NICARAGUA is a rich land of majestic volcanoes and mirror-like lakes. But the real beauty of this country that has rocked the status quo in Central America is its people, ordinary people like Marinade Lanza. Marina owns a small store in Esteli in the north near the Honduran border. Directly opposite is the old National Guard commando (headquarters). She was forced to flee during the liberation war in 1979 and returned after victory to reopen her business. When I met her a few months after the defeat of Somoza she offered the warm hospitality of an old friend. It was the kind of welcome an American could hardly expect in the light of our Government's longstanding support for the Somoza family.
The commando was now a prison for former National Guardsmen. Trusted prisoners were allowed to leave the compound for brief periods to buy supplies at Marina's store and received the same courtesy as local patrons. Her sons who fought with the Sandinista Liberation Front (FSLN) are now either back in school or serving in the new army. Marina witnessed much brutality and suffering at the hands of the National Guard. But she doesn't talk much about that and seems to approach her life with a sense of calm and strength.
In spite of the appalling destruction caused by the war and Somoza's 50-year neglect, there is a tremendous sense of hope and pride in what has already been accomplished. After the victory, streets were cleaned - in many neighbourhoods for the first time ever. Rubble was carted away and repairs begun.
Neighbourhood defense committees meet regularly, often in the evenings under a street lamp, to try and solve local problems. These committees are the building blocks of the new Nicaragua. They represent a real attempt at people's involvement in their own government.
With the all-pervasive fear of the National Guard gone the prospect of change now seems real. In a visit to a desperately poor rural community near Leon I helped men and women plant beans and sat with them in the shade as they talked about bargaining for the use of the neighbouring farmer's tractor. There was an energy in the air that was almost palpable: suddenly the impossible was possible.
However, not all Nicaraguans are enthusiastic. An upper-class woman in the capital, Managua, told me, 'Our block committee met a few times. But after we got the street cleaned up, there wasn't anything more to do - so we stopped meeting.'
Opposition can be expected in any process of change. The open political climate of the country has resulted in strong critical salvoes fired from the left and the right.
There are problems as well facing the government in the Atlantic Coast region, centred around the port city of Bluefields. Race, culture, language and geography have combined to isolate the region. It is divided by jungle from the rest of the country and historically linked with the Caribbean. The people are mostly Indians and blacks - the language a mixture of English and various tribal dialects.
But the overwhelming majority of Nicaraguans appear to support their revolution. During the celebration of the first anniversary of the Sandinista victory more than half-a-million people (almost one quarter the population) streamed into the new plaza in Managua. The people were proud of what they had accomplished and wanted the world to know.
The most stunning achievement has been the $20-million Literacy Crusade - what the Nicaraguans call their 'Second Victory'. The crusade, which drew wide international support, brought the illiteracy rate tumbling from 54 per cent to 12 per cent in a short six months.
In Esteli I saw a 60 year-old woman proudly demonstrate the meticulous spelling of her name, looking up expectantly after writing each letter to receive the smiling approval of her 15-year old teacher. For the campesinos the crusade brought power and dignity of a kind I can probably never understand. For the young teachers who returned from five months in the countryside it brought a new understanding of the peasants' lives. Many are determined to go back.
In Esteli I also met a former nun, Justina, who left her order to fight against Somoza and the National Guard. She was both a messenger and an organizer for the FSLN. She joined the Literacy Crusade as a volunteer in 1980 and spent five months living in the mountains, working with the people during the day and holding classes in the evenings. The experience convinced her to enroll in an agricultural school. 'My people have so little' she admits 'now they are no longer terrorized by the Guardia, they are more hopeful of having an easier life.' Nicaraguans are proud of their freedom and they're not about to give it up. During my most recent visit in January this year that determination was clearly reflected in the call to strengthen the 'popular militias.'
Members of Somoza's National Guard have re-grouped inside the Honduran border and many FSLN soldiers have been assassinated. US military support to the anti FSLN governments in El Salvador and Honduras has increased speculation about possible intervention. Threats of economic sanctions from the Reagan camp could destabilize a fragile economy.
Yet none of this seems to have intimidated the Nicaraguans. With 30,000 dead, a 1.5 billion dollar foreign debt and much of the economy still in shambles, they know it is not easy to make a revolution.
The first year was dominated by the euphoria of the victory over Somoza and the enthusiasm surrounding the Literacy Crusade. Much of that joy and determination is still evident.
But with Nicaragua's peace and security threatened by superpower intervention, harder times lie ahead.
David Funkhauser is co-ordinator of the Washington-based National Network in Solidarity With the Nicaraguan People.
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7