Whose Factory Is It? a Conflict Still Not Ended : Nicaragua: A beverage plant making a popular drink is a battleground in a national struggle--who owns what. Years of civil warfare are to blame.
Buoyed by the election defeat of the Sandinista leaders who had dispossessed them, Oscar and Magelda Campos returned from a decade of exile last year to reclaim the factory producing one of Nicaragua’s favorite beverages.
Armed only with the new government’s ruling in their favor, they marched into the plant with their lawyer to confront the Sandinista union still running it. The union countered by summoning a truckload of club-wielding allies from nearby factories, who helped chase the Campos siblings off.
That was just the opening skirmish. More than a year later, Caracol Industries is still a battleground in Nicaragua’s dominant conflict--the feuding, after 12 years of revolution, guerrilla war and counterrevolution, over who owns what.
The scope of the conflict makes it certain to unsettle Nicaragua’s postwar recovery effort for years to come. It encompasses scores of confiscated companies that President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro inherited from the Sandinista revolutionary government and is trying to privatize, as well as about 40,000 homes and 700,000 acres of land deeded by the Sandinistas to themselves and their followers during their lame-duck days in power.
Former owners have filed thousands of petitions to reclaim property, only to meet fierce and often violent resistance against what the Sandinistas call an effort to re-concentrate the wealth of the pre-revolutionary order.
Chamorro’s government, torn between the goals of legal justice and social peace and too weak to enforce unilateral decisions, has chosen to mediate in search of compromise. But as in many other cases, the dispute over Caracol seems too bitter for a middle ground.
“The change of government in Nicaragua has been halfway,” said Oscar Campos, who hasn’t set foot in the factory since his ill-fated visit of Sept. 25, 1990. “The police, the army and the Supreme Court are still controlled by the Sandinistas, making this government a government of gelatin.”
Rolando Rodriguez, secretary general of the Sandinista union at Caracol, sits in what was once Campos’ office, under a portrait of Sandinista hero Augusto Cesar Sandino, and ticks off the names of several factories that have experienced massive layoffs since being returned to former owners. “That won’t happen here,” he declared. “We’re not giving up this plant.”
The government is now trying to mediate rival claims by the family and the union to full ownership of Caracol. It is a closely watched test case in an increasingly explosive environment.
In August, the National Assembly’s anti-Sandinista majority rebelled against Chamorro’s let-it-lie policy and voted to take back large confiscated homes from Sandinista leaders. Chamorro, worried about Sandinista violence, vetoed the bill as unconstitutional and decreed a compromise requiring the occupants to pay the market value of those homes only if they choose to sell or rent them.
Then former President Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista leader, declared that Nicaraguans had a right to “civic rebellion, including by armed means” to keep the pre-revolutionary bourgeoisie from recovering homes, farms and factories.
A Sandinista-led strike begun Oct. 28 by 8,500 workers has paralyzed five state-run sugar mills slated for privatization, delaying Nicaragua’s sugar harvest. A shootout between Sandinistas and pro-government workers at one mill killed a man and wounded several others. Armed Sandinista workers have recently barred the owners of large farms who have had them legally returned from entering their properties.
With right-wing legislators threatening to override Chamorro’s veto of the housing bill and file terrorism charges against Ortega, Managua erupted in violence Nov. 9. A bomb damaged the mausoleum of Sandinista guerrilla hero Carlos Fonseca Amador, setting off a rampage by his followers, who destroyed the mayor’s office, a dozen municipal trucks and two radio stations.
Carlos Hurtado Cabrera, who as Chamorro’s minister of government oversees the police, said the administration’s caution in the property struggle is dictated by the estimated 80,000 weapons left over from the eight-year Contra war and still in civilian hands.
“There are many people out there who are saying, ‘This AK (assault rifle) is my property title. As long as I have this AK, nobody can evict me from here,’ ” Hurtado said.
A peaceful settlement of the Caracol case, government officials say, could aid the troubled privatization effort. So far, 86 of the 352 companies in state hands when Chamorro took office in April, 1990, have been returned to previous owners, sold or shut down. But officials say the process must be quickened in 1992 to assure a recovery of the war-torn economy.
Among other things at stake in the Caracol dispute is the right to market pinolillo , a uniquely Nicaraguan sweet drink flavored with corn and cacao. It is so popular here that Nicaraguans living abroad beg travelers from home to keep them supplied.
The Caracol plant, in the Pan American Highway industrial corridor of Managua, began as a coffee processor under the Camposes’ late father, then diversified into breakfast cereals and beverages. After the Sandinistas came to power in 1979, the Campos family was harassed by armed Sandinistas and left Nicaragua. Caracol was expropriated in 1980.
Union officials said they found the plant decapitalized and $400,000 in debt. They base their ownership claim on the assertion that employees worked three months without pay and put in 72,000 hours of volunteer overtime to erase the debt and keep Caracol going under Sandinista rule. The Sandinistas also bought a fleet of delivery trucks and expanded the plant.
Chamorro’s aides accepted the Camposes’ claim that the plant lost nearly half its $1-million value under Sandinista control and initially ordered it returned to the family. But they could not oblige police to enforce the ruling. It was up to the Campos siblings to win the workers over, said government negotiator Orlando Arguello, and they failed.
“They just flew in from Miami and demanded the plant back, without acclimatizing to the new realities here,” Arguello said. “They could have been a little more humble.”
And so the battle escalated. The union fired 16 workers who backed the Camposes’ claim. With the government ruling in hand, the Campos family got officials to freeze Caracol’s $71,000 bank account and shut off its phones.
Magelda Campos drove to the border and claimed five truckloads of supplies bound for the plant from Costa Rica. Armed Caracol workers arrived on her heels and hijacked the trucks. The family had the hijackers arrested, but they were quickly freed. Union leaders say the company is being squeezed by a Campos-organized boycott by some suppliers and clients.
The skirmishing has only hardened both sides’ resolve. The union’s 120 workers have ignored Sandinista-led general strikes against government economic policies and have concentrated on production. Union leaders say the plant is barely breaking even.
Last May, the Supreme Court’s Sandinista majority struck down the decree awarding Caracol and hundreds of other properties to former owners. The government, which had to reassume control of those properties, then struck a deal with Sandinista leaders to let privatization go ahead as long as workers could acquire 25% of any affected company.
Talks over Caracol’s status, however, are deadlocked. The government has offered the Campos family 100% of its other confiscated property, the popular Lobo Jack discotheque, in return for full worker control of Caracol.
But the family has yet to accept the deal. And Lobo Jack’s 70 employees, who would get a 25% share of Caracol, are resisting what they call “exile” from the more profitable dance hall.