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US & Nicaragua

IT is clearly time to defuse the rising tensions between the United States and Nicaragua. Goodwill and determination on the part of both parties will be required. It will not be an easy task, but a deescalating of the war of words is worth the effort. Angry accusations and bellicose threats have characterized relations between the two nations in recent weeks; cool heads should now think through the situation and take the long view.

The latest round in this verbal sparring began Nov. 6, with Washington's disclosure of suspicions that a Soviet freighter headed for Nicaragua might be carrying sophisticated MIG fighters. There were instant denials from Nicaragua; after a week of angry words, Washington agreed that there were apparently no advanced fighter aircraft aboard the ship. The US then said Nicaragua was becoming an armed camp, which it is. Nicaragua responded by putting an additional 20,000 men and women under arms, announcing it still wanted high-performance MIG jets for its defense and launching a new wave of bitter denunciations of the US.

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Many in the US were disquieted to hear their government next suggest that the current high-volume flow of Soviet arms to Nicaragua is much like the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. The Reagan administration says bluntly that it regards Nicaragua as a direct threat to the security of the US. Without much expectation that its words will prompt Nicaragua to lessen its ties with Cuba and the Soviet Union, the administration appears eager to curry US public and congressional support for new efforts to aid Nicaraguan rebels, the contras, in their struggle with the Sandinistas - and maybe some sort of direct US military action. (Earlier this year Congress cut off US funds for the contras, but it is expected to vote again on the issue in March.) In addition, US Army engineers arrived in Honduras this week to help repair and strengthen an air base used by the contras , and US naval vessels are much more in evidence off the Nicaraguan coasts than a few weeks back.

The US does have legitimate security considerations in the Caribbean and Central America. Nicaragua with its Marxist-dominated and increasingly authoritarian government understandably makes Washington uneasy. Moreover, it appears that the Soviet Union, in keeping up the flow of advanced weaponry to Nicaragua, even without the MIGs Nicaragua wants, is testing just how far it can push the US. Cuba, the longtime Soviet ally in the Americas, is also involved, with an estimated 3,000 military advisers in Nicaragua.

With this steady escalation of words and actions, the obvious question is whether a full-scale clash between Nicaragua and the US, with its ominous portent for US-Soviet relations, can be averted. The answer is yes. But it will take real statesmanship and quiet diplomacy, both of which appear in short supply at this time. One solution might be for Washington to make an urgent appeal to the Organization of American States for an emergency session in an effort to bring pressure on Nicaragua to pull back from its allegiance with the Soviet Union. Another would be for Washington and Managua to resume talking to not at each other. Still another option would be for a renewed effort by the four-nation Contadora group to draw up a treaty acceptable to all sides in the Central American drama.

Such alternative courses appear increasingly difficult with the passage of time - simply because neither side wants to back down from its increasingly fixed stance. All the more reason to press ahead promptly and vigorously on the path of peace.

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