The gloves are off -- and now it's down to bare knuckles. Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega Saavedra charges that new United States aid to Nicaraguan ``contra'' rebels ``is a declaration of war against Nicaragua.'' And, in turn, war is what the country's ruling Sandinistas have declared on their political opponents.
President Ortega's series of angry attacks in recent days on ``traitors,'' ``antipatriotic criminals,'' and ``US agents,'' found their first concrete expression in last week's indefinite closure of La Prensa, Nicaragua's sole opposition daily newspaper.
The conservative paper, long a thorn in the side of the Sandinistas, had become ``the voice of reaction [and] a US administration spokesman,'' said senior Interior Ministry official Raul Cordon in justifying the move. ``The war against Nicaragua is sufficient reason for the closure.''
La Prensa executive Carlos Holmann sees things differently. ``This is a direct reprisal for the $100-million [contra-aid] vote,'' he says. ``What they could not stand in us was that we did not servilely follow a single line of thought dictated by the Sandinista Front.''
Though La Prensa, which had been subject to censorship for the past four years, represented no real threat to the government, it had become a powerful symbol for a wide range of political, economic, and religious dissenters from Sandinista policy.
Those dissenters are themselves widely expected to come under fire in the near future, following Ortega's warnings that Nicaragua's eight-month-old state of emergency will now be enforced ``in all its rigor, with no hesitation,... strictly and severely.''
``This is a threat of heavier repression against the whole opposition, without distinction,'' laments a leader of the opposition Popular Social Christian Party, who also condemns US aid to the contras.
``I would have hoped that [the Sandinista government] could distinguish between real contra supporters in the country, and the rest of the opposition,'' the opposition spokseman adds.
That hope appears misplaced. The message emerging clearly from recent official statements is that Nicaragua sees itself now embroiled in an open war with the US, and that in wartime, those who are not with their government must be with the enemy.
Illustrating this line of thinking was a new slogan that appeared at the end of the communiqu'e setting out the Sandinistas' reaction to the US House of Representatives vote on contra aid. Last Wednesday, the House approved President Reagan's request for $70 million in military assistance and $30 million in non-lethal aid for the contras. The Senate earlier approved its own version of the aid package.
``The Sandinista Front fights for the unity of the whole nation,'' the Sandinista communiqu'e said. ``But the North American government's mercenaries and political agents do not form part of that nation.''
And Ortega's tone, as he addressed a rally of tens of thousands of supporters on Friday night, suggested that authorities will be fierce in dealing with any opponents suspected of offering succor of any sort to the contras.
``We are not afraid of civic struggle,'' he said, ``but in these circumstances of war ... when some political and religious leaders turn into instruments of the US government's terrorist policy, we are not so ingenuous as to accept civic struggle.
``What we have here is war,'' Ortega added, to rising cheers from the crowd, ``and the response to war is war.''
Bayardo Arce Castano, one of the `comandantes' of the nine-member Sandinista directorate, said Saturday that specific measures would be announced in the coming days, and warned that the government would take a stiffer line toward Nicaraguans ``who often leave the country to ask for help for the contras, and come back calmly as if nothing had happened.''
This remark seemed aimed at Roman Catholic Cardinal Miguel Obando y Bravo, who recently visited the US and published an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that raised the Sandinistas' ire.
Government officials justify their hardening stance not only in the name of national security, but also, in President Ortega's words, ``because we have morality, reason, and right on our side.''
Reinforcing that position was Friday's World Court verdict on Nicaragua's petition against Washington. The court declared US support for the contras illegal under international law, and called on the US to ``cease and abstain from all acts that could constitute violations'' of its juridicial obligations.
This judgement ``carries a moral and political weight,'' Nicaraguan Supreme Court President Alejandro Serrano says. And the Sandinistas hope to exploit that in their bid to encourage international condemnation of President Reagan's Central American policy.
Nicaraguan Foreign Minister, the Rev. Miguel D'Escoto Brockmann, said after the ruling he hoped that ``the international community will cooperate actively and enthusiastically to guarantee full compliance with all aspects of the court order that ensure Nicaragua's right to peace and self-determination.''
Latin American support for Nicaragua's right to self-determination would seem to be assured, as is the backing of East-bloc countries. But critical Western European doubts about Nicaragua, which Vice-President Sergio Ram'irez Mercado said last week centered on the state of emergency, can only be deepened by the government's closure of La Prensa and threats of new moves against opponents.
Such considerations, however, appear to have been set aside, for in the government's final analysis, internal security and military preparation are the strongest defense against the threat of a US invasion.
And as the Sandinista fist closes to meet that threat, it closes ever more firmly on the state power that officals here equate -- at least in time of war -- with national sovereignty.