Under dark of night, stevedores at Nicaragua's big Pacific Coast port of Corinto recently unloaded a Russian freighter.
Off came more than 200 Super General farm tractors, a Soviet donation to the Nicaraguan government. The spanking-new green tractors were quickly dispatched to government-run farms in northwestern Chinandega and Leon provinces.
This is not really an indication of increasing Soviet aid to Nicaragua.
In fact, the arrival of the tractors was the first major Soviet assistance to Nicaragua in 1982. Moreover, it follows a year in which the Soviet Union contributed a mere 3 percent of the foreign assistance and credit received by Nicaragua from all sources.
Although Soviet assistance to the Marxist-leaning government is not large, Soviet influence appears to be growing. Indeed, the Sandinistas are increasingly aligned with the Soviet bloc ideologically and on foreign affairs.
Cuba is the conduit for this alignment. While the Soviet Union tends to play a cautious and reserved role in Nicaragua, Cuba is playing a highly visible role.
As many as 3,000 Cubans are in Nicaragua, serving as teachers, doctors, nurses, and hospital technicians -- skilled professionals of whom Nicaragua has a large deficit. There are undoubtedly some Soviet military advisers offering the type of military assistance the United States is giving elsewhere in the Americas. But it is difficult to pinpoint the exact number of Soviets.
Unlike the Russians, the Cubans have provided sizable quantities of aid and credit to the Nicaraguans -- at least $70 million in 1981, although the total apparently includes what is spent on supplies for Cuban teachers and medical personnel.
But this Cuban assistance is only a fraction of a much larger amount of aid and credit that comes from non-Marxist sources. Although the US cut off aid more than a year ago, Nicaragua in 1981 continued to receive funds from Mexico, Venezuela, the Common Market countries, Sweden, and Libya -- with such assistance reaching an estimated $350 million.
International lending institutions like the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank helped, too, by granting $200 million more in credits in 1981.
This non-Soviet-bloc assistance has clearly played a role in maintaining the Sandinistas' promises of political pluralism. Yet the ideological inclination of the Sandinista government is toward socialist countries -- and this inclination is growing.
The local press, with the notable exception of the opposition newspaper La Prensa, plays up Soviet-bloc assistance almost to the exclusion of aid that comes from other sources.
This has led to considerable criticism from Western governments and from socialist political parties in Europe and Latin America.
Although the US has been criticized for its aid cutoff and its efforts to isolate Nicaragua, officials from Mexico, France, West Germany, and Venezuela have been pressuring the Nicaraguans to lessen their alignment with the Soviet bloc.
''What is needed,'' a West European diplomat here said, ''is a continuing effort to offer the Sandinista government an alternative to greater dependence upon the Soviet bloc. That is why we are offering so much aid.''
At the same time, this Western diplomat, a longtime observer of Nicaragua, admits the situation is a paradox for the US and makes analysis of what is taking place difficult.
''The Soviet bloc is simply not big on assistance, but is long on ideological influence,'' he adds.
That is the very point that Washington makes. It was a factor, although not the deciding one, in the US aid cutoff.
Washington also points to the self-professed Marxism of each of the nine members of the Sandinista directorate, the ultimate authority here.
Sergio Ramirez Mercado, a member of the three-member governing junta although not a member of the directorate, admits ''our close ties with socialist countries,'' but stresses that ''we want to keep open our options.''
And Daniel Ortega Saavedra, another junta member but also a member of the directorate, says, ''We believe in nonalignment.''
To that a Western diplomat comments, ''It is a strange nonalignment.''
Next: Nicaragua's economy