At the flashy MetroCenter mall on the outskirts of Managua, the Liz Claiborne store sells linen shirts at $100 each, an interior designer offers oak kitchen cabinets for $5,000 and Pizza Hut peddles two slices of pizza and a soft drink for $2.50. Guillermo Olivas opted for the pizza--and free escalator rides for his two daughters.

"It's beautiful to look at; it's good for Managua," said the 35-year-old welder one day last week as he watched his giggling young girls clamber up and down the first escalators they had ever seen. "But it's too expensive for Nicaraguans to buy anything here."

Twenty years after the Marxist-led Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew a dictatorship with some of the hemisphere's most ambitious promises of social and political reform--and nine years after U.S.-backed conservatives were elected on the strength of still more promises--Nicaragua remains poorer than ever and deeply splintered between haves and have-nots.

A Central American country with a turbulent history that was central to U.S. foreign policy in the 1980s, Nicaragua had all but disappeared from view in Washington until the devastation from Hurricane Mitch last October elicited a large infusion of money and attention. While the U.S. government funneled more than $1 billion in military aid and other assistance to the anti-Sandinista contra effort between 1982 and 1997, U.S. assistance to Nicaragua had dwindled to about $35 million annually before the hurricane struck, prompting U.S. Ambassador Lino Gutierrez to warn that Washington ignores the country "to our peril."

The Sandinista government took control here July 19, 1979, in the euphoria of a broadly supported revolution that toppled the hated Somoza family dictatorship known for cozy relations with the United States. It lost power at the polls in 1990, a bitter political defeat for President Daniel Ortega and the Cuban-style government he led. In between, the country was crippled by a civil war fueled by the U.S.-sponsored contra rebels, undermined by annual hyperinflation of up to 24,000 percent and steered into economic decline by an attempt to plant Marxism in largely hostile soil.

During the first six years after the Sandinistas were voted out of power, with the President Violeta Chamorro at the controls, Washington applauded Nicaragua's changed orientation, but poverty levels continued to climb under an unpopular administration seen as ineffective and divisive. Today, President Arnoldo Aleman, a right-wing businessman elected in 1996, is struggling to pull the country out of its two decades of turmoil and the Cold War conflict that shaped its image.

Aleman has sought to make Nicaragua a country where the MetroCenter can be full of customers. But to many Nicaraguans, who find themselves mired in poverty even as their Central American neighbors are slowly rising to higher economic levels, the new face of Managua does not go much deeper than the colonial-style facade of the mall, renovated six months ago.

"It's the illusion of this country," said Carlos Fernando Chamorro, 43, a newsweekly publisher and son of the former president who, like many here, has difficulty reconciling the glitz of new malls, hotels and restaurants sprouting across the capital with a nation whose poverty level is second only to Haiti in the hemisphere.

An estimated 70 percent of Nicaragua's population lives in poverty and more than half of the work force is unemployed or severely underemployed. Annual per capita income is $435, compared with $1,200 when the Sandinista rebels marched into Managua to the cheers of throngs of poor and middle class alike.

Foreign investors, fearful of weak government, corruption, poor markets and massive problems with obtaining legal property titles, have been far slower to move into Nicaragua than into other Central American countries. Private foreign capital investment in 1997 totaled a meager $113 million and only 25 U.S. companies are doing business in Nicaragua, according to U.S. State Department records.

Despite its economic morass, Nicaragua on the cusp of the next millennium is a far different nation from the one that spent the 1980s embroiled in a civil war. The battle lines drawn largely by U.S. foreign policy have become obscured, and old enemies have joined forces in a crusade to push Nicaragua into the global marketplace.

For example, a former contra political leader, who a little over a decade ago was meeting CIA agents to trade intelligence, now is invited to embassy parties to talk business in his new life as a real estate developer. The contras' chief fund-raiser, once labeled a "beast" who would never be allowed to return to Nicaragua, today is a member of the national congress who--on occasion--finds himself voting with Sandinista fighters turned lawmakers.

The U.S. ambassador, whose counterparts in the last decade were engaged in fueling a war, a trade embargo and plotting how to outmaneuver a sovereign nation's government, now spends his days negotiating agreements on intellectual property rights, stolen cars, drug interdiction and luring U.S. businesses.

The former vice president of the Sandinista government has bolted the party and last week published a tell-all book about what went wrong.

"We have a new democracy that is very fragile," said Sergio Ramirez, vice president in the 1980s and author of "Adios, Muchachos," and most recently, a visiting professor at the University of Maryland. "Now there is a different revolution, where ideology doesn't have much importance. It's a fight to respect laws and institutions and fight corruption."

In fact, ideology in the Nicaragua of 1999 is sometimes difficult to define.

"The country is a democracy," Aleman said in an interview in his presidential office, where shelves are filled with family photographs. "Of all the countries in Central America we are the most secure. There is no fear of crime. We respect elections. The army does not answer to the political parties. . . . There is no hyperinflation and growth is 6 to 7 percent."

Aleman has been dogged by repeated charges of corruption and allegations that he has used his office to augment the family wealth acquired before he was elected. It is a subject that prompts an angry denial: "That's disinformation."

Even more troubling to many Nicaraguans is the alliance Aleman appears to have formed with his archenemy Ortega, who leads the slowly fading, but still popular Sandinistas and is a member of congress. The two have conducted closed-door negotiations on changes in election laws and other constitutional revisions, which some observers view as a political attempt to preserve power within their own disgruntled ranks.

Although his luster has dimmed and many of his strongest supporters have deserted his party, Ortega can still summon hundreds of loyal followers to the streets with a few words. He commands loyalty from the nation's poorest voters in many pockets of the country. Major rallies are scheduled today in Managua and other Nicaraguan cities to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the revolution that overthrew 46 years of Somoza dictatorship.

And while more Nicaraguans are far poorer today than they were when the Sandinista revolution began, Ortega, 54, maintains that the movement he led left a strong legacy.

"There's frustration on the part of the poor population," Ortega told a group of reporters last week inside the large compound where exterior walls that were once painted in camouflage are now coated in the cheerful pastels of children's drawings. "But we brought the possibility for popular democracy. The people learned to value themselves as human beings through the triumph of the revolution. This has not been lost, and I don't believe it will be lost."

His comments differ little from those of Alfredo Cesar, a onetime Sandinista ally who later became a political leader of the contra rebels and now is a Managua real estate developer. "I'm not happy with the situation in Nicaragua," he said. "There was too much effort, too much blood and too much conflict for what we have now. We're worse off economically speaking, but we live in a democracy we didn't have 20 years ago. People have learned to use the vote, and they punish with the vote."

Across town, Adolfo Calero, a contra leader who spent years lobbying the U.S. Congress to support the movement, is now a member of Nicaragua's congress and has returned to his house that was confiscated by the Sandinista government in the 1980s and turned into its international press center. The walls are lined with mementos of the war years, including a Sandinista newspaper that brands him a CIA agent and a framed photograph of his appearance before the U.S. Congress during the Iran-contra hearings, inscribed by Oliver North to a "friend, freedom fighter and patriot."

"The country is still trying to figure out where to go and how to go about it," he said over the squawks of a pair of caged lovebirds.

CAPTION: Delia Olivas, 8, and sister Soary, 6, ride an escalator--the first they have seen--at a Managua mall. Most Nicaraguans can't afford to shop there.