MANAGUA, NICARAGUA — UP until three months ago, Carlos looked on Nicaraguans who abandoned their devastated homeland as traitors to the 1979 revolution. It was only logical. The 23-year-old Sandinista soldier had given six years of his life battling the United States-backed contra rebels, and, as political secretary for a Sandinista youth group, he spent most of his free time exhorting youngsters to stay in Nicaragua and join the fight.
But as the deepest and most enduring economic crisis in Nicaraguan history leaves his family hungry and helpless, even this committed Sandinista soldier is planning to join the exodus.
``I know we shouldn't abandon our country,'' says Carlos (not his real name) moments before helping his grandmother board a bus for Guatemala, the first leg of a week-long journey to Miami. ``But it doesn't do me any good to be eating well in the Army if my family is starving.''
In October, Carlos asked for his Army discharge. If it comes through, the young soldier - untrained in anything but guerrilla warfare - has no doubt about what he will do: ``I'll catch the first bus to the United States.''
Carlos is not alone. An estimated 500,000 of his countrymen already live in exile, more than 15 percent of the population. Some exiles are political dissidents who filtered out soon after the 1979 revolution. Many others are young men who escaped the military draft in the mid-1980s.
Fighting in the mountains stopped last March. But war or no war, Nicaraguans keep pouring out, fleeing something even more dangerous than bullets: economic disaster.
Stung by an astounding 23,000 percent annual inflation rate, the Nicaraguan economy shrunk 9 percent in 1988, according to government figures.
In the second half of 1988, the Interior Ministry calculates that 25,722 legal emigrants left the country and didn't return, two-thirds more than in the first half of the year. Thousands of others slipped out without visas.
``We have waited patiently for things to change, but our patience has run out,'' says Juan Mendoza Zeas, a former government agronomist who plans to leave for a construction job in Miami. ``The government has always said the crisis was caused by the war. But now the war is over and the crisis continues. Obligatory military service continues. How can we take it any more?''
The economic ``implosion'' is a bitter legacy of the eight-year contra war, a US economic embargo, and a devastating October hurricane that caused $840 million in damages. A recent study by the Regional Coordinator For Economic and Social Investigations, a think-tank, says it would take 10 years of improbable 3 percent growth even to reach the low economic levels of 1987.
For Nicaraguan workers, the crisis also stems from a drastic government austerity program that cut 9,700 jobs last year and slashed wages. In the past 11 months, workers' purchasing power has dropped 96 percent.
Such statistics may seem surreal, but the human stories they mask form the tragic roots of Nicaraguan migration.
Francisco Sanchez, a watchman at the baseball stadium, is busy chopping up a tree that used to grace one of Managua's avenues. Mr. Sanchez knows it is illegal, but like most Nicaraguans, he can no longer afford to buy wood - or much else. His $10-per-month salary ($2 above the average wage) covers only one-fourth of his family's food needs.
``My daughters are going hungry,'' says Sanchez. ``But I can't afford to leave. I can't even think of it.''
Most Nicaraguans are not able to pay the minimum $100 fare to Guatemala, the only Central American country that does not require entry visas for Nicaraguans. But as relatives abroad send more US dollars back home, an increasing number of the working poor are dishing out up to $1,200 for ``full-service'' excursions - a euphemism used by transport companies that arrange for ``coyotes'' to deliver emigrants to their final destination.
Most often, that destination is Miami. In December, US officials restricted refugees' movements while their applications were being processed. A court overruled that policy on Jan. 10, letting loose a flood of Nicaraguan refugees that has sparked logistical - and racial - problems in Miami.
Other countries are also worried. On Dec. 13, Cost Rica signed an agreement with Nicaragua calling for joint patrols to snare illegal Nicaraguan emigrants. Last week, Honduran President Jos'e Azcona Hoyo urged President Reagan to remove the 12,000 contras and their 40,000 family members from Honduran border camps. And Canada tightened its immigration policy Jan. 1.
No change in polices, however, seems capable of reversing the flight of Nicaragua's most precious resource: educated people.
Since 1979, one-third of Nicaragua's 33,000 college-educated professionals have left, - 3,000 in 1988 alone, says Camilo Lara, of the National Professionals Council. The reason is simple, he says: More than 95 percent of professionals earn less than $50 a month.
Newspapers advertise the sale of entire furnished houses ``for purposes of travel.'' Some Nicaraguans leave so fast, they have no time to sell their belongings.
A top Managua doctor simply dropped off the keys to his Mercedes with opposition leader Virgilio Godoy. Says an incredulous Mr. Godoy: ``I'm being left without friends.''
Perhaps more important, Nicaragua is being left without its best talent at a pivotal time.
In order to retain top talent, the Sandinistas are resorting to the somewhat capitalist ideas of incentives and privileges. So far, this doesn't seem to be working. Even some committed Sandinistas are seeking the next bus north.
``In the US, these professionals work as waiters and street vendors,'' says former Managua mayor, Moises Hass'an. ``But here, they are fundamental to the reconstruction of the nation.''