FROM JULY 1990 until last month, I lived in the Nicaraguan town of San Juan de Limay, which has been linked to Baltimore since 1985 by a people-to-people project called Casa Baltimore/Limay.
During my stay -- actually my fourth and by far my longest visit to the village -- I studied Spanish and talked constantly with Nicaraguans from every walk of life.
What I found in Limay, and in my frequent trips to the capital city of Managua, was a political, economic and social reality that defies the stereotypes we North Americans have imposed on Nicaragua.
The country never was the "Marxist dictatorship" vilified by the U.S. government and in the press. Nor was it ever the idealistic revolutionary society envisioned by some Americans. Instead, Nicaragua is a divided nation which has suffered enormously over the last 10 years, both from external pressures -- the U.S.-imposed economic embargo and the costly "contra" war -- and from internal troubles stemming from the policies of the Sandinista government.
The Sandinistas themselves, in a harsh self-critique published last fall, admitted to many failings: an overly centralized, top-down decision-making structure, misdirection of the economy and failure to deal promptly with the crimes and mistakes of Sandinista officials and military personnel. Last year's national elections seem to have solved some of Nicaragua's problems and worsened others.
Of course, there is no way to know what might have been, had the Reagan administration not made Nicaragua its special whipping boy throughout the 1980s. The Sandinistas' better intentions, as embodied by their short-lived gains in literacy and health care, were overwhelmed by war, inflation and despair.
The salient fact of Nicaraguan life today is a disastrous inflation rate (12,500 percent for 1990), which, coupled with the abandonment of various Sandinista social programs, is contributing to the hardest economic times in memory. The economy is so bad that some people claim to miss the politically repressive era of dictator Anastasio Somoza. As one woman told me, "Under Somoza, we had milk five days a week; under the Sandinistas, we had milk three days a week and now we have no milk at all."
The government of Violeta Chamorro has before it two extraordinarily difficult tasks: reconstructing a shattered economy and seeking reconciliation between the country's disparate political factions. The main governing body, the National Assembly, is divided between the Sandinista Front, which held on to about 40 percent of the assembly seats, and the 14 quarreling parties of Chamorro's UNO coalition. Chamorro herself tries to walk the tightrope between these partnerships.
In Limay, reconciliation is happening so very slowly that it could take generations -- barring another outbreak of civil war. Yet is is happening in Limay faster than in many parts of Nicaragua. The 1990 elections left the town's five-member council with three UNO members (including the mayor) and two Sandinistas. Members from both camps have admitted to me that they can work together on projects that benefit the whole community. Some townspeople speak freely of their dissatisfaction with the present national government and with the decade of Sandinista rule. In Limay, criticism of the Sandinistas focuses on their
heavy-handed attempts to restructure the rural economy (controlling prices, breaking up private land, etc.) and on the petty corruption left over from single-party dominance.
Sandinista militants, however, are still among the hardest-working people in town and the people most committed to the betterment of the community. Conservative Limayans are much like conservatives everywhere: Their response to the problem of unemployment is, "Tell these people to go find jobs!"
Managua, to North American eyes, appears to be wealthier than before. Billboards advertise products for the business community, which is more optimistic these days because of the pro-business attitude of the Chamorro government. For those with money to buy things, there are plenty of goods for sale.
However, the poor are much poorer than they were a year ago. In the name of fiscal soundness, the Chamorro government has severely cut and in some cases eliminated funds for health and nutrition programs. Starvation increases among children.
On my second-to-last day in Nicaragua, I visited a beautiful Pacific beach at Pochomil. There I had a conversation with a Nicaraguan who had spent the Sandinista decade in the U.S., making a good living. In those years, I might have had a hard time discussing Nicaraguan politics with someone like him, but I think we were both surprised by how many issues we agreed upon last month.
On the one hand, I agreed with him that the Sandinistas had hurt their own cause with their strident anti-U.S. behavior. It doesn't pay to thumb your nose at a colossus. On the other hand, he agreed with me that the U.S. has had the wrong policy toward Nicaragua. "Instead of funding the contras," he said, "the U.S. government should have been offering scholarships for Nicaraguan students to study in the United States." He also expressed his gratitude that at least some U.S. citizens were willing to work on projects of cooperation such as Casa $l Baltimore/Limay. "These projects will help raise production and continue the delicate reconciliation process that Nicaragua so desperately needs," he said.
Charles Curtiss is project coordinator of Casa Baltimore/Limay. He writes from Baltimore.