To a Managua-based reporter, the billboards around the Cuban capital are familiar: the same sort of uplifting revolutionary slogans common in Nicaragua, the same exhortations to work harder, the same encouragement to avoid waste. There is one poster, across from the seafront United States mission here, boasting: ``Mr. Imperialist, we are not in the least bit afraid of you.'' It recalled an old Sandinista poster, that used to overlook the US Embassy in Managua, quoting A.C. Sandino's response in 1927 to a US demand that he surrender.
``I shall not surrender, and I am waiting for you here,'' the challenge read. ``I want a free fatherland or death: I am not afraid of you.''
According to officials in both countries and Western diplomats, the two billboards capture the essence of the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions' shared roots: an insistence on national sovereignty that translates into defiance of the US.
``Both [Cuban President Fidel] Castro and the Sandinista Front decided in their early years that the primary source of problems in their societies was US influence - that to solve the problems, the first step was to remove that influence,'' says a Western diplomat familiar with both Nicaragua and Cuba.
Cuban Deputy Foreign Minister Ricardo Alarcon, though wary of drawing parallels, and using different language, seizes on the same point.
``If there is something in common [between the two revolutions], it is the element of recovering national sovereignty, assuming real national independence,'' Mr. Alarcon says.
This shared purpose, and geographical proximity, have given the Cuban and Nicaraguan revolutions many similar facets. But government officials, foreign diplomats, and political analysts in both countries are cautious about taking the parallels too far.
They point to cultural and ideological differences, the change in the international climate since Mr. Castro's triumph in 1959, and dissimilar styles of revolution in suggesting that the Cuban and Nicaraguan cases should not be too closely equated.
Nonetheless, says a Western diplomat in Managua, the Sandinistas ``are extremely emotionally dependent on Castro for guidance. Here's a guy who has survived US imperialism for 25 years, which is exactly what they are trying to do.''
At the organizational level, the Nicaraguans have borrowed freely from their Caribbean comrades. Neighborhood ``Sandinista Defense Committees'' are modeled directly on Cuba's ``Committees for the Defense of the Revolution.''
Nicaragua has also patterned many of its ministries after the Cuban example, setting up state bureaucracies to handle internal food distribution, foreign aid, and so on. At a more personal level, both Presidents Castro and Daniel Ortega Saavedra can rely on their brothers who hold the post of Armed Forces chief.
The preeminent role assigned to the Armed Forces, and to defense of the revolution, is clearly common to both nations. Cuba is always on the alert against the US and fighting foreign wars in Angola and Ethiopia. Nicaragua is fighting the US-backed contra rebels, with Cuban help.
The resulting militarization of society, already clear in Cuba, is becoming an increasingly irreversible trend in Nicaragua too, Western diplomats and some government officials in Managua fear.
But although Castro declared himself a Communist and his revolution a socialist one, within two years of taking power, the Sandinistas have taken no such step. Eight years after their victory, the Sandinistas insist they intend to maintain a mixed economy, political pluralism, and a nonaligned stance internationally.
``Many people, including quite a lot of Sandinistas, thought that this would just be a tactical position, which would last only as long as it was needed,'' one government official in Managua says privately. ``But the leaders really do see it as a strategic stance.''
Private businessmen who find their activities hedged by government controls, opposition political leaders who are powerless in the face of Sandinista hegemony, and UN observers watching Managua vote consistently with the Soviet Union and against the US have cause to doubt the Sandinistas' sincerity.
But the Sandinistas have not cast themselves, or been drawn into, the Soviet orbit to the extent the Cubans have.
Despite Managua's total dependence on Soviet weaponry, and heavy trade with Eastern Europe, it has kept links with Western Europe and Latin America in a way Castro never managed to do.
``In 1961, there was a value to taking sides,'' one Western diplomat says. ``Castro had to get assistance. Today, the Soviets would tell the Nicaraguans, `Don't do that, don't antagonize the US more than you have done already.'''
At the same time, Nicaragua has had less need to accept an exclusive Soviet embrace. In 1959, the US could impose its will on Latin America and the rest of the world to isolate Havana. Thirty years later, that is no longer feasible, Sandinista officials and diplomatic observers say.
Nor is it feasible for Nicaragua to cut itself off, controlling the flow of people and ideas, in the way that Cuba, as an island, has been able to do, diplomats say.
Set alongside their own style and ideology, Managua's links with the West have allowed or encouraged the Sandinistas to be more flexible on political and economic fronts than their Cuba cousins.
Opponents of the Nicaraguan revolution were not killed wholesale, as their counterparts in Cuba were. When the collectivization of agriculture proved a failure in Nicaragua, officials were quick to abandon theory in favor of individual peasant holdings. Private owners still control well over half the economy.
``Command and control of society is much more relaxed in Nicaragua [than in Cuba], and always will be,'' one foreign diplomat in Managua says. ``There's lots of talk in common about the new man, a new beginning, a new social structure, but here you don't get the class struggle, the animosity towards the bourgeoisie'' that marked the Cuban revolution.
Asked what advice Havana gives Managua, Mr. Alarcon is cautious. ``What Cuba can offer is an inventory of mistakes, so that no one thinks of repeating them. Our advice is that they should think with their own heads.''
While admiring Cuba's achievements, says a Nicaraguan official, Nicaragua does not look at Cuba as a blueprint for what it should be. ``Cuba is not a victorious, successful model of society.''