The Philadelphia Inquirer
October 18, 1987
Life in Ocotal
was bad, so the people struggled to bring down the Nicaraguan dictator.
They won the revolution. Now the enemy is disillusionment.
MOST OF WHAT MOVED ON THE streets
of Ocotal were dust clouds that lingered long after vehicles had passed.
Nicaragua's war zone seemed far away, but it was right there. It
surrounded the city.
Ocotal, the principal city of the department of Nueva Segovia, is only
12 miles from the border with Honduras, where the contras retreat when
they run out of U.S. funds. The rebels have attacked Ocotal twice, but not
this day. Noon was growing indolently near in Ocotal.
Near the town square, two members of the Young Sandinistas July 19
organization stood on a frail wooden scaffold, capping their paint cans
before beginning the day's siesta. They were carefully working on a mural
of Eugene Hasenfus, Wisconsin flyboy.
The mural depicted the famous image of Hasenfus, his hands tied, being
towed by a Sandinista soldier. Hasenfus was the cargo handler and the sole
survivor of a plane the Nicaraguans shot down while it was delivering arms
to the contras last year.
In a nation where symbols assume an enormous role in the manipulation
of public opinion, Hasenfus had become a powerful emblem of Nicaragua's
struggle against the imperialist power of the north. His grim features
became about as ubiquitous as the Sandinistas' 1987 slogan, "All arms
against the aggression." The government put Hasenfus on a billboard
near the U.S. Embassy in Managua. Hasenfus T-shirts sold quickly to
youthful Americans and Europeans who came to Managua by the planeload to
groove on the Sandinistas.
And so, earlier this year, Ocotal got its own Hasenfus mural, an
inspiration to workers, peasants and soldiers to get with the program.
A woman stopped to look at the mural taking shape on the wall. She was
"What is this crap?" she said, gesturing toward Hasenfus.
"Who is that supposed to be?"
She was middle-class, by the looks of her plain dress and the traces of
a beauty-salon hairdo. She was not a worker. And she was not a campesino,
"This is propaganda, isn't it?" she said, broadcasting her
grievances. "The national government should bring better things into
this town, not propaganda. The bad water is bringing death to our
children, and they are using our money for crap like that."
Now life sprang to the street. About five men gathered near her. Some
of them wore green fatigues of the Sandinista militia, the vigilantes of
the revolution. They did not say anything. They did not look at her. They
looked only at the mural as though they had just noticed it for the first
The woman looked at the vigilantes and walked briskly away. The men
drifted back into the shade.
The street resumed drowsing and became murky with dust again.
LATER THAT DAY, FELIPE BARREDA GARCIA was told of the woman's remarks.
Like most public officials in Nicaragua, Barreda is young. At 34 years
old, he is the regional representative of the Sandinista National
Liberation Front, responsible for governing Ocotal and the surrounding
area, the overseer of projects ranging from murals to public water
"A revolution implies drastic and deep changes, and sometimes it
doesn't suit some people," he said. "The main foundation of this
revolution is the workers and the campesinos, and not the petty
With Barreda in his office were several other men - companeros,
comrades. The men had been learning English, from the looks of the
blackboard, upon which was written, "I want a beer. I need a
beer." The comrades laughed when they were told these were important
words to know in English. Barreda remained earnest.
"Sure, the mural is propaganda. The contras have several radio
stations. They're spending a lot of money against us in ideological
propaganda. That mural costs us only a few gallons of paint.
"Some people don't acknowledge all the things we've done for
them," he said. "The problem is when people don't hear any
shooting or any bombs and they forget that we have a war. They never think
of the millions the government is paying for the war."
Barreda, the equivalent of a state governor, wore a turquoise No-Nukes
T shirt and jeans (revolutionary Nicaragua is an informal place). The
shirt revealed scars along his arms. The scars, he said, are where
interrogators of dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle's National Guard gave
him electric shocks.
All they accomplished was to turn up the juice of his revolutionary
And now he's boss.
THE WAR OF PROPAGANDA IS BEING PLAYED on a larger scale these days. The
region is taking steps to accommodate Costa Rican President Oscar Arias
Sanchez's peace plan against the background of the battle in Washington to
renew contra aid. Without military aid from the United States, Sandinista
military leaders say, the contras will slowly fade from a destructive
force into an occasional annoyance. And if Arias' peace plan succeeds,
their mission will be undercut. Then the push for elections, civil
liberties, freedom of press and assembly in Nicaragua may reveal what the
struggle with the contras has been able to obscure.
