The Sandinistas' path to ``democracy,'' taken boldly and hesitantly by turns, is leading Nicaragua into the unknown. Efforts by diplomats and others here to gauge the Sandinistas' progress toward the democracy demanded by Central America's new peace pact are complicated by two problems:
``There has never been any such thing as a Nicaraguan democracy,'' a Latin American ambassador says. ``So what can we use as a model by which to measure current events?''
Reforms that the government has introduced since President Daniel Ortega Saavedra signed the peace treaty in August have proved curiously ineffectual in altering the nature of the Sandinista regime.
Pillars of Western democratic systems, such as liberty of the press and freedom of association, have been carefully erected over the past eight weeks, just as the treaty requires. But they appear to be more an adornment to the edifice of revolutionary power built over the past eight years than structural adjustments.
``There are a certain number of symbols that the West itself has created,'' such as the opposition daily La Prensa and the Catholic Church's Radio Catolica, a European diplomat says. ``Opening La Prensa does not challenge the system here.''
The Sandinista government has taken a number of steps since signing the peace treaty in August to broaden the spectrum of political pluralism.
For the first time since the September 1984 elections, for example, opposition political parties have been allowed to hold street rallies, and they have done so, drawing respectable numbers. The authorities have also lifted all press censorship, permitting the only opposition daily that has ever existed, La Prensa, to publish freely.
The paper has pulled no punches, offering its readers a strong diet of editorials condemning ``communist dictatorship'' in Nicaragua, and stories uniformly hostile to the government.
Radio Catolica, taken off the air in 1986, has reopened, and some 20 news shows that used to rent air time from independent radio stations have been told they may apply for licenses to broadcast again. A group of businessmen, however, are still waiting for an answer to their application for a private television license.
In line with one of the peace treaty's major clauses, the Sandinistas have also promised amnesty to any rebel guerrillas who lay down their weapons. They have not clarified, though, who else might benefit from this amnesty.
The government's jails hold some 4,000 political prisoners, according to reliable estimates by independent human rights groups.
Some 2,300 of them were members of former dictator Anastasio Somoza Debayle's National Guard, and 1,700 have been tried for ``counterrevolutionary activities'' over the past six years of war.
Opposition parties and the Catholic Church have demanded amnesty for all these prisoners, a call that enjoys wide support, especially in the war zones where many families have seen husbands or brothers thrown into jail.
The government, however, which has always justified its denial of civil liberties on the grounds that wartime conditions called for Draconian measures, is clearly reluctant, as long as the war continues, to free prisoners who might immediately swell contra ranks.
Nor have the authorities given any indication as to when they will lift the state of emergency, which suspends a wide range of freedoms. The treaty requires that this decree be struck down by Nov. 5. Even if the Sandinistas comply to the last letter with the peace pact's provisions, however, the extent to which that will change Nicaragua's political face is in doubt.
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias S'anchez, architect of the peace plan and no friend to the government here, ``dreamed a year ago that if you gave the Nicaraguans a free press, they would overthrow the Sandinistas,'' a Western envoy says. ``That was clearly only a dream.''
Nicaragua's recent history has seen nearly 50 years of dictatorship, a bloody revolution, and six years of bitterly divisive war.
That has left no tradition of different interest groups competing for power using democratic freedoms as vehicles in the way they are used in the United States or Western Europe.
Instead, it has left one revolutionary party, the Sandinista National Liberation Front, which spearheaded the 1979 revolution, in a hegemonic position.
Deeply identified with the state itself, the Sandinista Front towers over a divided opposition that has never proved able to mount an effective challenge either to the former Somoza regime, or to the Sandinistas.
Today, eight years after the Sandinistas began consolidating their state power, their opponents are fundamentally divided between those who have taken up arms - the contras - and those who have not.
And even the peaceful opposition has splintered into a multitude of mutually mistrustful factions.
That weakness itself empties formal democratic freedoms of much of their potency to forge fundamental changes in the nature of Nicaraguan society.
``There is a lack of people, of money, of confidence,'' to make use of the new liberties, the Latin ambassador laments.
At the same time, the Sandinista Front, trumpeting its role as ``the vanguard of the people,'' has rooted itself in every corner of Nicaraguan life through its ``mass organizations'' such as trade unions, professional groups, and, not least, the Army and security forces.
The Central American peace plan does not challenge that hegemony. Its great advantage for the Sandinistas is that, as in El Salvador where the government is battling a guerrilla opposition, ``the plan consecrates the status quo, it blesses the existing order, the existing Constitution, the existing electoral calendar,'' the European diplomat says. ``It is more a question of moving the furniture around.''
Though all five Central American countries are required by the peace pact to move toward peace and democracy, the world's eyes are focused most especially on Nicaragua's performance.
To reverse any of the liberalization steps now would be almost impossible, diplomats here say.
``It would be totally counterproductive for the Sandinistas' political project,'' one diplomat says. ``The only way Nicaragua is going to have peace is by maintaining these reforms, and going back on them would be unacceptable to the whole world.
``It is curious, though,'' he adds, that the government would have little to fear from domestic resentment at any backsliding. ``The damaging impact of a reversal,'' the diplomat says, ``would come from the outside world.''