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Sandinista liberalization: will it continue?

One month after the Nicaraguan election, it is unclear whether the political liberalization that took place in the last months of the campaign was a passing electoral fancy or a permanent feature of the Sandinista regime.

The the relative relaxation of Sandinista rule that occurred in the last few months before the elections was considered by many foreign and moderate Nicaraguan political observers to be one of the most positive aspects of the much-criticized electoral process.

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Opposition parties were eventually given a certain freedom to organize, advertise, and publish their own small newspapers. Press censorship was, in the last month of the campaign, largely lifted, and the state security apparatus generally kept a low profile.

Many Sandinista critics said the apertura (''opening'') was purely a show for foreign consumption - a show that would be reversed immediately after the election.

Others, including many foreign political observers watched the election process in Managua, hoped that it would become a more permanent feature of Sandinista rule.

For two weeks or so after the election, the liberalization policy seemed to hold. There was no massive crackdown such as had been predicted by many opponents of the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) and desired by many Sandinista radical hard-liners. It failed to materialize in spite of the panic caused in Managua by Reagan administration accusations, later retracted, that Soviet MIG fighter jets had been sent to Nicaragua.

But oppostion leaders say that during the past few weeks the situation has deteriorated, with a return of press censorship, a breakdown (perhaps temporary) of the National Dialogue between the Sandinistas and the opposition parties, and the inability of some 25 opposition leaders to travel abroad.

However, opposition leaders say that in private talks with some of their number, president-elect Daniel Ortega Saavedra has been dropping hints of a possible liberalization after his inauguration on Jan. 10.

And opposition leaders point out that what are regarded as the most repressive actions - the newly stepped-up censorship of the main opposition newspaper, La Prensa, and the difficulties put in the way of opposition leaders who have wanted to leave the country on short trips - have originated from the Ministry of Interior, which is controlled by Interior Minister Tomas Borge Martinez. Mr. Borge is one of the most radical Sandinista Directorate members and is reportedly none too happy with either the liberalization policy or the power wielded by Mr. Ortega and his brother.

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(The most important censorship of La Prensa centered around its publication of foreign press articles that were critical of Nicaragua's elections. This touched a raw nerve among Sandinista leaders who have repeatedly said that they believe the elections gave them legitimacy to continue their rule.)

One opposition leader speculates that Borge would like to embarrass Ortega by pushing a hard-line policy in the next few weeks, thus provoking a small turnout of important international leaders at his inauguration. Many international supporters of the Sandinistas, such as former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, have said publicly that they expect the liberalization to continue past the elections.

The National Dialogue was suspended last week when it ran into serious problems over a document called for by the Sandinistas. The document, which would have been signed jointly by the FSLN and opposition parties, would have condemned United States ''aggression'' and the Reagan administration. The Social Christian Party (the largest opposition party participating in the dialogue) refused to sign any agreement which does not at least indirectly condemn the Soviet Union as well.

The Sandinistas, in turn, refused to sign a document containing such a reference and they refuse to discuss any other matter of substance in the dialogue until such a document is signed.

Several highly placed Sandinista sources stated their belief that the dialogue will continue after the inauguration. Opposition leaders have said that they want the dialogue to continue but question whether the Sandinistas are really willing to show any flexibility.

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