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Nicaragua's farm reform might surprise Mr. Reagan

If the Nicaraguans are really the Marxist-Leninists that the Reagan administration claims, we might expect their agrarian reform to be rigidly ideological, forcing some foreign brand of communism on Nicaraguan peasants.

Yet what has impressed our institute most about the Sandinistas, after almost three years as unpaid advisers to their agrarian reform program, is their pragmatism and their willingness to adapt their ideals to the desires and possibilities of the Nicaraguan people.

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Consider these ironies:

* Nicaragua's agrarian reform program, debated for two years and finally passed into law last summer, is unquestionably more cautious and, some might say , ''less radical'' than the agrarian reform which the United States Agency for International Development designed for El Salvador.

Reaffirming its commitment to private property, the Nicaraguan law does not put a ceiling on farm size as have agrarian reforms in many other countries. Instead, the theme of Nicaraguan agrarian reform is ''idle lands to working hands.''

In Nicaragua, as in most Latin American countries, the landed elite lets much of its land lie fallow or uses fertile cropland to graze cattle, while all around them peasants go without food. The Nicaraguan law seeks to redress such inefficiency and injustice. It assumes that farmland ownership carries with it an obligation to use that land to meet society's urgent need for food and export earnings. If, through due process, it can be shown that a landowner is not using his land productively, it can be taken with compensation.

Peasants eager to grow food for their families can then get land titles, either as individuals or in cooperatives.

According to Salvador Mayorga, the US-educated director of Nicaragua's land reform, state-run agriculture has never been a goal of the government. The state sector, which now administers about 20 percent of agricultural production, will remain at about this level. This 20 percent consists almost entirely of properties abandoned by ex-dictator Anastasio Somoza and his close associates. The government took them over as public property to avoid the drop in productivity they foresaw if these large, mechanized estates were parceled out to small producers.

* President Reagan and Secretary of State Haig repeatedly charge that Nicaragua's government is nationalizing the economy at the expense of private enterprise. The irony is that private enterprise controls about 70 percent of the Nicaraguan economy, and no sector has been more favored. Large private growers receive 100 percent production financing. They also benefit from guaranteed government purchases of export crops at prices negotiated with the large producer associations and based on international prices. The new incentives for export producers allow part of the price to be paid in scarce dollars.

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In Nicaragua most private enterprise consists of small farmers and small shopkeepers. For the first time ever, they have been given generous credit at low interest rates. In real dollars, the volume of credit going to small farmers is eight times greater than it was under the Somoza regime.

To help the small entrepreneurs selling food and other basic items, the new government has provided low interest credit and built new markets in the poor neighborhoods.

* A final irony. Reading the US government portrayals, one comes to see Nicaragua as governed by a small band of Marxist-Leninists, pushing a radical program down the throats of its people. Yet, one of the biggest problems of the new Nicaraguan leadership has been trying to keep its people from making changes too fast.

Many peasants, having all their lives seen good land lie fallow while they went hungry, were disappointed that the government did not immediately expropriate and redistribute more land. Some simply took idle land themselves, against strong government protest. When the government demanded its return, peasants refused and in February 1980 they marched on the capital to demand their right to keep the land. While the government conceded that time, it has stood firm since the 1981 law which forbids spontaneous land takeovers.

The Sandinistas' flexibility is also illustrated by the fact that some state farms which are not producing efficiently are being given over to individual small farmers and cooperatives.

While the Nicaraguan leaders have demonstrated a pragmatic approach to policymaking, they do have a guiding philosophy they call ''the logic of the majority.'' To them this means judging policies first and foremost according to their impact on the nation's poor -- who are the majority.

The many ironic contrasts between the simplistic stereotypes the Reagan administration promotes about Nicaragua and the country's complex reality suggest only one conclusion: it is not the Nicaraguans who are locked into rigid ideological outlooks. It is the US government.

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