Dozens of Nicaraguans called in each day this week to renew their subscriptions to the opposition newspaper La Prensa -- even though it has not come out for two weeks by order of the leftist Sandinista government.
Since the paper was closed June 26, leaving Nicaragua with no news medium independent of the government, expressions of support have poured in from Nicaraguan readers and foreign friends, according to publisher Violeta Chamorro. She is searching for ways to keep La Prensa's offices open to wait for the day when the paper can be published again.
"La Prensa is silenced but not closed," Chamorro said in an interview. "The paper has faced assassination, bombing and censorship. Somehow we always manage to rebuild."
"The Sandinistas are afraid of the written word," said the publisher whom many Sandinistas call "the bourgeois woman." She added: "Before La Prensa was closed we had half a democracy. Now that's all over."
Though determined to save the paper, Chamorro is pessimistic about Nicaragua's future. "It's dark," she said. "I can't see where we are going. I can't see where the Sandinistas are taking us."
A day after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve $100 million aid for the counterrevolutionary rebels, known as contras, the government suspended La Prensa indefinitely, saying it was "a mouthpiece for the interests of the aggressor power."
In a speech soon afterward, a top Sandinista leader, Bayardo Arce, praised the measure as a way of economizing scarce government resources.
"It was like practicing surgery on a serpent every day to take the poison out of its fangs," Arce said of the censorship that began more than four years ago. "The four people who did it can now dedicate themselves to productive tasks. We're saving paper, ink and electricity."
President Daniel Ortega said the paper can reopen "when the United States' aggression against us ends."
The government did not seize the paper's jerry-built Managua offices or arrest any staff workers. Most of the 260 employees were away on 15-day paid vacations this week. A few stayed to clean and grease the big presses, to keep them in running condition.
News director Horacio Ruiz, 57, after 42 years at the paper, paced day after day in the newsroom, as though copy would start flowing any minute.
"We can't just shut down and admit defeat," said editorial page editor Cristiana Chamorro, 32, the publisher's daughter. The paper was already running huge losses, and to keep everyone on would cost the family $330,000 this year. Most of the staff will have to be laid off.
But the family remembers that the paper was closed once for two years in 1944 by the first of three rulers in the now-fallen Somoza family dynasty. The Chamorros hope to find a publishing project to work on during what they view as a new hiatus.
Before La Prensa was closed, it had been reduced to a skimpy, sometimes sensational daily, mutilated by censorship. But Chamorro's home here, filled with family memorabilia, is replete with reminders of a more dignified, durable tradition practiced by the clan that has published the paper for 60 years.
The dark-eyed, white-haired matriarch of 56 described the strangling of La Prensa as gradual and painful.
The assassination on Jan. 10, 1978, of editor Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, Violeta's husband, was believed to have been ordered by ruler Anastasio Somoza. It galvanized Nicaraguans to overthrow Somoza 18 months later. On June 11, 1979, just before his fall, Somoza sent planes to bomb the paper.
Violeta Chamorro, who suffers from osteoporosis, a debilitating bone condition, served briefly as a member of the first Sandinista junta to take power after the July 1979 revolution. She resigned within months.
The censorship began with a state of emergency declared in March 1982. Under the Sandinistas the paper was closed by government order seven times for a total of 14 days. It closed two days due to harassment by pro-Sandinista demonstrators and 41 days when the censor left its editors too little to print.
In October 1982 news director Ruiz was kidnaped briefly and severely beaten by three pro-Sandinista thugs. Unknown assailants fired a rocket grenade into the building in 1984. No one was injured.
Chamorro's son, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Barrios, 34, became editor but finally sought exile in Costa Rica in November 1984. He said in a phone interview he was frustrated by the censorship and by government restrictions that prevented him from leaving and entering Nicaragua freely.
"Some people can tolerate more than others," his mother said. She repeated her resolve to remain in her homeland.
Early this year the government informed La Prensa that it could publish only six pages a day to save newsprint. Back in 1982 the Sandinista-controlled central bank would not authorize U.S. dollars for a $75,000 bill La Prensa owed to a New York-based Canadian paper firm, which had long provided its newsprint. After that the paper was forced to rely on the government for paper.
News director Pablo Antonio Cuadra decided to publish the government's new order with a note from him underneath saying, "This means the death of this newspaper." The censor, Capt. Nelba Blandon, authorized the publication of the order but not Cuadra's note. The staff decided not to print the paper that day.
Demand for the afternoon paper grew continuously, Chamorro maintains. But it held circulation to 65,000, unable to afford higher costs. Many potential subscribers were turned away.
La Prensa's history is full of ironies. Rosario Murillo, now wife of President Ortega, was the personal secretary of Chamorro's husband. Sandinista leader Arce was a reporter who, in the early '70s, wrote an admiring front-page profile of Nicaraguan Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who was a bishop at the time.
Strapped for resources, the paper limited itself in its final period mainly to reporting on opposition political figures, who are ridiculed in the two progrovernment papers, and on Obando , now the Sandinistas' most formidable opponent.
La Prensa sometimes showed poor taste. One famous series was about a statue of the Virgin Mary that was said to perspire.
The paper angered Sandinista authorities by digging up obscure stories just to make them look bad. One of its last reports was about tens of thousands of chickens that ate each other alive because government inspectors failed to feed them.
However, La Prensa was the only outlet for stories from foreign wire services. With the Catholic Church's radio barred from the air since October, Nicaraguans now have to rely on foreign radio stations to get information not homogenized by the government.
Chamorro, in the interview, scoffed at Sandinista officials' accusations that she called for military aid for the contras on a recent trip to the United States.
"That aid is foolishness," she said. "This is a war among Nicaraguans. Neither $100 million nor $300 million from the United States will solve it." The final editorial that was never printed said the aid would "increase the anguish, hunger and sacrifice of human lives in Nicaragua."
Chamorro carries a roll of toilet paper in her purse, which she brandishes as a symbol of protest against mounting shortages of goods in Managua. As a mother, Chamorro has kept channels open among her four children. Two are influential Sandinistas, one stayed with the paper and one is a spokesman for the contras.
On one wall in the musty library where her slain husband kept his books is a framed telegram dated May 1974 from a Nicaraguan poet, Jose Coronel Urtecho, now a bard of the Sandinistas. Wired the poet: "When La Prensa is closed, it is as if nothing were happening in the world, or as if everything were lies."