Newspaper magnate, publicist, anti-Somoza leader, and titular head of the United National Opposition, Violeta Barrios de Chamorro (born 1930) was also the first woman president of Nicaragua (1990).
Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, known to friends and supporters as "Doña Violeta," was born in the rural southern Nicaraguan town of Rivas in 1930. One of seven children of a wealthy ranching family distinguished for its contributions to Nicaraguan politics, Violeta Barrios as a young girl lived an idyllic, protected life in the countryside where she early became an accomplished equestrian. In her childhood years Nicaragua was wracked by civil war, beset by United States military intervention, shocked by the murder of nationalist hero César Augusto Sandino, and crushed by the ascension of Anastacio Somoza to dictatorial power in 1936.
As a teenager, she was sent to the United States to broaden her education and learn English. She attended a Catholic girls' school in San Antonio, Texas, and a small college in Virginia before being called home in 1948 upon her father's unexpected death by heart attack.
Home less than a year, Violeta Barrios met the dynamic Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, young scion of another of Nicaragua's leading families and a journalist for La Prensa, the nation's leading opposition newspaper, which was owned by his father. That opposition had caused much of the Chamorro family to seek exile (1944-1948), but upon their return Pedro, now publisher of La Prensa, maintained its role as an anti-Somoza forum. In 1950 he and Violeta married.
Violeta Chamorro raised two girls and two boys in a tense political atmosphere. Her husband Pedro was jailed several times (once for two years), and several times threatened with death for his political views, which were thoroughly democratic. The Barrios and Chamorro clans joined many other Nicaraguans who cheered when dictator Somoza was assassinated in 1956, but democracy was not to be the outcome. Two of Somoza's sons maintained the family autocracy by force, and with La Prensa leading the way, a popular opposition movement grew apace—a revolution in the making. Pedro Chamorro, so vocal and visible a foe of the regime, was murdered by Somoza thugs in 1978, becoming one of the chief martyrs of the evolving Sandinista revolutionary movement.
Chamorro, undeterred by her husband's death, continued, with her newspaper, to help lead the opposition to Somoza, calling for a return to democracy. When Anastacio ("Tachito") Somoza, Jr., fled the country in 1979 in the face of a popular uprising, she was honored with membership in the powerful Sandinista Governing Junta. Dedicated as she was to the ideals and practice of democracy, Chamorro quit the Sandinista Junta within a year and began speaking out against its Marxist rhetoric and increasingly authoritarian rule.
Once again in opposition, she and La Prensa led the attack against the supposedly popular, but soon dictatorial and incompetent, regime, labeling Daniel Ortega and other Sandinista rulers as "Los Muchachos" ("The Boys"). Careful not to align herself openly with the anti-Sandinista guerrilla movement known as the "Contras" or with the United States, Violeta Chamorro achieved more with the pages of La Prensa than the rebels did with their bullets, and by 1988 she was the most prominent of the nation's opposition leaders. Around her figure rallied all those disturbed by the economic chaos (35,000 percent inflation in 1988!) and the Sandinistas' alignment with Cuba and the Soviet Union.
In 1989 she agreed to run for the presidency of Nicaragua when the Sandinistas, under pressure from world opinion, announced that they would permit free elections in 1990. Although hampered by lack of campaign financing and not-so-subtle Sandinista interference, Chamorro laboriously put together a loose coalition of 14 political parties and groupings under the banner of UNO (United National Opposition). This coalition, which embraced such disparate dissident factions as right-wing businessmen and ranchers and the nation's official Communist Party, was "united" by one single purpose—to remove the Sandinistas from power. There was no agreement on what policies to follow should they be successful.
The Chamorro family was itself far from united. While two children, Cristiana and Pedro Joaquín, helped their mother run La Prensa and worked for her election, Claudia and Carlos were avowed and active Sandinistas, Claudia serving in the government's foreign service and Pedro as editor of the regime's official newspaper, La Barricada.
With promised financial campaign aid from the United States trickling in, and with the Catholic Church's support, Chamorro and UNO became a force to be reckoned with by late 1989; all the more so as an unparalleled number of foreign observers arrived in Nicaragua to ensure an honest and open election on February 25, 1990. For the first time in its history, the United Nations sent a delegation to observe a member state's election.
