Although hopeful that president-elect Violeta Barrios de Chamorro will be able to unite Nicaragua after her inauguration on April 25, Luciano A. Cuadra is skeptical, knowing first-hand that deep divisions separate his compatriots.
Cuadra, a Hacienda Heights resident, said political divisions have even split his own family. Initially a Sandinista intelligence agent, he became disillusioned with the leftist government and left the country in 1982. During his eight years in the United States, he has telephoned his sister, a member of the Sandinista secret police, only once, in 1984.
"She told me if I returned to my country she would wait for me with open arms and an AK-47 rifle in each hand," Cuadra, 32, said recently.
Whether living in their native country or abroad, Nicaraguans are a people divided by political beliefs, agreed Cesar A. Aviles, director of the Nicaraguan Patriotic Coalition, a group representing Chamorro's National Opposition Union (UNO) in Los Angeles.
"You have two opposing political standpoints--the Contras and the Sandinistas. This makes it extremely difficult for a community to stay together," said Aviles, a former Contra fighter.
In Southern California, where about 80,000 Nicaraguans live, the political differences are less prevalent than in Nicaragua itself, but they are ever-present, said Ramon Diaz, a native of Nicaragua and member of the Nicaraguan Cultural Center, a pro-Sandinista organization in Los Angeles.
Diaz said that during political rallies in Los Angeles it is not uncommon for left- and right-wing Nicaraguans to shout insults at each other and engage in minor scuffles.
Lilian Cabrera, a 43-year-old Lynwood housewife who emigrated from Nicaragua in 1975, said she has been called "every name in the book" by right-wing supporters who have clashed with left-wing participants of pro-Sandinista rallies.
Not all of the local Nicaraguans are political activists or identify strongly with the left or the right. But Nicaraguans who oppose the outgoing Sandinista government outnumber those who support it by 9 to 1, members of the local community say.
After a decade of civil strife, the journey to Nicaraguan reconciliation will be a long and painful one, Aviles conceded.
"As difficult as it may be, to forgive and forget would be the best policy," said Aviles, who has organized meetings in his home between representatives from both sides in the hopes of mending the differences. "We should embrace each other and work to improve the future of our country."
In a surprise electoral victory, Chamorro defeated Sandinista President Daniel Ortega in late February. Chamorro has invited all political factions to take part in rebuilding Nicaragua.
Aviles said older Nicaraguans should take note from their children, who have no political hang-ups. Most Nicaraguan-American youths were either born in this country or left Nicaragua too young to form political opinions.
"The young share a love of baseball (Nicaraguans' favorite pastime) and tres leches (a popular Nicaraguan dessert)," Aviles said. "They don't have any of the hate that plagues so many of the older people."
Diaz said he knows his people can merge. He said they do so every year on Dec. 7 when they celebrate the Nicaraguan religious holiday of La Purisima , honoring the Virgin Mary.
"No matter which side we're on, all of us flood the churches on that day and pray hand in hand," Diaz said.
Cabrera, the Sandinista supporter, said many times when she socializes with fellow Nicaraguans she avoids the subject of politics completely.
"We have shared many experiences, we can identify with each other, and we are one people," she said. "Why be enemies?"
Rafael E. Thumas, president of an anti-Sandinista group in Los Angeles, said it is absolutely necessary for his exiled countrymen to rid themselves of political bitterness, especially because many will be returning to Nicaragua.
"Our country is divided as it is," said Thumas, who hopes to return to Managua in about a year. "We should not fuel the fire."
Several community leaders predicted that as many as half of the Nicaraguans living in exile may return to their homeland in the next two years.
Esperanza Gomez, a Hacienda Heights resident, said she plans to return, but only to visit. The 56-year-old said going back to Nicaragua permanently would mean leaving behind in the United States two of her children and seven grandchildren, who have made a new life here.
"I'm an old woman," she said. "I'll never adapt to this country. I would like to return for good to the land where I was born, but at the same time, I'd like to be with my family."