had gathered to watch the show. They listened impassively, offering restrained applause.

Then, after Chamorro led the singing of the national anthem and turned to leave, the audience suddenly came alive. As she walked away, they converged on her, shouting affectionate saludos and desperate appeals--for jobs, medicine, better housing, cheaper food. "Thank God we have peace, Dona Violeta, but when can we eat?" cried a young woman wearing a torn dress and holding the hand of her barefoot child.

Chamorro never stopped. Smiling and waving behind a line of aides and security guards, she ducked into her chauffeur-driven Volvo and rode away.

The ceremony and its aftermath provide a telling glimpse of the woman who last February became the first Nicaraguan president chosen in open, competitive elections. Nearly a year after upsetting incumbent Daniel Ortega of the Sandinista National Liberation Front with 55% of the vote, Chamorro is still popular among Nicaragua's 3.7 million people as the conciliatory mother figure who ended their deadliest war. Yet, in a nation plagued by poverty and political instability, she seems maddeningly aloof, without meaningful solutions to any postwar problem.

Now her government appears adrift in a storm of hardships and criticism. Chamorro has chosen to rule by preaching a single guiding principle--national reconciliation--which has brought her into collaboration with the Sandinistas while her own 14-party coalition, the National Opposition Union, howls in protest. She has been unable to stem increasing crime and feuds over farmland as idled soldiers from both sides scramble to make a living. The long recession inherited from a decade of Sandinista rule refuses to end. And as the battle against inflation has stripped away price subsidies, the poor have gotten poorer.

And Dona Violeta can only offer hope:

"The people believe that I have a wand of virtue, and that, like Aladdin and his lamp, I can make everything marvelous. They have to understand that I received a country in bankruptcy . . . a disaster. But I do not lose hope that this country, in a year, or two years, or three years, is going to be completely better. We Nicaraguans put up with 50 years of dictatorships. . . . We have to have a little patience, no?"

WELCOMING a visitor to her second-floor office in the downtown skyscraper Casa Presidencial, the 61-year-old Chamorro is eager to show how she has brought the room to life since Ortega's departure. "He left it empty except for a beat-up desk and four rocking chairs," she says, her brown eyes scanning the space warmed by potted plants from her garden. There are 12 rockers now, for informal meetings, and a long table for Cabinet sessions. Ortega's desk was replaced after a rough edge tore the president's dress. So were the violet chair cushions that she suspects Ortega had installed as a joke on her name. Photos of Pope John Paul II and her late husband, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, now adorn the walls, beside crucifixes and framed newspaper headlines proclaiming her election.

With equal attention to style, Chamorro is trying to put her stamp on public life and government in Nicaragua. Black tie has replaced the tropical guayabera at official receptions, widening the fashion gap in a country where thousands of combat veterans have nothing to wear but tattered olive fatigues. Secretaries at Casa Presidencial no longer sport miniskirts or address visitors as companero , the preferred Sandinista greeting, but as senor or senora . And the Roman Catholic Church, treated with coolness and suspicion by the agnostic Ortega, is back in the mainstream.

Chamorro has dispensed with reviewing the troops at public ceremonies and tried to say no to bodyguards. When aides insisted on some protection for her, she agreed to have only four guards at once. She forbids her chauffeur to run stoplights or use a siren. Arriving at Managua's airport after one trip, she chose to wait in line with ordinary travelers to clear immigration and customs.

But the historic novelty of Chamorro's rule is its emphasis on dialogue and negotiation, rather than armed force, to settle disputes. This retreat from Nicaragua's winner-take-all tradition stems from her vision of "one Nicaragua for all" but is also dictated by political reality: Sandinista officers, who won a guerrilla war to oust Anastasio Somoza Debayle in 1979 and then dissolved his National Guard, still control the army and the police.

Most people who meet her are impressed by her ability to reach across the political divide--to her own Sandinista children, who frequently drop in for Sunday dinner, or to total strangers. "She is trying to change the political culture, and that is more revolutionary than anything the Sandinistas ever attempted," says a U.S. official.

Antonio Lacayo, who as minister of the presidency serves as his mother-in-law's chief of staff, helped shape her strategy and articulates it best. "The historic error of this country," he says, "is that the government of the day ran the country for itself and its people and repressed its enemies with confiscation, jail and exile. The best thing Dona Violeta can do is break this cycle. Nicaraguans like strong governments. The temptation to punish the loser is in our blood. But it would be ridiculous to repeat a history that should be left in the past. If we cannot agree on the future, then our country won't have one."

