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JIM LEHRER: Good evening. The government crisis in the Central American nation of Nicaragua appears to be widening and deepening tonight. A general strike gathered momentum with the decision by most small business men to participate; there were clashes in the streets between left-wing anti- government demonstrators and government troops; there were even unconfirmed reports of possible rebellion among the troops themselves. While the political motives vary, all of the activity is aimed at ousting Anastasio Somoza as President of Nicaragua, and it follows last week`s dramatic takeover of the National Palace by twenty-five Sandinista guerrillas. They held more than 1,000 people hostage, releasing them only after Somoza handed over fifty-nine other jailed guerrillas and guaranteed them all safe passage to Panama.
Alan Riding, Central American correspondent for the New York Times, is in the capital city of Managua now, and we have him on the p one or an update on what`s happening right this moment.Yes, Alan, go ahead.
Voice of ALAN RIDING, New York Times: The situation appears to be that the strike has been very effective in provincial cities but less effective in the capital of Managua. I understand that in most of the provincial cities it`s almost one hundred percent successful, while in the capital probably only thirty or forty percent effective.
LEHRER: Alan, what kinds of businesses are still operating? For instance, is public transportation still operating, that kind of thing?
RIDING: Here in Managua I think one could say that visibly things seem to be fairly normal; public transportation is operating, quite a lot of shops are open, many supermarkets are still operating. Probably thirty or forty percent of the stores are closed. What one might remember is that the last strike here in January, which failed to oust President Somoza, also began rather slowly, and in fact a number of business groups are still trying to determine their position at the moment.
LEHRER: There are reports of scattered violence over the country today. Can you give us any feel for how serious these incidents have been?
RIDING: Well, here in Managua things are very quiet; one must emphasize that. In the provinces there are reports of scattered violence in a number of cities, but these are the sort of clashes that have been taking place fairly frequently in the last few months. I understand in Matagalpa and Jinotepe in particular there has been serious outbreak of violence in the last few days. These tend to be clashes between young protestors and national guard officers, but there has been no guerrilla action since last week`s occupation of the palace.
LEHRER: All right. Now, they`re all speaking of the national guard. There`ve been reports today also that the national guard itself might turn on Somoza and stage a military coup. Have you picked up any reports to that effect?
RIDING: Well, there has been a great deal of speculation in recent weeks about the dissatisfaction among the guards about what they feel has been President Somoza`s moderation in dealing with the opposition, and this may have come to a head with the fact that he surrendered to the ransom demands of the guerrillas who occupied the palace last week. We are at the moment gripped by a lot of rumors about an incident in the national guard headquarters last night in which supposedly a number of officers and soldiers were arrested, but we`re waiting for a communique from the national guard to clarify this, and we`re still really just on the point of speculating.
LEHRER: Finally, how has the government itself been reacting to all this activity, to what all this adds up to -- the general strike, the violence in the streets and the rumors and everything? What has the government itself been doing?
RIDING: Well, General Somoza has been acting very calmly; in fact, even after he was forced to accept the demands of the guerrillas last week he did not respond by imposing a state of seige as. many people had predicted. And in fact, in the face of the new strike he has quite calmly wished them luck, he said; and I think his policy is to try and wait it out and hope that many of the businessmen will in fact lose enthusiasm, that maybe squabbles will break out within the opposition itself.
LEHRER: I see. All right; Alan Riding, thank you very much. Tonight, with representatives of the Somoza government and the anti-Somoza opposition plus an expert observer of Nicaraguan affairs, we want to take a look at what the events in Nicaragua may eventually reap. Robert MacNeil is off; Charlayne Hunter-Gault is in New York. Charlayne?