For, if the contras retreat to their camps in Honduras, they will take
with them the Sandinistas' main explanation for why communities like
Ocotal are such miserable places to live.
And then the Sandinistas will have to direct their attention to a force
more potentially insidious to their revolution's longevity. They will have
to deal with the discontented who stayed in Nicaragua rather than flee.
The Sandinistas acknowledge the grumbling, but say the U.S. aggression
has prevented the government from delivering promised social benefits that
should assuage the discontent. In some cases, health care and educational
improvements have declined from pre-revolutionary standards, although the
Sandinistas have made some remarkable achievements.
Eva Margarita Ortez, 80, who was spryly chewing the fat with her
neighbors in Ocotal, said she could not afford an operation for cataracts.
But a Sandinista commandante heard about her failing eyesight and arranged
to send her to Cuba for surgery.
"He knew about my family's collaboration with the Frente,"
she said, referring to the Frente Sandinista, the Sandinista Front.
"I live alone, and my sons aren't here, so it was a good thing they
did for me."
But for every Nicaraguan who lauds the services, someone else complains
he has received nothing but grief.
"The difficulty here is that the United States is putting up
obstacles all around us," said Padre Agustin Toranzo, 46, the priest
of Ocotal's Roman Catholic church. "I believe that the moment that
the United States leaves us alone and we can put all of our tools to work,
then we are going to march ahead stupendously. And we are going to advance
much better than all the other countries around us."
It will be a daunting task. The war has taken a staggering toll in
human and financial capital. Nicaragua's economic problems are deep, and
so is the discontent that an ailing economy breeds.
But the difficulties the Sandinistas face in restoring confidence go
deeper than rejuvenating the weak cordoba, Nicaragua's shrunken currency.
The economic atrophy has also bred contempt for the government's attempts
to construct an egalitarian system of distribution. So many people have
turned to the black market that the underground economy threatens to
outperform the official marketplace. The government inconsistently
enforces the regulations. The few circumventors who get caught stew in
Reymundo Munoz Blandon, 52, a peasant with four acres of ground outside
of Ocotal, is one such embittered man. While he was traveling to Managua
last year, he said, the police confiscated the 20 pounds of beans he
intended to sell on the street rather than to the government as required.
"They said this revolution was for the poor people, and I'm
poor," said Munoz. "But I lead a wretched life."
More difficult for the Sandinistas to address, however, are the ranks
of former allies, who have grown disillusioned at the government's
stifling of dissent and entrepreneurship in the name of creating a new
Jose Ramon Paguaga Quinones, who is 42, smuggled arms for the
Sandinistas during the insurrection and was one of five members of
Ocotal's first governing junta. But tensions arose over the government's
policies, and when the Sandinistas implied he was a thief, he quit the
junta two years into the revolution. "I have many friends who
participated in the insurrection," said Paguaga, "and all of
them are disillusioned."
The Sandinistas tend to dismiss such dissenters as Somocistas -
followers of Somoza - or contras. The contras are the reason, Sandinista
leaders have said, they have been unwilling to relax restraints and
accommodate dissent. But cynical Nicaraguans believe that for a long time
to come, the Frente will maintain an atmosphere of crisis to preserve its
embryonic political machine.
Who's to predict? The Sandinistas have demonstrated the ability to go
many ways - flexible, dogmatic, compassionate, cunning. Their policies
have often veered radically as they follow an undefined, intuitive path.
"The problem with the Sandinistas is they never made a decision
who they are - democrats, socialists or communists," said Paguaga.
"As of this date, they don't know who they are."
OCOTAL IS ABOUT AS ORDINARY AS A CORN tortilla. Flat, brown and bland,
the city of 25,000 people lies on a high plain that is parched during the
rainless winter months. Most of the streets are dirt. A paved highway
leads 120 miles south to Managua. The other direction, it heads to
Honduras, although it no longer carries much traffic since the war closed
the border two years ago.
To the north and the south, the city is surrounded by mountains that
are as lush as the plain is arid. The hills contain the wealth of the
region, a fact that did not elude powerful Nicaraguans in the early 1800s,
who craved money as much as Americans and Europeans craved caffeine.