Campaigning on that theme, Chamorro won a six-year term and immediately abolished military conscription. She peacefully disarmed the 17,000-member Contra force and persuaded the 96,000-member Sandinista military to cut its ranks to 28,000, turning Central America's biggest army into one of its smallest in less than a year.

But Chamorro's brand of reconciliation has not brought peace politically. Though her coalition, known as UNO, commands a majority in the National Assembly, Sandinistas retain power in the trade unions and the bureaucracy and often use it disruptively. In much of rural Nicaragua, armed Sandinistas remain the only law. Exiled businessmen returning to recover property taken by the former government are shocked, even after a personal welcome from the president, to hear themselves vilified by the media still in Sandinista hands. Hard-line supporters of Chamorro have seized highways, bridges and police stations to protest the Sandinistas' lingering clout.

The tensions have brought growing disillusion with Chamorro's government. A nationwide opinion survey in August, conducted by a Sandinista organization, gave the president a 67% approval rating--similar to the figure claimed by the government on the basis of its own unpublished surveys. Yet, in the published survey, a majority said that health conditions and access to land had deteriorated since she took office. And only 39% said Chamorro was "capable of governing."

IN HER FIRST THREE months in office, Chamorro's politics of conciliation were put to the test by three separate crises. In one case, the president proved to be a persuasive negotiator and a woman of vision. In the others, she was perceived as a rag doll, tugged helplessly between rival factions and incapable of hardball politicking.

The first test came the night before her April 25 inauguration. Chamorro decided to retain as army commander Gen. Humberto Ortega, Daniel Ortega's brother and the symbol of Sandinista military might. Lacayo, and two other aides were the only supporters of the move, which brought quiet opposition from the Bush Administration and vehement protest from UNO leaders gathered at her home. Throughout the evening, Chamorro kept her thoughts to herself. Later, a spokesmen portrayed the decision as a carefully calculated gamble that might neutralize Sandinista opposition to her rule.

But according to accounts by Daniel Ortega and two members of the Chamorro Cabinet, the president-elect waffled under conflicting pressures. First, she caved in to the leaders of her coalition, left the gathering and went to Humberto Ortega's headquarters with Lacayo to fire the general. Then she was talked out of that decision in a showdown.

"The people are fed up with the Ortegas," she told the general, according to one Cabinet official. "You must go."

No, Humberto Ortega reportedly replied, perhaps knowing that Lacayo would side with him. The army commander would abide by the constitution and submit to her authority, but he would not resign, not now. "It would create turmoil," he warned. "Nobody could control it."

"She was blackmailed," says the other Cabinet official. "He threatened violence. It was a coup."

Chamorro declines to comment on the meeting. She repeats her inauguration day promise that Humberto Ortega's mission--to halt military conscription, reduce the army, disarm the country--is temporary and will end whenever she pleases.

Such assurances did not impress the Contras, who had fought not only to change the government but to defeat the Sandinista military as well. After Chamorro's election, rebels had closed their base camp in Honduras and marched into Nicaragua, ready to surrender their weapons to United Nations peacekeeping forces. But they balked at news of Humberto Ortega's appointment. The sudden prospect of renewed fighting created a new crisis for the president.

In the weeks of bargaining and bluffing that led to the rebel army's demobilization in late June, Chamorro presided over talks in Managua. She greeted each rebel negotiator with an embrace and a kiss and sat through two rounds of all-night talks; after one session, she had everyone to her house for breakfast. This time, the woman who had brooded silently over the power of a Sandinista general was articulate about what she wanted: The Contras had won the political battle; now they had to take the first step to demilitarize Nicaragua.

"Dona Violeta played the role of the mother anguished to death over her children," says Emilio Alvarez, a Conservative politician who was there. "She addressed the Contras as mis muchachos and asked them to do (this) for their country."

Chamorro was, say the Contra leaders, the only one whom they could trust. Lacayo and Humberto Ortega negotiated security arrangements for the rebels, but it was Chamorro who persuaded the Contra leaders to accept them in exchange for food, housing materials and farms for resettlement. "Dona Violeta clearly assumed her responsibility for our safety," says the top rebel commander, Israel Galeano. "So we decided to take this important step."

