Even though the United States Congress's thumbs down to contra aid eases the pressure on the Sandinistas at least temporarily, the Nicaraguan government is expected to uphold the requirements of the Central America peace plan. According to several diplomats and Nicaraguan sources here, President Daniel Ortega Saavedra has a two-fold incentive not to backtrack on political concessions and his commitment to the plan:
The US Congress could restore contra aid at the first serious sign of retrenchment by the government.
The international community - particularly Western Europe and Latin America - is urging Nicaragua to continue with reforms.
President Ortega visited Europe last week and was cordially received by Spain, Italy, Norway, and Switzerland. He also received pledges of further aid from these countries. The visit came after several years of waning European support for the revolution.
Nicaraguans reacted yesterday with a mixture of relief that the peace process has been given a boost and wariness about whether or not the war will soon begin to wind down. The Sandinistas, however, are concerned that the Reagan administration will attempt to find other means to keep the contra movement alive. The government radio station reported immediately after the aid vote was known that it was not yet a cause for jubilation.
Meanwhile, the US Senate was scheduled to vote yesterday on President Reagan's request for $36.25 million in aid to the Nicaraguan contra rebels. In a close vote, 219 to 211, the US House of Representatives rejected the proposal Wednesday night.
``The Sandinistas have promised changes to the international community and convinced Western Europe and Canada that they will comply'' with the peace process, one South American ambassador said.
``They cannot turn back'' on those promises now ``or the international community will turn its back on them, and they know they need [those countries] if they are going to rebuild this economy, the nation. They cannot live in a vacuum; even Latin America now expects them to comply fully,'' the ambassador said.
Echoing such sentiments, Mauricio Diaz, an opposition leader of the Popular Social Christian Party noted, ``they have brought the international community in as judges of democracy in Nicaragua, and now they will have to live by their judgement.''
``International pressure is now more important than the war,'' in keeping pressure on the government ``because they need aid and support from these countries,'' he said reflecting the opinion of that part of the opposition here which believes the Sandinistas can be pressured by means other than the war.
Another part of the opposition, the hardline anti-Sandinista Democratic Coordinator, does not believe the Sandinistas can be trusted to comply with the accord.
With contra aid defeated for the time being, the Sandinistas have two major issues facing them in order to continue complying with the Central American peace plan. The first is to negotiate a cease-fire with the contra rebels.
This is particularly true because the terrible economic effects of the war are eroding political support for the government. Economic losses from the war in 1987 alone ran to some $377 million, in a nation whose total export earnings that year were only $244 million. Worse times for the economy are predicted in the next six months.
``Daniel [Ortega] has said that the economy is the Achilles heel of the revolution. And look what happened to Achilles - he died,'' one European diplomat said.
Addressing the demands of the civic opposition for constitutional reforms which, collectively, could rewrite that document is perhaps even more important than a cease-fire, many observers here say. Up to now the concessions made under the peace accord have not affected the actual exercise of power or authority by the Sandinistas.
The national dialogue between the government and 14 internal opposition parties was suspended in December because the talks reached an impasse over the talks' contents. They remained moribund until the Sandinistas called for renewed talks Tuesday. But only one party attended.
``We will not attend [the talks] except under one precondition,'' said Diaz, ``that the Sandinistas agree to discuss constitutional reforms.''
The opposition is demanding 17 constitutional reforms. From the less contentious issues of a one-term presidency and no familial succession in office - the norm for most of Latin America - to the toughest question facing the future shape of democracy here: separating the Sandinista party from the state and Army.
The Nicaraguan government released a list of issues it was willing to discuss in the national dialogue. The list included setting a date for local elections, which could be a watershed for gauging support for the government for the first time since the 1984 presidential vote. But the quintessential issue for the opposition - separation of powers - was not explicitly listed, though broad issues of governance were.
With contra aid on hold, at least for now, the Nicaraguan government may get the chance to display the type of pluralistic democracy it has said it is committed to all along, but has not been able to implement because of the burden of fighting a war with a rebel group backed by the most powerful nation on earth.