Seven years of civil war and revolutionary rule have left Nicaragua a battered and divided society with little likelihood that its wounds can be healed easily or soon. Bitterness pervades the country, surfacing almost daily through the pronouncements of Sandinista government officials and their opponents.
President Daniel Ortega Saavedra blames the country's predicament on United States funding for the ``contras'' (rebel guerrillas). The Nicaraguan Army has been battling the contras for the past 4 years.
Roman Catholic Church leader Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, however, brands President Ortega and his colleagues ``totalitarian.'' He views the Sandinistas' increasingly authoritarian measures as the root of the problems afflicting Nicaragua.
The result: a country torn between those who have kept faith with the revolutionary government and those whose disillusionment has soured to grim resentment and torn between the triumphant hopes of 1979's popular insurrection and the harsh realities of building a new society.
``Most people accept, even the Sandinistas, that since November 1984 -when the government held elections-
the government has lost a good deal of popular support, but how much is difficult to quantify,'' one Western diplomat says.
The general populace, as well as various sectors -- business, the church, trade unions -- are divided in their attitudes toward the Sandinistas. While many big businessmen and farmers do not support the Sandinista rule, some still do. The great majority of trade union members belong to Sandinista-affiliated unions, but there are independent trade unions as well.
Nowhere are these differences more clearly illustrated than in attitudes toward the military and security forces. Foreign observers say these are now the most powerful and prestigious organs of government and attract the best and the brightest. To government supporters, this is only natural. Nicaragua is at war, they say, and must be defended against foreign aggression. But critics discern a more sinister purpose: defending Sandinista power against legitimate opposition.
Last October, the misgivings expressed by Nicaraguans and foreign observers about the government's policies turned into international shock, when the Sandinistas suddenly imposed a state of emergency. The government suspended a wide range of civil rights in a bid to strangle what it called an ``embryonic contra fifth column'' inside Nicaragua. Suspended rights include: liberty and security, due process and habeas corpus, freedom of movement, expression, and information, and peaceful assembly, union organizing, and striking.
Opposition leaders say that their fears of massive repression have not been borne out, but suggest the state of emergency was imposed as a measure of intimidation.
Since October, editors at the opposition daily La Prensa complain that censorship has intensified. Non-Sandinista trade-union leaders lament the workers' loss of their right to strike. And in January, the Catholic Church radio station was closed down.
Opposition voices can still make themselves heard, however, both in La Prensa and occasionally even on Sandinista-run television, which last week showed President Reagan's March 16 speech in favor of contra aid. The station then aired a debate involving a leader of the centrist opposition Popular Social Christian Party.
The political opposition is so weak, though, that Cardinal Obando y Bravo has become the government's main critic. Public and private statements from the Cardinal, after visits to Rome, clearly suggest that he has the support of Pope John Paul II. Obando y Bravo has lashed out regularly at the Sandinistas both from his pulpit at the Santo Domingo Church in Managua and in recent public appearances in the United States.
The Nicaraguan Catholic Church reflects the same divisions that have riven the country as a whole. Four Catholic priests occupy senior government posts. The Vatican has officially conveyed its displeasure with these four priests and refuses to allow them to publicly perform priestly functions. About half of Nicaragua's parish priests support the Sandinistas rather than their Cardinal, estimates Father Cesar Jerez, rector of the Central American University here.
In the eyes of progovernment Catholics, the Sandinistas have done nothing that the bishops did not endorse in their 1979 pastoral letter supporting socialist moves toward ``a nationally planned economic model. . ., a reduction in injustices, and a real transfer of power to the popular classes.''
Their opponents -- parish priests supporting the Cardinal -- claim the revolution has taken the path of what the same pastoral letter called ``false socialism,'' which it warned ``seeks to submit the people blindly to the manipulations and dictates of those who arbitrarily hold power.''
Sandinista officials angrily dispute criticisms that they have betrayed the 1979 revolution by disinheriting the broad range of social sectors that joined forces to oust dictator Anastasio Somoza.
Of the original ``Group of 12'' intellectuals and businessmen who galvanized and symbolized the non-Sandinista opposition to Somoza, these officials say, nine still hold senior government positions. Two have retired, and only one, Arturo Cruz, has turned against the revolution, these officials add. Mr. Cruz is now a leader of the Honduran-based Unified Nicaraguan Opposition, one of the contra groups for which President Reagan is seeking $100 million in funds from the US Congress.
Continuing loyalty from early Sandinista allies, a Western diplomat suggests, can be attributed to the fact that, despite everything, the Sandinistas ``have done a great deal of good for Nicaragua: They've given the people a dignity they had never had, and tried to do something in health, social services, and agrarian reform. They've been too ambitious. . . They have not done what they set out to achieve, but at least they tried.''
Government officials blame shortcomings in the social services field, as they blame all of Nicaragua's problems, on the contra war, which is taking a considerable toll on the government. The Sandinistas say that 50 percent of Nicaragua's gross national product is going to support the war and that they have lost hundreds of millions of dollars in the destruction of their country. But they are still proud of their achievements. Independent foreign experts say these include:
Vastly improved health care and services, with the number of people covered by social security and the amount of money spent on medical care rising by more than 100 percent since 1979.
School attendance doubled in first years after Sandinistas took power. Illiteracy dropped from over 50 percent to 13 percent, but seems to be rising again. Schools are government run.
It is through education as much as through normal political work -- campaigning, proselytizing, recruiting -- that the Sandinistas are building support for the future.
Although many young people have fled Nicaragua to avoid compulsory military service, those who stayed and joined up are seen to represent a strong bloc of Sandinista support in a heavily militarized society. When they are demobilized after two years' service, says the Western diplomat, young men ``come back [as] emotionally confirmed Sandinistas.''
``The Army defends the realm and the revolution but it is also a mass organization par excellence, and military service identifies people with what they are fighting for.''
Seven years after the revolution, international attention is shifting to the nature of the society the Sandinistas are building and the social advances they've made. Not unnaturally, they are building society in their own image, where a concern for social justice is matched by concern for self-preservation. That motivation, ingrained in a generation of rulers, who learned their jobs under the pressures of revolution and war, has far-reaching implications for Nicaraguan politics. First in series. Next: Nation's political fabric.