Nicaraguan anti-Sandinista guerrillas view the United States' invasion of Grenada as a precedent for a similar US invasion aimed at toppling Nicaragua's Sandinista government.
In an interview last week, Edgar Chamorro Coronel, a leader of the anti-Sandinista Nicaraguan Democratic Force, characterized US intervention in Nicaragua as highly likely.
He said such a US invasion would not occur until the rebels - or contras as they are called here - have escalated attacks, seized some territory, and begun to seriously challenge Sandinista control.
Recently the contras have struck some serious blows inside Nicaragua - notably the bombing of Managua's airport and the destruction of key oil storage facilities at Puerto Corinto - Chamorro acknowledged they would have to further step up attacks to create a climate favorable for US intervention.
Other developments in the region also appear to be tipping the scales toward a military, rather than a negotiated, solution. One such development was the Reagan administration's summary rejection last week of Sandinista peace proposals for four treaties, including nonaggression pacts, which would involved Nicaragua, the United States, and Honduras. The administration described Nicaragua's proposals as ''deficient.''
The Reagan administration insists that the Sandinistas continue to work within the framework of the slow Contadora process - a peace effort by Mexico, Panama, Venezuela, and Colombia that so far has failed to produce conclusive results for the region. (In contrast, the Sandinistas favor direct bilateral talks with the US.)
The Reagan administration is backing steps to reactivate the Central American Defense Council (CONDECA), a regional anticommunist military alliance that could play a role in Nicaragua similar to that of the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States in Grenada. (President Reagan cited a request from OECS countries as one of the reasons for US intervention in Grenada.)
Another signal of military activity was once-secret meeting of military chiefs of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama and the head of the US southern command, four-star Gen. Paul Gorman, on Oct. 1 to lay the groundwork for the revitalization of CONDECA. The chiefs issued a strongly worded declaration endorsing ''the use of force against Marxism . . . to defend democracy and stimulate development in the region.''
Reactivation of CONDECA is itself interpreted by political observers here as a significant step toward the outbreak of hostilities. Describing CONDECA as something too important to leave to the military, El Tiempo, a leading newspaper here, editorialized: ''The reactivation of CONDECA at this moment, particularly a CONDECA that has endorsed 'the use of force against Marxism,' is tantamount to a declaration of war (against Nicaragua).''
In an interview Friday, US Ambassador to Honduras John Negroponte maintained that Central American countries, in response to the Sandinistas' military manpower, have the right to take steps to defend themselves. This includes the reactivation of CONDECA, he said.
Mr. Negroponte, who is considered a key architect of Reagan administration policy in the area, said: ''Even though there's a negotiating process going on, until that negotiating process bears fruit the countries can't stop doing the other things they believe necessary to defend themselves. . . .
Honduran Gen. Gustavo Alvarez Martinez has repeatedly described CONDECA as a ''contingency . . . if the Contadora process fails.'' Yet other diplomats and political figures in the region, among them Costa Rican President Luis Alberto Monge, seem to feel less than comfortable with this two-track strategy of preparing for war and peace. President Monge is reported to believe that CONDECA's reactivation would effectively derail the Contadora negotiations.
Leaders of the rebel Nicaraguan Democratic Force (FDN) have called for a US invasion of Nicaragua at least since July. Most diplomats and political observers dismissed the suggestion as wishful thinking by people who had not managed to inflict any serious damage against the enemy. But today, some say, there is reason to take the rebels and the invasion scenario more seriously.
Over the past two months, the rebels have dramatically escalated their attacks against the Sandinistas. In addition to the airport bombing and attacks on oil facilities in Puerto Corinto, the rebels mounted a devastating strike on the town of Pantasma, some 30 miles from the Honduran border. A new strategy apparently aimed at economic rather than military targets has also taken a toll.
Their long-term strategy, outlined at a press conference in early October, calls for them to take a piece of Nicaraguan territory and then establish a provisional government that would be able to request military assistance from a US-dominated multinational force similar to the force that went into Grenada.
Chamorro says that before such a force could intervene, the contras themselves would have to ''step up attacks, hold onto some territory'' and ''demonstrate that we have popular support.'' He adds, ''CONDECA, if it comes in , should not be the main event. It should be a force that enters close to the end to help restore order and hold the peace together.''
FDN officials acknowledge that one of their hopes is that under increasing military and political pressure from the rebels, the Sandinistas' nine-member directorate will split into feuding factions, creating the kind of internal chaos that served as a rationale for US intervention in Grenada.