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Jim, Anastasio Somoza is the third member of the Somoza family to serve as President of Nicaragua in the past forty years, and it is the political policies of the so-called Somoza dynasty that have fostered unrest and led to the current upheavals in this Central American nation of more than two and a half million people, Guerrillas of the Sandinista National Liberation Front have waged steady, if uneven, opposition to the regime for more than a decade. They take their name from the Nicaraguan general who died trying to prevent Anastasio`s father from taking power in 1933. Last Tuesday`s seige was their most spectacular assault yet. There had been others, however, including one in 1974, that also led to a multimillion dollar ransom of hostages, a flight to Cuba that time, and the release of jailed compatriots. Somoza`s reaction then had been to declare a state of seige. There followed reports of indiscriminate murder and disappearance of hundreds of peasants. Until then, the United States had considered Somoza a staunch anti-Communist ally.
Over the years the United States has supported the government with military assistance and financial aid, but reports of human rights abuses led the Carter administration to gradually cut such support. Somoza lifted the state of seige last September, but this past January Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, editor of the opposition newspaper, was killed on a Managua street, and the long-simmering hostility to Somoza boiled over -- into anti-government riots and a national strike.
Nicaragua has been boiling, in a near state of civil war, ever since. Jim?
LEHRER: All right, now let`s get a government view of what`s happening from Luis Pallais, editor-publisher of a Nicaragua newspaper, Vice President of the Nicaraguan Chamber of Deputies; he s first cousin of President Somoza. Mr. Pallais was one of the hostages held by the Sandinistas last week, and he served as a key negotiator in working out that final solution.
First, Mr. Pallais, do you think the efforts to oust President Somoza, your cousin, are going to be successful?
LUIS PALLAIS: No, sir, I don`t think so. I think that things will come out properly. The opposition has tried heavily with strikes; they have failed before, they will fail now. And I think that the thing that happened a few days ago with the Frente Sandinista taking over the National Palace will be a possible thing, because now we know they are Marxists, they are Communists, and we know exactly what they want for the country.
LEHRER: How strong is the support for the President himself within the country?
PALLAIS: Well, I will tell you this: you see, people here think about Somozism, but we believe in the Liberal Party. The Liberal Party is a party that cast 750,000 votes in the last election. And not only that, it has been a party very active in the history of Nicaragua since the Independence. The Liberal Party has been responsible for three revolutions, and I think that that has to be taken into consideration very heavily before you talk about politics in our country.
LEHRER: You mean, your position is then that the majority of the people of Nicaragua support President Somoza and his government, meaning you and the others in the government as well.
PALLAIS: Yes. Of course we believe also that lately there`s been Marxism, Communism, more freedom that have been taking all over Latin America. There`s more free talk, and then there`s more active minorities, especially the minority of students and Marxist groups.
LEHRER: What do you think of the possibility of the national guard, the army, staging a coup?
PALLAIS: Well, we hope that it never happens because it would be a twenty- year backward step in our country. But we believe that the national guard has been trained since its foundation to follow the constitution and especially to follow the civil ruling. Even when General Somoza has admitted their men have been present, they have always given a priority to civilian ruling.
LEHRER: The army is reportedly upset over the solution to last week`s seige, the idea that the President gave up to the terrorists. You were involved in those negotiations. Why did he agree to those terms?
PALLAIS: Well, could you imagine what the world would say if you have the whole Chamber of Deputies, the legislative power, being killed? What would the world say if you had 500 people being killed? I was there, I saw them taking the pin of the grenades and saying if the guard comes here we are going to die, all of us. So there might have been a massacre. I feel that a strong element in a democratic government, in the government of General Somoza, could not have taken any other step but what he did. Of course we understand that some military men might be angry and might be resentful because the liberation of sixty prisoners that have caused the killing of military men could have been resented. But the ones that really take action on this are not really human, because that`s why I think it`s a minority, maybe, because the majority of the army people, they are well trained, educated, college graduated -- they might be resenting the freedom of the prisoners but they know that there was no other way out. And another thing is this: all the conditions were not given, as you know; they asked for ten million dollars, only $500,000 were received. They asked for an amnesty, they did not get the amnesty. They asked for 110 prisoners, they got sixty prisoners. They asked also for meeting the demands of a strike (unintelligible) of sixty percent rise; that was not met either. And only they got what they got.
