MANAGUA, Nicaragua — During his first week back in Nicaragua after seven years of exile, former Contra leader Edgar Chamorro met a hostile cattleman who warned him that the Sandinista government would use him "like a rancher uses one steer to corral all the rest."
At a dinner party, a businesswoman angrily told Chamorro it would be best for everyone if "you keep your mouth shut."
A Sandinista radio commentator interviewing Chamorro about his experiences with the CIA and the Contras called him "a criminal" and asked how he felt, "knowing that so many civilians have been killed or maimed" in fighting between Contras and the Sandinistas.
If Chamorro has learned anything in his week of testing the political waters in Nicaragua, it is how difficult it is to create a political center in a country at war.
"People are trapped in extremes," he told an interviewer.
Chamorro, who was expelled from the Contra leadership body in 1984 for publicly criticizing control exercised over the rebels by the CIA, arrived here last week to apply for amnesty under a Central American peace plan and to explore the Sandinistas' commitment to the democratic reforms called for by the plan.
He sees his as a test case for others waiting to see if it is safe for them to come back to their Nicaraguan homeland.
As a proclaimed anti-Sandinista who became a proclaimed anti-Contra and testified against the United States in Nicaragua's 1985 case against Washington before the World Court, Chamorro is likely to arouse suspicions in the polarized society here.
Managua, like its politics, has no center. The old city center was destroyed by an earthquake 15 years ago and has never been rebuilt.
Chamorro tours what's left of the old city and the newer suburbs like a surveyor, measuring political space. With the Contras, he specialized in media manipulation and psychological warfare, and now he watches for the reaction to what he says in the name of peace.
Barricada, the Sandinista party newspaper, announced Chamorro's return on its front page, under a small headline at the bottom of the page.
"It is to their advantage to be perceived as people of peace," Chamorro said. "But they didn't overplay it. They don't want to make me a leader."
El Nuevo Diario, a pro-Sandinista newspaper, published a story about his return on its back page. The opposition newspaper La Prensa published nothing about it at all.
"They are people who want to ignore me." he said. "It's not fair, because it (his return) was news."
Chamorro said that so far he has only first impressions of revolutionary Nicaragua and that they are as mixed as the reaction to his return.
When he tried to take a nostalgic peek at his old home in the well-to-do neighborhood of Las Colinas, he found he could not get near it. The Interior Ministry, which oversees state security, has taken over a house nearby, and soldiers have closed off the street.
"The military should be in the barracks," Chamorro said. "There is not a clear distinction between military and civilian."
As bad as the blocked street, he said, is the U.S. Embassy compound, which looks like a prison.
"There is a wall with ugly-looking barbed wire and then a second wall with bigger wire," he said. "They are closing themselves in."
On a drive through Managua, Chamorro took note of the large numbers of uniformed men and women in the streets but pointed out that many are unarmed and, as he put it, unthreatening. He pointed to a soldier sitting against a tree with a rifle across his lap, chatting amiably with a civilian. Close by walked another man in fatigues, without a gun, and a third carried a briefcase.
"They're skinny guys in green," Chamorro said. "You don't know what it was like to see a National Guardsman with a gun."
This was a reference to the old days, when men in uniform here belonged to the National Guard, whose officers the United States helped train and whose commanders usually were dictators of the Somoza family. Anastasio Somoza, the last of the dynasty, was toppled by a popular revolution in 1979, with the Sandinistas in the vanguard.
Chamorro recalled that Managua was poor and run-down when he left. Today it is still poor, and more run-down, and its population has tripled, with tens of thousands of migrants from the countryside. Chamorro is appalled by the shortage of public transportation and the long lines of people waiting for buses or hitchhiking.
"They call themselves the popular government," he said. "I can't believe they can't do something to improve the transportation."
He said that people have been generally friendly to him, that they have spoken openly of their likes and dislikes about the Sandinistas.
At the Roberto Huembes market, where he stopped, two women selling lemonade were asked if they would vote for the Sandinistas in new elections. One woman nodded yes. The other, whose husband was about to be drafted into the army, shook her head no.
"We just want the war to end," the Sandinista supporter said.