Nicaraguans in Miami Wait in the Wings

IN the months since Violeta Barrios de Chamorro's election in Nicaragua, the flow of new Nicaraguan students into the Dade county public schools has continued just as before - about 20 a day. The electoral defeat of the socialist Sandinistas may have prepared the way for a new era in Nicaragua. But it has not changed the flow to Miami of a human tide comparable in size and impact to the Mariel boatlift of Cubans in 1980.

Of more than 100,000 Nicaraguans now living in Dade County, only a relative handful - some exiles guess a couple thousand - are seriously ready to return.

``At this moment,'' says Juan Wong, an owner of a prominent restaurant in Miami and a Nicaraguan, ``only fools go back, or an adventurer.''

Skepticism runs strong about democracy in Nicaragua. ``The exile community here is in suspense and with some doubts,'' says Jose Medina-Cuadro, a former leading lawyer in Nicaragua now living in Miami and active in exile politics. ``Not many people will move, only people with a way of life established here [in the US] so they won't get stuck there.''

The attitude in Miami is to wait to see if democracy stabilizes. Concerns among expatriates include:

Political persecution by institutions still controlled by Sandinistas. Many exiles have been active in contra politics.

Whether property confiscated by the Sandinistas will be returned to the original owners, and whether property ownership can be secure. In recent months, the Sandinistas have issued weapons to peasants occupying confiscated farmland.

Whether the economy can be rebuilt and jobs created.

``It's a foggy, fuzzy situation,'' says Miami banker and Nicaraguan exile Ernesto Rivas. Mr. Rivas, whose father founded the Nicaraguan newspaper La Prensa, hopes to return and start a newspaper - but not yet.

The most likely approach to returning is for businessmen to leave their families and businesses in Miami while attempting ventures in Nicaragua. But most Nicaraguans here don't have the resources to return. Immigrants often spent their last money on the trip north and have little to sustain them back in Nicaragua. Many support relatives in Nicaragua with dollars earned in the US.

Those making plans to return fit three types, says Wong: Those who have done well in the US and discuss starting businesses in Nicaragua, frustrated professionals who are severely underemployed in the US, and peasants who would be far more comfortable in their home regions if there was work.

Many Nicaraguans have an ambiguous, precarious status in the US after having applied for political asylum, making them ``out of status aliens'' who have ``entered without inspection,'' according to Immigration and Naturalization Service spokesman Duke Austin. Yet they are not altogether illegal.

In the 1980s, the Nicaraguans played out some high political dramas here. The headquarters of the contras is still in a cheap office building behind Miami airport, across from the once CIA-owned air cargo carrier used to supply the contras when the government was barred from doing so.

The Carriage Club nearby was the occasional scene of parliamentary-style elections of the Contra directorate, packed for hours of politicking with news cameras, the international press, and scores of Nicaraguan politicians. Now the place is a quiet bar and seafood restaurant.

Mr. Medina-Cuadra says he still believes in the importance of exile politics. The wealth of the exiles, their distrust of Nicaraguan politics, and their relative unity in favor of democracy, he says, will help them keep Nicaraguan democracy honest.

Few are willing to count the Sandinistas out of power yet. For one, they still hold the weapons and control the army. Also, notes Mr. Rivas, many of the people in Mrs. Chamorro's government - including Chamorro - served in the first Sandinista government 10 years ago before they were forced out or resigned.

Nicaraguans here expect to watch Chamorro's course for at least six months before considering returning, says Wong.

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