Nicaragua is a turbulent, troubled land -- a nation upon whom history has seldom shone brightly.
But what a beautiful land of mountains and lakes, of verdant pine forests and lush tropical rain forests, of cotton and coffee farms, and of vast cattle-grazing pastures!
Its people smile even though -- because of their country's hapless history -- they have few reasons to smile.
In city and countryside, Nicaraguans are friendly, even exuberant. They show this in their faces, in the way they welcome the visitor, in their treatment of each other.
Yet only three years ago, this small Central American land was locked in one of the bloodiest civil wars of modern times. It was a war that at first pitted Nicaraguan against Nicaraguan. But in the end it had become a broad national campaign, embracing Nicaraguans of all classes, against the hated, 45-year dynasty of a family of dictators. That majority triumphed and sent Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, the last of the family to rule, into exile.
But that was not until 50,000 people had died, another 150,000 were injured, and half a million left homeless -- out a total of approximately 2.5 million Nicas, as Nicaraguans are called.
That is a heavy toll, but Nicaraguans were finally rid of the Somoza dynasty and looked forward to brighter days.
Their new leaders, the guerrillas-turned-governors known as Sandinistas, came to power riding the crest of a wave of enthusiasm and support virtually unparalleled in Latin America. Nicaraguans talked of a new dawn for their nation and there seemed something very real to smile about.
Now, three years later, that enthusiasm has waned. More and more Nicaraguans -- some say even a majority -- no longer support the Sandinistas and their Marxist-oriented government.
The enthusiasm may be gone. Support for the Sandinistas may have withered. But the smiles remain.
By Central American standards, this is not a crowded land. The majority of Nicas are concentrated in the western half of the country, fringing the Pacific. That is where the majority of the pasture lands are located, where the cotton and coffee crops are grown, and where most of Nicaragua's productive capacity is centered.
This is a people with a racially mixed background -- largely Spanish mixed with native American Indian and black. They love their country. They are loyal, but they also feel free to criticize it. This has always been true. Long before the Somozas controlled the destinies of Nicaraguans, other family dynasties, other dictators, held sway. But the fiercely independent spirit of the Nicaraguan has always shone through.
Maybe that is why the smiles are so much in evidence -- even as more and more Nicaraguans join the opposition to the Sandinista government.