Nicaragua's message to Washington. Hasenfus pardon aims at better ties with Democrat-led Congress

The Christmas message from Managua appears to be addressed to the Democratic leadership of the new United States Congress. The Sandinista government's decision Wednesday to release Eugene Hasenfus, the American serving a 30-year prison term for supplying arms to the Nicaraguan contra rebels, was the strongest sign yet that the Sandinistas see the chances for negotiation with the US greatly improved with the Democrats in control of both the House and Senate.

``It would be fair to say that they see new numbers in the equation,'' a European diplomat discussing the current Sandinista view said.

Although he tried to play down the role he had in securing Mr. Hasenfus's release, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut was the man to whom the Sandinistas chose to deliver their prisoner.

Senator Dodd, one of the most liberal members of the Senate, is about to become chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs, a key body in making policy in Latin America. The former chairman was conservative Sen. Jesse Helm (R) of North Carolina.

The significance of this change did not seem lost on the Sandinista government. President Daniel Ortega Saavedra said the government, which pardoned Hasenfus during Dodd's two-day visit here, was turning Hasenfus over ``to the American people'' through Dodd.

President Ortega made reference to ``our friends'' in the US who have opposed the Reagan administration polices in Central America.

Dodd, who learned Spanish while serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in the Dominican Republic, still speaks the language well, something that impressed Nicaraguan officials.

Dodd has also consistently oppposed contra aid. But not all he had to say was cheerful news for the government here. Dodd said he warned the Sandinistas not to assume that the 100th Congress would automatically cut off contra aid.

``I told them it would be wrong to assume that aid to the contras will be ended,'' Dodd said. He noted that the votes to restore the aid last summer had been close in both the House and Senate and that conservative Democrats might still support the rebels.

But he also told the Sandinistas that he thought things were changing in Washington. Talking about the furor over the diversion of money from Iranian arms sales to the contras, Dodd said, ``I think that while the crisis at home had its tragic aspects, it may have a silver lining.'' The lining, Dodd said, was a greater chance for negotiations on Central America.

Although Hasenfus's release, just before Christmas, may have been a good-will gesture by the Sandinistas, there are problems looming in the new year. Just before the pardon Ortega warned that the chances of a direct US military action against Nicaragua had increased because of the political crisis in Washington. He also said the US was pressuring Honduras into a confrontation with Nicaragua to provide a pretext for direct US involvement in Central America.

Another problem is a second American being held here on suspicion of being a spy. The prisoner, Sam Nesley Hall, will probably face the same kind of people's court that tried and convicted Hasenfus.

Dodd met Mr. Hall before leaving here Wednesday. Dodd said that Hall, the brother of US Congressman Tony Hall (D) from Ohio, was in good health and spirits. By press time, no US Embassy officials had been allowed to meet Hall.

It is not clear yet how serious the Hall case will be. For one thing, Hasenfus provided considerable information to the Sandinistas about US-funded shipments of arms to the contras. In addition, Hasenfus's plane, shot down Oct. 5, was carrying documents that detailed the deliveries.

Hall was said to be carrying maps and drawings of strategic parts of Nicaragua when he was arrested Dec. 12 near a military air base not far from Managua.

Though some Sandinista officials say they are not sure just what Hall was up to in Nicaragua, Ortega has called him an ``indirect employee'' of the US government sent here to gather intelligence information.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.