Making a new reputation for US in Nicaragua

When the US military offered to rebuild a road and bridge in the mountain village of El Regadillo in northern Nicaragua as part of a post-Mitch reconstruction program, resi-dents did something unexpected: They just said "No."

Smack in the middle of a region where US-backed Contra rebels carried on a guerrilla war against the Marxist Sandinista government in the 1980s, it wasn't possible for the village to see an American soldier as a friend.

El Regadillo's memories were still too fresh of local sons and fathers dying in a US-sponsored war.

Its preference for a washed-out infrastructure over US help is not typical here. But it is symbolic of the controversy the US whipped up in Nicaragua when it offered to send in troops - only this time, to help rebuild a heavily damaged country.

After more than a century of US intervention in Nicaragua that has ranged from military occupation and puppet regimes to the Contra war barely a decade ago, no US military presence - no matter what the reason - was going to be taken lightly.

It took time to negotiate the terms of the deployment with the Nicaraguan Congress, where the now-opposition Sandinistas are the second-largest force.

Among the demands: that any US National Guard units working in Nicaragua not be called "National Guard," since that was the name of the US-backed Somoza dictatorship's much-hated security force.

And any US troops leaving their camp were to have an armed Nicaraguan military escort, presumably as much to demonstrate that the GIs did not have free reign as to provide protection from any lingering anti-Yankee sentiment.

As it turns out, the American soldiers have been well received.

"We're not thinking in terms of war here. Those things are in the past," says Secondino Lpez Bez, a community leader in Casablanca, where the US is building two new schools, a medical clinic, and a well. "We really appreciate what the Americans are doing. They're working on the really important things."

Every family in Casablanca had relatives that fought in the war on one side or the other, Mr. Lopez says. Sometimes one son fought in the Sandinista army while another was off with the Contras.

"But we have been working on reconciliation since 1990," he adds, a process which for some locals has included seeing the US in a different light.

Now the focus in Casablanca, which lost 23 houses to Mitch's waters, is to move 90 families to higher ground around the new village center the Americans are building. That has led to some impatience, since the US troops are camped out with their equipment on land where the new houses will rise.

But Lopez says he advises his neighbors to wait and think of what they are receiving. "I tell them, who knows how long we would have waited for a new school if it weren't for the Americans."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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