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Hope Glimmers In Battered Nicaragua

April 28, 1990

MANAGUA, Nicaragua (AP) _ From the dust and desperation of a dump occupied by squatters to the cool, white elegance of a rich man’s home, hope glimmered in the first days of Nicaragua’s new government.

The optimism seemed almost improbable given the rocky start of Violeta Barrios de Chamorro’s conservative administration and the dire straits of this battered nation.

The 60-year-old widow took office Wednesday, confronting deep divisions in her United National Opposition coalition and thousands of Contra rebels who refused to lay down their arms.

Government ministries and agencies were in disarray, some barely functioning and most under only nominal control of her coalition, known as UNO. No one in UNO would say whether the outgoing Sandinistas had left enough money in the treasury to meet Monday’s state payroll.

In addition, the value of the national currency was slashed in half Friday and the prices of staples such as rice, meat and oil soared.

But Nicaraguans voted for change - for peace and a measure of prosperity - when they voted against the leftist Sandinistas in the Feb. 25 elections and their expectations were not so quickly dashed.

In the bustling Eastern Market, a bastion of free-enterprise spirit, merchants shrugged off the latest plunge in the cordoba as a necessary evil.

″They had to do something to stabilize things,″ said appliance salesman Carlos Brinones. ″The value was unrealistic. If they can just keep it stable for six months....″

The cordoba has ridden a roller coaster for years, propelled by inflation that hit a staggering 36,000 percent in 1988.

″Business is business,″ Candida Salgado, a Sandinista, said from the shade of her clothing shop. ″It keeps going somehow; it has its own magnetic force.″

Mrs. Salgado believes the Sandinistas were good for Nicaragua because they freed it from dictatorship. Now she says it is up to Mrs. Chamorro to repair the damage inflicted by war with the U.S.-backed Contras and years of U.S. economic sanctions.

From market to mansions, Nicaraguans expect the new government to reap millions in foreign aid and trade.

″Dona Violeta could open a new path, she could take us another step forward,″ Mrs. Salgado said as she sat chatting with her sister from Miami.

Nellie Campos, 52, ventured back for a visit after 10 years of exile because of Mrs. Chamorro’s election. She is thinking of staying for good.

″Business is always business,″ she said, echoing her sister. ″There are always possibilities.″

For Mrs. Campos, the decision to return hinges on whether she can reclaim her shop and house. They were taken over under a ″law of absence″ that discouraged Sandinista critics from returning from abroad.

The property of thousands of others was confiscated outright. For them, Mrs. Chamorro’s election means a shot at recuperating some of their losses.

Mariano Valle, for example, lost 11 radio stations. He and other pre- revolutionary broadcasters expect the new government to follow through on its promise to review the confiscations.

The confiscated stations became part of a government-run network which the Sandinistas handed over to party faithful after losing the election.

″It was supposedly ’privatization,‴ Valle scoffed during an interview at his elegant home.

The dismantling of the radio network was part of a post-election rush aimed at ensuring that Sandinista loyalists wouldn’t leave power empty-handed.

Thousands got homes occupied under the ″law of absence″ or confiscated by the government. Car dealers say their inventories were cleaned out for Sandinista ″going away″ gifts at government expense.

″We have sold 60 cars since the election,″ said Idalia Gonzalez, a saleswoman at the Hyundai dealership. ″We normally sell six a month.″

The greedy scramble sparked a land rush among the left-out poor, who have been squatting on vacant lots since the election.

Expectations are basic in the ruined economy.

″We hope the new government will help us get building materials,″ Rosalina Garcia Calero, 52, said as fellow squatters at the dump burned trash and marked off 30-foot-by-45-foot plots with rocks, bits of debris and crooked sticks. ″The old one never did.″

Mrs. Garcia was one of more than 150 home-hungry people who have occupied the dump in the past few days.

″Things aren’t going to change overnight,″ said 45-year-old Damian Gutierrez, who lives in one room with 14 relatives and sees the dump land as his only hope for a home of his own. ″But they will change.″

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