LAS MANOS, Honduras — Drawn by rumors of peace, tens of thousands of Nicaraguans journey up the Pan American Highway to this border crossing each Saturday to be reunited with relatives who fled the guerrilla war or joined the rebels fighting Sandinista rule.
"You cannot imagine the joy I feel!" a tearful Alma Ramirez Morales exclaimed amid the crowd as she hugged her son, Uriel, 23, for the first time in seven years. "This mother's cry is a cry for peace!"
Under a Central American peace accord signed Aug. 7, Nicaragua began last month to open its border every Saturday and to appeal on the radio to 100,000 refugees in Honduras to come home.
The emotional family reunions, stretching more than a mile into Honduras along the steep mountain road and adjacent coffee plantations, display on a massive scale the hopes that have been raised by the agreement.
Best Chance Seen
Nicaraguans across the political spectrum say the accord offers their best chance for ending more than five years of guerrilla war and emergency rule. But many say their hopes are tempered by deep distrust of the country's Sandinista leaders and skepticism about their pledge to carry through with the reforms that have just begun.
Like all but a few dozen refugees who have embraced their families here, Uriel Morales is not ready to come home yet. His days as a contra foot soldier are over, he said, and he is eligible for amnesty in Nicaragua. But he is wary.
"Listen, brother, I will return only when there is a total change, when the Sandinistas fulfill every word they signed," he said. "If they do that, only God knows how long they will last."
The peace accord applies to all five countries whose presidents signed it--Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. But the expectation of change is highest in Nicaragua, higher, perhaps, than at any moment since the Sandinista National Liberation Front fought its way to power in 1979.
The accord requires the Sandinistas to arrange a cease-fire, offer amnesty, lift all press restrictions and guarantee "total political pluralism." In turn, other nations must stop supporting the contras.
All nine directors of the Sandinista Front, who regard themselves as Nicaragua's revolutionary "vanguard" and who have severely restricted opposition activity, are making public pledges to comply fully with the accord. They have been warning party militants that the price of peace is a wide-open ideological struggle.
"We are going through extremely important moments," Jaime Wheelock, a Sandinista director, said in one speech. "A few months ago, the future of the country was more aggression, but today a new possibility has been opened."
With the accord due to take effect Nov. 7, the government has begun to make room for dissent.
The only opposition newspaper, La Prensa, is back on the streets 15 months after the government ordered its presses stopped. Father Bismarck Carballo has returned from forced exile to reopen the Roman Catholic radio station, which was ordered off the air in January, 1986.
The government has not revived 22 radio news programs banned since 1982 or acted on an opposition request to operate a television station. It still holds more than 9,000 political prisoners, most arrested under a state of emergency that suspended civic freedoms and that remains in force.
But since the harsh crackdown on a demonstration eight days after the accord was signed, the Sandinista police have eased restrictions and allowed political opposition groups to hold outdoor marches.
In a reference to the vast changes that the Soviet Union has undertaken under Mikhail S. Gorbachev, Mauricio Diaz, an opposition politician, said, "We are witnessing a kind of a Creole perestroika ."
Diaz, who represents the opposition on a National Reconciliation Commission set up to monitor the accord, added, "Obviously, the most orthodox Sandinistas are uncomfortable, because this will weaken the hard-line regime that, with the pretext of the war, they were trying to build."
The strong initial doubts harbored by many opposition leaders about the accord have given way to a cautious endorsement of it as the only hope for ousting the Sandinistas without prolonging a war that is estimated to have killed more than 20,000 Nicaraguans.
"We still don't trust the Sandinistas to keep their agreements, but we are forced to be optimistic because there is no other choice," said Ramiro Gurdian, vice president of the Democratic Coordinating Council, the largest anti-Sandinista civic coalition.
The roots of distrust date to 1984, when the Sandinistas and the Coordinating Council negotiated an agreement on a cease-fire and political freedoms to permit fair national elections. The accord broke down amid mutual recriminations, the council withdrew from the race and the Sandinistas defeated an array of minor parties.