URGENT Sandinista Military in Nicaragua Suffers Desertions
MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) _ Young soldiers have begun to desert from the Sandinista armed forces as the deadline nears for President Daniel Ortega to step down from office, draftees and draftees’ relatives said Thursday.
Ortega was defeated in Sunday’s election by Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, who has promised to abolish the draft after she is inaugurated on April 25. Some deserters are apparently planning to hide out until that happens.
Her office announced meanwhile Thursday that the president-elect will send a special mission to the United States next week to seek economic aid for Nicaragua, ravaged through the years by economic mismanagement and U.S.-imposed sanctions.
It said Francisco Mayorga, 41, who has done postgraduate work at Yale, will head the mission. Mayorga has often been mentioned as possible minister of economy after Mrs. Chamorro takes office for a six-year term.
″It will be an exploratory mission to have an initial picture of what’s needed, which we will combine with offers for aid already arriving from Western Europe and Latin American countries,″ Mayorga told reporters.
He said his team will visit Washington and New York for talks with World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank and International Monetary Fund officials.
Although the leftist Sandinistas agreed to give up power to Mrs. Chamorro and her United National Opposition alliance, they have presented tough demands as transition teams meet to discuss terms.
The Sandinistas want the economic structure they set up left alone; UNO wants to decentralize the economy, privatize state enterprises and free the marketplace.
The Sandinistas also want the military structure left intact, especially if the U.S.-supported Contra guerrillas don’t disband; UNO wants to depoliticize the military and reduce its size.
Both sides want the Contras to disband immediately, but Contra leaders say not until Mrs. Chamorro is inaugurated.
Ortega has insisted on keeping the draft, where soldiers get leftist political indoctrination alongside military training. Mrs. Chamorro wants ″children to go back to school″ and the government to stop ″making a soldier of every child.″
Widespread desertions, as reported on Thursday, could undermine the Sandinista position and the authority of Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, Daniel Ortega’s brother.
Juan Carlos Medina, 18, said Thursday that 40 of 60 young men in his Sandinista air force unit, posted at the main air base at Managua’s international airport, deserted this week.
He said, ″They took our weapons away on Monday and didn’t give them back. Maybe they didn’t trust us.″
″They gave me an unsigned weekend pass. I changed into my (civilian) clothes and just walked off base,″ Medina went on. ″Nobody asked me any questions. But I’m not going back.″
One military source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told The Associated Press that President Ortega had ordered the military not to stop draftees from leaving.
Lt. Col. Rosa Pasos, the Defense Ministry spokeswoman, denied there was an Ortega order along those lines. But she said it was normal to have desertions under the current circumstances.
She added that it was up to commanding officers to decide how to react to the desertions. ″We could, by law, go and get them,″ Ms. Pasos said.
But, she added, no deserters are being chased down because, ″We definitely don’t want to have people who don’t want to be with us,″ she said. ″And anyway, we’re going to reduce the army.″
Medina said he has 11 months to go before completing the two-year compulsory military service for all boys age 16.
″I left because Dona Violeta is going to do away with the service. So, why wait?″ he said.
Maria Antonieta Mendoza said her grandson, 17-year-old Jose Manuel Nunez Lopez, deserted from his Sandinista People’s Army unit in San Nicolas, near the northern city of Esteli.
″He just showed up here last night with nine other boys from his unit,″ said Mrs. Mendoza. ″They had been hitchiking all day. I almost died. I told him, what if they come and kill you?″
Mrs. Mendoza, who said she had raised Nunez since infancy, let him sleep the night, then early Thursday sent him into hiding with friends. He has six months to finish his military service and will turn 18 this month.
″They were treating those boys so badly, making them eat only spaghetti for two weeks and digging tunnels,″ she said.
She said he told her of other desertions in northern Nicaragua, a battle area with the Contras.
Mrs. Mendoza said her grandson told her the officers ″are hiding all the weapons in tunnels. That they’re going to leave only the old weapons for Dona Violeta.″
Witnesses in Juigalpa reported seeing army trucks taking 600 boxes of munitions out of an army depot in Construction Ministry trucks; an army source said they were slated to be hidden at ministry facilities.
Medina said air force officers have said they will not turn their weapons over to the new government.
″They’re saying, ’Let her (Mrs. Chamorro) come and take it away from us.‴
In some military units, officers reportedly have been keeping draftees from leaving even after they completed their two years of service.
″We were supposed to be off on Feb. 2 and they told us they didn’t have our papers ready, but that we’d be out on the 15th,″ said Juan Carlos Avea, 20, stationed at the army’s High Command in Managua.
″Then they told us they still didn’t have our cards ready, that we would be allowed to leave on March 5. We (draftees ) decided to wait until the 5th and if they don’t let us go, we’re leaving.″
Meanwhile, Ortega gave a speech to journalists at Voice of Nicaragua, saying he would fight to keep the station from becoming ″a voice of the government,″ even though it has always been the government radio station.