Nicaragua opposition tentatively dips its toes in presidential race

Main opposition leader Arturo Cruz Porras is back in Managua, sending a surge of optimism through those supporters who wish to see ''real'' elections in Nicaragua.

Mr. Cruz may run for president, but he says any participation in the elections depends on whether the Sandinistas accept nine conditions set out by a committee of Nicaragua's main opposition groups.

They are demanding a totally free electoral campaign. Sandinista leaders have said some of the opposition's demands - such as an official separation of the Army and the government from the governing party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) - are unacceptable.

Some members of the opposition speculate that they may allow some room for negotiation on the points the Sandinistas find most objectionable.

For Cruz, the most important conditions are a general amnesty allowing other opposition leaders to return home and a national dialogue between the FSLN and the opposition. He says the essential point is not who wins an election (since a Sandinista victory is likely) but whether they will serve as ''a vehicle for national reconciliation.''

Cruz returned to Nicaragua at the request of the ''Coordinadora'' (a coordinating committee of some of Nicaragua's main opposition groups) and the Conservative Party, which together had asked him to be their presidential candidate in the election the Sandinistas have scheduled for Nov. 4.

But in informal meetings Tuesday the Coordinadora made a preliminary decision to hold off on registering Cruz as a candidate for awhile. It would prefer to have the elections postponed until a later date. The group plans to ask the FSLN to talk about the parameters of the electoral process and what role the private sector and opposition will be allowed to play after elections.

Although traditionally a Conservative, Cruz was part of the five-person Sandinista-controlled junta that ruled Nicaragua immediately after the 1979 revolution. He later became Nicaragua's ambassador to Washington. But in 1981, he resigned that post and broke with the Sandinistas.

Working in Washington, D.C., since then (as an executive of the Inter-American Development Bank), Cruz has not been associated with any armed groups opposing the Sandinistas. But last month he and opposition leader Eden Pastora issued a joint declaration stating that Pastora would lay down his arms and Cruz would end his opposition to the FSLN if the Sandinistas would hold truly free elections this fall.

The Coordinadora is continuing to debate electoral strategy. The opposition must have a clear idea of what it wants to do before Aug. 4, the cutoff date for registering presidential candidates.

Many opposition party leaders are divided about what role they should play in elections. If they take part in elections they consider to be less than totally free, their parties may be accused of being accomplices of the Sandinistas. If they stay out, the most radical wing of the FSLN may gain strength and their own parties may wither away.

It looks for now as though the opposition will hold off on registering Cruz as a candidate. But it could reverse this position. It could also register Cruz and plunge into a campaign, but reserve final judgment on participation until it sees the degree to which the FSLN accepts its conditions for participation.

Of the main opposition groups, the Social Christians and some of the labor unions are the most eager to participate in the election. The Social Democrats and Conservatives tend to insist on a Sandinista acceptance of all the nine points.

Opposition parties are united in thinking they should not register a candidate unless the FSLN complies with some minimum demands - the abolition of all censorship and lifting of the national state of emergency.

The Sandinistas met some of the opposition's demands by announcing on July 19 the end of direct newspaper censorship (except on military matters), and the partial lifting of the state of emergency. They also gave the opposition the right to hold public meetings and provided them with 30 minutes per day of free time on government-controlled television.

However, opposition leaders say they will register no candidates unless the Sandinistas restore the right of habeas corpus and the right to strike.

Opposition leaders also say there can be no real end to censorship unless the Sandinistas lift decrees making it unlawful to ''make statements endangering national security'' and unless the Sandinistas allow the news media to criticize the government for food shortages.

One unknown factor is the potential candidacy of Virgilio Godoy, former labor minister and head of the Independent Liberal Party. It is unclear if this party, which until recently was allied with the Sandinistas, will run Godoy as a candidate or join forces with Cruz.

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