Rice and beans outweigh politics in Nicaragua

Although Nicaragua celebrated its third anniversary this week with fiestas and fanfare, many Nicaraguans currently have something more serious on their minds - food.

''Before the fight was to overthrow (Anastasio) Somoza (Debayle), now it is to survive,'' grumbled a Managua newspaper vendor. ''All my paycheck goes directly for food.''

When more than 50 Nicaraguans were asked how their lives had changed in the past three years, the majority quickly responded, ''I can barely afford to feed my family now.'' Appraisals of the government's accomplishments were given second place behind complaints that it was difficult to put the traditional diet of rice, beans, and plantains on the table.

The economic plight has hit all segments of society, but the mercantile class seems to be the most seriously affected. Both small market vendors and downtown store operators said they were suffering from the 400 percent hike in certain food costs during the past three years.

''The problem is, no one is buying because no one has any money,'' the owner of a large show store in Managua's Oriental market explained. ''There are no cordobas circulating.''

One reason for the cash shortage is growing unemployment. Although the government estimates unemployment at 10 percent, widespread underemployment lifts the figure much higher. Many blue-collar workers and craftsmen said they are now working only a few days a week. Some factory workers said they were also working less because of the problems besetting private industry.

Few of the Nicaraguans interviewed directly blamed the Sandinistas for the rising prices and scarcities of sugar, fruit, and other basic foods. Yet some complained that the fat military budget was consuming money that could be used to alleviate the problem. Others charged that the government's economic policy was putting a brake on private industry and adding fuel to the fire.

The majority, however, pointed out that an April flood destroyed the corn and wheat crops, and that ''all of Central America is going hungry.''

Apart from their economic concerns, a lack of enthusiasm - either for or against the accomplishments of the government - characterized the 55 residents of Managua and Granada who were surveyed. Contrary to news reports, people did not complain of Marxist influence or a communist ''takeover.'' But only a handful openly praised the government's progress. Managua resident Eva Chavez was one of them.

''The revolution has brought me a plot of land, a new house, a road, and a street light,'' boasted the grandmother who built a small shack on a parcel of land given to her near the 14th of September barrio. ''Now we don't have to worry about landlords kicking us out any more.''

Mrs. Chavez, along with many other residents of poor neighborhoods, emphasized that the Sandinistas have halted the looting and violence that typified the Somoza era. ''We can now live like normal people again,'' she said.

Most Nicaraguans singled out the educational progress as the chief accomplishment of the government. Parents said that they were happy that their children could receive free schooling. Older students appeared to be genuinely proud that they were learning to read.

''Everyone here, youths and adults, are looking forward to improving their lives,'' observed Jose Antonio Badilla, director of the independent business school in Managua. ''The girls in particular want to learn typing and shorthand.''

The level of political education is most striking. Barefoot, shirtless workers talk about the ''bourgeois'' and ''class struggle.'' But it's not only the proletariat who are learning the ABCs of Marxism.

''People over 40 have sat down and read a book about Marxism for the first time in their lives,'' a schoolteacher explained. ''They want to know whether they can survive in the system.''

Other progress made during the past three years mentioned by workers includes more accessible health service, a halt in food speculation at local supermarkets , and the breakdown of the peasant-patron system.

Although the urban poor continue to suffer economically, some have been partially compensated by social gains. The moneyed, however, claim that they have suffered in both areas. Many professionals say the quality of educational and health services has declined as the quantity of users has risen.

Medicine is scarce, and good doctors are fleeing the country, they stress. Those who can afford it send their children to private schools where standards are higher and classes are not laced with Marxist indoctrination.

According to a Granada factory owner, the ''worst trend'' of the past three years has been the government's lack of support to business and industry. The private sector is on the verge of collapse because it cannot get the foreign exchange necessary to import raw materials, he said.

''Perhaps the most positive result of the revolution on the upper classes is that for the first time, they have been forced to recognize the social problems of the poor,'' a Managua economist noted. ''They are now providing better work conditions and fringe benefits for their employees.''

Disenchantment with the present system exists at all levels of society, even though people do not speak openly of a counterrevolution. Yet it is an issue on everyone's mind, and street banners proclaim ''no pasaran'' - it will not happen.

''You feel like you've gone back in a time machine,'' complained a former Sandinista supporter. ''Once again, you can't belong to a political party, the press is censored, and your life is being controlled.''

''The thing that bothers me is that there's so much uncertainty here,'' a Granada businessman observed. ''You never know what the government will decree next.''

Meanwhile, rumors circulate that ''Eden Pastora (Gomez) is in Masaya'' or that ''the counterrevolution will begin Friday at 3 o'clock.'' And mothers say they are worried that more violence is in store.

''As a mother, I fear for my sons,'' a market vendor sighed. ''We have already passed a terrible war. But if there is another one, their weapons will be bigger and cause even more destruction.''

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