In amassing the enormous coffee plantations, the patricians of Ocotal
followed standard Central American practice and conveniently relocated the
peasants to plots of cacti in the plains. A semi-feudal system developed
in which the peasants, to subsist, became seasonal laborers on the land
they had once owned.
The hills contained other riches as well. There was gold, which foreign
companies mined with limited success. And there was timber, a species of
pine called ocote, from which Ocotal derives its name.
The mountains have also protected various guerrilla bands throughout
history, from the Indians who dared to resist the Spanish conquistadors to
the Sandinistas of the 1960s and '70s to the contras of today. Nicaragua's
history is a continuum of guerrilla groups resisting foreign domination on
behalf of the nation's dispossessed.
The most influential of these mountain fighters was Augusto Cesar
Sandino, who delighted in bow ties, ten-gallon hats and the baiting of
In 1927, the Marines were dispatched to Ocotal to prop up the
Nicaraguan government, headed by the Conservative Party's Adolfo Diaz.
Sandino, who was a member of the Liberal Party, took his forces into the
mountains. He did not object so much to the gringos being in Nicaragua as
he did to their taking sides. He wanted the Americans to observe neutral
U.S. officials refused. Warring factions had exchanged control of
Nicaragua's government so many times that it was getting downright
difficult to conduct business. Besides, Diaz was a known and friendly
In an exchange of biting telegrams, Capt. Gilbert Hatfield, the Marine
commander in Ocotal, called for Sandino to surrender. The guerrilla
general responded with words that would become the battle cry of the
current generation of Sandinistas - Ni se vende, ni se rinde - "I
will neither sell out nor surrender."
"Nicaragua has had its last revolution," Hatfield declared.
A few days later, Sandino sent about 200 guerrillas to attack the
Marines. They quickly took Ocotal. They chased a few Marines from the mule
corral, where the Esso station now stands, and routed the Nicaraguan
National Guardsmen, who were encamped where the National Bank branch is
now located. They forced the outnumbered Marines and guardsmen to retreat
to the garrison on the town square, which they surrounded.
The guerrillas would have won it there, had not Hatfield called in five
airplanes from Managua, which bombed the rebels into disarray. And Ocotal
became the first town in the Americas to undergo an aerial bombing.
Seven years later, after the Americans had left Nicaragua declaring
that peace was at hand, Sandino was assassinated. The National Guard
leader who ordered his assassination, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, soon became
president, creating a family dynasty that ended with his son, Anastasio
Sandino's name was relegated to the footnotes of Nicaraguan history
books, always accompanied by the word outlaw. But in the 1960s, a small
guerrilla movement named itself in his honor. When the Sandinistas took
over in 1979, Sandino became a national icon.
But Sandino's political ideology is as elusive today as his guerrilla
forces were in the 1920s. Each of Nicaragua's adversarial groups
interprets Sandino's nationalistic statements to suit its purpose. Even
the contras contend that they are the true adherents to Sandinismo. And
the Sandinistas have virtually copyrighted Sandino's face. The general is
painted on walls throughout Ocotal - sometimes abbreviated to only his
Today, Sandino stares down from the vacant Marine barracks that he
failed to seize in 1927, sharing the wall with Ernesto "Che"
Guevara. "Sandino lives," the portrait states. But those who are
unenamored regard the slogan with sardonic humor, characteristic of
"This guy Sandino must eat a lot," said a small shop owner in
Ocotal, "because when Sandino was dead, we had a lot more food."
BEFORE THE TRIUMPH OF 1979, JOSE RAmon Paguaga Quinones was a propane
gas salesman and a closet revolutionary.
Paguaga's family long had been opposed to Somoza. In 1958, when Paguaga
was 13, his father was involved in an aborted insurrection, and the entire
family fled to a place in Honduras called, appropriately, Las Dificultades
- The Difficulties.
In 1968, Paguaga moved back to Ocotal and established himself in
business. He kept in touch with the underground movement and worked
clandestinely in the insurrection of the late 1970s.
Like most Ocotal businessmen, Paguaga routinely crossed the Honduran
border. To Somoza's enforcers, Paguaga appeared to be just another solid
citizen going about his business. He was - serious business. He was
collecting pistols and grenades in Honduras and carrying them past border
guards in a concealed compartment in his 1967 Mercedes-Benz.