LEHRER: All right; Mr. Pallais, thank you. Charlayne?
HUNTER-GAULT: Now for the view from the opposition. Casimiro Sotelo is a member of the Group of Twelve, a broad coalition of business, labor and religious leaders that has called for the ouster of the Somoza regime.
Mr. Sotelo has just returned to this country after two months in Nicaragua this summer. He lives in San FrAncisco, where he works for an architectural firm. Mr. Sotelo, can you give me your impressions of how the strike is progressing?
CASIMIRO SOTELO: Well, it seems like it is getting strong day by day, and the strike is a manifestation of the people in Nicaragua to show that they are going to fight in a civic way, you know, because we don`t want violence, we want to stop the violence, we want to stop the killing, because everybody knows that for the last forty-four years the Somoza dictatorship has assassinated many people -- campesinos, workers, students, newspapermen -- and this is the way they have stayed in power, by taking a base of operation against the whole country.
HUNTER-GAULT: What do you hope to achieve with this strike?
SOTELO: Well, we are hoping that the Somoza dictatorship will come to a fall, or at least give it a big roll.
HUNTER-GAULT: The strike following the murder of Chamorro last January reached a peak and then it petered out, not achieving the aims you had sought. What`s different about this one?
SOTELO: The difference will be that the huge fortune that the Somoza family has accumulated for the last forty-four years and the innovation for them to stay in power is the national guard.
HUNTER-GAULT: I think my question was, how will this strike be more effective than the previous one you attempted? Is there greater, broader support, or...?
SOTELO: Right. We are hoping that every sector of the country will take part in the strike. Many sectors that didn`t take part in the strike that took place last February will take part this time.
HUNTER-GAULT: What kind of government do you want to see in Nicaragua?
SOTELO: Well, we want to see a national government, a government that will reflect the will of the people; as we all know, the Somoza dictatorship is not in power by the will of the people, because the whole country is against the Somoza dictatorship.
HUNTER-GAULT: Can this broad coalition of businessmen, guerrillas, religious leaders hold together, when some of the guerrillas have called for the ouster of the financial bourgeoisie?
SOTELO: I feel it would have a positive effect, but I think it`s going to take time. Because like I said before, the Somoza family has the national guard to defend their interests.
HUNTER-GAULT: And you don`t have that kind of military strength.
SOTELO: No, we don`t have that. And they call it the national guard, but actually it`s not national, because that army is not at the service of the nation, that guard is at the service of one family, see? And this is what we want to change, too. We want to have an army that will protect the interests of the people.
HUNTER-GAULT: All right. We`ll pursue some of those points now. Jim?
LEHRER: Mr. Pallais, how do you respond to that charge about the national guard, that it serves just the Somoza family?
PALLAIS: Well, first of all, it`s very easy to say this, you know, and Mr. Sotelo mentioned that there`s been forty-four years of the Somoza family. That`s absolutely untrue. In forty-four years there have been eleven presidents in my country. The army follows and obeys the constitution. If they want a national government, I as a liberal propose again, why don`t we converse, why don`t we dialogue, why don`t we try to look for solutions, reform our constitution and the electoral law, reform our electoral law? And then let`s have an election and let`s have the better man and the one that has more people win and be president.
LEHRER: Mr. Sotelo, do you accept his proposal?
SOTELO: Well, Mr. Pallais said that there have been several other presidents. I don`t think that`s the right way to call them. We call them puppets, because the real power has been in the Somozas` family hands.
LEHRER: Well, what about his proposal to sit down and work out a political solution to this problem and try to agree on a government of the future?
SOTELO: That can be done among the opposition organizations, never with the Somoza family, because the only time they gave the people any (unintelligible), they never complied with their promises and the people, they don`t want any more. They don`t want to talk with the Somoza family. They want a liberation. They don`t want anything to do with the Somoza family.
LEHRER: So much for that suggestion, Mr. Pallais. Let me ask you this: what is your assessment, from the Somoza government position, of the opposition that Mr. Sotelo and others represent -- not just his part of it, but now those in the national guard who are upset for different reasons, some students, businessmen -- how do you assess the seriousness of the opposition to the Somoza regime?
