A vote in the US House of Representatives next week could be decisive in setting the direction of United States- Nicaraguan relations over the coming years.
Before the House is a modest aid package, totaling $75 million, which the Carter administration feels is essential to help Nicaragua's new leaders get the reconstruction of their nation under way.
But the aid package has psychological importance far in excess of the money involved or the projects the money would support.
If approved by the House, as it already has been by the Senate, the aid would encourage Nicaragua's private sector to join in the reconstruction effort and probably would assure a continuation of Nicaragua's new pluralistic political and economic direction.
If rejected by the House, as could happen since there is sentiment there opposed to the new Sandinista leaders, Nicaragua's private sector might conclude that they should cut their losses and leave their homeland. If that happens, the new Nicaraguan government could turn toward the socialist world.
Many members of the private sector here worry that their country's new leaders -- guerrillas turned governors -- eventually may turn Nicaragua into a socialist society in the Cuban fashion. They point out that the guerrillas are self-proclaimed Marxists.
Yet the Sandinista guerrillas, before they came to power last July, toppling the 47-year-old Somoza family dynasty, were proclaiming a pluralistic society for Nicaragua with a mixed economy. And they have continued to chant this theme.
What the Sandinistas would do if the US aid package is rejected in Congress remains to be seen. At the moment, they express considerable enthusiasm for their developing US ties and appear to want these ties to continue and grow.
And the private sector seems to be encouraged so far by the course of US-Nicaraguan relations. The House vote is seen as "the most important test of US attitudes to date," a private-sector spokesman here said. "I want to stay, and I will, if the aid is approved," he said, "but I probably would leave if the US turns its back on Nicaragua and on us."
Quite a few private-sector people have gone ahead with guarded optimism in their dealings with the Sandinista leadership. Cotton planting and coffee-tree pruning are under way on many large private holdings, and some factories are back in limited operation following the 18-month civil war that brought the Sandinistas to power.
But other large private-sector groups are simply sitting on their hands, waiting for some further indication of how the Sandinistas plan to organize Nicaragua.
Private-sector spokesmen say that approval of the aid package would go a long way toward assuring all Nicaraguan businessmen and landowners that the US is supporting them.
If the House were to reject the aid package, however, "The consequences would be frightful," a private-sector leader comments. "The game might well be over. It certainly could convince the Sandinistas, who are very pragmatic people, that they ought to look elsewhere for friendship. And where do you look elsewhere but to the Soviet Union and Cuba?