DANIEL Ortega, Nicaragua's leader, has been in Moscow, and although the photographs show no smile flickering across his ever-grave face, it must have been a satisfactory visit. Before he left Managua, there were reports that Mr. Ortega was seeking $200 million in aid from the Soviets. Nobody knows whether he got it. The Soviets are usually coy about announcing the size and content of their aid packages.
But the Soviet reception for Ortega was fulsome. He was warmly received by the top brass, including Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko. The nuanced mumbo jumbo of the communiqu'e issued afterward is being interpreted by the experts as meaning that Ortega got a bundle.
And why not? The Soviets have reason to be pleased with their Nicaraguan prot'eg'e and the direction he is moving their Central American aspirations.
For the Soviets, the Nicaraguan revolution of 1979 was as significant as the Cuban revolution 20 years earlier. Viktor Volski, president of the Soviet Association of Friendship with Latin American Countries, called it a ``model'' to be followed. Boris Ponomarev, a national party secretary in charge of relations with noncommunist countries, included Central America for the first time among third-world states undergoing revolutionary changes of ``a socialist orientation.'' Mr. Ponomarev was one of the officials Ortega huddled with in Moscow. Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, then the top Soviet military man, put Nicaragua on a level with Cuba in terms of its potential opportunity for the Soviet Union.
The cornerstone of Moscow's Central American policy is, of course, Cuba. With its Air Force of more than 200 combat jets, its assault helicopters and other military paraphernalia, Cuba is the No. 2 military power in Latin America, after Brazil. It has dispatched combat troops to Africa, and ``advisers'' by the hundreds to Grenada, in the past, and Nicaragua.
But according to one group of experts, ``Cuba's island geography complicates its sponsorship of subversion. Nicaragua suffers no such limitation . . . as a mainland platform; therefore, Nicaragua is a crucial steppingstone for Cuban and Soviet efforts to promote armed insurgency in Central America.'' These are not the ravings of some right-wing group of ideological zealots. This is the dispassionate and clinical assessment of the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America, the Kissinger Commission. The commission included diverse members who, while they may have had differing points of view about President Reagan's policy on Nicaragua, seemed united in their feeling that Nicaragua's present Marxist regime is bad news for the United States.
The report was completed in January of 1984. But even then there were no illusions about the unsavory ideological character of the Sandinista regime.
The commission said the Nicaraguan government volunteered an intelligence briefing that ``left no reasonable doubt that Nicaragua is tied into the Cuban, and thereby the Soviet, intelligence network.''
The commission said it encountered no leader in Central America who did not express ``deep foreboding'' about the impact of a militarized, totalitarian Nicaragua on the peace and security of the region.
Even though it finished deliberations more than a year ago, it had some prescient thoughts about the polarization of viewpoints in the US on Nicaragua.
``What is being tested,'' the commission concluded, ``is not so much the ability of the US to provide large resources but rather the realism of our political attitudes, the harmony of Congressional and Administration priorities, and the adaptability of the military and civil departments of the Executive.''
They are words worth pondering as Congress denies aid to the anti-Sandinistas, as a frustrated administration looks to sanctions against Nicaragua, and as Moscow gives Daniel Ortega his reward.
John Hughes was editor of the Monitor from 1970 to 1979 and assistant US secretary of state for public affairs from 1982 through 1984.