Managua — Sitting on a burlap sack on the old wooden floor of the village meeting house , Alberto Mendez spoke of his life: ''Before the revolution, I chopped wood, I worked on a cotton plantation, I went from estate to estate. But it was always the same bad deal, long hours and low wages, no medical care, no schools, forced extra hours without extra pay, and if we complained we were arrested.''
Today, Mr. Mendez's life has changed. His family is one of an estimated 25, 000 peasant families (out of 130,000) who have received some 612,000 acres of land in Nicaragua since the 1979 Sandinista revolution.
Even many critics of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN), the official state party, contend that the reform is one of the most positive aspects of the Sandinista revolution, and perhaps the most creative agrarian reform in Latin America.
Under the leadership of FSLN's directorate member and agriculture minister, Jaime Wheelock Roman, the reform has been creative in organizing the peasants who have received land into a flexible mix of cooperative and communal arrangements. Increasingly, it has stressed the importance of maintaining production incentives and a degree of private ownership.
Also, as Western diplomatic observers point out, the law governing appropriations which has been in force since 1981 is basically a moderate one based on how large landowners use their land rather than on inflexible limits of land ownership.
Land reform here has been pushed in a moderate direction not only because of Jaime Wheelock's ideology, but also because of Nicaraguan history and society.
First, during the 30-odd years of its rule, the Somoza family and its principal allies accumulated vast amounts of land, much of which was turned into large coffee and cotton plantations employing many hired peasants. Thus, when the Sandinistas came to power, merely by nationalizing the properties of Somoza and his followers, they acquired some 20 percent of the country's cultivated land.
Second, Nicaragua possesses a favorable ratio of land to population. Therefore it is possible to obtain new lands by expanding the area under cultivation rather than moving to nationalize more property.
Finally, Nicaragua traditionally possessed a sizeable class of small and medium-size peasant landowners. There were some 87,000 such families in the early '70s, says Arturo Cruz Porras, Jr., a former Sandinista official studying Nicarguan land reform.
Today, 60 percent of the land is still in private hands - with 15 percent belonging to large landowners and 45 percent to small and medium-sized landholders. Twenty-five percent of the land belongs directly to the state, much of this former Somozista property, still operating as large plantations hiring day laborers, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
The Sandinistas say co-ops will be the wave of the future, with as much as 50 percent of the land belonging to co-ops and the rest equally divided between the government and the private sector.
Already 67,000 families are part of the co-op system. Co-ops are expected to grow at the expense of the private sector. But the Ministry of Agriculture expects this growth to result from the voluntary organization of peasants into co-ops, not further large-scale nationalization of land from larger private owners.
Co-ops are divided into three types:
1. Communal co-ops like the Soviet system or Israeli kibbutzes. Land is owned in common, but there is more private incentive than in the Israeli kibbutz.
All co-op members are paid money wages. And profits not reinvested in the farm or used to pay for social services are split up as among co-op members. Those who work more hours get more profits.
These communal co-ops are 28 percent of the land worked by the entire co-op system. All peasants on them are there voluntarily. Alberto Mendez now works on one, and most who have chosen the communes tend to have been those who previously had no land.
2. Credit and service co-ops (CCS). Here the land is all privately owned and worked. Marketing is individual, but credit and services are collectively obtained. Some CCSs have a plot of common land which is collectively cultivated. CCSs control 8 percent of the land in the co-op system.
3. Service and production co-ops. Most Sandinistas hail these as combining the best elements of capitalist and socialist ownership systems.
Plots of land are individually owned but adjacent to each other. Co-op members decide to cultivate only one single crop, thus permitting collectively owned tractors to plow rows of the adjacent plots. All services, credits, and marketing are in common. Profits are individual, except for some set aside to buy the tractor, get credits, or such activities.
This third type is being pushed by the Ministry of Agriculture as the wave of the future, representative of the ''third way'' (neither capitalism nor communism) which Sandinismo represents. Western diplomats believe that both Mr. Wheelock and the officials working under him in the ministry represent the more moderate, ''third way'' wing of the FSLN. Observers believe that the land-reform program has shown imagination and flexibility in its mix of systems and desire to set up organizations adaptable to different needs.
Observers state a main accomplishment of the land-reform policies has been the large supply of financial credits to peasants. They say that banking policies under Somoza either cut peasants off from capital or forced them into bankruptcy, allowing their land to be taken over by large estate owners.
Finally, Western diplomats describe the terms of land expropriation as even more flexible than those of El Salvador. Originally, the government only nationalized land belonging to Somozistas. Then in 1981, the Agriculture Ministry established a law permitting nationalization of estates larger than 850 acres with largely unutilized land, or estates being substantially decapitalized.
Critics of the program stress early mistakes stemming from radical dogmatism. Though it was always clear that the Sandinistas needed to nationalize more than just Somozista lands to carry out their program, they initially pretended that only such land would be nationalized.
Until 1981, the law permitting nationalization of Somozista land was also stretched to include lands whose owners had no real Somoza connection. Although this has largely ceased, it created great fear among private owners that all lands would eventualy be nationalized.
According to Arturo Cruz Jr., Wheelock's original policy tended to stress the establishment of state communes and the turning of Nicaraguan peasants into communal laborers. However, observers note that poor results and Wheelock's underlying pragmatism shifted the reform's orientation. Finally, Cruz notes that from 1979 to 1982, the FSLN maintained a policy of extremely low prices on basic grains. This helped the urban proletarian but hurt small peasant landowners forced to sell their products 30 percent under cost. The subsequent drop in production of grains has forced the Sandinistas to change their policy and pay the peasants higher prices.