Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean

NICARAGUA: Aid for Former Combatants Finally Comes Through

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Dec 14 2007 (IPS) - Nearly 17 years after the end of Nicaragua’s civil war, the details of the demobilisation accords are finally beginning to be implemented under the government of leftist President Daniel Ortega, amidst scepticism and hope on the part of former combatants.

The president, who took office in January 2007, established a Commission for Verification, Reconciliation, Peace and Justice in May, made up of government officials, to address the problems of the victims of the 1980s armed conflict. He appointed his long-time critic, Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, to head the commission.

After the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) toppled the brutal 43-year Somoza family dictatorship in 1979, the U.S. government organised and financed the "contra" fighters, who fought the Sandinista government until 1990.

Ortega was elected president for six years in 1984, but lost the 1990 elections. After running unsuccessfully in two more elections, he was reelected in 2006 on a platform of peace and reconciliation.

Nelson Artola, executive secretary of the Verification Commission, told IPS that Ortega was fulfilling the promises of demobilisation and reinsertion in civilian life offered since 1987 to more than 200,000 people directly involved in the armed conflict.

The promises include land, financial assistance and technical advice and training for campesinos (peasant farmers), housing for former combatants, pensions for the disabled, widows and orphans, medical care, priority access to education, free public transportation and facilities for the political or labour organisation of demobilised fighters.

According to official figures, more than 50,000 people were killed in the conflict, and around 50,000 were left disabled, widowed or orphaned.

"For the thousands of direct and indirect victims, the president is struggling to make good on the promises that have been denied them by over 17 years of neoliberal governments," said Artola, citing the benefits that the Ortega administration will deliver to former "contras", retired soldiers and police officers, people left disabled by the war, widows and orphans, and the mothers of sons killed in the conflict.

In October, the government extended the pensions to 21,400 beneficiaries registered in the Nicaraguan Social Security Institute (INSS), with the goal of expanding the number to 25,000 in 2008.

In addition, the pensions will be increased by 150 percent for former combatants with total disability and 100 percent for those with partial disabilities. The pensions of another 7,846 beneficiaries will also be substantially augmented, said the president of the INSS, Roberto López.

Pensions for widows and orphans were expanded to a total of 1,649 people, and benefits were extended to 11,670 mothers of fighters who died in combat.

The INSS also announced that it would revise decisions by previous administrations to revoke the pensions of thousands of people. In addition, benefits from the state will automatically kick in for mothers of combatants killed in the armed conflict, when they turn 60.

Furthermore, the budget earmarked for pensions, to be partly financed with international aid, will be increased by 5.4 million dollars.

An international fund-raising committee will be created to that end, with the aim of incorporating veterans from the 1965-1975 Vietnam War, former South African president and Nobel Peace laureate Nelson Mandela, and presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil.

Artola said that Chávez and Lula have already offered support to the former combatants, by helping to finance social programmes launched by the Nicaraguan government and by studying alternative production projects for demobilised fighters.

This month, the Verification Commission told international diplomats that 70 mixed committees made up of former combatants, victims and their families have been established around the country to help people sign up for the assistance. The Attorney-General’s Office reported that land and land titles have begun to be distributed to demobilised fighters involved in ongoing, violent conflicts over ownership of the former state-run farm of El Timal, to the north of Managua.

Xiomara Mendoza, the mother of a soldier who was killed in combat in 1985 in Matagalpa, was happy to hear the news.

"When my farmer son died, he was 18 years old, and left behind two little babies, who have been sick and hungry. Now, with this aid they will pay for at least a little bit of the suffering we have gone through," she told IPS, crying.

Aníbal Rodríguez Cruz, an indigenous former combatant who wanders around Managua on crutches panhandling, said that "at first they gave me a tiny pension, but then they took it away in 1993."

"Since then I have looked for work, but no one has given me a hand. I hope that now they&#39ll make good on their promises, so that I can at least eat," he told IPS.

But former contra commanders have expressed scepticism about the initiative.

Former contra chief Luis Fley, founder of the Nicaraguan Resistance Party (PRN), acknowledged that in the 1990s, "the pensions and treatment received by the demobilised fighters were measly."

"But when it was in the opposition, the FSLN never tried to help the combatants, and I find it suspicious that they are now starting to organise the neediest just when the 2008 municipal elections are coming up," said Fley, who is now the PRN director of international relations.

Another former contra leader, Óscar Sobalvarro, one of the negotiators in the talks with the Sandinista government, said "no such help actually exists."

"We have contacted our old networks of people, our rural leaders and former combatants, and they have not been called on," said Sobalvarro.

"The men who have appeared on TV as ‘contras’ are not the real thing; they are retired members of the military and a few people who infiltrated our ranks, and who have allied themselves with the FSLN to obtain benefits," he argued.

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