Peace in Nicaragua?

WE are confronted in Nicaragua by a regime that: Was clearly pledged to Marxism-Leninism before ever it achieved power.

Takes a lot of its policy guidance from Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Has broken most of the promises it made about bringing democracy to Nicaragua.

Has repressed the political opposition, silenced the opposition press, savaged the church, tortured political prisoners, ill-treated the Miskito Indians.

Maintains power by dint of an all-pervasive Cuban- and Soviet-style security apparatus.

Blatantly exports leftist revolution to other countries in Central America.

This is a regime that now tells the world it is ready to mend its ways and let a little democracy in. As an example of its good intentions it has put down an opposition rally with cattle prods and police dogs. Last week it jailed two opposition figures.

When such events occur in a country like South Africa, there is a proper and understandable outburst of revulsion in the West. When they occur in Nicaragua, the dewy-eyed devotees of the Sandinista regime still demand that the Reagan administration ``give peace a chance.''

And they are right.

The question is, how can peace best by achieved?

The Reagan administration's policy toward Nicaragua has been muddied by confusion as to the ultimate objective. Is it, as the administration proclaims, to tame the Sandinista regime and make it more civilized in its treatment of its own people and its neighbors? Or is it, as many Reagan supporters desire, to topple Daniel Ortega's unsavory government?

Toppling the Sandinistas by external pressure is probably unrealistic. The contras have so far been unable to do that. It would call for direct United States military intervention, and the US public is unlikely to support that.

And so the administration is left with trying to tame the Sandinistas by a mixture of diplomatic, economic, and military pressure, the latter applied through the contras and authorized by an on-again, off-again Congress.

The economic and military pressure has been working. Nicaragua's economy is in poor shape. Some observers say inflation will reach 1,000 percent by year's end. There are shortages of basics; there is rationing; unemployment is rising; and the black market is rampant.

Meanwhile, on the military front, although the contras have long been denigrated, they are no longer dismissed by the Sandinista regime. Contra attacks against government forces are taking place throughout the country. The contras have been mounting attacks against fuel depots, power lines, and key installations. The contras are clearly operating in force, inside Nicaragua.

This has hard-pressed the Sandinistas - already short of fuel - to maintain their military machine.

Is all this enough to make the Sandinistas sue for peace? The Reagan administration believes the Sandinistas would like a breathing spell, would like to relieve pressure from the contras, and that this has therefore encouraged them to agree to a five-nation Central American peace plan originally put forward by Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez.

But can the Sandinistas, who have consistently lied about their dedication to democracy, be trusted? Or should they continue to be subjected to the pressure from the contras that may have influenced their new public image of reasonableness?

All the evidence is that if the Sandinistas are to make even gestures in the direction of democracy, it will be under pressure, and not from a genuine change of heart. That is the dilemma the Reagan administration faces as it is urged to give peace a chance.

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