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Families Struggle to Maintain Life Style : Sandinista Rule Not Easy on Middle Class

August 07, 1988|TRACY WILKINSON | Times Staff Writer

MANAGUA, Nicaragua — In June, Jorge Ramirez spirited the last of his four children out of Nicaragua. He lives alone now in a large, nearly empty house, its roof left half-finished since the 1979 Sandinista revolution.

Yellowed copies of the opposition newspaper La Prensa cover the tattered upholstery of his sparse living room furniture. A miniature American flag, from the Fourth of July party at the U.S. Embassy, sits on the bare dining table.

And on the faded wall hangs a picture of Jesus kneeling in prayer, with the passage, "Lord, discover my solitude so that I may join you in the salvation of the world."

Ramirez is part of the political opposition in Nicaragua, small, splintered groups that were the target of a recent crackdown by the Sandinista government. But he is also part of a reduced community of middle- and upper-class Nicaraguans who, despite nine years of socialist revolution, continue to live and work inside the country.

Hundreds Stayed Behind

The vast majority of Nicaragua is poor, and most of the nation's well-to-do landowners, professionals and businessmen abandoned it after the Sandinistas came to power. Nevertheless, unlike what happened in Fidel Castro's Cuban revolution, hundreds of upper- and middle-class families are believed to have stayed behind.

Many stayed in Nicaragua because they supported the revolution and have assumed prominent roles in the government. Others, like Ramirez, stay out of what they say is a political determination to fight the Sandinistas peacefully from within. Many could not afford to start over in another country.

Still others have managed to stay and function on the margin of politics; money and family connections ease the way for many.

Life outside the Sandinista system can be a lonely challenge. Many of those who remain seek to maintain a kind of life style or set of values that is long gone or runs counter to revolutionary goals. And many do whatever they can to insulate themselves from Sandinista influence and the U.S.-backed guerrilla war.

They send their children to other countries, or put them in the private American School, for a U.S.-style education. Many are members of Casa de Espana, the last private country club. They go to the same churches and visit each other at home for company.

For most who remain and are not Sandinistas, recent measures taken by the government were alarming and sent new waves of uncertainty into lives that are already on delicate footing. In recent weeks, Sandinista authorities used unusual force to break up a protest march, arrested dozens of political opponents, expelled the American ambassador, suspended two opposition media outlets--La Prensa, which has been allowed to resume publication, and Radio Catolica--and nationalized the largest private company in the country.

Ramirez, 55, who is a lawyer, is convinced that the Sandinista government wants to phase out its middle-class opposition altogether.

"It is not in the government's interest that we are here," he said. "But I am not discouraged. We feel energy, a desire to fight against all odds."

Clientele Reduced

Ramirez said, however, that the system that the Sandinistas are fostering inside Nicaragua has left little room for his profession, the practice of law. He spends the first three hours of every day in his house, which doubles as his office, waiting for customers who rarely arrive. His clientele has been reduced to one-tenth of what it was before the revolution, he said.

The rest of his day is dedicated to his political activities as secretary general and vice president of the opposition Nicaraguan Liberal Party (PALI), which was formed 2 1/2 years ago but is still awaiting formal legal recognition.

"Sometimes I feel like I'm touching a world that is slipping from my hands. You feel a certain solitude, a certain sadness," Ramirez said. "We'd like to see a happy Nicaragua, with our children, a Nicaragua that is a home."

Ramirez's wife and three of his children left Nicaragua during the last two years and live in San Jose, Calif. To spare his fourth and last son from mandatory service in the Sandinista army, Ramirez said, he escorted the young man to the Honduran border last month and waded waist-deep across a river to get him out of the country.

The party that Ramirez represents is one of 14 that had been negotiating with the Sandinistas as part of a peace plan signed by Central America's five presidents last year. "If the Sandinistas haven't complied by now, they never will," he said.

Fifteen days after Mayela de Frixione finished building her two-story house in the rolling hills south of Managua, the Sandinistas declared the area a military zone.

For the next seven years, she said, her house became a kind of trapped oasis, a civilian outpost in the middle of houses occupied by military officers and advisers.

"They assumed I would give up and abandon the house," Frixione said. "We didn't. No one could believe they let us stay."

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