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Nicaragua: Why does the US care?

NICARAGUA'S Daniel Ortega Saavedra was in New York for the United Nations session last week, acting like many of the other visiting political leaders. He went jogging in Central Park. He was on the ``Phil Donahue'' television show. He stopped at Cohen's Fashion Optical store on the Upper East Side to buy some $3,500 worth of designer eyeglasses. During all this he was protected by US government security agents.

At a reception, he met briefly with President Reagan, the man he says is plotting to invade Nicaragua. On an earlier visit to the UN, Mr. Ortega offered the specific date on which the invasion would take place; but the date has long since come and gone, and though there was no invasion, talking up the threat of one may be a good way to keep the folks at home distracted from other problems of the Sandinistas' making.

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These problems are considerable.

Even while Mr. Ortega was shopping in New York, his minister of external cooperation, Henry Ru'iz, was reporting at home that Nicaragua's gross national product fell 3.1 percent in 1984 and will drop by 2.5 percent this year. Nica- ragua's exports this year will be about $300 million, which is a third of what is necessary to buy needed items.

So Nicaragua lives off handouts from the foreign governments it has turned to ever since the Sandinistas came to power, the countries of the Soviet bloc. The Soviets, sometimes through intermediaries, have steadily poured weaponry into Nicaragua, including the MI-24 helicopter, used with deadly effect in Afghanistan.

Nicaragua has become heavily laden with Soviet-bloc advisers.

And after the latest round of aid talks, Mr. Ru'iz announced that a ``formidable'' number of Nicaraguans would be trained in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the next five years.

Nicaragua's regime has simultaneously been cracking down on its own people. Earlier this month it imposed sweeping restrictions on civil rights. It suspended guarantees on freedom of speech, freedom of assembly and travel, the right of workers to strike, and the right of habeas corpus for prisoners.

One of the aims appeared to be to mute Roman Catholic churchmen who have been critical of the regime.

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Increasingly hobbled is the opposition newspaper La Prensa, ironically barred from publishing the legal provisions that have just been suspended.

Some people question why the US is concerned about this in a country so small and relatively insignificant. There are at least three good reasons:

The Sandinistas have betrayed a revolution that it was hoped would bring something in the nature of democracy to Nicaragua. Despite the cynicism that sometimes greets the implementation of US foreign policy, administrations of varying political complexion in Washington do care what happens to people in the rest of the world.

If the Sandinistas wanted to keep their Marxist megalomania to themselves, that might be one thing, but they do not. They want to see it exported to countries around them. If you doubt that, talk to El Salvador. Talk to Honduras. Talk to Costa Rica.

Nicaragua sits in the backyard of the United States. Though small, it is a useful base of operations for the Soviets. Look how the Soviets have used Cuba. Look how they tried to use Grenada, forging a string of secret military agreements with a little Caribbean island that few people took seriously.

American concern over Nicaragua's revolution-gone-wrong began with President Carter and has become greatly heightened under Reagan.

While there is legitimate debate about how to respond to it, it is unlikely that any administration in Washington is going to let that concern lapse.

John Hughes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, was assistant secretary of state from 1982 to 1984.

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