Less than two weeks after declaring the war over, Chamorro awoke on a Monday to find new battles raging in Managua. Militant Sandinista unionists, fighting for their government jobs, had torn up paving stones all over town to enforce a general strike. To her dismay, UNO activists and former Contras confronted them. Gunfire crackled across burning barricades, and anarchy reigned. Four people were killed.

For the first time, Nicaraguans worried that Chamorro was in danger of being overthrown. It quickly became evident that police could not or would not clear the streets. Only the army could save her, but would it?

The president huddled with Lacayo that day and ordered Humberto Ortega to call out the troops. The army complied, with timid force. Not until Wednesday did the strikers retreat--as did Chamorro, who initially had refused to negotiate with them. Later, her government abandoned a plan to fire 15,000 public employees.

Chamorro's advisers say the gamble on Humberto Ortega's loyalty paid off, that his deployment of Sandinista-trained troops against Sandinista protesters not only restored order with a minimum of bloodshed but also deepened divisions in the opposition party.

But to many people in Managua, the president had lost. Her dependence on Humberto Ortega was apparent, as was the Sandinista unions' veto power over her economic policy. Her low public profile and private outbursts of insecurity during the strike did little to boost confidence in her leadership. Alarmed members of her coalition summoned her and asked who was really in charge.

It was her most humiliating moment of the crisis, says a sympathetic politician who attended the stormy coalition meeting. "I know you think that I'm a stupid old lady, that I'm being manipulated, that I'm betraying you," he quotes her as saying. "Well, I'm sorry you feel that way."

TO THOSE who know Violeta Chamorro, her struggles and her successes have come as no surprise. She has lived most of her life at the center of Nicaraguan politics and yet never become a politician.

Violeta Barrios grew up on a sprawling cattle ranch in southern Nicaragua. One of seven children in a rich, conservative family, she had a carefree childhood. Her father sent her to a Catholic school in San Antonio, Texas, and to Blackstone College in Southside, Va.

But her father's death in 1948 brought her back to Nicaragua, and she never completed her studies. Instead, at age 19, she met Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, an intense young man from Managua who would become publisher of his family's newspaper, La Prensa, and the outstanding opposition leader of his generation. She became his wife, mother of his four children and loyal companion during his crusade against the Somoza dynasty, which had dominated Nicaragua since 1936. During a 27-year marriage punctuated by her husband's frequent imprisonments and exile, Chamorro remained more a helpmate than a co-conspirator.

On Jan. 10, 1978, three gunmen presumably working for Somoza ambushed Pedro Chamorro's car on a Managua street and fatally shot the publisher. The assassination thrust Pedro's popular mantle upon Dona Violeta and plunged Nicaragua into a decade of nearly uninterrupted warfare.

The Sandinistas, a weak rural insurgency, quickly took charge of an anti-Somoza insurrection in the cities. Chamorro's older daughter, Claudia Lucia, and her younger son, Carlos Fernando, joined the Sandinistas, and the family contributed $50,000. With growing support from upper-class Nicaraguans chafing under Somoza's corruption, the rebels pleaded with Dona Violeta to lend her name and newspaper to the cause. She couldn't say no.

In July, 1979, Somoza fled the country and took refuge in Miami. In the free-for-all that followed, the honored lady of the revolution proved to be a political lightweight. She served on the first government junta but quit after nine months, citing health problems while complaining privately that the Sandinistas were denying any real power to the junta, expanding their victorious army and creating a Cuban-inspired Marxist state. "I felt like a puppet," she recalls.

As Chamorro turned her attention to publishing La Prensa, the growing debate over the Sandinistas' course divided her staff, her family and the country. Xavier Chamorro, her slain husband's brother, left in 1980 to start a pro-Sandinista newspaper, El Nuevo Diario, while Carlos Fernando became editor of Barricada, the official Sandinista party paper. Dona Violeta quickly made La Prensa the leading anti-Sandinista voice, aided by her two other children, Pedro Joaquin Jr. and Cristiana, and Cristiana's new husband, Antonio Lacayo. Sandinistas defaced Chamorro's home with graffiti and accused her of treason. The government closed her newspaper several times, calling it a mouthpiece for the Contra army being trained and funded by the Reagan Administration. Fleeing death threats, Pedro Joaquin Jr. moved to Miami in 1984 and later joined the Contras' political leadership. Dona Violeta hung on to fight.

