Daniel Ortega Saavedra's trip to Moscow is going to be more expensive for him than he presumably expected when he set off for that and other Eastern European capitals. It has collapsed the opposition in Congress to further American aid to Seor Ortega's enemies in Nicaragua. At this writing it remains uncertain whether Congress will continue to forbid actual arms deliveries to the counterrevolutionary forces (the contras) operating around the fringes of Nicaragua against the Sandinista government. But there now will be aid to the contras that would not have been possible before President Ortega made his big mistake on April 24.
April 24 was the day when Congress voted down aid of any kind for the contras. That might have settled the matter then and there. But on that very day, right on top of a series of votes in Congress that killed not only military but also all other kinds of aid for the contras, Mr. Ortega announced he would be going to Moscow.
It took about a week for Democrats who had long opposed any aid to the contras to digest the implications of the sequence. By this week the political conclusions became obvious. Few members of Congress relish going to the voters next year under the charge of having failed to vote against a Nicaraguan leader who had so flagrantly (in their eyes) displayed his association with Moscow.
As this is being written, the political leaders in Congress are still working on precisely what kind of aid will be provided for the contras. But there is no doubt any longer that there will be aid, which will in turn revive the ability of the contras to step up their activities inside Nicaragua.
What had been a partisan impasse in Congress has become a bipartisan search for a compromise formula under which the contras will get help. What had been a defeat for President Reagan has been converted into a victory for his purposes.
And Ortega did it all by himself.
There are still some noisy street demonstrations by political activists against aiding the contras. But these have become politically irrelevant.
It is still regarded in Washington as being politically safe to oppose US troops in the Nicaraguan civil war. The Democrats still incline to oppose actual US guns to the contras on the theory that where guns go today, US soldiers might go tomorrow. But it is no longer politically safe on Capitol Hill to oppose all help to the contras.
Add to the cost of Ortega's unwise trip to Moscow the further fact of the trade embargo President Reagan slapped on Nicaragua this week. It would have been politically unwise of Reagan to take that step unless Ortega had gone to Moscow. But here, as in the case of aid to the contras, the trip to Moscow undermines the opposition.
It is unlikely that the embargo will actually do economic damage to Nicaragua. The main result will probably be higher banana prices in the US. So far no Latin American country is joining in sanctions against Nicaragua. The European allies are disapproving and noncooperating.
But the trade break reduces associations between the US and Nicaragua and establishes a momentum in a direction that could lead to a break in diplomatic relations.
Presumably Ortega went to Moscow to get from the Soviets enough aid to balance off whatever Reagan can do to him, but he is probably being unrealistic.
It is reported from Managua that he was asking the Soviets for $200 million in economic help. In Moscow Tass reported that he had been promised economic help. But the report mentioned no amount. The text implied that Soviet aid would be economic not military.
A month ago it was a reasonable assumption that President Reagan would be thwarted in his efforts to bring the Sandinista government in Nicaragua to heel. That assumption now needs revising. The odds today are the other way around.
The essential underlying fact behind all of today's maneuverings in and about Nicaragua is that the United States dominated the political life of Nicaragua from 1909 until l979, when the Sandinista regime came to power and began to move left and turn to Moscow, rather than to Washington, for its foreign association.
In 1909 US intervention brought about a change from a government inclined to independence to one more compliant to the wishes of Washington. The story has been repeated. US marines came in first in the wake of the 1909 overturn. They were in and out up to 1933. It is a Washington habit to insist on a friendly regime in Nicaragua. Reagan is on the side of tradition and habit in seeking once more to assert US control over Nicaraguan politics.
President Reagan had his troubles last week in Germany and found in Spain more sympathy for the Sandinistas than for his own campaign against the Sandinistas. But he returned to a political climate in Washington more tolerant of his anti-Sandinista purposes. It is a fair calculation that, whatever the merits may be, he will end up having things his way on the Nicaragua issue.