In Nicaragua, 'We Believe We Are All Kings' : MEMOIRS OF A COUNTER-REVOLUTIONARY by Arturo Cruz Jr. (Doubleday: $18.95, 267 pp.)

Seidenbaum is The Times' Opinion editor.

Meet an ardent activist with a shot of wry, almost Holden Caulfield in Nicaragua, looking for the unphony cause and the dedicated leader in a thicket of intrigue, scandal, bloodshed, family grudges and fierce egos.

Try to separate the Sanchez clan from the Chamorro clan from the infamous Somozas and the divided Sacasas who wound up half pro-Somoza and half anti-Somoza. Nicaragua, the reader learns, is small but divided--a country of fewer than 4 million people settled, unsettled, across 50,000 square miles.

Family is a potent force and a divisive force, reminiscent of Greek tragedy in the way brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces, in-laws and cousins wind up at war with each other. Arturo Cruz Jr. is the son of a man first jailed by dictator Anastasio Somoza in the late 1940s; Arturo Cruz Sr. would later become a revolutionary Sandinista, then a defector from the revolution, then a presidential candidate, then a self-removed ex-politician. Such zig-zags, in and out of power, in and out of revolution, for both father and son, make this a book of naive hope followed by sophisticated heresy.

Cruz writes English with elan and fluidity, perhaps because he was educated here and because he spent so much time in the United States as an envoy for the Sandinista regime, as a sort of drum-beater/fund raiser for the Contras and as a source for the Central Intelligence Agency. Like his father, Cruz the younger kept finding his idealism dashed by the realities of politicians or generals or spies whose ambitions were larger than their abilities--or their interests in the Nicaraguan people.

The Contras, a disparate collection of counterrevolutionaries--old Somoza conservatives, disillusioned Sandinistas and disaffected military men--spent as much time fighting among each other as they did trying to oust the Sandinistas. The Sandinistas, in turn, were a junta of veteran revolutionaries--some Marxist, others mercurial--riven within factions headed by Daniel Ortega, Tomas Borge, Jamie Wheelock and more.

The CIA and the U.S. State Department, almost adopting the internecine Nicaraguan manner, were just about as uncoordinated, especially after Oliver North set up his Contra command post in the White House. In the chaotic course of the North venture, Cruz, the seeker of love as well as liberty, even had a romance with Fawn Hall, the White House's most famous document-dumper.

And the Soviets who people these pages as Sandinista sponsors also seem no better than bumblers. "Valentin," a KGB officer in Washington, was so obsessed about being tailed that "we'd meet at monuments, where he'd open the car door and I'd jump inside."

Such comic-opera moments punctuate the essentially tragic story of a country wrecked by earthquake (1972) as well as warfare. Eden Pastora, the once-revered revolutionary fighter, was betrayed by his beloved mistress, a Sandinista spy. Carlos Coronel, a gifted Contra, made the mistake of deciding that a New York Times correspondent, James LeMoyne, had to be a CIA agent because the real agents he met were "too stupid, too obvious." The boots and uniforms shipped to the Contras by the CIA were standard American sizes, much too large for standard Nicaraguans--another proof to the "freedom fighters" that their North American allies knew nothing about what suits Central America.

Cruz does know about his country, with regret. "Conspiracy," he writes, "is the ancient legacy of Nicaraguan political culture. . . . Nicaragua's political history is rife with the sport of overindulgent conspiracy. My enemy today is my friend tomorrow and my enemy the day after, the saying goes. The Nicaragua tribe is too small, the country's players too few, and all the political chiefs are friends. Why should one of us wield power when another one could? And so we fight against anyone who emerges over the rest of us. We believe we are all kings."

Therefore Cruz, however committed to the cause of Nicaragua's people, can never permanently commit to the movement or the man of the moment. He joins, defects. He discovers new hope only to discover new hypocrisy. Having been on opposite sides in various positions next to power, he at last realizes, "There is nothing worse than to stand too close to the gods. The more you see of them, the worse you feel about them. The mystery is gone, and with the mystery, the respect."

Like all literary figures in a quest, Cruz Jr. is the indefatigable innocent. Smart, likable, earnest, he personalizes civil war as the most destructive kind of family feuding. Sad story. Good reading.

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