Four months after the fall of dictator Anastasio Somoza, the guerrilla-led government that replaced him fits no easy definition. It is neither communist, nor totalitarian, nor particulary democratic so far.

The Sandinista revolution has no "caudillo," no political strongman in the Latin tradition extending from Bolivar to Peron, through Castro and Pinochet.

Ruled for 45 years by the Somoza dynasty as a personal fiefdom, Nicaragua now is run by a committee.

On the surface at least, the country today enjoys an appearance of normalcy that was rare during the last two violence-filled years. Bombed-out factory skeletons and empty, looted stores are grim reminders of last summer's civil war. But the streets of Managua now bustle with traffic.

Much of the political grafitti that adorned walls throughout the country has been painted over; roads torn up to build guerrilla barricades have been repaired. Schools are reopened; restaurants and movies are back in business. After a long hiatus, the Coca-Cola plant is busily bottling, and the Esso refinery is producing gasoline.

But the change cut deep. A decades-old political and economic structure has been completely dismantled since july. In its place is a jumbled semi-socialism that is administered by a blend of leftist militants and U.S.-trained technocrats. Radical rhetoric fights a daily battle with harsh realities of life in this bankrupt Central American nation.

The Sandinist National Liberation Front, and the civilians it has appointed to help govern, claim not to know where this careful balance will lead.

"We have never worked according to a plan," said Bayardo Arce, one of nine Sandinista national directors. "We are climbing up a mountain, carving out a path with a machete."

As a movement with a somewhat amorphous set of nationalistic slogans, the Sandinistas have appointed themselves "the guarantors and judges of the revolution." While it remains unclear who is running this country, and by what rules, the Sandinista organization has placed itself in a position to do so, by any rules it wants.

Members of the nine-man directorate hold key positions in virtually every sector of the government. There are Sandinista-organized labaor and peasant organizations, a Sandinista women's movement and new Sandinista farm communes formed from expropriated Somoza land. Sandinista military commands parallel new civilian administrations in every municipality in the country.

But the sandinistas are not as monolithic as they seem. The directorate is a consensus group, created last year to include three leaders from each of three Sandinista factions -- historically divided over both personalities and socislist doctrine -- who decided that the war should be more quickly won if they fought it together.

One theory is that by dividing up power within the government, they have arranged a balance among the factions that keeps any one from dominating. Three men who once headed each of the three fractions -- Daniel Ortega, Jaime Wheelock and Tomas Borge -- are the leading candidates for those who speculate on the rise of a new "caudillo."

Ortega, 33, is the only guerrilla member of the executive junta that the Sandinistas appointed to administer Nicaragua. Stiff, unsmiling and given to harsh "anti-imperialist" statements in public, Ortega is described by both the government's civilian members and foreign diplomats as a shrewd pragmatist in private.

Wheelock is head of the new Nicaraguan Agrarian Reform Institute, controlling nearly half the country's arable land following exproporiation of Somoza-associated holdings. He is thus one of the most powerful men in Nicaragua. Soft-spoken and studious, he is known as a militant socialist scholar. But outsiders tend to consider Wheelock the most "intellectual" and "reasonable" of the Sandinistas.

The quiet, organized atmosphere of Wheelock's Agrarian Reform Institute starkly contrasts with the new Interior Ministry, where Borge reigns over a daily bedlam of hundreds of petitioners, most seeking jobs or the release of jailed relatives, and the noisy clatter of bodyguards' rifles and walkie-talkies. A patriarch of the Sandinista movement in his 50s, Borge is in charge of police and domestic security.

If there is conflict and competition within the directorate, or any attempts to push the revolution along a pre-ordained path, it is well hidden in public.

At the same time, the Sandinistas seem content to let the five-member junta administer on a day to day basis. The body, including Ortega, Businessman-politician Alfonso Robelo, poet-academician Sergio Ramirez, publisher Violeta Chamorro and physicist-union leader Moises Hasan, also operates bay coinsensus.

Making decisions by committee "gets irritating sometimes," said one businessman within the junta's 18-member Cabinet. "But the idea is that this way no one individual can take over and run things without the others' approval."

All profess at this point not to know what would happen if a serious policy conflict arose. "There hasn't been a crisis yet at the high levels of government," said one member of the junta.

As a Cabinet minister explained, the current economic crisis and the need to put the country back together again make for "limited available options on any particular issue."

At the same time, however, the government has put off elections indefinitely. It has postponed until May the creation of a promised legislative council, originally designed to include members of other political groups who would provide a check and balance for the junta.

The government maintains that the original makeup of the council, conceived to reflect wartime coalitions, is no longer an accurate reflection of political reality and that the list will have to be reworked. It also argues there is neither time nor energy at this point for the risky business of electoral politics.

Nicargua's minority political groups, while professing strong support for the Sandinista revolution, are not particularly happy with their own lack of influence and access. "We all put ourselves on the line in the opposition" to Somoza, said one unhappy politician, "and now they get to decide who's a real revolutionary."

Within the government, few deny that divisions remain under the surface, both the Sandinista directorate and the junta and between the two groups. Those who are optimistic about the process believe that normalcy will provide its own impetus toward bringing those divisions into the open, pushing the country toward democracy.

