Outside, workers getting ready for the night shift at Carnic - the Managua slaughterhouse once owned by deposed Nicaragua President Anastasio somoza Debayle and now the property of the government -- were slipping into overalls. Others, who had knocked off at five, stood around talking, boarding buses, and heading home.
Inside the bare, one-story building near the plant, classes were under way. The students, all middle-aged men who had just worked eight hours at the plant, stared at the blackboard with a concentration befitting a world chess championship.
"Pa-lo-ma," the men read aloud tensely, slowly, unsure of themselves. Then again, "paloma." This time the sounds came quickly and became the word (Spanish for dove). "That's the first three-syllable word you've ever read," their 18 -year-old teacher announced proudly.
The men relaxed and smiled, their faces a blend of wonder and delight. They are not handicapped. They are simply illiterate -- like 920,000 other Nicaraguans over 12, who, because they are poor and because most schools previously charged tuition, never learned to read or write. Some 53 percent of the population of this Central American nation are illiterate.
The new government aims to change this.
Billboards blast the message "alfabetizacion es liberacion" (literacy is liberation) across the country, preparing the public for the mass literacy campaign set to start on March 23. More than 180,000 specially trained volunteers -- grade-school teachers, university and high-school students -- plan to head for the countryside and city slums to teach the basics.
"Illiteracy is a violation of human rights," insists Fernando Cardenal, a Jesuit priest and Deputy Minister of Education, who heads up the campaign. "It's as serious as torture because it prevents people from developing themselves."
Logistically, the task is staggering.
First, a national census was made to determine the size of the illiterate population. In December, 40 teachers and 40 students received one week's training. In February, these 80 will prepare 580 more. The 580 will initiate another 7,000 who, in turn, will train the last 175,000. Finally, on March 23, all schools will close until mid-August and literacy classes will begin.
"Obviously, 100 percent success in unrealistic," admits one official in the program, "but we hope to reach most of the people, so they will at least be able to read a newspaper, even if haltingly. After the course ends, we hope they will continue with adult education classes."
The experience of the dry run at Carnic, where conditions are almost ideal, suggests the number who want to learn the basics may be high. Speed and fluency , however, will probably be limited, as the quality of teaching is mixed and the learning is slow.
"Knowing how to read and write -- what you take for granted -- is beautiful to me," says Carlos Mendoza, who works one of the slaughtering machines.
"During the three years I fought with the Sandinistas, they said that when we won, i would learn, and now it's happening," he states proudly.
The men's stories are nearly identical. All were from large families struggling to survive, with no money for schooling. As adults, they had their own children to support, so night school was out.
The government wants to provide them with some basic health-and-nutrition education, too. And it plans to take public-health measures, like spraying for malaria.
The sweeping thrust of the Nicaragua's literacy program will parallel the campaign launched in Cuba in the early 1960s, which in turn was in part modeled on Mexico's earlier pioneer programs. Mr. Cardenal notes that "the Cubans have pointed out some of the pitfalls they experienced, so we know some of the problems to avoid."
The teaching methods, however, will be very different. In Nicaragua the technique will be based on the work of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who teaches reading through picture symbols with which people are acquainted. In the north, for example, where coffee is the main crop, a lesson will be created around a picture of acoffee tree.
The message is political as well. "The popular masses made the insurrection, " the teacher at Carmic writes on the blackboard. The class repeats it. The class practices with the letter "p", forming new words with it.
The program will cost a whopping $21 million and, as the country is bankrupt, Nicaragua must bank on outside help. Already, the World Council of Churches has donated $500,000. West Germany sent $800,000 for notebooks and supplies, and Swedish labor unions promised 50,000 oil lamps.
But, according to Jaime Balcazar, head of the United Nations mission in Nicaragua, vastly more is needed, and he will visit five Latin American countries next week to drum up support.
despite the enormous expense, most Nicaraguans agree the program is essential. "People can't participate in democracy until they can read and write ," Mr. Cardenal explains. "It's as important as food and clothing. That's why it's our top priority."