Nicaraguan opposition leader is skeptical election will be free

The man who some say is likely to be Nicaragua's president - if free and fairly run elections are held - searches for a phrase to summarize the political situation in his country.

''The Sandinistas,'' Arturo Cruz says finally, ''have put themselves in the center of a labyrinth and now they're looking for a way out.''

Arturo Cruz Porras has seen the labyrinth from both sides. Four years ago he was a member of the Sandinista-sponsored ruling junta. Three years ago he was Nicaragua's ambassador to Washington. But then, feeling that the Sandinista leaders were too radical and not sufficiently open to moderate opinions, he joined the opposition. Cruz has been living in Washington and working at the Inter-American Development Bank at the same executive post he held before Nicaragua's 1979 revolution.

Last week the Nicaraguan government said Cruz could return home. And Tuesday it announced that elections would be held on Nov. 4.

Mr. Cruz says he is suspicious of Sandinista motives, but believes it is possible that the Sandinistas might ''democratize'' Nicaragua somewhat. He thinks they may eventually concede some real power to the private sector, the middle classes, and the opposition parties. He says that some of the Sandinistas have shown they are pragmatic.

But ''the Sandinistas are unpredictable,'' he adds. ''They hold their cards close to their chest, but pressures could lead them to concede eventually, even though they are not sincere. The Sandinistas have misled so many people so many times that no one trusts them any longer. But, for reasons of survival, they want to cut a political deal. It's now up to them to show that they are acting in good faith.''

Cruz says he could envisage standing as a presidential candidate, but not under the under present conditions. He says that what the Sandinistas have offered so far is not enough to ensure that the elections will be free.

In his view, the Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) hopes the November elections will help to:

1. Restore some viability to the Nicaraguan economy, which is in chaos. The Sandinistas, he says, must get the private sector and middle classes to participate in this. The only way to restore credibility with these groups is to hold elections and come to a political arrangement with them, he says.

2. Reduce the US military and economic pressures on Nicaragua stemming from the US-backed counterrevolutionaries and the US economic boycott. Though the US-backed contras cannot boot the Sandinistas out of power, they can make life difficult through economic sabotage, and by the high cost of keeping Nicaragua on a perpetual war footing. So elections may be one step toward making some sort of compromise with the United States.

Cruz thinks the Sandinistas are under pressure from the Cubans to come to some sort of regional and internal political settlement. Cuba wants a compromise , he says, because it is frightened of direct conflict with the US (especially after the successful US intervention in Grenada) and would like eventually to trade with the US and its Latin allies. It is possible, the Nicaraguan opposition figure says, that even the Soviets have been telling Nicaragua's leaders and Cuba that they would not go ''all the way'' in the case of a conflict pitting the two nations against the US.

He says it is ''grotesque'' that the Sandinistas announced they would exclude from the elections prinicipal opposition party leaders like Eden Pastora Gomez, Alfonso Robelo Callejas, and Adolfo Calero. He also said that guarantees of the right to hold rallies, equal access to the press, radio, and TV, and guarantees of Army nonparticipation in the electoral campaign were conditions that must be met before any self-respecting opposition leader could agree to participate. He also called for outside supervision of the elections by a multilateral organization like the UN.

The Nicaranguan exile leader went on to outline various courses of action open to the Sandinistas. They could push through an election ''farce,'' without letting any of the real opposition leaders return, and without proper pre-electoral conditions. In this case they might have a cooperative opposition figure like Nicaraguan junta member Rafael Cordova Rivas, who belongs to the Conservative Party, put up a ''show'' campaign. The most likely Sandinista candidate would be junta coordinator and FSLN Directorate member Daniel Ortega Saavedra.

Another alternative, said Cruz, would be to permit the major opposition leaders to return, and run someone like Daniel Ortega against them in fair and free elections, which according to Cruz, the Sandinistas could possibly win because they retain considerable public support.

Cruz doubted whether the Sandinistas would ever commit themselves to returning to a traditional parliamentary system. He saw as more likely the evolution of some sort of government that would incorporate the opposition into the power structure along the lines of the Mexican government.

Opposition groups in Nicaragua may accept such an arrangement, the exile leader says. But he he stresses that no opposition party could legitimately enter into such a plan without first consulting its members.

Despite real pressures of the Sandinistas, it is not a foregone conclusion that they would agree to make the concessions necessary for a settlement, he says. He cites the intransigence of some directorate members and of mid-level party cadres as real obstacles.

''As long as they think in terms of making 'concessions,' to the opposition, '' he said, ''the Sandinistas will not achieve anything. They must think in terms of the right of people who think differently than they do if they want to reach a settlement.''

Looking at some of the opposition leaders outside of Nicaragua, Cruz said it is not realistic to believe that President Reagan will launch a direct massive military intervention to throw out the Sandinistas. Cruz says opposition leaders would never agree to a Mexican-style government with the FSLN as long as they they think the US may overthrow the Sandinistas for them.

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