Nicaragua's revolution four years later: some gains, much zealotry
''19th of July!'' ''Sandinista youth!'' ''Vanguard of the people!''Skip to next paragraph
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The small crowd that had gathered on the south side of the capital city of Nicaragua was shouting words such as these just a few weeks before the fourth anniversary of the July 19, 1979, victory of the revolutionaries.
The 400 to 500 Nicaraguans, many of them middle class in appearance, looked as though they had been through this before. They knew by heart the slogans praising the revolution and the Sandinistas who now control it. Many of them clearly would have preferred not to be shouting any kind of slogans under any circumstances.
The real zealots in the crowd - an articulate young man with a megaphone and two young women who enjoyed clapping their hands and shouting at the top of their voices - considered it their duty to stir the crowd's enthusiasm for the revolution. These are the Sandinista youth.
Sandinista leaders, including junta coordinator Daniel Ortega Saavedra, were coming to address the group and to answer their questions. The people had gathered on the grass under bright television lights at a Roman Catholic school.
These ''Face the People'' meetings are an almost weekly ritual, and the Sandinistas consider them an important part of their version of democracy. People get to ask questions on practical matters that have little to do with the slogans shouted before the meeting.
If it is an agricultural community, the people want to know about prices for their crops. If it is a community near the city, such as this one, they want to know why there are shortages of soap, cooking oil, and other commodities. They receive answers, proposed solutions to their problems, and, of course, promises of a better performance by the government.
But the sight of the zealots trying to squeeze enthusiasm out of a largely unenthusiastic crowd leaves a bad impression. As is the case with so much that one sees in Nicaragua, one comes away with decidedly mixed feelings.
An occasional visitor to Nicaragua, such as this reporter, cannot assess the entire revolution. He can only give some impressions that suggest the situation here is not as black and white as the Reagan administration would have it. It is unquestionably true, as the administration charges, that the Sandinista leaders have tightened their political control over this Central American nation. But it is probably also true that American pressure on Nicaragua plays into the hands of Sandinista hard-liners and accelerates the movement toward what may one day become one-party Marxist rule. The ideologues in Managua need the ideologues in Washington. The two sides sustain each other.
An example of Nicaragua's positive side: By all accounts, including the testimony of a Nicaraguan physician who is sharply critical of the new regime, the Sandinistas have reduced Nicaragua's high infant-mortality rate. Some physicians say that, given a lack of good records, reliable nationwide statistics do not exist. But the trend is clear. The care given to Nicaragua's most vulnerable citizens - its newborn babies and its children up to the age of five - has improved.
Another example: the government-initiated literacy campaign. It has brought the rudiments of reading to tens of thousands of people who had no opportunity to get instruction before. Critics argue that this merely means that these people will now enjoy the dubious benefits of reading propaganda. They also contend that the follow-up to the initial literacy drive has been poor.
But persons who have participated in the program say it has given underprivileged Nicaraguans a new dignity. The same can be said of the so-far modest land-reform program, which has encountered numerous difficulties but has nonetheless helped some farmers. The final verdict on land reform is not yet in.
But at the four-year mark, flaws are easily visible. For a journalist, what is most disturbing is to see what is happening to words. President Reagan is sometimes described in posters and the pro-government newspapers as ''genocidal, '' a man no less dangerous than Hitler. In one newspaper published a few months ago, a photograph of Reagan was touched up to give him pointed teeth and ears and other devil-like features.
When a relief organization called Operation California flew a planeload of medicine to Nicaragua in late June, the Nicaraguan government was clearly pleased. Most of the medicine was to go to persons displaced by the CIA-backed forces attacking Nicaragua from bases in Honduras.