Still, numerous polls showed as late as February 15 that the Sandinistas maintained a seemingly insurmountable lead (by as much as two-to-one) among voters, and Violeta Chamorro, with a kneecap broken in a fall, had difficulty campaigning fulltime. "In the macho culture of my country," Chamorro writes in her autobiography Dreams of the Heart: The Autobiography of President Violeta Barrios de Chamorro of Nicaragua, "few people believed that I, a woman and an invalid, would have the strength, energy and will to last through a punishing campaign." And indeed, she barely did. Between trips abroad, many for treatment of her ailments, and then recovery in seclusion at home, Chamorro spent more time off the stump than on during the most crucial phase of the campaign. In the end, it didn't matter.
The results of the election were electrifying, and almost totally unexpected; the polls proven wrong. Indeed, the actual ratios were almost the opposite of those predicted, with Chamorro and UNO swept to victory with 55 percent of the votes cast, to only 41 percent for the incumbent Sandinistas and a smattering for several minor parties. A similar phenomenon took place in Assembly (Congress) elections, with UNO winning 51 (of 92) seats and the Sandinistas 39.
Inaugurated April 25, Violeta de Barrios Chamorro was immediately confronted by a host of truly critical problems. She had to disarm the Contra revolutionaries and reintegrate them peacefully into Nicaraguan life; gain control of the ideologically Sandinista military (Central America's largest, by far) and radically reduce its size; diminish a still four-digit inflation; combat the nation's staggering unemployment problem; seek rescheduling of the hemisphere's highest per capita foreign debt; negotiate a substantial foreign aid package from the United States; and heal Nicaragua's deep and bitter social and political divisions. Few new chief executives have faced such daunting tasks.
As a person, Chamorro possessed an arrogance that was perfectly common in someone of her high aristocractic—and Spanish—lineage. "Pedro and I are the descendants of men who were in the top echelons of Nicaragua's social structure," she writes proudly. "Ours was a ruling class of European-blood criollos (children of Spaniards born in America in which birth determined status.)" A Sacasa by birth and a Chamorro by marriage (the rough equivalent, in the United States, of being a descendant of Washington married to a descendant of Jefferson), she never doubted her family's vocation to rule nor the uniftness of others less blessed by high birth. Like the rest of her class, she could barely hide her contempt for the arriviste Somozas or, in a different way, for the far humbler Ortegas.
Social position meant a great deal to Chamorro. When she first allied herself with the Sandinistas in 1979, it was in part because the revolutionary leaders had cleverly attracted to their side a small but distinguished group of Nicaraguan elites, men Chamarro related to socially.
Relying on a savvy team of advisers which included a number of her own trusted relatives, she tried to keep UNO truly unified to achieve her goals. Most who knew her or had followed her career believed that the 60-year-old, silver-haired grandmother, with her articulate love of democracy and belief in moderation, would change the course of her nation's history for the better.
Opting not to run for re-election, Chamorro handed over the presidency to Arnoldo Aleman after the October 1996 democractic election. She left him a country that was in better shape than when she took over as president. In 1996, the economy grew an estimated five percent, the third year of growth after a decade of contraction. Despite significant foreign debt relief negotiated during the year, the country continued to have a precarious balance of payments position and remained heavily dependent on foreign assistance. Although investment increased, the slow and complicated resolution of confiscated property claims continued to hinder private investment. The unemployment rate was officially estimated at 17 percent, while total unemployment and underemployment may have reached 50 percent. The inflation rate was about 11 percent and estimated per capita annual income was $470.
Chamorro will take a place in her nation's history, but it remains to be seen whether her reign of democracy was an aberration in Nicaraguan history rather than a harbinger of things to come.
Further Reading on Violeta Barrios de Chamorro
The election of Violeta Chamorro and the problems she faced were described by Johanna McGeary, "But Will it Work?" TIME (March 12, 1990). An assessment of her first year in office was made by Edward Cody, The Washington Post (April 7, 1991). A book that deals with both Violeta Chamorro and her martyred husband is Patricia T. Edmisten, Nicaragua Divided: La Prensa and the Chamorro Legacy (1990). The Sandinista decade that ended with the election of Chamorro is described by Stephen Kinzer, Blood of Brothers: Life and War in Nicaragua (1991).