MANAGUA, NICARAGUA -- For 11 years under Sandinista rule, Nicaragua's children were weaned on the revolution and the party.
They learned that 'G' is for guerrilla and 'C' is for Carlos Fonseca, founder of the Sandinista Front. They sang the Sandinista hymn and saluted the Sandinista red-and-black flag. And just in case the message did not get through, their textbooks reminded them that good boys and girls belong to the Sandinista Children's Association.
Now, as Nicaragua's 1 million public school students prepare to return to their classes this week for the first semester of the post-Sandinista era, they are the focus of a looming struggle that could pose the next major test for the newly elected government of President Violeta Chamorro.
The stakes involve the most basic issues of Nicaragua's recent history: What did the revolution represent? How will it be judged by time? And in a society still bitterly divided, who will judge it?
"Schools under the Sandinistas were not schools, but centers of Sandinista propaganda," said Sofonias Cisneros, the new education minister. "They were taking students and turning them into soldiers of the revolution, promoting class hatred."
"We may have exaggerated the party aspect of the revolution," conceded Carlos Tunnermann, who was the Sandinista minister of education in the early 1980s. "But the basic values we taught were good."
The new government is determined to exorcise Sandino and his revolutionary legacy from the classroom. As a replacement, officials have decided to stress fundamental Christian and democratic values.
But the Sandinistas, who proved in a violent strike by public workers this month that they are ready to defend the "conquests of the revolution," are gearing up to resist. Their weapons include a majority of the nation's 30,000 teachers, many of whom got their jobs after being screened for ideological purity.
At eastern Managua's Angel Valentino Barrios school, named for a fallen hero of the revolution, Sandinista teachers outnumber pro-government teachers 17 to 3.
Despite an order by Chamorro that all Sandinista party imagery be removed from public buildings, photos of Fonseca and of Augusto Cesar Sandino, a rebel hero during the U.S. occupation of Nicaragua in the 1920s and eponym of the revolution, still hang on the wall of the main office. When school opens this week, a teacher said, students will be expected to sing the Sandinista hymn as well as the national anthem.
"We won't teach the generation of the future as if the struggle never took place," said Ricardo Danilo Espinoza, a 24-year-old teacher at the school. "We had a revolution. We must teach the historical reality of the country."
Government officials are taking a firm line but acknowledge that they face a daunting challenge in instituting their reforms. "The Sandinistas still control the system," said Cisneros.
To an outsider, the gathering storm over the curriculum seems just one of many challenges facing the school system. A tour of some of Managua's dilapidated schools, with their few sticks of broken chairs, dangling electrical wires and leaky roofs, reveals the overwhelming poverty of the system.
But upgrading the physical facilities of a system that includes 5,000 schools with a budget of just $30 million is slow work. New textbooks, on the other hand, are already being printed to replace the Sandinista books. The texts, called the "Blues and Whites" -- the colors of Nicaragua's flag -- are being published with the help of $4 million, earmarked for such a project, from the United States.
Sandinistas charge that the textbooks are being submitted to the U.S. Embassy for approval. The Chamorro government denies it.
The Sandinistas, like revolutionaries everywhere, began spreading the symbolism and mythology of their revolution in 1979, immediately upon ousting the Somoza family dictatorship that had ruled Nicaragua for 45 years.
Schools were named after fallen Sandinista heroes. New elementary texts -- called the "Carlitos," after Carlos Fonseca -- were designed with the help of Cuban advisers. Every child could recite the feats and wisdom of Sandino, renowned for battling U.S. Marines from his mountain redoubt during the occupation.
But the changes went even deeper. History courses took a Marxist line, emphasizing class struggle. Civics classes stressed the evils of capitalism and the benefits of socialism. "Yankee imperialism" was denounced, and sovereignty, autonomy and nonintervention proclaimed.
At the same time, the Sandinistas launched a literacy campaign that they say cut the nation's illiteracy rate drastically -- although the new government disputes that claim.
"The Sandinista revolution tried to transmit revolutionary values," said Tunnermann, the former education minister. "In designing our curriculum, we consulted with over 50,000 people as to how to produce the 'new man' " of Nicaragua's new society.
The Chamorro government's vision of the "new man" relies heavily on traditional Christian values, which the Sandinistas gave short shrift.
One focus of controversy in the proposed reforms is Humberto Belli, the new vice minister of education who is in charge of redesigning the curriculum.
Belli, a U.S.-trained sociologist, belongs to a small, charismatic Catholic sect known as the City of God. The Sandinistas have suggested that he is a religious fanatic bent on sneaking Catholicism into the classroom in defiance of Nicaragua's constitution, which calls for separation of church and state and bans religious classes during regular school hours in public schools.
A former Sandinista and a former Marxist, Belli grew disenchanted with the revolution before it triumphed and left the country to live in the United States.
There, he headed the Washington-based Puebla Institute, a fiercely anti-Sandinista human rights organization. He was also a tenured professor of sociology at a Catholic college in Ohio until this year. He returned to Nicaragua when Chamorro offered him the government job.
Belli and other education officials say they will ban references to political parties.
Belli also plans to commission a history textbook for secondary schools -- there is now only an elementary school text -- a project he acknowledges will ignite bitter debate. One way to blunt the criticism, he said, might be to include opposing interpretations of events surrounding the revolution and Sandinista rule. Merely presenting both sides, he said, "would be an eye-opener" in polarized Nicaragua.
Although Belli insists that his task is to "clean our system of propaganda," he makes no promise of ideological neutrality.
"We are not neutral," said Belli. "We do have a strong ideology, influenced by strong Christian values which we share with a lot of Nicaraguan people. . . . I don't harbor any illusions that you can depoliticize an educational system and make it value-free. But in contrast with the Sandinistas, we are not obsessed."
New classes, Belli said, will teach human rights, monogamy and what he calls a "a pro-life message." Like many American conservatives, he rejects moral relativism and secular humanism.