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A different kind of novelty in Barrio Riguero is the network of block associations, known as Sandinista Defense Committees (C.D.S.), that blankets the neighborhood. Modeled on similar organizations in Cuba, the committees provide a Sandinista-controlled conduit for a variety of needs, like monitoring local health-care requirements. But the committees also provide a means to disseminate Sandinista propaganda, call pro-government political rallies and arbitrate mundane neighborhood disputes.
The C.D.S. function that arouses the most concern is "revolutionary vigilance," meaning that committee volunteers keep careful tabs on every movement in the area. Suspicious activities are reported to the police and the local Sandinista chain of command. Government officials describe the C.D.S. as being little different from a U.S. block association. According to others, however, revolutionary vigilance is used to call out Nicaragua's highly organized security police and to unleash Sandinista mobs against anyone who is labeled a counterrevolutionary. Says a young Sandinista in a classically Orwellian turn of phrase: "There is no repression in Nicaragua. Just people keeping an eye on each other."
In El Dorado, a tidy, single-family haven of the Nicaraguan managerial middle class, just across the highway from Barrio Riguero, there is little enthusiasm for the system. Many El Dorado residents spurn the social welfare services of the block committees. But they seem acutely aware that the vigilance system is active. One El Dorado householder, the manager of a local pharmaceutical plant, chooses his words carefully as he says, "I am not an enemy of the revolution, but I am not in agreement with it." The manager testifies to the group pressure that the C.D.S. can bring to bear on dissidents. Says he: "If you are not a Sandinista, it is a crime: they call you a reactionary. There is no freedom of speech."
Other ambiguous benefits are attached to another area where the government claims to have made social strides: education. One of the earliest Sandinista triumphs was a "popular literacy campaign" in which thousands of teachers brought the Nicaraguan illiteracy rate down to a mere 12% in one year. The government now claims that 1 million Nicaraguans of all ages are enrolled in some kind of education program, up from 500,000 in 1979. But the system is suffering from rapid expansion: poorly educated teachers, too few textbooks, no paper. The consequences have been severe. Last year 53% of Nicaraguan first-graders were not promoted.