Weary of war, militancy and economic hardship, an increasing proportion of everyday Nicaraguans has grown disenchanted with the Sandinista revolution that five years ago was embraced by a cheering nation.
The mood here has shifted, particularly during the past year, from grumbling in general over the nation's difficulties to blaming them on the Sandinista leaders. As a result, there has been a swift decline in the number of Nicaraguans willing to accept Sandinista assertions that the United States alone is responsible for near collapse in the economy and guerrilla warfare in the mountains.
The growing disillusionment does not appear to have been translated into widespread open support for the U.S.-backed guerrillas fighting to overthrow the Sandinistas. At the same time, an active group of Sandinista militants and thousands of Nicaraguans who have benefited from their policies continue to support the revolutionary government.
But disappointment, evident in conversations with Nicaraguans around the country, seems to have robbed the Sandinistas of much of their support among a broad swath of the population that had backed the revolution against the late Anastasio Somoza and that had remained enthusiastic for change without being militantly Sandinista.
"Everybody was with them," said a sidewalk vendor in the northern town of Esteli who helped make barricades for Sandinista fighters during the 1979 insurrection. "But then they kicked out everyone who was not one of them. It is different now. They said everything would be liberty and abundance. They deceived the people. Look at things now. It was a trick."
The student son of a small cotton farmer in the fertile western plains of Chinandega, who taught as a volunteer in a Sandinista literacy campaign four years ago, commented: "The Sandinistas painted a picture, but something different came out."
A vegetable merchant in Masaya, a southwestern town that was a Sandinista stronghold during the civil war, recalled that Somoza's National Guard once surrounded her home and searched it because of allegations that her two sons were backing the rebels. Recently, she said, smiling apparently at the irony, Sandinista security police did the same thing, this time because of allegations the sons were hiding a counterrevolutionary.
Neither suspicion was true, she added, but one son is now hiding from the Sandinista military draft. Similarly, her two daughters, 18 and 22, went off to the mountains in Sandinista youth brigades to pick coffee last year, she said, but found the work so rough that they have resolved to stay home this year in spite of a campaign to get students to volunteer.
"They Sandinista militants are still saying no pasaran," she said, referring to a famous revolutionary vow that the enemy will not succeed. "We'll see."
Guerrillas seeking to overthrow the government, who are referred to in the government-controlled press as "U.S. mercenaries," are closely identified here with the Central Intelligence Agency, and often are described in casual conversations as "the enemy." But conversations with Nicaraguans, at least in cities outside the war zones, occasionally produced indirect endorsement of their efforts.
"For me, maybe the solution is to have all those outside the country come back to their places," said a dark-skinned woman having a sandal repaired in the indoor market of Leon.
A friend nearby said that as a maid in the family home she regularly saw Carlos Fonseca, the slain Sandinista hero and theoretician, as he sneaked into the country in disguise during Somoza's days. Now, she suggested, maybe it is time for such tactics once again.
"Others can come in the same way," she said.
A 16-year-old farm youth in Matagalpa, a central region of frequent insurgent attacks, said he had just registered for the draft and expected to be called up soon to fight, but added: "I am for nobody."
Of his imminent opponents, the U.S.-backed guerrillas, he declared: "Among them there are good ones and bad ones."
Tomas Borge, the interior minister and revolutionary patriarch who with Fonseca helped found the Sandinista National Liberation Front in 196l, acknowledged this month a "decline in enthusiasm" for the revolution. He depicted the shift as a natural reaction to economic and social sacrifices caused by the U.S.-financed war and Reagan administration pressure.
He declared that it is "not a problem," since all revolutions have their ups and downs in popular zeal. "The people are exhausted," he said.
Borge's ministry has avoided stifling these increasingly public complaints. Instead, a marked loosening of press censorship in anticipation of national elections scheduled Nov. 4 has had the opposite result. Nicaraguans, traditionally eager to talk about their lives, recently have seemed more willing than in the past to talk with foreigners about frustrations and even opposition to Sandinista rule. But most appeared more comfortable remaining anonymous.
The most common complaints long have revolved around the faltering economy, starved for foreign exchange because of low prices for Nicaraguan exports, such as sugar and coffee, and U.S. pressure to block loans in international financial institutions. In addition, hard currency and agricultural manpower have been diverted to the military to meet the guerrilla threat, depleting the treasury and blunting production.
As shortages have increased, so has the volume of the complaints. One month toothpaste was absent from the market. Another month it was toilet paper. For those too poor to resort to the black market, powdered milk, meat and even beans and rice have at times been hard to get in government-run stores with controlled prices.
"Before, there were rich people, and you could work for them," said a woman selling live chickens at the Masaya market one recent morning. "Now there is only the state."
A waitress, asked for coffee, looked around for a saucer, then lamented: "People complain about the service. But we can't give service. First this is missing. Then that is missing."