In 1978, the Sandinistas needed arms delivered south to Esteli, where
they were planning an attack. With an acetylene torch, Paguaga cut open
the 100 pound tanks used to carry propane. He filled the tanks with
.22-caliber rifles and welded the tanks shut again. Unhindered by
guardsmen, his Tropigas truck on its regular rounds delivered the tanks to
a guerrilla safehouse in Esteli.
Such was the ingenuity of the allies who brought down the dictator. The
FSLN - the Spanish initials for the Sandinista Front - was a small
underground organization in early 1977 and factionalized over which
strategy to use against Somoza. The group that prevailed (which included
the man who would later become president, Daniel Ortega Saavedra)
advocated an appeal to the growing disenchantment with Somoza among a
broad spectrum of Nicaraguans: opposition leaders who wanted free
elections, business people who wanted an end to the dictator's monopolies,
Christians who were appalled by the injustice of the regime, peasants who
wanted land, workers who wanted a fair shake. And, of course, the
Sandinistas, who wanted a new social order.
"It was a phenomenal fight against Somoza," recalled Paguaga.
"It was spontaneous. People sought out the Sandinistas to get rid of
There were many people like Paguaga who worked underground to depose
the dictator. Some carried arms, some carried messages, some concealed
guerrillas on the lam, and some fought in the mountains.
Ocotal's Sandinista leader Barreda was urged to join the Frente by his
parents, who were active in the radical Christian movement in Esteli, a
city where the Sandinistas still enjoy strong popularity today. During the
insurrection, Barreda's parents shielded Sandinista guerrillas in their
house while Barreda recruited others.
In 1976, when Barreda went to Jalapa, a city on the Honduran border
about 30 miles from Ocotal, an informer turned him in to the National
Guard. He was arrested and tortured. An American, Barreda said, watched
over the torturers, who drove one man crazy from electric shocks to his
Soon after his release - the National Guard was unable to prove
anything - Barreda was arrested again for organizing the conservative
department of Chontales for the Sandinistas. When he got out of jail the
second time, he fought in the northern mountains under Cmdr. Bayardo Arce,
one of the nine commandantes of the FSLN directorate, until the triumph.
Almost every Sandinista has some such story of struggle.
Padre Agustin, a Spaniard whom the Maryknoll order assigned to
Nicaragua 13 years ago, worked with the Nicaraguan Human Rights
Commission. A year before the triumph, he went to the mountains near
Esteli, where he gave the guerrillas and their supporters food, medicine,
clothing and "the Christian courage to continue forward in the
And Pedro Joaquin Ponce, 67, a tailor who is the secretary of Ocotal's
branch of the Independent Liberal Party, returned from exile in Honduras
in 1977 to help the Sandinistas distribute arms and propaganda. After the
triumph, Ponce was named to the junta governing Ocotal, along with Paguaga
and three other men.
On Oct. 22, 1979, more than 20,000 people from the surrounding area
crowded into Ocotal's baseball stadium (which the Marines had built when
they weren't hunting Sandino) and acclaimed the new government.
Those were the glory days. "At the beginning, it was
beautiful," said Ponce. "It was beautiful."
But then the coalition that brought down Somoza began to disintegrate.
"Outside of the country, we Nicaraguans were like this," said
Ponce, grabbing his collar. "My shirt was your shirt. But inside of
Nicaragua, we fight like cats and dogs."
IT DIDN'T TAKE LONG FOR PAGUAGA AND Ponce to realize that the
revolution was developing in a way they had not anticipated.
"In the time I was in Honduras, before the insurrection, we had a
three day seminar in which the Sandinistas discussed the purposes of the
fight and what the results would be," Paguaga recalled.
"In the first place, we were going to stop the exploitation of the
campesinos. I agreed to that. In the second place, we were going to
confiscate the properties of Somoza and the National Guard, which they
stole from the campesinos. And I agreed to that also."
And they agreed that "everybody would participate" in a
democratic government. They failed, however, to define democracy.
Ponce and Paguaga viewed democracy as it is understood in the United
States - the people elect local, regional and national governments.
The Sandinistas, however, believed that because they were the spark of
brilliance behind the revolution, they were the "vanguard" of
the people. To them, democracy was a matter of setting up a system of
organizations representing different interests, which would report their
concerns up a hierarchy to the FSLN's national leaders.
In theory, everybody would participate. The Sandinistas went about
creating organizations of all kinds: labor unions, artists' guilds, groups
representing peasants, women, Christians, businesses, health workers,
veterans, children, mothers of heroes and martyrs - you name it, there was
a group for it.
