Nicaragua's travail

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WHEN will Nicaragua's travail end? In addition to war, and the economic anguish caused by an inept Sandinista regime, its people now must recover from a hurricane that has taken some 60 lives and left 300,000 homeless.

Fortunately, help is pouring in from countries and private organizations around the world, including some that despise the Sandinista regime but are tugged by concern for the Nicaraguan people.

Would that the regime itself took such a magnanimous view. Instead, it has invoked a nationwide state of emergency, the prime purpose of which seems to be to reimpose the press censorship it has promised the world it would abandon.

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The state of emergency is to last for an initial 30 days but can be extended. It puts into effect a law approved earlier this month by the Sandinista-dominated National Assembly giving President Daniel Ortega sweeping powers.

One of those powers, already exercised, is a ban on publication of any news about the hurricane that does not come from government sources. Theoretically that relates to news about the disaster and its aftermath. In practise, experts say, it is an across-the-board attempt to reimpose censorship. It is aimed particularly at the opposition newspaper La Prensa, which struggles to survive in the face of Sandinista banning, obstruction, threats, and withdrawal of newsprint.

The latest Sandinista crackdown follows several months of increasing Sandinista pressure on the opposition, including Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, the outspoken head of the Roman Catholic Church in Nicaragua.

One opposition political leader, Jaime Bonilla, said the latest restrictions ``show that we are dealing with a government that uses a natural phenomenon to intervene in and control Nicaragua's society, and particularly its opposition.''

In Washington one of the most astute observers of Nicaragua says: ``The crackdown on the press, within a state of emergency, is a transparent move, a clear political maneuver to reestablish censorship.''

This observer says that it coincides with other moves by the Sandinistas to roll back the promises they made under the Central American peace plan. With the erosion of American military aid to the opposition contras, the Sandinista regime has felt increasingly free to return to repressive tactics.

One of the purposes behind renewed censorship is apparently an attempt to control the population and disguise the extent of Nicaragua's disastrous economic situation. Exports have fallen from about $850 million to about $200 million a year, and without foreign exchange, essential imports have been hobbled. The Sandinistas have become increasingly dependent on Soviet aid, but the Soviets show little inclination to increase their present level of economic assistance.

Even under ``normal'' conditions, the mismanagement of the economy has meant great hardship for many Nicaraguans. The power supply is unreliable. There are long lines for the little gasoline available. Food supplies are erratic.

Now the disruption caused by the hurricane must be added. Crops have been heavily damaged by flooding and strong winds. Power and water supplies in Managua, the capital, were knocked out by the storm. Public transportation was brought to a standstill in many parts of the country.

Although the United States proffered aid to private groups in Nicaragua, the initial reaction of President Ortega was that Nicaragua would reject American relief as long as Washington was sponsoring what it called ``terrorism.''

Once again, the Nicaraguan people suffer as their unrepresentative ruling regime uses a tragedy that should have stirred humanitarian instincts as an excuse for more political repression.

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