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That sense of political separation is common among members of the rapidly dwindling middle and upper classes in Nicaragua (pop. 2.9 million). Their feeling of disquiet about the country's future is loudly echoed by the Reagan Administration. In Washington's view, Nicaragua and its four-year-old Sandinista government have emerged as a new and threatening variety of Marxist-Leninist rule on the mainland of the Americas. The Reagan Administration has not hesitated to signal its concern by military means: a fleet of U.S. warships has been conducting "readiness exercises" off Nicaraguan shores, while 3,500 U.S. troops have assembled across the border in Honduras for the largest series of war games ever held in Central America. Most important, the U.S. is continuing to provide covert support to thousands of Nicaraguan insurgents, known as contras (counterrevolutionaries), whose hit-and-run attacks along Nicaragua's northern and southern borders have, according to the Sandinistas, claimed more than 700 lives. President Reagan has justified U.S. support for the contras by accusing the Sandinistas of having "betrayed" their countrymen, calling the junta members "counterfeit revolutionaries who wear fatigues and drive around in Mercedes sedans."
Four years after the popular uprising that overthrew the bloody and grasping dictatorship of Anastasio Somoza Debayle, Nicaragua is still lurching through an erratic political and social transformation, in which many of the ultimate goals of the regime are, at best, haphazardly defined. Consequently, Nicaragua abounds in paradox and ambiguity as its leadership claims to be launched upon a new experiment: an attempt to align Marxism-Leninism with the principles of political pluralism and democracy. Says a sympathetic American observer: "The Sandinistas really like to believe they have invented a new way, a laissez-faire, nonstructured Marxism in which people, if given a free choice, will naturally become more socialist."
While this may have been the intention of the Sandinistas, the reality is different. No one could deny that drastic social change of some kind was inevitable in Nicaragua after the 1979 revolution. Under Somoza, the country had an illiteracy rate (50%) and a health-care record (infant mortality: 46 per 1,000 live births) high even in a region notorious for its backwardness and poverty. The Sandinistas can claim with justification to have addressed at least some of Nicaragua's crying social needs.
One showcase of Sandinista popularity is Barrio Riguero (pop. 11,000), an eastern slum neighborhood of Managua that was the scene of serious street fighting against Somoza. Spray-painted revolutionary slogans adorn virtually every ramshackle wall. Pigs root through street trash, and mothers bathe squealing infants in concrete laundry sinks in cramped backyards. A notable change in the landscape, however, is a tiny, spotless health post in the district. In four modest examining rooms, crisply attired nurses provide basic diagnostic and preventive care for anyone who wants it, free of charge.