MANAGUA, Nicaragua — Nicaragua has changed since I lived here for six months in 1988.

It was an interesting time in Nicaragua. The U.S.-sponsored counter-revolutionary Contra war was winding down. The Contras were losing, despite considerable U.S. assistance. It's hard to win a war with little popular support.

But as the Contras faded away, there was a real fear here in Nicaragua that the U.S. might intervene directly, as it had before, in 1912, when Japan was eyeing a transoceanic canal through Nicaragua, and the U.S. wasn't about to let another power build a transoceanic canal in its "backyard."

The U.S. then installed the brutal dictatorship of Anastasio "Tacho" Somoza Garcia, who was assassinated in 1956 and was replaced by his equally brutal son, Anastasio "Tachito" (little Tacho) Somoza Debayle. Tachito's iron-fisted reign started to falter when he pocketed much of the foreign aid that flooded in after a devastating 1972 earthquake, and when he used much of the remaining aid to improve and develop his own land. That starved the reconstruction of downtown Managua, the capital and biggest city, and to this day Managua remains an odd city with no center.

In 1988 what had been downtown Managua was an eery ghost town. Now it has been gussied up with tourist and family attractions, but the absence of a real downtown is still disorienting.

Tachito's reign took another blow Jan. 10, 1978, when prominent opposition journalist Pedro Joaquin Chamorro was murdered, a murder widely attributed to Somoza. Jan. 10 of this year marked the 40th anniversary of that murder, and the newspaper Chamorro owned, La Prensa, was full of tributes, remembrances and minute-by-minute accounts of the great man's murder.

It reminded me of my very first day in Nicaragua — Jan. 10, 1979 — when thousands poured into Managua's streets, in defiance of Somoza, to remember Chamarro. At least one protester was killed by government forces that day. It was one of my first days in Latin America, and I was hooked. I love reading history, but I prefer a front-row seat.

Six months later, Somoza was defeated by Sandinista revolutionary forces, named after Augusto Sandino, who led successful attacks on U.S. forces from 1927 to 1933. Sandino was lured to peace talks by Somoza forces and then murdered, ripping a page from the playbook that killed the great Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata in 1919.

When Somoza was deposed, he had amassed land holdings equal to one-tenth of the national territory, and a fortune estimated at $500 million, equal to a third of the country's economic output. In the U.S. that would be the equivalent of stealing Texas, Arizona, and $6 trillion — and the U.S. supported both Somozas throughout this reign of pillage and terror.

In 1988, as fear of direct U.S. intervention grew, there was an all-night, 16-mile protest march from Managua to the old colonial city of Masaya. It was a remarkable, beautiful thing, made all the more so by its being at night. One doesn't see such things every day, and it was indicative of the solidarity that cut across wide swaths of Nicaraguan society. There was great pride taken in a small, impoverished country standing up to the collosus of the north. Sadly, that widespread sense of solidarity now seems a distant memory.

But the feared U.S. invasion never came, at least not militarily, though the George H. W. Bush administration, which carried out a bloody, murderous 1989 invasion of Panama, came right out and publicly said there would be hell to pay if Nicaragua failed to elect our preferred candidate, Violeta Chamorro, widow of Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, in the 1990 presidential election. There is some evidence that Bush's threat, made upon a populace tired of fratricidal war, may have swayed that election.

Nicaragua is much more prosperous now. One can see it — it's palpable. Economically, Nicaragua was in rough shape when I lived here in 1988. Inflation was completely out of control, running at least 1,800 percent. It was some of the worst inflation the world had seen since Germany's pre-Hitler Weimar Republic, when, it is said, one needed a wheelbarrow of Deutschmarks to buy a loaf of bread. Nicaragua's currency was almost worthless, and there was a raging currency black market. By the official exchange rate, a simple meal of rice and beans cost $20 to $30. By the black market rate, the same meal cost $1. As a translator for a Nicaraguan news agency, I was making $15 a week.

That's all changed now. The currency is relatively stable. It slips slowly and steadily against the dollar, as do many Latin American currencies, but it is not in freefall.

There is much more economic activity now. There's a much larger middle class. There is much more traffic, and commerce, and it's much more sophisticated and modern. And that is, on balance, a good thing. The housing stock tells the story — clearly many have been lifted out of dire poverty in what historically has been the second-poorest country in the Americas, after Haiti. But there is a new, emerging concept of measuring wealth that includes quality of life issues beyond dollars and cents. In this Nicaragua passes its northern neighbors of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, which are racked by endemic gang, drug cartel and state-sponsored violence that gouges the quality of life.

Hitchhiking from Managua to Granada, I got rides from several Nicaraguans who had returned from living in the states, and they all said the same thing: all they did in the states was work — it was no life, no time for family. Voluntarily returning from the states is a luxury Nicaragua's neighbors don't have.

But gone from Nicaragua is the widespread sense of solidarity, and it has been largely replaced with solidarity's unfortunate opposites: political cynicism and fatalism. But that's for the next column.

Lawrence Reichard is a first-place Maine Press Association winner, freelance writer and activist living in Belfast.