'Commander Zero' tells Sandinistas to shape up . . . or else

Eden Pastora Gomez, the best-known folk hero of Nicaragua's Sandinista revolution, has thrown down the gauntlet -- challenging his former guerrilla comrades to change their ways . . . or else.

''Either (Defense Minister) Humberto Ortega straightens things out,'' he said last week, ''or I'll straighten them out.''

Surfacing in Costa Rica April 15 after nine months of mysterious silence, Mr. Pastora -- the famed Commandante Cero (Commander Zero) of the Nicaraguan revolution -- accused his former colleagues in the Sandinista movement of imposing a ''reign of terror'' on Nicaragua.

The Pastora message was a blistering attack -- perhaps the most damaging opposition yet encountered by the Sandinistas since they gained power.

Does Mr. Pastora's verbal assault presage guerrilla action by him against the Sandinistas? That is unclear. But the Pastora statements should be seen as part of growing public dissatisfaction with the Sandinista cause just three years after the Sandinistas defeated the hated regime of Gen. Anastasio Somoza Debayle.

The Sandinistas are buffeted from many quarters now -- the church, business and labor groups, political parties, and the newspaper La Prensa.

Even by their own admission, the Sandinistas appear to have lost the solid majority support they enjoyed when they sent General Somoza packing in July 1979 .

Eden Pastora appears to be one of a growing number of opponents.

From August 1978 -- when he led a raid on the Nicaraguan legislative palace, taking more than 1,000 hostages and successfully bartering their lives for a group of jailed Sandinistas -- Pastora distinguished himself as commander of guerrilla forces fighting south of Managua, the capital.

But his hero's status never led to important government or military jobs in post-victory Sandinista government.

''He couldn't take orders,'' one former colleague said recently.

That may be true. But it is also true that Mr. Pastora, as the virtual cult figure of the Sandinista movement, had talked openly immediately after the Sandinista triumph of the political pluralism, mixed economy, and nonalignment the Sandinistas promised for the new Nicaragua.

Now, like growing numbers of Nicaraguans, he feels his former comrades have not lived up to their promises.

''With all that I have said here,'' Mr. Pastora told newsmen in Costa Rica, ''I am making clear my disagreement with the conduct of the national directorate'' -- a reference to the nine-member group of Sandinista guerrillas that is the ultimate authority in Nicaragua today.

The impact of the Pastora statements remains to be seen; they were not given much attention here, in part because Nicaraguan officials extended the month-old state of emergency. News, nevertheless, travels fast here and many who do know about Comandante Cero's statements are already speculating about what he may be planning.

Pastora's message gives encouragement to Sandinista opponents. But at the same time, these forces are not unified. Some of the opposition's discontent stems from Nicaragua's poor economic situation. Some stems from ideological differences. Some from religious attitudes.

It is also the result of a fiercely independent streak on the part of Nicaraguans -- an independence born of years of opposition to dictatorship, family rule, and repression going back to the last century.

The Roman Catholic Church is close to the heart of the opposition. Although some churchmen give considerable support to the Sandinista government -- four priests serve the government in high positions -- the church itself has taken increasingly strident stands against the government.

Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, the Roman Catholic primate of Nicaragua, clearly opposes the government, as does much of the church hierarchy.

The archbishop was a thorn in side of the late dictator Somoza. He is a also a thorn in the Sandinistas' side. But he is having a more difficult time being independent under the Sandinistas than under General Somoza. The former dictator would never dare to keep his Sunday morning homilies off the radio. The Sandinistas have done it easily.

Cancellation of Holy Week holidays -- due to the real or perceived threat of invasion and the government's contention that the nation's industries needed to be kept running -- caused major protest in Nicaragua, but not merely from the church. There were howls of protest from many corners.

Alfonso Robelo Callejas, a businessman who served for nine months on the governing junta until he became disenchanted with Sandinista performance, is the most prominent opponent. But he is hardly a leader.

Other businessmen shy away from Robelo, perhaps because he worked so closely with the Sandinistas at one point -- but perhaps also because he is not thought by members of the Superior Council of Private Enterprises (COSEP), a private businessmen's group, to be the sort of heavyweight they seek to lead them.

But there are no other strong leaders -- COSEP head Enrique Dreyfuss, who served some months in jail recently, plays a low-key role and says little.

Labor is likewise cowed. No leader has emerged to take up the labor banner in opposition to the Sandinista government or the Sandinista-run unions, which are widely seen as mere tools of the government.

That leaves the newspaper La Prensa as the single most strident voice of opposition. The paper makes no bones about its opposition. But under emergency rule and government censorship, the paper has toned down its approach, especially after one day in which it had half of its editorial content deleted. That day the paper, which has the largest circulation in Nicaragua, did not publish.

After each day it is closed down or chooses not to publish, the paper's circulation shoots up over 100,000 (it is normally 75,000) - evidence of its key opposition role La Prensa. Its circulation also jumped when it was closed down by General Somoza.

No one in Nicaragua claims La Prensa is an objective paper. But no paper in Nicaragua is objective, especially not the government-run Barricada and the government-supporting El Nuevo Diario.

La Prensa represents, however, the opposition flag bearer. How long it can keep publishing, particularly when and if the emergency rule is lifted, is an open question.

Eden Pastora's emotional denunciation of the Sandinistas included freedom of the press -- ''complete and unbridled freedom'' -- among his demands on the Sandinistas.

He called for the Sandinistas to comply with their oft-voiced promises of political pluralism, mixed economy, and nonalignment -- and then demanded full guarantees for freedom of religion and of the press.

On the theme of nonalignment, he demanded that Cuban military personnel and security agents - as well as Soviet agents -- be expelled from Nicaragua.

He took note of Cuba's increasing presence in Nicaragua. Nicaragua, he said, needs its own revolution, ''not a borrowed version.''

While he did not criticize the Cubans, he took a swipe at Soviet imperialism, making it clear that he condemned Soviet-bloc maneuvering every bit as much, if not more than, the United States variety.

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