Although most of the groups were ostensibly independent, they could not
be distinguished from the Sandinistas. And the Sandinistas could not be
distinguished from the government. They were all financed by the
government. They even talked the same, using the same revolutionary
And even though the Sandinistas eventually held national elections in
1984 (which they handily won), the dissidents reasoned that it would be
mighty hard to defeat the party when the nation's police force, air force
and army all bear the name Sandinista, not Nicaraguense.
When Ponce and Paguaga were members of Ocotal's governing junta, the
Sandinistas had only one of its five representatives, but the junta had
little authority. The FSLN dominated through the expanding bureaucracy and
the organizations, and didn't appear interested in sharing power.
Everything became politicized, and much of the government's actions
appeared at cross purposes.
While the Sandinistas were launching their much-lauded health and
vaccination campaigns, they gradually fired most of the nurses at Ocotal's
hospital (formerly Somoza General Hospital) since they were nuns and
conservative. "It was obvious they didn't want the nuns to be working
there," said Ponce.
To acquire more land for cooperatives and state farms, the Ministry of
Agrarian Reform began confiscating property other than that belonging to
departed Somocistas. Of the 10 coffee mills that once operated in Ocotal,
the government now owns seven.
And businessmen watched the government's "mixed economy" so
restrict their ability to operate that the incentive was not to produce
more but to produce just enough to avoid the appearance of idleness, which
the government could also use as a pretext to confiscate.
"All the hardware stores except this one closed down," said
Favio Peralta, who bought Ramos Hardware when Alfonso Ramos left the
country in 1982. The store's shelves are empty except for the few tools
the government sends him and the few dusty boxes of auto parts that remain
from before the revolution. And yet he has seen a well-stocked government
hardware store in Esteli. "I think they're trying to eliminate
private businesses," said Peralta.
As businesses closed, Ocotal was becoming a bleak place. The Segovia
Theater rarely showed movies. The only bookstore in town specialized in
such titles as The Workers' Control and the Nationalization of Industry.
The largest lumber mill became a military base.
And the government began attacking those who complained. "They
wanted me to go and paint graffiti on the houses of people who were
supposedly Somocista," said Paguaga. "I said that wasn't the way
to get people to support us."
The dissidents came to view even such programs as the ballyhooed
literacy campaign as political indoctrination. "They barely taught
people how to write their own name," said Munoz, the peasant.
"And after that, they taught them how to write Sandino's name on the
Independent groups were prohibited from organizing fund-raising events
without coordinating efforts with the Sandinista Defense Committee, whose
neighborhood watch groups are the most basic element of the Sandinista
After one such fund-raiser for the Red Cross - which Paguaga serves as
president - government officials accused Paguaga of stealing, although
Paguaga says he saved the government 100,000 cordobas. "We were
accused of working outside of the legal structure," he said. "So
I resigned from the junta." He was never charged with anything.
When he resigned, the critical feud over the Lions Club - one critics
see as epitomizing Sandinista relations in Ocotal - was only beginning.
After the triumph of 1979, the Lions Club members wanted to reorganize
the group, which had suspended activities during the insurrection. So they
built a new clubhouse.
Sandinista officials said they disapproved of the expenditure for such
a narrow purpose. "But because I was part of the government, they
didn't confiscate the clubhouse," said Paguaga. "Instead, the
Lions lent it to a poor barrio as a neighborhood center."
It became a party center. Drunks trashed the clubhouse, so the Lions
asked for its return. Instead, the government turned it into an office for
Paguaga acknowledges that customs improved the building, but then the
Ministry of Justice wanted the club. Before the Ministry of Justice moved
in, however, the Ministry of Education staked a claim to the building's
roof of galvanized steel, a material in perpetual short supply. One day,
the Lions Club roof disappeared. It reappeared on a new addition to the
Nuclear School. "So we went to the Ministry of Education, and they
said, 'Yes, we took your roof. What do you want to do, put us in jail?'
" said Paguaga.
The clubhouse stood empty and roofless for a year until the Lions
decided to convert it into an orphanage. Several days after they began
hammering, a brigade of international workers came and said they were
authorized to rebuild the house into a home for mothers visiting their
sons in the military.
"And they destroyed it," Paguaga said. "They took the
toilets, the wood - everything - and used it elsewhere.
"And that's how the Lions Club disappeared."