At a hospital in Jinotepe, women rummaged through the garbage recently to salvage medicine thrown out by doctors because it was out of date. Masaya residents joked that their new hospital was named San Geronimo because that saint was famous for effecting cures without medicine.
Felipe Valdivia, regional member of the National Union of Farmers and Cattlemen in the Esteli area, warned that this fall's coffee crops would have to stay in the fields unless the Transport Ministry gets farmers new truck tires quickly.
Delegates to a Latin American Energy Organization meeting earlier this month found out firsthand about Nicaragua's energy problems -- the electricity went out in their hotel. The outage also interrupted live transmission of a speech to the U.N. General Assembly by Daniel Ortega, the chief of state and Sandinista presidential candidate.
Responding to complaints about similar degeneration in telephone service, Bismark Rodriguez, regional director for Managua's 29,000 phones, told a local newspaper that the problem stems from U.S. and West German refusal to approve loans for new exchanges.
But in what appears to be a departure, many disgruntled Nicaraguans recently have begun to wonder whether the Sandinista government and its revolutionary process should share the blame along with U.S. economic restrictions and the U.S.-financed guerrillas.
"Even in the trade unions, the leaders are beginning to ask questions," said a pro-Sandinista employe of the Agriculture Ministry hitchhiking on the road to Esteli.
A government agronomist blamed what he called "political immaturity" by the Sandinistas. Noting that his brother was recently killed during an insurgent raid in the northern mountains, he said the Sandinista leaders were at fault because "they are always looking for trouble."
"I work for the government, but I am not with them," he said, looking quickly at a Sandinista soldier lounging in a Soviet-made jeep down the street. "They have gone straight from the farm to the war to running the country. The whole thing is madness. We have had our fill of politics. It's madness."
The military draft, which aims at incorporating 30,000 youths by the end of the year, has crystallized much of the earlier economic discontent, turning it political, according to Nicaraguan and foreign observers. The law, openly criticized by the Roman Catholic Church hierarchy, required 200,000 youths between 16 and 22 to register last January.
Conscription began early this summer, setting off one large demonstration and a number of smaller ones by parents unwilling to send their sons to the Army. Reflecting official concern over the reaction, the Defense Ministry formed a special brigade this month to enforce observance of the draft laws and discipline in the ranks.
The government's dispute with the church hierarchy, a major confrontation in this strongly Catholic country, seemed rarely to come up in conversations with Nicaraguans, despite intense interest abroad.
For the traditionally devout, however, it has reinforced their doubts, particularly since Pope John Paul II was shouted down during his visit here in March 1983. The Sandinistas' most eminent clerical opponent, Msgr. Miguel Obando y Bravo, archbishop of Managua, has become almost a cult figure to the faithful of his church in a comfortable suburb.
The church choir, replete with electric guitar and snare drums, has started singing hand-clapping hymns to "Monsignor Miguel" along with the Virgin Mary and the pope.
Virgilio Godoy, who resigned recently as labor minister to run for president against the Sandinistas, said he warned them last year that a military draft would provoke widespread unhappiness because it had never been tried in Nicaragua. The nine-member Sandinista Front directorate decided that the measure was necessary, however, because of fears that the Reagan administration plans to expand its support for the estimated 10,000 rebels.
An unknown number of Nicaraguan youths have since fled the country to avoid the draft. Immigration lawyers in Miami report that draft-age youths have become their most numerous clients, replacing businessmen.
Sandinista authorities recently broke up a ring arranging fraudulent Costa Rican visas. A dozen youths attending a joint Central American independence day ceremony on the Costa Rican border last month bolted from the crowd and dashed across to Costa Rica, where they sought political asylum.
Others have gone into hiding. Some secondary school principals have reported a sharp drop in attendance. One youth, who has refused to report for conscription, said that of his home-room class at the University of Central America in Managua, only seven boys remain from a count of 23 last year. The others are in the Army or hiding from it, he explained.
A Latin American diplomat with broad contacts in the Sandinista government said many of these Nicaraguans and their parents seem to feel they are being called on to make sacrifices for a cause they have become unsure of. In addition, he said, there is a growing impression among Nicaraguans that the Sandinista leadership is not making the same sacrifices.
A number of Sandinista officials have moved into luxurious homes vacated by and often confiscated from wealthy Nicaraguans who fled the revolution. Witnesses reported these and lower ranking officials often have bought expensive perfumes and toys for their families during travel abroad.
Officials have argued that the occupied houses were those most readily available. But to a people suffering severe hardships, these arguments have begun to pale, the diplomat said, and Godoy has seized on the issue as a political weapon with Latin gusto.
"There are those who occupy the great mansions that the Somocistas left who say those who do not go to fight, it is because they are cowards," he said last week in a political rally at Esteli. "This is another monstrous lie. We could overlook the fact that they live in mansions, and enjoy banquets and trips abroad, but let them not force youths to immolate themselves for a cause that is not theirs."
Next: The militants