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Nicaragua's revolution four years later: some gains, much zealotry

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Operation California's executive director, Richard Walden, has been critical of the Reagan administration's funding of military operations against Nicaragua, and he made that clear upon his arrival here. But the official Sandinista newspaper Barricada had Walden going one step further and using the words ''aggression'' and ''imperialism'' - words he did not use. An American who is fluent in Spanish said that there was no problem in the translation from English into Spanish that could have led to this distortion.

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The once-feisty opposition newspaper La Prensa is meanwhile so heavily censored, and self-censored, that it hardly resembles its former self. The paper's codirector, Pedro Joaquin Chamorro, says the paper is still alive, but barely. He argues that there is no way in which Nicaragua can have the free elections that the Sandinista leaders have been promising for 1985 unless the country also has a free press.

At one point, said Mr. Chamorro, anything having to do with Afghanistan was censored. Articles from overseas carrying material critical of the Soviet Union simply cannot get into print, he said.

The young editor counters by printing volumes of material about Poland. The stories on Poland carry an implicit criticism of East bloc regimes. Photocopies of censored material from La Prensa somehow find their way into the hands of diplomats and others who have a keen interest in the news. But the direct punches that La Prensa used to deliver to its foes are now few and far between.

''Under (former President Anastasio) Somoza, the censorship was not as rigid, but there were death threats against us,'' said Mr. Chamorro.

''Keeping La Prensa alive is a good enough goal for now,'' says Pablo Antonio Cuadra, the elderly poet who is the paper's director.

President Reagan likes to draw a contrast between US-backed El Salvador's movement toward ''a more open society'' and Soviet-backed Nicaragua's movement toward a more closed one. Reagan administration officials frequently mention the Sandinistas' forced removal of Miskito Indians from their border villages on the Atlantic side of Nicaragua as an example of Sandinista brutality.

Government supporters are the first to admit that the Sandinistas made ''mistakes'' in dealing with the Miskitos, who form Nicaragua's largest minority group. But they argue that new efforts have been made to deal more humanely and reasonably with the Indians.

An ''open prison'' near Managua, where Indians who once opposed the regime and were imprisoned for it now live and farm, is shown to visitors with some pride. No guards are in evidence. The Miskitos, by the way, are the best baseball players in the prison league.

The Atlantic coast has been long isolated from the rest of Nicaragua and was neglected by the Somoza regime. Now hundreds of Miskito Indians are reported to be fighting against the Sandinistas with support from neighboring Honduras and apparently from the CIA.

Some of those who sympathize with the Sandinistas agree that their treatment of the Miskitos has been the biggest strike against the new regime. How the Sandinistas deal with this problem in coming years will constitute a major test.

But regime supporters, including some Americans who live and work here, also argue that Nicaragua has never seen repression of the Roman Catholic Church of the kind that occurred after the revolution in Cuba, much less executions of the kind carried out there.

Supporters add that the death squads that are sometimes linked with government military and security forces in El Salvador do not have any counterpart in Nicaragua. At least the basic human right to life is being preserved in Nicaragua, they say. They also argue that many of those arrested by the Nicaraguan government's security services proved to have been engaged in ''counterrevolutionary'' activity.

Critics of the government point out that some of those who have been arrested were once involved in the struggle against Somoza. According to an official in a regional labor organization who asked not to be identified, the Sandinistas have arrested workers from the Nicaraguan Workers Central in violation of International Labor Organization agreements and for reasons that have nothing to do with counterrevolutionary activity.

''The government officials say they are facing a national emergency and that the economic conditions of the country do not permit free labor activity,'' a labor official said.