Public protest stirs in Nicaragua. Shows frustration with nation's economic woes

The winds of political liberalization blowing through Nicaragua are whipping up outbursts of antigovernment sentiment. Through public protests, the organized civic opposition is trying to take advantage of the warmer political climate to rally public opinion to its side. On Sunday, some 12,000 people marched in Managua to protest the government's economic policies.

But, on Monday and Tuesday, violent riots in the town of Masaya provided a starker example of the widespread frustration - particularly among the poorer classes - with the country's crushing economic problems and issues such as compulsory military service.

``The Sandinistas, I think, have been surprised by the amount of protest'' since they lifted a six-year state of emergency last month, says one South American ambassador. ``But you could say it was healthy. After all, protest in my country is often boisterous, too. It depends on how the Sandinistas react to it.''

Monday's riot in Masaya, 17 miles south of Managua, was sparked when police began checking the identity papers of youths who were supposed to report for military service and then detained those young men they believed had not complied.

Press reports said several hundred people marched through the streets of one neighborhood in a spontaneous reaction against the roundup, stoning an office of the youth branch of the Sandinista Front - Sandinista Youth - and burning two cars in front of the local police station.

Tuesday night's protest - for the most part also a spontaneous affair of some 200 people which was broken up by police - had a different tone. The main complaints voiced to journalists concerned the economy.

``Look at the prices! Look at the prices!'' one woman shouted, as she held her infant daughter. ``We haven't the money to afford beans, rice, milk for our children.''

``We want food, not arms,'' she said - a sentiment repeated over and again.

``They [the government] spend 50 percent of their money on the war, there is nothing left for us, the poor,'' a young man said, referring to defense spending in the national budget. He added that he was ``wanted'' for evading the draft.

Indeed, the Sandinista government has long maintained that the war with United States-backed contra rebels is responsible for the near ruin that Nicaragua's economy has slid into these past several years. (But many observers, and at times the government too, acknowledge the official errors in economic planning.)

The question of compulsory military service for all men over the age of 17 is also an extremely volatile issue.

``I don't want to fight in the mountains,'' one youth said here Tuesday. ``I don't want to go kill or maim other Nicaraguans, or be killed or maimed by them.''

Abolition of the draft is one of the opposition's main demands.

``The Sandinista Army is an arm of the Sandinista party, which is fighting for the interests of the Sandinistas,'' says Roger Guevara Mena, a leader of the Democratic Coordinator, a coalition of parties and other groups which is the government's staunchest opponent.

Carlos Rivas, head of the Sandinista Youth in the region around Masaya, has a different point of view: ``Look, we are fighting a war of aggression for our sovereignty against counterrevolutionaries who are mercenaries of a superpower, the most powerful nation on earth.''

According to Mr. Rivas, the majority of young men drafted into the Army comply willingly.

The reaction of the Sandinistas to vociferous public protest seems to be crucial to the future of government and contra cease-fire talks, which are expected to continue later this month, as well as to a halting dialogue under way with the civic opposition. Both sets of negotiations are required under the terms of last August's Central American peace accord.

While most of such protest has gone off with limited interference, the heavy-handed response to Tuesday's demonstration - still illegal here - is a reminder that the winds of liberalization are blowing across a nation still at war.

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