But she let others present her ideas in the paper's editorials. And although she was easily the most popular opposition figure in Nicaragua, she remained aloof from politics--always more at ease expounding her husband's unfulfilled dreams of a democratic revolution based on free expression and free enterprise than offering ways to achieve them.

That proved to be an asset. In September, 1989, after a Central American peace plan had prompted the Sandinistas to schedule elections, leaders of 14 opposition parties met to pick a challenger to Daniel Ortega. Ranging from Communists to Conservatives, the politicians realized that only an outsider--this martyr's widow and matriarch of a divided family--could hold their fractious coalition together. Says her brother-in-law, Jaime Chamorro: "We were not looking for someone who could run the country but someone who represented the ideal (of democracy)."

Chamorro let the coalition write her platform and had Lacayo run her campaign. At every campaign stop, she invoked the memory of her husband, even claiming that he still spoke to her. "I am not a politician," she would say, "but I believe this is my destiny. I have to do this for Pedro and for my country."

DURING her campaign, Chamorro dismissed the notion that she was incompetent to lead Nicaragua. "There's no need to study how to govern a country," Chamorro said. "I have accepted the challenge to revive this country with love, peace, and according to the dictates of my conscience."

Questions about her competence, however, won't go away. After her election, she plunged into an executive routine--dedicating public works, chairing lengthy Cabinet meetings, peppering her ministers with questions. But even the routine has been puzzling and awkward for her.

The most basic facts about the government sometimes escape the president. Once she called Rene Vivas, the Sandinista chief of police, seeking the emergency admission of a family friend to the Military Hospital, which, as most people in Managua know, is run by the army. Sorry, not my department, Vivas told her. "Oh," she replied, according to an adviser who heard the conversation. "I thought the police and the army were all the same thing."

When Chamorro speaks from a text, she comes across like a gray-haired schoolmarm, rarely peeping over her half-moon spectacles. Her handlers encourage her to speak from the heart in her folksy manner, only to cringe at her slips of the tongue. To a man who complained that Nicaraguans were starving to death, she replied: "Yes, but they will die in a democracy!"

Press aides hustle her away from reporters to avoid embarrassment, but sometimes there's no escape. Sitting with four other Central American presidents before her first summit meeting in June, Chamorro was asked for her ideas on regional economic integration. "Well," she stammered, "the problem that we have . . . ," looking around for Enrique Dreyfus, who was just then entering the room. "Enrique!" she exclaimed with relief. "Here we have the foreign minister of Nicaragua, who will answer you."

When the going gets tough, Chamorro often clams up altogether. In November, elected mayors and other UNO hard-liners in southeastern Nicaragua blocked the main east-west highway to demand removal of Sandinista soldiers from the region. Chamorro took her Cabinet to meet with the protesters, but her ministers fielded all the complaints and announced a compromise that included closing some army bases. She took copious notes during the two-hour discussion, looking more like a secretary than a president, and limited herself to a final brief appeal for "better communication" in the future.

Such performances raise the question: Who is really running Nicaragua? The answer often appears to be the man who does most of the talking: Antonio Lacayo.

At a celebration of Private Enterprise Day in September, held at a palm-shaded country club, Chamorro got a polite reception from the country's conservative business elite. But after her speech, it was Lacayo who moved among the businessmen, listening intently to their complaints about the government's slowness to return property confiscated by the Sandinistas. Dona Violeta withdrew to a table with 14 other women--all longtime friends, some of them mothers or aunts of the men in her Cabinet. For two hours that warm afternoon she relaxed, told jokes, swapped bits of gossip. "Her mind needed a rest, so we didn't talk politics," says Julia Portocarrero Reyes, who sat next to the president.

While Chamorro's spokesmen like to portray her as a strong-willed woman, they cannot remember a single important decision she made over the objections of her son-in-law. Lacayo, 43, has been a pillar of support to Chamorro since her husband's death, when he was engaged to Cristiana. As political conflicts distanced the widow from three of her children, he "became Violeta's loyal son," says Alvarez, the Conservative politician and a family friend.

