Nicaragua's revolution four years later: some gains, much zealotry

''19th of July!'' ''Sandinista youth!'' ''Vanguard of the people!''

The small crowd that had gathered on the south side of the capital city of Nicaragua was shouting words such as these just a few weeks before the fourth anniversary of the July 19, 1979, victory of the revolutionaries.

The 400 to 500 Nicaraguans, many of them middle class in appearance, looked as though they had been through this before. They knew by heart the slogans praising the revolution and the Sandinistas who now control it. Many of them clearly would have preferred not to be shouting any kind of slogans under any circumstances.

The real zealots in the crowd - an articulate young man with a megaphone and two young women who enjoyed clapping their hands and shouting at the top of their voices - considered it their duty to stir the crowd's enthusiasm for the revolution. These are the Sandinista youth.

Sandinista leaders, including junta coordinator Daniel Ortega Saavedra, were coming to address the group and to answer their questions. The people had gathered on the grass under bright television lights at a Roman Catholic school.

These ''Face the People'' meetings are an almost weekly ritual, and the Sandinistas consider them an important part of their version of democracy. People get to ask questions on practical matters that have little to do with the slogans shouted before the meeting.

If it is an agricultural community, the people want to know about prices for their crops. If it is a community near the city, such as this one, they want to know why there are shortages of soap, cooking oil, and other commodities. They receive answers, proposed solutions to their problems, and, of course, promises of a better performance by the government.

But the sight of the zealots trying to squeeze enthusiasm out of a largely unenthusiastic crowd leaves a bad impression. As is the case with so much that one sees in Nicaragua, one comes away with decidedly mixed feelings.

An occasional visitor to Nicaragua, such as this reporter, cannot assess the entire revolution. He can only give some impressions that suggest the situation here is not as black and white as the Reagan administration would have it. It is unquestionably true, as the administration charges, that the Sandinista leaders have tightened their political control over this Central American nation. But it is probably also true that American pressure on Nicaragua plays into the hands of Sandinista hard-liners and accelerates the movement toward what may one day become one-party Marxist rule. The ideologues in Managua need the ideologues in Washington. The two sides sustain each other.




An example of Nicaragua's positive side: By all accounts, including the testimony of a Nicaraguan physician who is sharply critical of the new regime, the Sandinistas have reduced Nicaragua's high infant-mortality rate. Some physicians say that, given a lack of good records, reliable nationwide statistics do not exist. But the trend is clear. The care given to Nicaragua's most vulnerable citizens - its newborn babies and its children up to the age of five - has improved.

Another example: the government-initiated literacy campaign. It has brought the rudiments of reading to tens of thousands of people who had no opportunity to get instruction before. Critics argue that this merely means that these people will now enjoy the dubious benefits of reading propaganda. They also contend that the follow-up to the initial literacy drive has been poor.

But persons who have participated in the program say it has given underprivileged Nicaraguans a new dignity. The same can be said of the so-far modest land-reform program, which has encountered numerous difficulties but has nonetheless helped some farmers. The final verdict on land reform is not yet in.

But at the four-year mark, flaws are easily visible. For a journalist, what is most disturbing is to see what is happening to words. President Reagan is sometimes described in posters and the pro-government newspapers as ''genocidal, '' a man no less dangerous than Hitler. In one newspaper published a few months ago, a photograph of Reagan was touched up to give him pointed teeth and ears and other devil-like features.

When a relief organization called Operation California flew a planeload of medicine to Nicaragua in late June, the Nicaraguan government was clearly pleased. Most of the medicine was to go to persons displaced by the CIA-backed forces attacking Nicaragua from bases in Honduras.

Operation California's executive director, Richard Walden, has been critical of the Reagan administration's funding of military operations against Nicaragua, and he made that clear upon his arrival here. But the official Sandinista newspaper Barricada had Walden going one step further and using the words ''aggression'' and ''imperialism'' - words he did not use. An American who is fluent in Spanish said that there was no problem in the translation from English into Spanish that could have led to this distortion.

The once-feisty opposition newspaper La Prensa is meanwhile so heavily censored, and self-censored, that it hardly resembles its former self. The paper's codirector, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, says the paper is still alive, but barely. He argues that there is no way in which Nicaragua can have the free elections that the Sandinista leaders have been promising for 1985 unless the country also has a free press.

At one point, said Mr. Chamorro, anything having to do with Afghanistan was censored. Articles from overseas carrying material critical of the Soviet Union simply cannot get into print, he said.

The young editor counters by printing volumes of material about Poland. The stories on Poland carry an implicit criticism of East bloc regimes. Photocopies of censored material from La Prensa somehow find their way into the hands of diplomats and others who have a keen interest in the news. But the direct punches that La Prensa used to deliver to its foes are now few and far between.

''Under (former President Anastasio) Somoza, the censorship was not as rigid, but there were death threats against us,'' said Mr. Chamorro.

''Keeping La Prensa alive is a good enough goal for now,'' says Pablo Antonio Cuadra, the elderly poet who is the paper's director.

President Reagan likes to draw a contrast between US-backed El Salvador's movement toward ''a more open society'' and Soviet-backed Nicaragua's movement toward a more closed one. Reagan administration officials frequently mention the Sandinistas' forced removal of Miskito Indians from their border villages on the Atlantic side of Nicaragua as an example of Sandinista brutality.

Government supporters are the first to admit that the Sandinistas made ''mistakes'' in dealing with the Miskitos, who form Nicaragua's largest minority group. But they argue that new efforts have been made to deal more humanely and reasonably with the Indians.

An ''open prison'' near Managua, where Indians who once opposed the regime and were imprisoned for it now live and farm, is shown to visitors with some pride. No guards are in evidence. The Miskitos, by the way, are the best baseball players in the prison league.

The Atlantic coast has been long isolated from the rest of Nicaragua and was neglected by the Somoza regime. Now hundreds of Miskito Indians are reported to be fighting against the Sandinistas with support from neighboring Honduras and apparently from the CIA.

Some of those who sympathize with the Sandinistas agree that their treatment of the Miskitos has been the biggest strike against the new regime. How the Sandinistas deal with this problem in coming years will constitute a major test.

But regime supporters, including some Americans who live and work here, also argue that Nicaragua has never seen repression of the Roman Catholic Church of the kind that occurred after the revolution in Cuba, much less executions of the kind carried out there.

Supporters add that the death squads that are sometimes linked with government military and security forces in El Salvador do not have any counterpart in Nicaragua. At least the basic human right to life is being preserved in Nicaragua, they say. They also argue that many of those arrested by the Nicaraguan government's security services proved to have been engaged in ''counterrevolutionary'' activity.

Critics of the government point out that some of those who have been arrested were once involved in the struggle against Somoza. According to an official in a regional labor organization who asked not to be identified, the Sandinistas have arrested workers from the Nicaraguan Workers Central in violation of International Labor Organization agreements and for reasons that have nothing to do with counterrevolutionary activity.

''The government officials say they are facing a national emergency and that the economic conditions of the country do not permit free labor activity,'' a labor official said.

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