February 10, 1999

U.S. troops aid cradle of Nicaraguan nationalism

                  WIWILI, Nicaragua (Reuters) -- To the cheers of local residents, U.S.
                  troops on Wednesday inaugurated a small hospital in a rugged region of
                  Nicaragua known as the cradle of anti-American sentiment.

                  The event marked the end of a landmark U.S. mission in Nicaragua, where
                  more than 1,800 troops were deployed in December to help rebuild
                  infrastructure damaged by Hurricane Mitch in October.

                  Operation Build Hope brought some 4,700 U.S. troops to Nicaragua,
                  Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala to help the impoverished region pick
                  up the pieces from a storm that killed thousands of people and caused
                  billions of dollars in damage.

                  To some extent, the troops helped rewrite history in Wiwili, a riverside
                  hamlet tucked in the mountains 168 miles (270 km) north of the capital,
                  Managua. It was here that Gen.

                  Augusto Sandino fought occupying U.S. Marines 70 years ago to become a
                  nationalist icon.

                  His name was adopted by the leftist Sandinista Front that overthrew dictator
                  Anastasio Somoza in 1979 and took power, only to face the U.S.-backed
                  Contra insurgency of the 1980s.

                  "This place was the cradle of the Sandinista Front," said Rosa Juarez, who
                  served up rice and beans for U.S. troops in a makeshift cafeteria alongside
                  their austere camp. "But even the Sandinistas are convinced of what they
                  came to do when they see their labour," she added.

                  Flood waters from the Coco River destroyed Juarez's business and much of
                  the village, rising to the hospital roof and leaving 160 area communities and
                  60,000 inhabitants without a clinic.

                  "We were without hope," Juarez told Reuters. "We never thought we'd have
                  a new clinic like this one so fast."

                  The U.S. troops' arrival was met with some grumbling in Wiwili and
                  elsewhere in Nicaragua. Sandinista leader Daniel Ortega, the former
                  president, labeled the soldiers spies and said they would spread AIDS
                  among the population.

                  But many Wiwili residents began to befriend the strangers as the medical
                  facility's twin wooden buildings, with a capacity of 32 beds, rose on the edge
                  of town.

                  Townspeople, especially children, came daily to watch the troops work, and
                  despite language problems, began to learn the visitors' names. Then they
                  organised baseball games. The sport, which U.S. Marines introduced
                  decades ago, has become Nicaragua's national sport.

                  Last week villagers threw a goodbye party for the soldiers.

                  "We are saying goodbye to many friends," Guillermo Altamirano, a local
                  resident, told Reuters.

                  The 90 engineers, doctors and other U.S. specialists saw eye-opening
                  poverty but did not feel unwelcome.

                  "The people welcomed us from Day One," Sgt. Maria Brandon, a medical
                  assistant from Fort Bragg, North Carolina, said.

                  "They were very open-hearted."

                  For many young U.S. troops, Nicaragua's history of civil war and tense
                  relations with the United States is part of the distant past. Officials of both
                  countries have called this mission a sign of a new age in U.S.-Nicaraguan

                  "We're not living in the past. We're living in the future," said Maj. Jeffrey
                  Eckstein, who was in charge of the Wiwili project. "Our actions speak for
                  our intent."

                  In a potent symbol of changing times, President Bill Clinton is tentatively
                  scheduled to visit Wiwili next month during a trip to Central America to
                  survey hurricane damage.

                  Rosa Juarez will be ready with a message for the U.S. president.

                  "Here we have only misery and backward development," she said. "With the
                  North Americans' help, we can we move ahead.

                  Here, we're hoping they come back."

                     Copyright 1999 Reuters.