Sandinistas of a Different Stripe. Officials worry that younger Nicaraguans are losing their radical roots to bourgeois tendencies

A SMALL-SCALE, yet fierce, polemic has recently broken out in the ranks of Nicaragua's ruling Sandinista Front. And the argument has nothing to do with elections, political reforms, the economy, or even the United States. Rather the topic is beauty contests.

And the question is: Why is the revolutionary Sandinista Youth Front sponsoring and supporting them? A number of pageants - such as ``Miss Intercontinental'' and ``Miss Summer'' - have been held here recently, and are proving popular among younger Nicaraguans. But to some of the pre-insurrection generation, beauty contests are a symbol of the moral bankruptcy of the ousted Somoza regime and a vulgar expression of sexism.

On the surface, the arguments seem to be drawn along feminist lines, pitting the machistas against the feministas, both men and women who denounce such a high-profile arm of the revolution being associated with a ``beauty cattle call,'' as one opponent terms it.

But beneath, lies another conflict - one of the oldest in the world: the generation gap. In revolutionary Nicaragua, however, it's more of a generation gap in reverse. For it is part of the older Sandinista generation that is in a dither over the conservative tendencies of the younger generation. The older revolutionaries worry that the youth are not rebelliously independent enough.

Roger Sanchez, editor of the irreverent weekly Semana Comica, is one of those who worries about the direction of young Nicaraguans.

``It's a question of sexism and political consciousness,'' he says. ``If the bourgeoisie are having beauty pageants, the youth should be having intelligence contests.... They should look at such an alternative as part of their political project, part of the ideological struggle here.''

The political consciousness of many members of the pre-insurrection generation was forged by the rigors of a life underground, where debates on equality and morality where as common as debates on political and guerrilla tactics. Many of these Sandinistas find the proclivities of the youth especially frustrating.

But a European ambassador here says this is an overreaction.

``They're just young people'' the ambassador says. ``There is so little else for them to do here, how could anyone deny them that?''

The debate nabbed public interest when an unsigned editorial by a Sandinista member appeared in the official newspaper, Barricada, April 14 at the start of the Sandinista Youth National Assembly. Referring to the beauty contests, it chastised the Sandinista Youth for ``trying to project as ``new'' and acceptable ``that which the youth before discarded as `old.'''

The following day, however, the paper issued a ``clarification'' saying the editorial did not representing its views nor the views of the National Directorate of the Sandinista Front. And the later attendance of two Sandinista officials at the ``Miss Intercontinental'' contest only added confusion to the debate here.

(The winner of that contest, 14-year-old Elizabeth Guerrero, received a three-month stay at the Hotel Intercontinental in Medellin, Colombia - home of the world's largest cocaine-trafficking cartel)

The Sandinista Youth Front declined an interview request after several phone calls. But a visit to the University of Central America here elicited opinions on both sides of the debate.

One young woman, who gave her name as Bianca, decried the whole idea. ``The Youth [group] is just copying what the bourgeoise did during Somoza. There is no such thing as `our' pageants and `their' pageants.''

But another piped up that she liked the contests. ``I didn't go, but I wish I was pretty enough to be in one,'' said Ana Margarita Gonzalez. ``If that is was what young people want, then the [Sandinista] Youth should give it to them.''

``Part of the problem'' explains a Sandinista maverick (the individual who wrote the Barricada editorial), ``is that the Front has failed to deepen the political thinking of the youth.... We make good combatants,patriots, anti-imperialists. But beyond that, the youth lack a deeper political consciousnss.''

The result, she says, is a youth group that faithfully follows the party line to the detriment of innovative thinking or introspection.

Editor Sanchez bemoans the lack of a youth-directed counterculture here. Nicaraguans are surrendering to the party line, he says. ``The Youth should be in front of the commandantes [who run Nicaragua] in their thinking. But these youth are standing in their shadows....''

This view touches on fundamental questions for this highly politicized country: When the revolutionary party demands complete discipline (as the Sandinista Front does), what happens to the previously touted role of youth to rebel against the establishment and be creative? Should there be a counterculture, and who should spearhead it?

That the Youth Front could sponsor a beauty contest and be unaware of, or unconcerned with, the political contradictions is a worrisome harbinger, several Sandinistas say.

Another example of a fuzzy-headed younger thinking, some Sandinistas say, is evidenced by the recently elected directorate of the Sandinista Youth Front: It is made up entirely of young men in an organization where women make up 35 percent of the membership.

``They do this and no one says anything? There was no protest by the girls!'' one Sandinista exclaims. ``This never could have happened with us,'' before the revolution.

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