Apparently confident they have nothing to lose, Nicaragua's Sandinista rulers have seized on the new Central American peace plan with an enthusiasm that has caught skeptics by surprise. At best, officials here hope, the plan will destroy the rebel contra army and bestow a legitimacy on the Sandinista revolution that Managua has long sought. At worst, diplomats and government officials around the region agree, the unfolding peace process offers the Sandinistas a chance to earn some time, and to improve their international image.
But such benefits hinge on Managua's readiness to liberalize its political system significantly. The steps it has taken so far suggest Nicaragua is preparing to throw down the gauntlet of compliance with the pact, as a challenge for its neighbors to match.
President Daniel Ortega Saavedra opened the bidding by inviting three expelled Roman Catholic priests to return. He then moved quickly to set up the region's first National Reconciliation Commission, which will act as a watchdog on the government, and to form local groups in the war zones which will arrange amnesty for contras willing to give up their struggle.
Mr. Ortega said Sunday that the government and its political opponents will begin national reconciliation talks Oct. 5. He also said that he was pardoning 16 Central Americans who were captured while fighting on the side of the rebels.
But if Nicaragua is to fulfill its pledges under the Aug. 7 Guatemala accord, much remains to be done. The Sandinistas must reopen the opposition daily La Prensa, along with all the independent radio stations they have closed by decree, and allow them to function free of censorship. They must lift the ban on opposition demonstrations, restoring full freedoms that the political parties have not enjoyed since the government imposed a state of emergency two years ago.
Critics doubt that the Sandinistas will keep their promises to the full. Independent Liberal Party leader Virgilio Godoy Reyes, for example, predicts the authorities will move ``as little as possible'' toward a democratic opening. But even that, he concedes, will likely be enough to fulfill the letter of the treaty, and to satisfy international opinion of the Sandinistas' good faith. And there are signs that the government is preparing its supporters for the rough and tumble of open political debate unlike anything seen in Nicaragua since the 1979 revolution.
``We are going to be living through a very complex political situation,'' Sandinista comandante Jaime Wheelock Rom'an warned a meeting of party members recently. ``It will demand changes in attitudes, styles, emphasis, structures, and tasks. We must ready ourselves to develop a powerful political and ideological offensive'' against the revolution's opponents.
Though government officials in Honduras, Costa Rica, and El Salvador harbor doubts about Sandinista sincerity, diplomats here stress how much is at stake for Nicaragua. ``The Sandinistas have conceded that outsiders have the right to put democracy on the table,'' a Western diplomat said. ``In return, the other Presidents have accepted the Sandinistas are here to stay.''
Nicaraguan leaders, too, see the Guatemala pact as a sign that their neighbors may be ready to live with the Sandinista revolution, rather than help Washington roll it back.
Explaining the value of the treaty to Sandinista militants, Mr. Wheelock said the other Central American governments had chosen ``to live alongside the popular Sandinista revolution.''
At the same time, if Managua takes enough steps to convince the United States Congress of its good faith, it can stall President Reagan's forthcoming request for $270 million in contra aid. A long delay in such aid, contra leaders fear, would spell the end of their military struggle.
Government officials here acknowledge that many middle-level Sandinista cadres are skeptical about the Guatemala plan, and party leaders have been at pains to insist that it does not imply any step back from the revolution's central goals.
``We are not going to make concessions on principles,'' comandante Tom'as Borge Mart'inez warned recently.
Nor does the pact appear to seriously threaten the Sandinistas' grip on power. Their control of the Army is unchallenged, and the treaty postpones negotiations on disarmament to a vague future. Their hegemony over the state apparatus is well entrenched after eight years of governing, and their readiness to hand over power should they lose an election will not be tested until a presidential poll in 1990.
While anti-Sandinista politicians say they believe they could bring down the government if allowed full freedom to act, independent observers are more dubious, despite widespread dissatisfaction with Sandinista rule. Racked by internal divisions and suffering from years of harassment by the authorities, the domestic opposition would find it hard to combat the Sandinista party machine.
The next seven weeks leading to the Nov. 7 deadline for compliance with the treaty are full of pitfalls. One of the deepest is the Sandinistas' attitude toward the contras, who are directly involved in the peace plan's call for a cease-fire and amnesty.
So far, Managua has refused to negotiate with the contras, even indirectly.