To the Sandinista critics, the Lions Club incident illustrated the
essentialdivision between Ocotal's traditionalists and the new generation.
"I think the reason they destroyed the club was because we were
helping people - we're a service organization," said Paguaga.
"They want to show the people that they are the only ones who help
BARREDA AND PADRE AGUStin have a problem with Ocotal's disillusioned.
They believe that they are too committed to an outdated way of thinking,
in which individuals come before society. That undermines the noble
purpose of the revolution, they say, and its effort to reverse the
injustices of Somoza.
"There are many people who, because they gave a little support to
the revolution, believe that they would get privileges and benefits under
the new government," said Barreda. "The revolution doesn't give
privileges or benefits to anyone."
Padre Agustin is more blunt. He said that the businessmen and
shopkeepers yearn for the old days, "when they were like vampires or
leeches sucking the blood from their brothers."
That's Nicaragua, where ideological fractures still pervade a society
that has lost much of its wealthy and middle classes. The polarization
affects everything, even the Roman Catholic Church.
In few other countries does a parish priest like Padre Agustin publicly
disparage the church's leader, Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo. "Even
if he is the cardinal, he doesn't have the right to lie," the priest
said of Cardinal Obando, a hero of the anti-Sandinista opposition.
Cardinal Obando, too, supported the revolution, but according to Padre
Agustin, he became hopelessly aligned with "reactionaries and the
bourgeoisie." "The bishops denounce whatever abnormality,
whatever error that the Sandinistas commit," said Padre Agustin,
"but they never denounce the barbarities done by the contras."
This is a common Sandinista lament, that the opposition and the United
States hold them to impossibly strict standards. There is some truth to
this. When compared to neighboring countries, whose transgressions the
U.S. State Department rarely criticizes, the Sandinistas often appear to
be the cachorros - puppies - they say they are.
Why not look at the positive aspects of the revolution, say the
Sandinistas, the health and educational improvements, the new sense of
freedom that some people have found since 1979?
"In truth, it is difficult to obtain stability in a country like
the one we inherited - in economic ruins, nearly destroyed and with grave
social problems," said Barreda. "And to have succeeded in
stabilizing it militarily and to have begun stabilizing it socially has
been a great task. Only with the support of the people have we achieved so
On a Sunday night "vigil for peace," where about 30 people
gathered around a bonfire of ocote and prayed with Padre Agustin "for
understanding between governments," Eva Sofia Olivas de Marin said
that Ocotal, despite its physical deterioration, has improved in
Her brother went to the university in Leon, she said, although he could
not have afforded the education before the revolution. And she said the
church has improved, too, when Padre Agustin replaced a priest who
preached "a vision of Christ that perpetuated the exploitation of the
Many things have been achieved. The Sandinistas built a prenatal health
center, cheerfully painted on the outside with a mural of Sandino and
other Sandinista martyrs looking down from the clouds on children.
Americans from Santa Fe, N.M., in a personal act of friendship to counter
their government's policy, are now building a home for handicapped
children on the edge of town.
And because some government projects were successful, they became
contra targets. The contras destroyed four grain silos and two
coffee-producing facilities. In 1984, they attacked the government lumber
mill and Radio Segovia, the government radio station.
At La Unidad, one of the cooperatives the government has established in
the mountains around Ocotal, 25 formerly landless men now run a coffee
plantation. But they spend so much time guarding the farm from contra
attacks that most of the labor is done by peasants hired part time.
Barreda acknowledges only reluctantly - and adding a note of optimism -
the deterioration of Ocotal. "We have gone backward a little,"
he said, "but this year we are going to complete a new agricultural
complex." They're also working furiously to expand the town's water
system to the city outskirts, which has swelled with 7,000 refugees from
"There are those of us making a sacrifice on behalf of the
revolution," said Dr. Marta Reyes Alvarez, 25, the assistant director
of Ocotal's health clinic, which physicians have left for private practice
to be able to make a living. But even though Reyes' salary of 65,000
cordobas does not buy her a pair of Nicaraguan blue jeans, she prefers to
work at the clinic for the poor.
Barreda said he knows about sacrifices for the revolution. In 1983, his
parents were kidnapped by the contras about 20 miles from Ocotal,
interrogated brutally, and then executed.
"We are committed to this struggle, yes?" said Barreda.
