Disenchantment with the Sandinistas

TEMPERS flared among a group of East German reporters recently when their Nicaraguan-piloted launch ran aground a few hundred yards from the fly-speck Nicaraguan town of Puerto Cabeza. Complaining that the Nicaraguans weren't able to do anything right, the journalists twiddled their thumbs, waiting to be rescued. The incident epitomizes the increasing disenchantment that East-bloc visitors and advisers exhibit toward the Sandinistas. The latter's passion for control and centralization has converted Nicaragua, once Central America's bread basket, into the region's economic basket case.

While recognizing that the contra war makes conditions worse, the East-bloc nations, which will give Managua $470 million in aid this year, lament the blatant mismanagement, corruption, and pilferage that plague the revolutionary regime. Austerity is the watchword in those countries, and they resent the impressive quantities of Soviet, Czech, Bulgarian, and East German goods shipped to the Pacific port of Corinto that somehow fail to reach their intended destination.

Equally abhorrent is the network of hard-currency stores, nightclubs, and hotels, catering to government big shots and their friends, created by the minister of tourism, Herty Lewites. That operation is widely considered part of a corruption web that also includes Panamanian bank accounts and trading companies.

So annoyed are the Soviets at the hanky-panky that the June 24 issue of Izvestia featured an article lambasting Nicaragua's disastrous economic performance. The piece quoted an Interior Ministry official as saying that ``difficulties caused by the war, underdevelopment, and dependence on the foreign markets are being intensified by parasitism, speculation, and swindling.''

Moreover, the 700 to 1,000 percent annual inflation rate has turned the cordoba into the Rodney Dangerfield of Latin currencies.

Izvestia devoted less attention to waste and inefficiency. Yet, a triple whammy of poor maintenance, abominable roads, and inexperienced drivers has meant that 30 percent of the imported trucks and tractors have been wrecked or otherwise idled, often at the side of roads. The picture invites comparisons to a chariot scene out of ``Ben Hur,'' because of frequent collisions involving young drivers. These drivers have particular difficulty handling powerful East German-supplied IFA trucks. The joke here is that IFA stands not for an unpronounceable German company but for imposible frenar a tiempo (Impossible to stop in time).

Concern over wastefulness may have sparked a dramatic Kremlin decision on oil deliveries to Nicaragua, which is totally dependent on oil imports. In the spring, the Sandinistas asked the Soviets for an 18.3 percent increase in shipments in 1987. Not only was the request spurned, but Moscow indicated its intention to provide less than half of the 1986 volume. Additional supplies were to depend on the willingness of satellite states to share USSR-obtained oil with their Nicaraguan comrades.

Czechoslovakia appears to be the most recent East-bloc country to refuse to share with Managua its jealously husbanded oil allotment. The prospect of severe shortages later in the year has prompted Cabinet members to try, unsuccessfully, to acquire oil from Iran, Iraq, Libya, Algeria, Venezuela, and Mexico.

The Soviets do seem willing to continue to supply arms. But inherent in glasnost is a concern for accountability. Mikhail Gorbachev has withdrawn the blank check for oil and development aid - at least until the comandantes sharply curtail profligacy and mismanagement. They can expect little help in boosting domestic output from the shell-shocked private sector that regards the Sandinistas' enthusiasm for rigid central planning as the economic counterpart to fingernails clawing a blackboard.

George W. Grayson, John Marshall professor of government at the College of William & Mary, just returned from a lecture tour in Honduras and Nicaragua.

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