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Nicaragua: the real war is now economic

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MANAGUA newspapers, radio, and television are giving extensive coverage to two public relations windfalls for local propaganda: The Iran arms controversy and the Hasenfus case have shown there has been illegal public and private US financing of guerrilla activities with the tacit support of the surrounding Central American countries. The political uproar in Washington and Democratic advances in Congress have injected a hint of hope into the dominant mood of a nation under siege. Considerable resources are devoted to mobilizing arms caches and emergency stocks in the countryside should an US invasion occur. The memory of Grenada has not faded; military supply planes are shot down and the 82nd Airborne Division is on maneuver off Nicaraguan shores.

Once again rumor has it that the United States is about to break diplomatic relations. Publicity is also given to declarations from US public officials. Sen. Edward Kennedy's lamentation last August that the contra vote was ``the start of sending US troops to Central America'' does not contradict the President's own recent rhetoric about the ``overthrow'' of the present government as the ultimate objective of US foreign policy.

The pain and disruption of contra military efforts are significant. In a tiny nation of 3 million persons, the number of deaths since 1983 is staggering: about 17,000, or more than the 12,000 fatalities during the overthrow of Anastasio Somoza. There really is little evidence of a serious military threat to the Sandinistas outside of the rebel control over the isolated region in the mountains along the Honduran border and a small pocket to the east of Managua. Uncoordinated groups of mercenaries act in isolation without political backing at the local level.

In the view of stalemate on the military front the real screw-tightening from the US has become the economic burden of defense expenditures combined with the quasi-permanent disruption of the local economy from the trade embargo and total mobilization. In the last two years, defense expenditures have increased sixfold; they represent 60 percent of government expenditures and 15 percent of the nation's gross national product. The common impression that Soviet or Cuban assistance fuels the local capacity to resist is far from the truth.

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