Nicaragua's need for a helping hand

For more than 150 years the United States has been intimately involved -- for good or ill -- in Nicaraguan affairs. There have been moments when that involvement worked for the benefit of both, but it is fair to observe that the relationship has benefitted the US far more than the Central American land and its people. The swashbuckling William Walker of Tennessee took over the country in the 1850s and set a pattern of exploitation and domination too often repeated over the years.

To be sure, during two US military interventions in this century, officially ordered to bring stability to Nicaragua, the US left behind some good -- better water and sewage services, new roads, and other material improvements. But it also left behind a legacy of ill will, particularly after the last intervention in the late 1920s. Following the withdrawal of US Marines, Anastasio Somoza Garcia, whom the US put at the helm of the newly created National Guard, seized power. He and his sons ruled dictatorially for the next 47 years, often aided and abetted by US ambassadors on the scene. The dynasty was finally dislodged last July when Anastasio Somoza Debayle was toppled by a national movement which knows few parallels in Latin America history.

Headed by the left-leaning Sandinista guerrillas, the new government inherits a bankrupt nation, political and economically shattered. US relief aid has been quick and purposeful. The new leaders of Nicaragua recognize this and have indicated their appreciation. But more is needed if Nicaragua is to begin the long road to recovery. The Carter administration, as a result, has come up with an emergency aid package of $75 million in grants and loans aimed at starting that recovery.

The Senate has already approved the package, and the House will be asked to do the same this week. But the vote is not a sure thing. Many members of the House worry about the Marxist overtones of the new government in Managua, so do many Nicaraguans many of whom argue, however, that the best way to prevent a drift toward Marxism is for the US to come to the aid of the new government. That seems reasonable and $75 million is not too much to invest in the task. Moreover, much of the loan would go to prop up the private sector, badly battered in the 18-month civil war that preceded the Somoza dynasty's ouster.

In the months since the Sandinistas came to power, the US has begun to regress some of the unhappy history of the past 150 years in relations between the two nations -- extending a hand of friendship to Nicaragua's new leaders, hosting a number of them in Washington and other cities, and granting nearly $40 million in emergency relief aid (food, medicines, and the like). But the legacy of the past still hovers over relations. House approval of the $75 million aid package would demonstrate that the US genuinely means to help Nicaragua find its way out of the difficult past into a self-respecting future.

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