"For this, my mother and my father and thousands of people have given
their lives. They have given their lives for the people who want a better
NOEL EDMUNDO DIAZ FLORES wants a better life. He has
decided to leave Nicaragua. "The
problem is not in the government, but in the group of people leading the
government," said Diaz, 34, who is as swaggering as the gamecocks he
trains to fight in Ocotal's dusty backlots.
Last year, Diaz resigned as the credit manager of a division of the
Ministry of Agrarian Reform. He said his superiors routinely hoarded
supplies for their friends, while lines for the same products formed in
"There shouldn't be a privileged group," he said, describing
how officials sold on the black market powdered milk that was impossible
to find in the stores. In another instance, he said, authorities diverted
2,500 pieces of galvanized roofing sheets assigned for peasant housing.
Nineteen hundred pieces were used to complete a baseball stadium, he said.
The rest were distributed to construction workers.
When Diaz complained, he said, he was transferred. "Everybody
should have to suffer the consequences of the shortages," he said. He
now paints signs for a living, but he is trying to emigrate with his
family to Montreal.
Perhaps as damaging as the contras is the loss of confidence of people
like Diaz, a loss that is destroying the country from the inside out. They
do not leave the country to join the contras. To Diaz, the contras
represent the system he was fighting against. Revolutionaries do not draw
monthly salaries in American Express Travelers Cheques.
His dilemma, and that of other Nicaraguans losing hope in the
Sandinistas, is that there are no appealing alternatives. In Nicaragua, no
matter where one stands, life is always a struggle.
Paguaga and Ponce, for instance, continued to run afoul of the
government after they resigned from the junta. In 1983, from a businessman
leaving the country, Paguaga bought a block of property containing the
Hotel Frontera, a Shell station and a few rudimentary houses. With
inflation eroding the cordoba, the price was cheap enough.
But inflation was also eating away at his employees' salaries. He
offered the workers raises, but the Ministry of Labor said they could not
be paid above the government-prescribed maximum wage. Paguaga instead lent
his houses to his employees at no cost.
When inflation cut deeper, the government again refused wage hikes.
"They consider that I'm competing with the government over
salaries," Paguaga said. He and his 25 employees went to the Ministry
of Labor and protested, which embarrassed the Sandinistas into making an
exception. In lieu of raises, Paguaga was permitted to give 18 percent of
the profits from the hotel and the gas station to the workers.
The government, meanwhile, has blocked his plans to renovate while it
investigates his purchase of the complex four years ago. "It has been
a tremendous fight," Paguaga said. "All the investments I've
made at this hotel have been without help from the government."
Ponce had it a little worse.
One of his sons, Lester, fled to Honduras in 1985. He had fought with
the Sandinistas against Somoza, but when he later became critical, they
twice jailed him, calling him a contra intelligence officer. The Hondurans
suspected he was an agent for the Sandinistas. They threw him in jail,
Once the regional peace plan was signed, Lester requested amnesty,
admitting, the Sandinistas say, that he had been trying to set up an
"internal front" for the contras in Ocotal. Contra leaders say
they refused to let Lester join them because he was untrustworthy. He
lived as a refugee, they say, before his return to Nicaragua.
Because of Lester, the Sandinistas jailed Ponce for eight days last
year. Then they kept him under house arrest for six months.
There is little for Ponce to do nowadays - Nicaragua's 4-year-old state
of emergency limits his Independent Liberal Party's political activity. He
applied for a visa to visit his children in the United States, but the
U.S. Embassy rejected him because as a junta member in 1982 he visited
Cuba. He spends most days sitting alone on the curb in front of his house.
"I never thought that I would have fed the birth of a raven that
would come back to pluck out my eyes," he said of the government.
To the Sandinistas, the disenchantment is a delicate issue that raises
the prospect of an indelicate response. While they acknowledge that the
thousands who have fled Nicaragua represent a tremendous loss of human
resources, the alternative is to compromise the higher principle at stake,
the Sandinista revolution.
"It's bad in one aspect, and that's this flight of brains,
no?" said Padre Agustin. "But it isn't bad if they are really
going to be ill-mannered about the revolution. It's better they leave than
they obstruct the revolution. And they are going to give a bad image to
the revolution, true?
"It is preferable that people who aren't in agreement with a
process that is more social, more egalitarian, more brotherly between
everybody - well, if they aren't in agreement, then they should go."
"Their leaving doesn't damage anything," he said. "It's
better, because they only confuse the people in this town."