ONE of the saddest and most ironic byproducts of the Iran debacle may be a setback for democracy in Nicaragua. Lt. Col. Oliver North, who is either one of the loosest cannons in Marine Corps history or a willing scapegoat for higher-up duplicity in the White House, had as one of his principal objectives the support of the contras battling the Marxist regime in Nicaragua.
From his post on the staff of the National Security Council, he was central in a scheme to sell arms secretly to the Iranians, mark them up handsomely, and use the profits to fund the contras.
It was a silly scheme. It has caused international embarrassment and has damaged the presidency of the man Colonel North sought to serve. It has also spread gloom among the contra leaders, who think that future efforts to get more congressional help will face major opposition. The Reagan administration put all its prestige on the line to get the contras $100 million this year, after Congress had blocked military aid earlier. The fight for aid to the contras next time around is likely to be very tough.
Thus may be damaged the worthy cause North sought in his misguided way to help - the curbing of Nicaragua's tawdry Sandinista regime.
The Sandinistas are the successors to the discredited Somoza regime in Nicaragua. Though they have long since become an embarrassment to their international socialist friends, a mythical impression lingers among some liberals that they are idealistic revolutionaries. Long before seizing power, they were closet Marxists; since then they have made plain their alliance with Cuba and the Soviet Union.
This is not a fiction propagated by Ronald Reagan's right-wing cabal. This is the view of Nicaraguans protesting the betrayal of their revolution, experiencing firsthand the oppression of the Sandinista regime.
One such voice belongs to Violeta Barrios de Chamorro, the publisher of the opposition newspaper La Prensa, whose paper was arbitrarily closed by the Sandinistas this year. Mrs. Chamorro was honored recently by Harvard's Nieman Foundation for journalism, and has been speaking at such prestigious forums as the Council on Foreign Relations in New York.
Her credentials are impeccable. Her newspaper struggled against General Somoza, and her husband, the paper's former editor, gave his life in that cause. What the world needs to understand, she says, is that Nicaraguans are living under a new Somocism with the Sandinistas. In an article in the current Foreign Affairs, she says: ``There always has been a determination on the part of the Sandinista commanders to impose total dictatorship and prevent the most minimal expression of free thought. Just like General Somoza ...the Sandinistas cannot tolerate a dissenting voice or the expression of a contrary political idea.''
Mrs. Chamorro charges the Sandinistas with the growth of militarism, corruption, press censorship, fraudulent elections, and trampled human rights.
In the beginning, she says, Nicaraguans gave their support to the Sandinista revolution because they believed it was to be the first complete Hispano-American revolution, one that strove for justice but diminished no freedoms, achieved social democracy without the loss of political democracy. But instead, she says, the Sandinistas ``have betrayed a whole people who dreamed of being free.''
The Sandinistas, Chamorro warns, preach peace but have actually decided upon a military solution. They have ``closed the doors to dialogue and opened the doors to war.'' In Nicaragua today, she contends there is no freedom except that exercised by the Sandinista front. She urges the Western democracies to be decisive and firm in coordinating their efforts ``to demand a civilized government in Nicaragua, based on the right to free elections and respect for the fundamental rights of man.''
It is a reminder that, however clumsy and misguided the administration's efforts to help the opposition in Nicaragua, there is no questioning the continuing demagoguery of the Sandinista regime there.