Sandinistas free La Prensa's presses. EASING CENSORSHIP

Nicaragua's Sandinista government has authorized the banned daily La Prensa to reopen uncensored, the paper's publisher says. Saturday's action is seen as another step toward complying with Central America's new peace treaty.

In a phone interview late Saturday night, publisher Violeta de Chamorro quoted a written agreement she said she had worked out with Sandinista comandante Jaime Wheelock Rom'an: ``The Nicaraguan government authorizes the reopening of La Prensa from today with no restrictions beyond those imposed by the responsible exercise of journalism.''

``We can't believe it,'' she said. ``I am very happy.''

The official Nicaraguan announcement of the move came late yesterday, after a well-informed Sandinista official had privately confirmed the news.

Mrs. Chamorro said that in the document she drafted with Mr. Wheelock, dated Sept. 19 but unsigned, La Prensa directors ``make plain their will to contribute to the climate of peace and understanding that the country requires to advance

in the process of dialogue and national reconciliation.''

The paper's editors hope to have La Prensa on the streets again by Monday afternoon, Chamorro said. But she thought technical problems after the 15-month closure might delay publication.

The lifting of the ban on the conservative La Prensa marks the Sandinistas' most striking step yet to open up Nicaragua's political system to opponents.

Under the Central American peace treaty signed Aug. 7 in Guatemala, Managua pledged to restore full democratic freedoms, including absolute liberty of the press.

Chamorro said she was given to understand in her talk with Wheelock that the Roman Catholic Church's Radio Catolica - banned in January 1986 - was also free to begin broadcasting again whenever it wished.

The Sandinista official, who requested anonymity, confirmed that impression. He pointed out that the radio station's director, Bismarck Carballo, had been allowed to return home last week, after 15 months' enforced exile.

The joint government-La Prensa statement, quoted by Chamorro, thanked Costa Rican Foreign Minister Rodrigo Madrigal Nieto, who took part in Saturday's talks. His ``valuable efforts made possible'' the agreement that emerged.

The first news of lifting the ban came from Mr. Madrigal Nieto upon his arrival in Costa Rica Saturday.

Chamorro had delivered a letter a week ago to Miguel Cardinal Obando y Bravo, head of Nicaragua's National Reconciliation Commission, requesting that her paper be allowed to publish. But she said she was ``surprised'' Saturday morning when President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and Wheelock visited her to discuss the matter.

Mr. Ortega soon left the meeting, Chamorro said, leaving Wheelock to negotiate with the La Prensa directors and Madrigal Nieto. The joint statement, read by Chamorro to the Monitor, said the talks occurred ``in a climate of mutual respect and common interest in achieving full compliance with the Guatemala accords.''

United States Sen. Christopher Dodd (D) of Connecticut also visited Chamorro on Saturday, but it was unclear what role, if any, he played.

Though Sandinista leaders had repeatedly said they would allow the strongly antigovernment paper to reopen before the Guatemala treaty's Nov. 7 deadline, the timing of the move caught observers by surprise.

The deal, and the role that Madrigal Nieto played in striking it, appeared to be a Sandinista gesture of goodwill toward Costa Rica, taking advantage of the foreign minister's presence here for a meeting with his Central American counterparts.

The government's decision not to censor the daily was also unexpected. Diplomats and other analysts here had thought the authorities would move more cautiously, lifting prior censorship only after a few weeks of publication. But La Prensa's agreement to practice ``responsible journalism'' and to ``contribute to the climate of peace and understanding'' suggests it will be especially careful.

Allowing La Prensa to reopen, though only one of the steps Nicaragua must take to comply with the peace accord, is the most fraught with symbolism. Under former editor Pedro Joaqu'in Chamorro, the 61-year-old daily became a powerful voice of protest against former dictator Anastasio Somoza.

Dona Violeta, as Mrs. Chamorro is known, took over the helm when her husband was assassinated in 1978. That murder catalysed middle class support for the Sandinista insurrection. But after the 1979 revolution, she and her daily grew increasingly disenchanted with the new government.

By the time La Prensa was closed in June 1986, an official statement was accusing the paper of ``provocation, disinformation, and seeking to justify North American aggression'' against Nicaragua.

But the paper is a symbol for more than opposition. The Chamorro family, with which La Prensa's history is inextricably linked, has become a metaphor for the divisions that rack Nicaragua. Mrs. Chamorro was a member of the first revolutionary junta, although she quit after nine months and is now a harsh government critic.

One of her sons edits the Sandinista party organ Barricada; another is a member of the contra political directorate. One of her daughters is La Prensa's editorial page editor; another is the Sandinistas' ambassador to Costa Rica.

La Prensa will not find it easy to pick up where it left off 15 months ago, Mrs. Chamorro said. ``We don't have much. We sold everything to keep paying salaries. But from next Monday, I expect Nicaraguans will contribute so that the paper can keep going.'' She hopes for donations from ``friendly papers abroad.''

Opposition politicians skeptical of the Sandinistas' intentions to keep the peace accord have suggested the government will find technical methods to harass the paper. But for now, Chamorro shrugs off such worries. ``I believe this statement we wrote is [the Sandinistas'] word of honor. We have liberty.'' -30-{et

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