The Chamorro campaign was Lacayo's first venture into politics. A tall, stone-faced engineering graduate of Georgia Tech and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he had previously managed a thriving cooking-oil partnership with the Sandinista government. Traditional party leaders consider him intelligent and efficient but secretive and authoritarian.

While Chamorro is credited with trying to bury the politics of revenge in Nicaragua, her son-in-law is often accused of perpetuating its tradition of rule by the few. He has alienated the UNO electoral alliance by excluding party leaders from an inner circle dominated by technocrats and members of the extended Chamorro clan.

Lacayo and UNO have opened a new chapter in Nicaragua's rich history of political betrayal--a vice president in rebellion against the government. Virgilio Godoy, who lost the UNO nomination to Chamorro and ended up No. 2 on the ticket, has criticized her for breaking her pledge to clear major decisions with the UNO political council. His protests have cost him; he has no budget from the government--no vehicle, no bodyguards, no secretary, not even a desk.

Furthermore, Lacayo's periodic one-on-one meetings with Humberto Ortega--dating to the post-election period when they hammered out an accord permitting an orderly transition of government--is a source of suspicion among UNO leaders who claim that Lacayo and the Sandinistas have a "secret pact" to "co-govern" the country. Lacayo denies this.

"We have seen a change of government but not a change of power," Godoy says, idling in his cramped party office. "I'd like to think that Dona Violeta wants better relations with us, but she is blocked by an adviser who was not elected."

Chamorro bristles at suggestions that she is not in charge. "I answer to nobody," she insists. "I am taking the reins of the country. . . . I only make pacts with God. Antonio Lacayo has certain control, but the weight behind his decisions comes from me. I give my ideas, and they are executed. Definitively! And if we are not in agreement, he might say, 'Look, I don't like this or that.' But nobody governs me. I make the first decision and the last."

MANY Nicaraguans say they are willing to let Violeta be Violeta--no one expected a polished orator, an adept politician or an efficient administrator. They welcomed her as a peacemaker, hoping the war's end would make life better. As a symbol of that hope, she is the last to be faulted for the country's enduring poverty. "People see Violeta as magical. She is magically exempt from blame," says Ana Maria Ruiz, who covers the president for La Prensa. "They don't want her to fail."

Oscar Rene Vargas, a Nicaraguan sociologist and political commentator, likens Chamorro's image to that of the Virgin Mary, the most powerful religious symbol in a country where 90% of the people call themselves Catholic. Vargas contends that Chamorro's aides cultivated that image during the campaign after she fractured her right knee in a fall at her home. They dressed their candidate in white, with touches of blue, and paraded her around in a wheelchair on the back of a pickup truck under a white canopy. "The identification was perfect: Dona Violeta, the suffering and valiant mother," Vargas wrote in a post-election analysis. "It wasn't necessary for her to say much. The Virgin doesn't speak; her image, her apparition, is enough."

Whether or not Nicaraguans made that link consciously, Vargas' point is that symbolism is enormously important to this bitterly divided society. And that might explain why Chamorro, as president, is content to play a symbolic healing role. But among the adoring crowds these days are more despairing people who demand that she listen to their problems and more concern that she is doing nothing.

One poignant appeal came June 27, her proudest day as president. Standing in front of the pink church in San Pedro de Lovago, a small town in what was once a war zone, she personally disarmed the last of the Contras. A brass band played, and a buffet lunch was served.

Speaking to the crowd, Chamorro looked comfortable. Then a small group of women changed her mood by holding up photographs of young men, presumably captured or forcibly recruited by the Contras and never heard from again. One woman shouted: "If this is democracy, Violeta, where is my son?"

A leader seeking to mend war wounds might have taken the opportunity to find out who these missing men were and promise a search that might end the anguished uncertainty. Instead, Chamorro offered a brief sermon that shut the door. "Have faith," she told the women, "because death is something that, when God decides, you go, you die. But have faith, so that we can continue living in Nicaragua without hatred, so we can rebuild the country."

To poor people, who ambush her at every turn, Chamorro's explanation for the country's economic woes is equally terse--blame the Sandinistas. "Dona Violeta," pleaded a 12-year-old boy outside a hospital in Jinotepe, "make prices go down. Everything is so expensive." Smiling, the president shot back: "Go tell Daniel Ortega. He's the one who left us bankrupt."

