MANAGUA, NICARAGUA, DEC. 23 -- Amid the bright Christmas decorations and well-stocked displays of Managua's main diplomatic store, foreigners and Nicaraguans with dollars shopped for gifts ranging from American refrigerators and big-screen televisions to toy laser guns and GI Joe dolls.
There and at an adjacent U.S.-style supermarket, stocked with everything from bologna to imported canned soups, the shoppers handed over their U.S. dollars, the only currency accepted. They received their change from American cash registers in U.S. and Panamanian coins.
On the other side of town, at the Supermercado del Pueblo, rows of empty or sparsely stocked shelves and decorations that consisted mainly of red-and-black Sandinista National Liberation Front banners somehow failed to convey the same holiday spirit. About 100 women were lined up at counters inside this Supermarket of the People to buy inexpensive Christmas toys and laundry soap, both in short supply.
Asked if she has access to the diplomatic store, a woman in the toy line answered, "Who, us? Only the rich can go there." Holding up a wad of 1,000-cordoba notes, each worth 3 cents at the black market exchange rate, she added, "They won't accept these bills there."
Although Sandinista leaders say they waged their 1979 revolution for Nicaragua's workers and are committed to a classless society, Nicaragua today is developing into a socially divided land of haves and have-nots: those who have dollars and those who do not.
With inflation estimated at up to 1,500 percent and the cordoba losing value daily, Nicaraguans without dollars are at a severe disadvantage. Since the imported cordoba notes cost the government 2.5 cents each, soon even the 1,000-cordoba bills can be expected to join lower denominations in a dubious distinction: literally not worth the paper they are printed on.
In the have-dollar category are not only diplomats and other foreigners, but senior Sandinista Army, party and government officials. Through various means they receive, directly or indirectly, at least part of their salaries in U.S. dollars. They have access to diplomatic stores and often can buy American currency or big-ticket imported items at cordoba exchange rates as low as 70 to the dollar, compared to the current black-market rate of nearly 30,000 to the dollar.
Among those who live in the comfort of this economy are President Daniel Ortega, his brother Defense Minister Humberto Ortega, Foreign Minister Miguel d'Escoto and Interior Minister Tomas Borge.
"It is a very class-ridden society in the way this has developed," a diplomat said.
According to diplomats and military sources, military officers with the rank of captain and above can obtain Soviet-made Lada cars for the equivalent of about $600, and majors and colonels are eligible for similar prices on Toyota Land Cruisers.
It costs ordinary Nicaraguans about $3,000 to buy a Lada from the exclusive dealer, the Sandinistas' H & M (Heroes and Martyrs) Corp., a state company that imports goods sold at dollar stores, according to diplomats.
Many of these goods come in through Panama, where Sandinista front companies buy American spare parts and other items despite a U.S. trade embargo, government officials said. The embargo has served to raise costs for the Sandinistas, but has been largely ineffective in denying them U.S. products, diplomats said.
Among those in the market for imported luxury items this time of year are government officials who receive bonuses in the form of vouchers that they can use during hours reserved for them at Managua's main diplomatic store.
The dollar stores -- there are now at least 10 around the country -- originally were for foreign diplomats, but in the past three years the government has given more than 16,000 Nicaraguans permission to shop in them as well, officials said.
At a time of economic hardship, use of the dollar store is one the few perquisites Sandinistas can give their supporters.
Besides Sandinista officials, others in the have-dollar society include the relatives of an estimated 250,000 Nicaraguans living in the United States, who send home an estimated $50 million a year in remittances. In addition, the government recently has felt obliged to pay some farmers and fishermen at least partly in dollars to encourage production and prevent such practices as lobster smuggling.
Ever since former rebel commander Eden Pastora threatened to throw the Sandinista Front's nine top leaders "out of their mansions and Mercedes-Benzes" in 1982, Sandinista leaders have shown sensitivity about charges that they enjoy lavish lifestyles. Among the sensitive has been President Ortega, who lives well by Nicaraguan standards but relatively modestly compared to other Latin American presidents.
Ortega lives with Rosario Murillo and their eight children in a comfortable ranch-style house that formerly belonged to a banker. Because it is situated behind high walls in a large, heavily guarded compound, many Nicaraguans believe the house is bigger and more luxurious than it actually is.
"I don't think it's an ostentatious house, yet these things are always being said about us," Ortega said of the allegations in a recent interview in Playboy magazine.
Ortega appears particularly sensitive about his purchase during a visit to New York in 1985 of more than $3,500 worth of eyeglasses. He and Murillo have said repeatedly that wealthy American friends, who have not been identified, arranged the visit to the optical shop and paid for the glasses. But that has not stopped President Reagan from referring to Ortega as a "dictator in designer glasses."
East Indian writer Salman Rushdie, in a book sympathetic to the Sandinistas, described a visit to the Ortega household this way: "I entered a rambling bungalow of many verandas and large numbers of carved wooden rocking chairs . . . . Children's toys, and indeed children, were everywhere."
Foreign Minister d'Escoto lives in a well-appointed house with a renowned art collection in a Managua suburb.
Humberto Ortega has been the subject of recent charges by a former Sandinista Army major who was his top staff aide, Roger Miranda Bengoechea. Although he has a reputation as an ascetic, Humberto Ortega is said to maintain a plush life style and to possess several houses and cars.
In interviews arranged and monitored by the State Department, Miranda said he personally managed a Swiss bank account for the defense minister, who had diverted nearly $1.5 million from ministry funds into the account since the 1979 revolution.
According to the defector, other top officials, including President Ortega, Interior Minister Tomas Borge and Agrarian Reform Minister Jaime Wheelock, also maintain foreign bank accounts.
As a Sandinista Army major, Miranda also benefited from the privileges enjoyed by officers, senior party and government officials and highly valued technicians in the Sandinista system. He lived rent-free in a large, walled-in villa outside Managua, had two Toyotas and a driver and did not have to pay for gasoline, electricity or other services, he has said.