THE free world is now receiving the brunt of Nicaraguan-style glasnost. Taking a leaf from Mikhail Gorbachev's new book on ``openness,'' Daniel Ortega's Marxist-Leninist regime is trying to convince those who prize democracy that it has been politically born-again and is loosening the shackles with which it has bound Nicaragua since the overthrow of the Somoza dictatorship.
It is permitting La Prensa, the opposition newspaper, to reopen again. A controversial Roman Catholic radio station will once again be allowed to broadcast. A couple of opposition leaders have been released from jail. The fact that the regime has the arbitrary power to decide whether all this should happen is itself an indication of the kind of society the Sandinistas have created.
All of this can easily be undone at any time the Sandinistas choose. La Prensa's publisher says the Sandinistas even discussed some voluntary kind of censorship and she refused. A radio station can quickly be knocked off the air. Freed politicians can quickly find themselves back in jail once the propaganda advantage of their release is achieved.
A lot more gestures could be made. For instance, there are thousands of other political prisoners who could be released to take part in a genuinely free political process should the Sandinistas choose. Just as significant is whether the Sandinistas are willing to stop using the educational system to indoctrinate the country's youth with communist dogma. Even more critical is whether the Managua regime is willing to send home the teams of Cuban and Soviet advisers who play so influential a role in its direction, and end the flow to Nicaragua of Soviet weapons.
And so the crucial question is why are the Sandinistas doing what they are now doing in the direction of reform? Is it window dressing, designed to thwart continued United States military aid to the contras, and thus to get the contras off their backs? Or have the Sandinistas, who so far have had an impeccable record of adherence to the Marxist-Leninist line, had a total change of heart?
In our understandable desire for peace, we sometimes forget that the dominating motive of some of our adversaries is not peace, but power.
To believe that the Sandinistas are genuinely and voluntarily willing to share power with the opposition in Nicaragua, perhaps even to turn power over to them, is surely stepping into an Alice in Wonderland world where myth has triumphed over reality.
Well then, if the Sandinistas are motivated by this ruthless lust for the preservation of power, isn't the whole quest for peace pointless? Not at all, but the quest for peace must be based on realistic grounds. It is unrealistic to assume that the present participation of the Sandinistas in the peace process is genuine and voluntary. It is much more realistic to deduce that their participation has been brought about by pressure. The spearhead of that pressure is the contras, who, since the resumption of US military aid, have been making life difficult for the Managua regime.
If the pressure is removed, it is not unreasonable to suspect that the newly professed commitment of the Sandinistas to pluralism will wane. The Sandinistas made sweeping promises of commitment to democracy to the Organization of American States in the late 1970s. Those broken promises litter the path that has led to a communist monopoly of power.
American firmness has served the US well in its dealings with the Soviet Union. In the face of the glasnost attack from the Soviets' prot'eg'e in Nicaragua, the US would do well to be as firm in its support of the contras until Managua's compliance with a peace plan can be guaranteed.