WITH less than 40 days to promised elections in Nicaragua Feb. 25, the Sandinistas are attempting to keep American observers of the process at arm's length. A 20-person bipartisan congressional observer team appointed by President Bush has been trying unsuccessfully for three months to get visas for Nicaragua. The mission of the team is to go to Nicaragua, observe the registration process and the polling, and report back to Congress and the president. The team's findings would be helpful as Congress begins a debate on what the US relationship should be with Nicaragua.
Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, the observer team's co-chairman, hinted this week that the team might ask President Bush to disband it, if the Nicaraguan government does not soon approve visas. Senator Lugar has observed elections in a string of other countries, including the Philippines when Corazan Aquino upset former President Marcos.
The Sandinistas have taken other steps, the effect of which would be to limit American monitoring of the way in which the elections are handled.
It is denying and delaying visas for American journalists who want to cover the elections, and who have not previously had problems in entering the country. The journalists involved are based in Central America and work for various American news organizations.
The Sandinistas have also cut back the size of the American embassy staff in the Nicaraguan capital of Managua in retaliation for the American military invasion of the Nicaraguan ambassador's residence in Panama during the American offensive against General Noriega. The American military action was clearly a violation of diplomatic protocol, but the Sandinistas seized on it to curb American diplomatic personnel in Nicaragua. The Americans have charged that one of the purposes is to limit the number of American personnel available to check on the treatment of the opposition in the election campaign, and to monitor the fairness of the actual voting.
The Sandinistas, who have broken a string of earlier promises to bring democracy to Nicaragua, have been forced into this election by the weight of Central American and other international opinion.
At least in the election in the Philippines, Senator Lugar's monitoring team was present, and was there with the assent of the ruling Marcos administration. The apparent reluctance of Nicaragua to admit a congressional monitoring team suggests that the Sandinistas are nervous about the outcome and about the character of the campaign they are waging.
Lugar charges that already the Sandinistas have declined to engage in a promised national dialogue and have limited the opposition to one out of five seats on the electoral council. He is concerned about the presence of armed soldiers and para-military personnel at polling stations. He says that voter registration lists due in October were given to the opposition for checking only in December and had to be returned by mid-January.
He says the campaign so far has been marred by violence against the opposition, violence deplored by both the Organization of American States and the United Nations. The government, he says, has ``injected a mood of fear'' into the election campaign.
The Sandinistas also dominate television and have diverted public funds to their election campaigning.
The irony of Sandinista behavior, according to Senator Lugar, is that while on the one hand they want the American economic embargo against them lifted, they seem ``eager for confrontation with the United States.''
But as Congress begins debate on American policy toward Nicaragua, the Sandinistas must, according to Lugar, offer a number of assurances if there is to be any softening of the American position. They must enter into a real dialogue with other political factions; they must ``tolerate diversity'' - for instance, by closing the secret prisons in which political opponents are held; they must guarantee justice in the courts; they must recognize all political parties.
The steps by the Sandinistas to curb scrutiny of their election tactics offer little hope that such assurances will be binding.