Ortega's credibility on the line

Daniel Ortega Saavedra feels the stare of 535 pairs of eyes. The Nicaraguan President is well aware that as members of the US Congress prepare for a Feb. 3-4 showdown on contra aid, they will try to judge whether the ruling Sandinistas are sincere about the two major concessions they made on Jan. 16: starting direct cease-fire talks with contra leaders; and lifting a state of emergency.

``Nicaragua is under a microscope,'' said President Ortega in an interview Friday. Despite the inherent dangers of playing politics in a petri dish, Ortega seemed unflappable, saying the recent concessions ``are the best message I can send to demand that US aid be ended.''

But his message has a double edge. For, by offering new concessions to both the contras and the internal opposition, say political analysts here, Ortega has also fanned tensions among defiant Sandinista militants.

As the opposition has taken advantage of the slight political opening, such tensions have been difficult to control. Sandinista leaders know that even the rock-throwing incident outside the headquarters of a right-wing opposition coalition last Friday - apparently provoked by Sandinista supporters - could bolster President Reagan's request for more contra aid.

``If I set out to put one or two of them [opposition members involved in the ruckus]'' in jail, it wouldn't help us,'' said Minister of Internal Affairs Tom'as Borge Mart'inez on Saturday. Considered a hard-line member of the nine-man National Directorate, Mr. Borge denied charges that he had organized the disturbance. ``These incidents have to be avoided as much as possible.''

Last week, a number of opposition members were arrested beacause, officials say, they intended to conspire with the contras. They were later freed.

In the 10 remaining days before the vote on contra-aid, the Sandinistas must do more than prevent embarrassing incidents, say diplomats and political analysts here. The fate of contra aid also depends on the outcome of cease-fire talks scheduled for Jan. 28-29.

Two recent rounds of indirect talks failed when both sides stuck to long-held positions. The Nicaraguan government wanted to deal only with technical steps to a cease-fire, while the contras demanded discussion of such issues as democratization and elections.

The challenge for the Sandinistas now, political analysts say, is to keep the direct negotiations alive and moving forward - at least until Feb. 4th. Ortega also hopes that a letter he sent on Friday to President Reagan proposing bilateral talks on US national security issues - such as the presence of Soviet military aid, bases, and Soviet and Cuban advisers - will sway Congress.

But despite the letter and the concessions to have direct talks, there are no indications that basic positions will change.

Vice-Minister of Foreign Affairs Victor Hugo Tinoco, one of the expected negotiators, said in an interview last week political considerations could only be discussed after a cease-fire: ``None of the five Central American presidents would accept a political dialogue with someone who is holding a gun,'' he stated.

But to kill contra aid once and for all, the Sandinistas might have to make more concessions.

``From now on, whatever they do will be a greater risk for their permanence in power,'' says one Latin American diplomat, noting that the government's socialist goals might be threatened by giving more ground to the conservative opposition. ``The risk isn't from the outside, it comes from inside the party.''

In a speech Friday night, official Bayardo Arce indicated that Nicaragua had already done its share and could wait for Congress to opt for peace or war. ``If diplomacy and politics fail, the slogan will be: All for the war, up to the last man, up to the last woman,'' he said to a crowd of about 30,000 party militants.

But Ortega has softened his rhetoric and dismissed claims of a split in the directorate. Last week, he threatened there might be repressive consequences if Congress approved even a dollare in contra aid. On Friday, however, he backed down from this position, saying only that new aid would go against the region's peace accord and would ``not contribute to peace.''

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