The visit of Pope John Paul II to Nicaragua provides us with a useful reminder of how far the Sandinista revolution has strayed from its original commitment to pluralism and nonalignment. His reception by the comandantes may be a preview of his visit to Poland later this year.
The Sandinistas did everything they could to keep themselves in the limelight and deny it to Archbishop Miguel Obando y Bravo, the liberal campesino prelate who was in the vanguard of the fight against Somoza. During the civil war, the Sandinistas considered the archbishop a friend. Now, because of his efforts to preserve an open society, they have labeled him a counterrevolutionary.
At the open-air papal mass attended by several hundred thousand Nicaraguans, the Sandinistas attempted to stack the crowd by denying transportation and access to followers of the archbishop - evoking the image of the Salvadorean guerrillas burning buses so that voters could not get to the polls in last year's elections. The Sandinistas also assured that their claque was in the front of the crowd and had access to voice amplification equipment.
Sandinista manipulation notwithstanding, the New York Times reported that it appeared that a majority of the crowd supported the archbishop. When the Pope called out ''Silencio!'' to still the claque, there was loud applause.
There are still elements of the left in the United States who apologize for Sandinista excesses as ''errors'' of youth and inexperience. These events should make it clear that Sandinista authoritarianism is not random and capricious. The refusal of the Sandinistas to permit the visit of representatives of Polish Solidarity last year, and their labeling of the representatives as ''counterrevolutionaries,'' was not an isolated ''error.'' Nor was the parading of the archbishop's secretary, a priest, naked before television and newspaper cameras.
Comandante Daniel Ortega repeatedly and vehemently attacked US policy in Central America, something he has been doing regularly since his maiden speech at the nonaligned meeting in Havana in September 1979. But then US policy was clearly to try to build a constructive new relationship with Nicaragua, and his provocative rhetorical excesses had little credibility.
That rhetoric, Sandinista assaults on pluralism, and increasing evidence of a Sandinista foreign policy closely aligned with Cuba and the Soviet Union made a constructive new relationship impossible. However, the Reagan administration has engaged in a considerable amount of provocative rhetoric of its own, and the truculence of that rhetoric, coupled with apparent links to the discredited Somocistas, has helped the Sandinistas to cast the US in the role of Goliath to their David.
How much better US interests would have been served by a public posture of regret rather than menace.
But the recent events should remind us that it is Sandinista Marxist authoritarianism which has principally determined the radicalization of the Nicaraguan revolution and the confrontation between Nicaragua and the US.