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Nicaragua: clean start, murky future

* "It's a kind of dictatorship," said the editor. * "It's a state of anarchy," said the businessman. * "Things are better now than they were before the revolution," said the tradeswomen. "Before, there was real terror here."

* "Corruption has diminished markedly," said the government worker. "And the government is definitely trying to help the poor. . . . It's just that the officials lack experience. They don't know how to manage anything."

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* "The Sandinists haven't consolidated their political, economic, and social control of the country yet," said the diplomat. "They're more dependent on the private sector than they ever more. . . . The church is stronger now than it was before."

This cacophony of voices indicates that nearly two years after the Sandinista revolutionaries took power in Nicaragua, some forms of "pluralism" and free expression have survived. The leftist leadership of the country might want to turn Nicaragua into a one-party state, but Nicaraguans don't accept discipline easily. They also don't want to be puppets.

Nicaragua apparently did allow itself to be used as a conduit for the flow of arms to neighboring Honduras and on to nearby El Salvador. The Nicaraguans may have hoped to see the leftists win in El Salvador before Ronald Reagan became president, thus presenting a new US administration with a fait accompli. But this was not to be. The Salvadoran guerrillas' "final offensive" failed.

The Sandinista revolutionaries made their rise to power on the crest of a huge wave of popular support. But inevitably, as seems to be the case after every revolution, some of the people's high expectations have not been fulfilled. Indeed, the leftist-led Nicaraguan government has enormous problems to cope with on the home front. Even a casual visitor to the capital city of Managua begins to sense that there is disenchantment in some sectors of the population.

The ousted president, Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle, had left the country on the verge of bankruptcy. War damage was heavy. In stepped the new managers of the government and economy. Many of them lacked experience. They made mistakes. After first cooperating with the new regime, private businessmen began to feel threatened and stopped investing in the economy. A combination of inexperience, mismanagement, and uncertainty led to a decline in the productivity of some segments of the economy. A primarily agricultural country found itself in the embarrassing position of having to import rice and beans.

On the positive side, the new government has made a genuine effort to help the poor, raising the minimum wage for maids and agricultural workers, for example, and making health facilities more widely available. The Sandinistas succeeded in reducing the administrative corruption that was rampant during the Somoza dynasty. A government-sponsored literacy campaign has been widely praised.

The new government has been criticized for postponing elections and keeping in prison without trial more than 4,000 national guardsmen and security agents from the old regime. But the government has not prevented other Nicaraguans from leaving the country if they object to the new system. Although former Sandinista guerrillas executed several hundred national guardsmen in the chaotic period that followed the Sandinista triumph of mid-1979, this did not seem to be part of a policy. Nothing like the trials and executions that occurred in Cuba under Fidel Castro has taken place in revolutionary Nicaragua.

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The Sandinista neighborhood defense committees, which some North American observers thought would be similar to the Cuban informant system, do not appear to be functioning effectively.

In mid-March, a Sandinista-inspired series of attacks against three privately owned radio stations and a house where preparations for an opposition political rally were being made raised new questions about the chances for private enterprise and democratic pluralism to survive in Nicaragua. But independent political parties and labor organizations refused to be intimidated, and the country's only independent newspaper, La Prensa, continued sharply to criticize the government. Toward the end of April, the Sandinistas opened a dialogue with five of the political parties.

What concerns the United States is the size of the Cuban contingent here, which may number as many as 5,000. Among them are many doctors, paramedics, and teachers. But there are also reported to be Cubans working as advisers to the Nicaraguan Army and militia, and to the police, security, and intelligence organizations.

Of equal concern to the US has been the growing size of the Nicaraguan Army and militia. The budget projected for the 50,000-man Army and police force could run as high as 10 percent of the national income, economists say.

Nicaraguan officials reply that they feel threatened by ex-national guardsmen who have been training in Florida, by the incursions made by ex-guardsmen into Nicaragua from Honduras, and by the possibility that the armies of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala might team up, with US backing, against Nicaragua.

But they take some comfort in the fact that the Reagan administration has kept Ambassador Lawrence Pezzullo in Managua and not slammed the door on the possibility of granting further economic aid to Nicaragua. Pezzullo is a Carter administration appointee who has worked in a pragmatic fashion with the Sandinistas in the hope of encouraging the survival of private enterprise and political pluralism in Nicaragua. The US still has strong trade ties with Nicaragua, and its votes in international organizations play a role in providing multilateral aid to this country.

Within a few months, Nicaragua is expected to face a balance-of-payments crisis, and this may present the Soviet Union and other East-bloc countries with a problem. Does the Soviet Union want to get into the business of keeping Nicaragua economically afloat as it has done with Cuba -- to the tune of millions of dollars a day? Most economists seem to think not. But one of them does not rule it out.

"It would not be as expensive as Castro has been," the economist said. "If the Russians were willing to put in about $300 million a year in hard currency, they could keep this place afloat."

If this was, indeed, one of the countries on a Soviet "hit list," as allenged by Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., then perhaps the Russians will have to.

In the meantime, the US aim of supporting private enterprise here may have been undermined to a degree, psychologically , by the impression that the Reagan administration conveys of giving higher priority than its predecessor administration did to geopolitics and lower priority to human rights.

Some Nicaraguan businessmen fear that a deal has been struck, tacit or otherwise, between the US and the Sandinista rulers of Nicaragua. In their view , this deal may consist first of getting the Sandinistas to cut off all arms shipments to El Salvador. In return, the businessmen's thinking goes, the US would agree not to press Nicaragua as to how it handles its internal affairs, including its dealings with private businessmen.

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