A Defiant Widow Leads Nicaragua Beyond Its Tarnished Revolution

updated 03/19/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/19/1990 AT 01:00 AM EST

It is late on a warm Saturday afternoon as Violeta Barrios de Chamorro hobbles on crutches into the garden courtyard of her home in Managua, Nicaragua. Six days after concluding an arduous presidential campaign with a stunning victory over Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, the 60-year-old newspaper publisher and grandmother hardly shows her exhaustion. The week has passed in a seemingly endless whirl of meetings with advisers, diplomats and well-wishers, yet Dona Violeta, as she is respectfully known, has time—and a radiant smile—for a few more visitors. Wearing a white skirt and red blouse, the President-elect shrugs off her injury—a broken kneecap from a fall in January—and shuffles toward the stone bust of her late husband, Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, which stands like a shrine amid the greenery. "If my husband were here, I wouldn't be where I am now," she says, reflecting on the opposition leader whose murder in 1978 sparked the revolt that ousted the Anastasio Somoza dictatorship and brought the leftist Sandinistas to power. "All the events in this country, everything, would be different. None of it, including my win, would have happened."

But it did happen, despite Chamorro's political inexperience, her frail health—she also suffers from a degenerative bone disease—and pollsters' predictions that she would lose overwhelmingly. On Feb. 25, in an election closely watched by hundreds of foreign observers, she and her running mate, Virgilio Godoy, leaders of the fractious 14-party National Opposition Union (UNO), trounced their Sandinista opponents by a margin of 55 percent to 41 percent. Chamorro is scheduled to be inaugurated April 25 as the first elected female president of a Central American nation.

Her "strength and guidance," she says, come from the spirit of her husband, the charismatic editor of the family-owned opposition newspaper La Prensa. For 25 years Pedro had been the chief antagonist of the right-wing Somoza regime—until he was murdered by men, widely believed to be Somoza supporters, who riddled his car with bullets on a Managua street. Now, after a decade of Marxist rule, civil war and economic ruin, voters have demanded a change. Years of privation under a regime beset by a U.S.-imposed trade embargo and involved in continual fighting with the Washington-backed contra rebels may have encouraged voters to turn to Chamorro. Yet in the end it may have been the gracious, handsome widow herself, always invoking the memory of her martyred husband, who was primarily responsible for her surprising triumph at the ballot box. "She's not really a political figure," concluded one observer. "She's an emotional and visual figure—an icon."

One of seven children born into a wealthy landowning family in the southern town of Rivas, Violeta Barrios spent a carefree youth filled with horseback rides, afternoon walks and evening dances. "She was a simple, happy-go-lucky soul," recalls Rosamunda de Guerra, 80, a distant relative. "But she always spoke her mind." Sent to the U.S. as a teenager to study English, Violeta attended Our Lady of the Lake Catholic School for Girls in San Antonio, Texas. After less than a year at the now-defunct Blackstone College in Blackstone, Va., she was forced to return home when her father died of heart failure in 1948.

The following year, Vioieta met Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, who immediately fell in love with her. "I turned him down for one year because I didn't feel secure about myself," she says, but in 1950 she married the persistent young journalist whose mission was to carry on his family's business—and their longstanding political feud with the Somoza clan. Because of their opposition to the regime, Pedro and his parents were forced into exile from 1944 until 1948. After they returned, Pedro used La Prensa as his political weapon, while Violeta raised their four children in Managua. Though she was not personally involved politically, it was she who prayed for Pedro and took him his meals when he was imprisoned several times—once for as long as two years—for his campaign to overthrow the dictator. "As his wife," she says, "I was always there by his side, in sadness and in happiness."

After Chamorro's assassination, a reluctant Doña Violeta took up her husband's banner, becoming one of the five members of the victorious Sandinista junta in 1979. But she clashed repeatedly with Ortega and his olive-clad commandantes over their radical Marxist ideology and their determination to forge close ties with the Soviet Union. After 10 months, she resigned and became publisher of La Prensa, where she waged a defiant war of words against the leaders she derisively called los muchachos—Spanish for "the boys." Her crusade, however, divided her family, at least politically. Two of her children, Cristiana, now 36, and Pedro Joaquín, 38, stayed by her side at the newspaper, while Claudia, 32, remained with the Sandinistas as a diplomat, and Carlos, 34, became editor of the Sandinista newspaper Barricada. "They have the right to do whatever they want," says Chamorro, who still has a cordial relationship with her younger children. "The principle is to have friendship and respect. I love all my children."

Chamorro realizes there are enormous challenges ahead. The first will involve carrying out a smooth transition of power, which will be difficult without cooperation from the Sandinistas, who still control Nicaragua's armed forces. But Chamorro is eager to heal her country's wounds and promises hers will be a government "that will never have exiles or political prisoners or confiscations." As always, she will draw inspiration from her husband. Throughout her house and on the courtyard walls are dozens of pictures of Pedro, and out back is the bullet-riddled Saab in which he was killed—all of them reminders, she says, of his strength and spirit. As evening shadows slip over her husband's bust, Doña Violeta asks for her crutches, rises and signals she must go. "So much to do," she says, "and so little time."

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