Has Nicaragua slipped into the Soviet orbit? Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr., in congressional testimony, said that it had -- and that the West has indeed lost this Central American country.
The State Department subsequently backed off somewhat from General Haig's comments, however.A department spokesman said that "there are many Marxists in the Nicaraguan government," but added that "they have not consolidated their control over the country. . . ."
The spokesman declared, "We have not accepted communist domination of Nicaragua as an accomplished fact."
General Haig's earlier implication that Nicaragua had been lost had stunned many hemisphere observers. One State Department source said, "I bet this comes as a surprise to Larry Pezzullo."
This was a reference to Lawrence Pezzullo, the US ambassador in Nicaragua, who has worked steadily with the Sandinista leadership to encourage the development of a truly pluralistic political society and a mixed economy. The Sandinistas, in coming to power in the wake of the overthrow of General Somoza in July 1979, promised such a society and economy.
All has not gone smoothly in pursuit of this goal. The Sandinistas have come under sharp attack for failing to live up to this promise. Moreover, many Nicaraguans who staunchly opposed the Somoza dictatorship and played major roles in bringing down his government feel they have had no role in deciding Nicaragua's future. They add that most officials are Sandinistas.
Particularly critical is Alfonso Robelo Callejas, who quit the governing junta after nine months in protest over Sandinista policy. He says the Sandinistas are bent on establishing a one-party dictatorship.
But businessmen like William Baez, a leader in the influential Nicaraguan Chamber of Commerce, are less critical. They worry about US aid cutoffs. "If the US writes us off now," he said in a recent interview, "It will be the end of the moderates."
Mr. Robelo also agrees that it would be unwise to cut off all aid.
The Haig statement, however, suggests to some observers that the Reagan administration may be preparing the stage for an announcement that US aid to Nicaragua will not be resumed. Part of the aid was halted by the Carter administration in January on a procedural matter. The remainder was subsequently stopped by the Reagan White House because of the Nicaraguan role in arms traffic to El Salvador.
Quite a few Latin American specialists, including some of General Haig's Foreign Service colleagues in Central America, would disagree sharply with the Haig implication that Nicaragua has entered the Soviet orbit, and were stunned by this testimony.
There is no doubt that Nicaragua, under the Marxist-oriented Sandinista guerrillas-turned-governors, is no longer the close ally of the United States that it was under the Somoza family.
Nicaragua's ties with Cuba, As well as its recent role in the flow of Soviet-bloc arms to the leftist guerrillas of El Salvador, provide clear evidence of the changed attitudes in Nicaragua and the very uncertain future for US relations with the Central American country.
But General Haig's suggestion that the Soviet Union has "completed . . . the seizure of Nicaragua," does not square with the view held by most specialists on Nicaragua and Central America.
There is also criticism of General Haig for what one US diplomat called his "very intemperate and undiplomatic language."
General Haig's views came in testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Committee March 18 as it debated Soviet involvement in El Salvador. (The clarification of his comments came during a State Department briefing by spokesman William Dyess March 19.)
General Haig's said that this involvement was part of a four-phase communist strategy to dominate Central America. "Phase 1," he went on, "has been completed with the seizure of Nicaragua. Next is El Salvador, to be followed by Hondu ras and Guatemala."