Indeed, the Sandinista decade of armed conflict and failed socialism set living standards back to levels of the 1930s. Along with a legacy of hyper-inflation exceeding 100% a month and 40% unemployment, Chamorro inherited an $11-billion foreign debt, a bureaucracy spending $25 million a month more than it took in and $3 million in the Central Bank.

UNO offered a simple formula for recovery: Chamorro would stop the war, end most economic controls and sell off inefficient state companies. The resulting revival of private investment, along with massive aid from Nicaragua's "democratic friends," would do the trick. Francisco Mayorga, president of the Central Bank and Chamorro's economic guru, announced that the "shock therapy" of painful public spending cuts and layoffs, a traditional way of jump-starting deficit-ridden Third World economies, would not be necessary. New private money would create jobs and shrink the state, he said; inflation would be gone within 100 days.

But the UNO formula turned out to be little more than a handful of well-intentioned goals in search of a well-reasoned program for achieving them. Early on, Mayorga managed to reduce the monthly deficit to $7 million and monthly inflation to 30%. Without layoffs, however, his battle against inflation could go no further. The plan also met with too much Sandinista opposition and not nearly enough Western aid. When Mayorga decided he had no choice but to cut the public payroll, the Sandinistas blocked him with strike threats. In October, he was forced to resign, leaving policy in disarray.

"We still don't have an economic program," a presidential adviser admitted late last year. The problem, he said, can be traced back to the election: Chamorro's aides were unprepared to win; not until the night before her inauguration did they throw together a Cabinet, and the top people on the economic side had no experience working together. "There's a failure somewhere, a lack of coordination," the adviser said. "The government is still trying to find its way."

Nicaraguans often wonder whether Chamorro really understands how hard life has become since she took office. Her public appearances are upbeat, festive and brief. "Our president is creating a culture of festivals. Or circuses," wrote Daniel Ortega's wife, Rosario Murillo, last September in El Nuevo Diario. "We marvel at her punctual appearance at whatever party is being given in Nicaragua, moving from one to another in uninterrupted merriment, while starving people are merely the backdrop for film clips and photographs."

Daniel Ortega, who as president held a televised encounter called "Face the People" nearly every week with a different pressure group, is more to the point in his criticism. "This government lacks fluid communications with the people on the economic situation," he said in an interview. "This has created an enormous void, enormous insecurity and instability."

BERTA VEGA, who peddles cleaning fluid in Managua, voted for Chamorro on faith. She was tired of living in a shack and sending her boys to war. One son, a Sandinista soldier, had been maimed; another was nearing draft age.

Chamorro's election inspired Vega, along with hundreds of others squeezed by a housing shortage, to take the boldest step of her life: She joined a group that seized a vacant municipal lot beside the U.S. Embassy, divided it into parcels, built bigger shacks and petitioned the new government for the right to buy the land. "I thought Violeta, as a woman, as a mother, would understand," Vega says.

Today, the wrinkled 49-year-old street merchant, who has seven children and grandchildren to feed, feels poorer and more unsettled. "We are no longer suffocated by the draft," she concedes. "But look how prices have gone up. Sometimes we have enough to eat; sometimes we don't. My sales have gone down cruelly." The mayor has talked of moving everyone on the lot to new housing across town--too far, Vega says, from her hard-earned clients. Rumors of a bulldozer-style eviction keep her awake at night.

"If the senora would just come here for an hour and listen to our needs, I assure you that everyone would be overjoyed," Vega tells a visitor on the same drizzly afternoon the president was burying weapons a mile away. "Daniel Ortega gained a lot of sympathy because he met with the people everywhere. He was in my neighborhood. Everyone talked with him, drew close to him, touched him."

As rain splatters through openings in her tin roof, muddying the dirt floor, the woman tries to imagine Chamorro in her squatters' colony and shakes her head.

"With Violeta, it's like thinking of Jesus. I have Jesus in my mind, but I can't see him. Don't you think I wouldn't like to touch Jesus, talk with him? That's how badly I want to talk with Violeta. But I am poor. I know that she isn't going to come here. She's from the cradle of wealth. . . . Well, I don't blame her. She has so many problems in the rest of the country."

So has she lost hope in Dona Violeta?

"Ah, no!" she exclaims. "In Nicaragua, hope is the last thing the poor ought to lose."

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