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Nicaragua: afraid of freedom?

LEFTIST forces in Central America are fond of charging that the region's right-of-center governments violate their citizens' civil rights. Several do, although some -- notably El Salvador -- have made improvement. Now the isthmus's only left-of-center government, in Nicaragua, has cast a spotlight on itself by suspending a range of civil rights, including the rights of public assembly, free expression, privacy in the home, and the freedom to strike. In addition, the Sandinista government has extended its three-year-old state of emergency and tightened news censorship.

Nicaragua lays the blame for its action on the United States, claiming the steps were made necessary by the prospect of an offensive from the US-backed ``contra'' rebels.

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That won't wash. A test of the civil rights commitment of a government is to see how much liberty it allows citizens when it's under pressure, as the Sandinistas are from the contras. Truly democratic governments preserve most essential liberties at home even as they defend them against outside assault. The Sandinista government fails that test.

Not that there has been much doubt of late about the cant in Managua. It has been clear for many months that it is no friend of the United States, and that liberty it is willing to provide Nicaraguans is limited. Its national election last November was flawed.

This is not the first time the Sandinistas have abridged rights. In March 1982 they declared a state of emergency, and many rights were suspended. Shortly before last November's elections some rights were restored -- only to be removed again this week. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega says he will restore the rights once more when ``the imperialist aggression against Nicaragua'' ends.

The Sandinista regime had permitted some voice to the opposition through its partially censored press. Now, says the government's justice minister, censorship ``will be total.''

So much for rights.

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