Revolutionary Nicaragua has suffered what some describe as its most serious blow to free expression since the overthrow of strong man Anastacio Somoza Debayle nearly two years ago.
Mob attacks March 14 against three privately owned radio stations and against buildings where oppostion rallies were being planned as well as threats against the country's leading independent newspaper have raised new questions about the chances of private enterprise and democratic pluralism surviving here.
Nicaraguan government officials have acted as though the government had nothing to do with what businessman Alfonso Robelo Callejas, leader of the strongest opposition movement, called a "night of terror." But Robelo and others whose organizations were subject to attack think otherwise.
In an interview, Robelo said he believed that the actions that caused him to for March 15 in the town of Nandaime were "totally programmed and manipulated by the government from the beginning."
Robelo, a chemical engineer, was an opponent of the Somoza regime. He joined the ruling junta after Sandinista rebels took power in 1979, but later resigned. As head of the Movimiento Democratico Nicaraguense (MDN), which has strong support among the members of the Nicaraguan middle class, he is now one of the most outspoken critics of the new regime.
The damage on March 14 included the burning of the home of an MDN representative in Nandaime, eduardo Fonseca Pasos. Robelo said that the police in Nandaime offered protection to Fonseca and his family, but did nothing to prevent the destruction of their home, pleading that they could not stop the "spontaneous actions of the free people of Nicaragua." Fonseca's home was being used as a headquarters for the meetings held to organize the projected mass rally.
Tomas Borge Martinez, minister of the interior and one of the leading figures of the Sandinista revolution against Somoza, was reported by pro-Sandinista media to have gone to one privately owned radio station on March 14 to protect it from attack.
Borge was quoted as appealing to the owners of Radio Corporacion not to provoke the public, because, according to him, they had dedicated themselves to "disparaging" the Nicaraguan revolution.
"This is the just indignation of our people and . . . we do not have at our disposal enough policement to contain 5,000 demonstrators if this continues."
As of early March 16 none of the top leaders of the government, aside from Borge, had had anything to say abut the weekend violence.
But the junta was expected to issue a statement later in the day. Middle-level Sandinista officials, meanwhile, described the attacks on two privately owned radio stations, Radio Amor and Radio Mi Preferida, as the unauthorized action of "vandals." They said the government was opposed to violence against persons and property. Radio Mi Preferida, which has carried criticism of the government, was so badly damaged that it went off the air.
Pedro Joaquin Chamorro Barrios, one of the directors of the country's leading independent newspapers La Prensa, had harsh words for the government following the weekend attacks. His father had been a leading critic of the Somoza regime and his leadership of the La Prensa had enormous influence in turning many of the Nicaraguan middle class against Somoza. The father, also named Pedro Joaquin, was assassinated shortly before the Sandinista rebellion erupted in full force in early 1978.
A mob had gone to la Prensa on March 14 and, according to Chamorro, gave protection to the newspaper building.
"He told us if the edition being printed last night came out . . . the anger of the people might be so great they couldn't control it."
Chamorro said that La Prensa would miss only two days of publication and planned to come out again March 17.
He said that the weekend demonstrations and mob actions were organized by the Sandinistas.
"They don't wat any competition," he said. "It's a kind of dictatorship. What else can you call it when you don't allow any kind of pluralism."
Alfonso Robelo said he thought the Sandinistas had lost considerable popular support over the past few months, partly because of inefficiency and what he described as inadequate reconstruction following the was here He said he guessed that Sandinista support now amounted to 45 percent of the population, compared with more than 90 percent at the end of the war.
Nonetheless, he said, "I don't think this is a lost cause." Robelo urged that the United States continue to give assistance to Nicaragua.
Robelo said that the opposition movement's strategy would now consist of organizing thorough small meetings -- "working like antS," he said -- instead of through mass meetings.