PALLAIS: Well, I believe that the opposition has a big problem: they are not united within themselves; they are all divided. They don`t have, let`s say, a leader within themselves. And it`s good to have an opposition; we believe that the opposition makes a better country. What I mean is this: we have to look for practical solutions. You cannot talk about Somoza, let`s talk about constitution, let`s talk about realities. I mean, if you want to solve problems for a country like us, if you want to really do civic things, then let`s converse, you know? Men should talk. And you don`t have to talk to Somoza, we can talk to the Liberal Party. I mean, that`s what we feel. They always say Somoza, Somoza, Somoza. And what about Nicaragua? What about the constitution? What about the reality of our people? Let`s think on what`s truthful.
LEHRER: Mr. Sotelo, how about that?
SOTELO: Well, the constitution has been changed many times to adjust to the Somozas` family interest.
LEHRER: Well, let me ask you the other point that Mr. Pallais made, that you people have no leadership, you`re not united.
SOTELO: Well, the Group of the Twelve went to Nicaragua last July fifth, and the people of Nicaragua gave us a big welcome. There were over 250,000 people at the airport, and I think the people are behind the Group of the Twelve.
LEHRER: Who`s in charge of the opposition?
SOTELO: Who`s in charge?
SOTELO: Well, I would say the Group of the Twelve has, I would say, the leader of the opposition.
LEHRER: I see. All right, thank you. Charlayne? I`m sorry, Charlayne, it`s still me. Now let`s get the perspective of an interested but uninvolved observer, and he`s Richard Millett, professor of Central Ameri can history at Southern Illinois University, and he`s the author of. many articles and books on Nicaragua and the Somoza government specifically. Now that I`ve got myself organized, Dr. Millett, you`ve been following this story very carefully. How would you characterize the U.S. government position on what`s happening in Nicaragua?
Dr. RICHARD MILLETT: Well, I think the U.S. government is highly concerned, from my conversations with various officials -- and a bit frustrated. The U.S. effort is to keep a rather low profile on the whole thing; we have certainly tried to move away from the previous close embrace with the Somozas. Previous ambassadors were known to be seen constantly in the company of Somoza, to play poker with him; one was even known as Somoza`s shadow. The current ambassador, Mauricio Solaun, has been strictly correct, has avoided having his picture taken with him; it`s been an effort to promote a dialogue, but as the two sides just made apparent, there really is very little basis for negotiation between their positions.
LEHRER: Well, President Somoza said just in the `Last couple of days in an interview that the United States` position, this changing position that you just outlined, in some ways has contributed to the violence and the turmoil in Nicaragua, that this has given fruit to the opposition to be a little more bold than they would have been if the United States had hung in there with Somoza. Is that a correct position?
MILLETT: There is some slight truth in it. It certainly would encourage the opposition to realize that the United States is not determined to forcibly maintain the Somoza family in power. But 1 think that the causes are inherently within Nicaragua, the kinds of things you find when any group has been in power as long as the Somozas have. They grow a lot out of resentment, especially out of the handling of earthquake relief funds and the entire reconstruction effort, massive charges of corruption against the Somozas and the Guardia Nacional; and they come out of the changing world image. The Somoza dynasty, in many ways, looks like an anachronism in the world today, something left over from the nineteenth century, almost.
LEHRER: Let`s talk about the opposition for a moment. We heard Mr. Pallais and Mr. Sotelo just now describe the opposition in different terms. Is Mr. Pallais right, is the opposition, from your perspective, not very united and not well led at this point?
MILLETT: I`d say that the truth falls between the two positions. The Group of Twelve, Las Doce as they call them -- although there`s less than twelve of them now -- are certainly the most prominent, but there are ideological divisions. They are united in opposition to the Somozas, united in determination to end the rule of the family. I don`t think they are as united in any vision of what should come next, and this is perhaps one of the problems in resolving the problems within the country.
