Norman L. Wolfson is, in his own words, "a flack" - a combination public relations-press agent whose job is to "understand the media" and help the media understand his client.
For the past three weeks, Wolfson, chairman of a New York public relations firm, has been helping the media understand Nicaraguan President Anastasio Somoza. Hired last September by the Somoza government for promotional purposes, he arrived here as the country entered a paralyzing nationwide strike of offices, stores, factories and farms that culminated in demands for Somoza's resignation on grounds of alleged corruption, mismanagement and human rights abuses.
After arranging for daily 8 a.m. briefings with the president on the strike situation, Wolfson, in tropical whites and sports shirt, set up shop in Managua's Intercontinental Hotel and prepared to meet the press.
By the time he began to pack up this week, the strike had largely disintegrated and Somoza was still firmly in power. Wolfson had arranged and sat through Somoza interviews with representatives of virtually all of the major U.S. newspapers and television networks. He had briefed more than 40 correspondents including reporters from the leading U.S. news magazines and radio stations and from many Latin American countries.
For the reporters, it all made excellent copy: the shuttered doors and factories, the earnest and self-sacrificing strikers, government clashes with leftist guerrillas, and interviews with Somoza himself.
For both the Somoza backers and the strikers, the U.S. front pages and television screens were a major front in the battle.
Somoza, a West Point graduate with a number of U.S.-related business interests and friends, acknowledged in an interview that "it would be absurb to say" he did not need outside help for Nicaragua's development.
Perhaps the closest thing in Central America to a U.S. economic colony, outside of the Panama Canal Zone, Nicaragua and the four-decade Somoza dynasty have been strong U.S. allies and have been among the leading per capita recipients of U.S. military and economic support in this part of the world.
Somoza's opposition, long antagonistic to and suspicious of that support, has been encouraged by the recent human rights militancy of Congress and the Carter administration. The opposition believes that total U.S. repudiation of Somoza, along with recent aid cutoffs, could be a fatal blow to the government.
The last media event in Nicaragua, whose Iowa-size territory has a population of 2.2 million, was a 1972 earthquake that took about 6,000 lives and left 300,000 homeless.
For the most part, Nicaragua has been subjected to only intermittent scrutiny by a U.S. press corps, whose interest in Central America peaked with the launching of the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba from Nicaraguan shores.
In the intervening years, the country and Somoza have prospered at about the same rate as widespread popular dissatisfaction with government has increased. Outside concern began in 1975, with the alleged murder of a number of peasants.
Denying reports of National Guard involvement, Somoza maintained that the troops were combating terrorists of the Sandinista Liberation Front, a Marxist group that takes its name from a 1930s rebel who died fithting the U.S. Marine occupation that brought Somoza's father to power.
The even prompted U.S. congressional hearings on aid to Nicaragua with testimony from Somaza's opponents. A subsequent series of primarily critical press reports on Somoza, the National Guard and his family, including his 26-year-old Harvard educated son "Tachito," a National Guard major, have not "been entirely fair" to Somoza, Wolfson said.
Nicaragua employs a former Florida congressman, William C. Cramer, as a congressional lobbyist and runs an information office in Washington. Unlike a number of other foreign governments, though, it had not employed a U.S. public relations firm until recently.
The press, Wolfson said, was always "ready to knock (Somoza) down" with detailed reports of his wealth, his authoritarianism and his government's alleged abuses of citizens, with little mention of Somoza's side of the story.
Wolfson, who also works for Mexican President Jose Lopez Portillo, said that in his first meeting with Somoza he chided the president for declining to speak to antagonistic reporters and for his lack of personal acquaintance with such major American publishers as Arthur Ochs Sulzberger of The New York Times and Katharine Graham of The Washington Post.
Wolfson sid he told Somaz, "if you've got something to say, get the toughest guys in here, organize it and say it."
In an interview Monday, Somoza characterized the shutdown by business leaders as the fitht of "the elite who have gotten rich at the expense of my administration."
He noted that his government, which he described as "socialist" and "anti-communist," puts "66 percent of the budget" into public projects and utilities.
He denied reports of National Guard abuses. "I think we have shown remarkable restraint," during the strike, he said.
Events leading to the strike began last October, when Sandinista guerrillas launched attacks across Nicaragua's borders from neighboring Honduras and Costa Rica and were met with significant popular support. Last month, when opposition leader and publisher Pedro Joaquin Chamorro was gunned down on a Managua street, most Nicaraguans, including moderate businessmen, joined in a protest strike.
Businessmen said they wanted an independent judicial system instead of having all judges appointed by Somoza.
The businessmen also aksed for an apolitical and professional National Guard, the country's only armed force, which is now headed by Somoza's half-brother. They sought an end to administrative bribery and fair competitive with Somoza-owned businesses.
For two weeks, more than 80 per cent of Nicaragua's business and industry shut their doors, with many of the managers continuing to pay striking employes. For two weeks, reporters and camera crews in rented cars passed each other up and down the narrow asphalt roads leading to striking towns within the 50-mile radius of Managua where nearly half of the population lives.
Under the glare of National Guard troops, the reporters - often with halting or nonexistent Spanish - listened to peasants and shopkeers repeat the strike's slogan and goal: "Down with Somoza."
Occasionally, the glares escalated into confrontation and at least three reporters, a Mexican and two Guatamalans, reportedly were beaten with rifle butts in a nearby town.
A picture of the Mexican's bruised back appeared the following day in La Prensa, the opposition newspaper published by the family of the slain Chamorro and the de facto headquarters for opposition information during the strike.
Since the end of three years of press censorship last September, La Prensa has waged an unrelenting anti-Somoza campaign. Its opponent is the Somoza-owned Novedades, Nicaragua's other daily newspaper.
La Prensa and Novedades waged their own media war, vying each day for he goriest photos of beaten and wounded peasants, or bodies of National Guardsmen slain in guerrilla combat.
At night, while Nicaraguan housewives demonstrated by banging pots and pans in the streets, the foreign reporters gathered at the Intercontinental. It is virtually the only first-class lodging left standing in post-earthquake managua. In the style of a fictional Graham Greene center of tropical intrigue, it has long been the seat of international activities in this small capital.
There, the reporters dicussed the day's events with Wolfson, occasional drop-ins from the U.S. Embassy, and opposition spokesmen.
During on particularly productive evening session, "Tachito" Somoza stopped by in military fatigues for a two-hour chat in front of the cameras. In American-accented English, the man La Prensa calls Nicaragua's "apprentice dictator" said he has no interest in perpetuating the family dynasty.
"I'm a soldier," he said. "I don't have any political aspirations. I've seen the suffering that comes with a political family."
While public passion against Somoza continues to smolder, and oppostion leaders vow to fan the flames again, the strike began to fall apart last weekend when most businessmen decided to reopen.
Announcing its official end Tuesday, the pro-government station Radio-X noted that "the foreign journalists have gone home disillusioned" with the failure of the Somoza government to fall and with their "high hotel bills."