When the triumphant and confident Sandinistas marched into Managua last July, they promised to be kind to their enemies, generous in redistributing the nation's wealth to the long-suffering masses and protective of private property.

But the Sandinistas took over a country with problems that could cause even the most well-intentioned, well-organized administration to stagger. c

Their enemies are part of the problem. Nighttime gun battles with what the government says are renagade Somoza soldiers and ultra-left radicals who find the revolution's pace too slow still cost several Sandinista lives each week.

Despite the dire warnings of Somoza and some U.S. policymakers, there were no mass executions. But as real security problems and a high level of psychological and political insecurity continue, more than 5,000 former National Guard soldiers, along with approximately 2,000 mostly uncharged civilians picked up for suspected and vaguely defined "counterrevolution," remain in jail.

Borge argues that none is mistreated, and that Somoza-style torture, which he himself suffered in National Guard prisons, is gone forever. Visits to the prisons seem to bear him out.

But no one in the government has seemed in a very big hurry to do anything about the prisoners. While the number of government employes has risen from 50,000 under Somoza to 80,000 (including employees of nationalized companies), "there is a lack of resources, and a lack of organizataion," Borge said.

"We have to document each prisoner, and interrogate them. There have to be trusted, trained people to do it, and those people are doing other things right now."

Although there is a popular clamor to punish the dictator's henchmen, the rather haphazard arrest and still largely nonexistent judicial system are cause for anxiety. "Don't say I told you all this," said one businessman whose cousin was denounced by a neighbor and jailed for a month for allegedly having had friends in the Somoza government. "They'll say I'm a counterrevolutionary, too."

Arrests do occur without orders. Non-Somoza farms and businesses outside the capital sometimes are seized by peasants and workers, often led by Sandinista soldiers despite junta decrees protecting private property. These occurrences usually are attributed to continuing chaos and lack of centralized control.

In some cases of illegal land occupation, a Sandinista or junta leader will rush to the site, reprimand local authorities, and persuade the occupiers to move along. But in other cases, little is done.

"There were lots of little revolutions here," said a civilian member of the junta, "and now there are lots of mini-governments. This is supposed to be an army of the people; it's hard to tell them to throw peasants, especially hungry ones, off the land."

While "things are better than I expected them to be," he said, "and the highest levels of government are generally responsible and mature, the second and third levels leave a lot to be desired in terms of organization, discipline and ability. And it's true that the injustices and abuses haven't stopped.

The government often seems to resent outside and local preoccupation with the prisoner issue. Although Sandinista leaders met with a group of prisoners' wives and mothers who held a September hunger strike protesting the imprisonments without trial, they seemed annoyed.

However, the government has invited the Organization of American States' Human Rights Commission, which last year accused Somoza of mass murder, to conduct an on-site investigation here. It is scheduled for January.

Most Nicaraguans get closest to the revolution at the neighborhood level, where the establishment of local Sandinista Defense Committees is perceived as either the worst or best thing that ever happened to residents.

"There is no counterrevolution from the right," one high-level civilian member of the government said. "But the left accuses us of still favoring the bourgeoisie. To shut them up, you can call the left counterrevolutionary, but in order to keep yourself from getting the same tag, you have to accuse the right at the same time."

Arce disagreed, in part. "We don't want to give too much importance to our enemies, but there is a plan . . . to create an image of instability. There are people always looking for faults . . . emphasizing the negative."

Nearly without exception, government officials admit there are problems, but express their faith that things are turning out well. They ask repeatdly for sympathy and patience from the rest of the world.

"What we are clearly headed toward," one junta member said, "is some kind of socialist system, with guaranteed political and social rights. All the problems, all the contradictions you see, concern how to get from here to there."

The committees, according to Borge, are the "visible face of the revolution." Formed by underground militants in some neighborhoods during the war to distribute food and medicine as well as propaganda and combat training, they were quickly adopted by the new government as the basic grassroots organization.

"They are spies watching out for anyone who talks a little bad about the government," said one resident of Bolonia, an upper-class Managua neighborhood of walled villas and wide patios. "Even to get a driver's license, you need a letter from them saying you're not a counterrevolutionary." l

In Monsenor Lescano, a barrio where small adobe houses run along unpaved city roads, a different view emerges. One committee has concentrated its efforts on cleaning up the trashfilled street and pruchased communal corner garbage cans. Another organized a field trip by bus to Rivas, a southern city heavily damaged during the war, which for many residents was their first trip outside Managua.

The political militancy of any one committee seems primarily to depend on who is leading it. One recent circular appeared on the streets advising neighborhood residents to "form strict vigilance committees . . . watching who enters and leaves the houses of your friends. Follow them . . . they may be counterrevolutionaries."

"We didn't publish that," Sandinista leader Arce said, "It was counterrevolutionary elements, trying to create a negative image of the revolution."

Still, commentators in recent issues of La Prensa, the nation's main oppositiopn newspaper under Somoza and now its largest independent daily, have criticized a "disturbing" increase in the use of the word "counterrevolution" as a label for anything the government does not like or finds uncomfortable.

But a Western diplomat expressed the fears of many looking in from the outside. "They better be careful what kind of meat they throw to the crowds," he said of the counterrevolutionary label. "The crowds may begin to eat them, too."