LEHRER: What is your analysis of the dialogue we all just heard between Mr. Pallais and Mr. Sotelo in terms of looking ahead to where a dialogue might begin to try to resolve the political problems of Nicaragua?
MILLETT: I think there`s just profound distrust, with historical reasons. In the past the Somoza family has sought, usually successfully, to divide the opposition, to give some concessions to one group; has used a dialogue as a means of, in many ways, perpetuating its own power and influence. And I think the opposition would like to see a guarantee not just that the current president will not be a candidate for reelection but that he and his family, for example, would leave all posts within the military. Perhaps if you had that kind of a guarantee to begin with and some immediate changes in the cabinet -- some bringing in of opposition members into cabinet positions -- that might start something rolling. But at the moment there`s very little basis.
LEHRER: Okay. Charlayne, it really is your turn now.
HUNTER-GAULT: (Laughing.) Okay, thanks, Jim. Let`s just pursue a point that Jim raised with Dr. Millett about President Somoza`s statement that the United States had triggered some of the violence. What is your attitude about U.S. policy in Nicaragua?
SOTELO: Well, I don`t think that the United States has triggered the violence, I think that the Somoza dictatorship is the one that has triggered all the violence in the country. For forty-four years they have committed every crime, every possible crime. They assassinate the campesinos, students, workers; right now they cannot answer for the disappearance of over 3,000,campesinos in the country. Last week when the Sandinista guerrillas took over the National Palace, they asked for the release of all the political prisoners, and they got only fifty-nine or sixty political prisoners. But there are another twenty-one political prisoners that they wouldn`t free because they have notes Cunintelligible). So now we wonder, where are they? What did they do to them?
HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Let`s pursue this point on the U.S. policy with Mr. Pallais. How do you feel about U.S. policy toward Nicaragua, Mr. Pallais?
PALLAIS: Well, I feel that the United States has followed the same policy that you should have followed with a "friendship government. You have to know that Nicaragua has been a very good friend to the United States; we have been put in very tough positions in the past, not because the Nicaraguan government wanted it but because the United States put us into it -- let`s say like against Guatemala with the Arbenz government and against Cuba with the invasion of Bay of Cochinos. But you know, there`s our problem: we are anti-Communism. And the guerrillas that took the National Palace, I talked to them for two and a half hours. And they really don`t want anything. They just want Marxism for Nicaragua, complete rupture of our structures. I don`t know if the Group of the Twelve, which now, I think, are seven or six -- I don`t know how many they are -- and Mr. Sotelo, who hasn`t been in Nicaragua for twenty-eight years, will want to help the country to go to Marxism or to just talk. Everything can happen if you converse; everything can be done if you civically try to look for a solution.
HUNTER-GAULT: Dr. Millett, what do you think the United States government should do at this point, if anything?
MILLETT: Again, I think our options are very limited. Nicaragua is a situation where the United States has a fair amount to lose by continued and escalated violence but has very little to gain, politically or inter nationally. I think the interesting thing is that other countries in Latin America seem to be getting involved. The guerrillas this time did not fly to Cuba, they flew to Panama, and they flew, among other things, upon a Venezuelan Air Force plane. The Venezuelans have been getting increasingly involved, putting increasing pressure on the Somoza government, I think because there`s many who are looking for a solution, a change of government which will not be Marxist but will represent nevertheless a basic move away from the Somoza dynasty.
HUNTER-GAULT: Okay, thank you. We have to stop there. Jim?
LEHRER: Yes, well at least Mr. Sotelo and Mr. Pallais talked for a few minutes tonight.Thank you very much, Mr. Sotelo, and good night, Charlayne. Gentlemen here, thank you very much. We`ll see you tomorrow night. I`m Jim Lehrer. Thank you and good night.
The MacNeil/Lehrer Report
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The main topic of this episode is Nicaragua. The guests are Luis Pallais, Richard Millett, Casimiro Sotelo, Alan Riding. Byline: Jim Lehrer, Charlayne Hunter-Gault
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