IN Nicaragua, it's a time for level heads and cool voices. While it's important that the government restore order, it is even more important that the current disruptions be ended in a way that will not do longterm harm to Nicaragua's fledgling democracy. Confronted with Sandinista-led strikes of dubious legality and rowdy street action in support of the strikers, President Violeta Chamorro must steer a narrow course between apparent quiescence and heavy-handed suppression. If she errs, it should be toward the side of restraint.
The most severe challenge to Mrs. Chamorro's 10-week-old government began late last week, when public-employee unions dominated by the Sandinistas again called strikes. The unions and their supporters, who took to the streets to build barricades of paving stones and burning tires, brought Managua to a virtual halt. On Monday night Chamorro called out the army to quell the escalating violence.
It is always disappointing - though sometimes justifiable - when a democratic government uses military force against domestic opponents. In Nicaragua the situation is doubly ticklish, since the army's loyalties are divided. Built by the former Sandinista junta, and still commanded by a Sandinista general, the army is as yet unaccustomed to subordinating itself to civilian control. President Chamorro must avoid placing too heavy a strain on commanders' loyalty, for an act of insubordination, even more than damaging the military itself, could rock the young government's legitimacy and authority.
In a mature and resilient democracy, political disturbances can be absorbed and the ground rules for dealing with them are fairly clear. But in a country emerging from a bitter, 10-year war and with just one free election under its belt, political norms are less firmly established.
The participants in Nicaragua's new political order are still testing each other. This climate calls for tireless patience and negotiations. Soldiers should be a last resort.