LAST month, Nancy Steffen of Bennington, Vt., packed her bags and set off for a week's trip to Nicaragua. With nine others she visited schools, talked to teachers, and met families under a sister-city program linking Bennington and the town of Somotillo, Nicaragua. Before the trip, Ms. Steffen had not been particularly tuned in to the political situation in Nicaragua and readily admitted she didn't ``know a contra from a Sandinista.'' She said she was more interested in humanitarian work.
On her return, her views had taken a decidedly more political tone regarding United States support of the contra rebels. She had talked with a few Nicaraguans and felt a distinct dislike for US government involvement there. ``If the Nicaraguan people want the Americans to butt out of their lives,'' she now says, ``that's what we ought to do.''
Sister-city programs with Nicaragua have increased over the past six to eight years. In 1981, there were eight such US-Nicaraguan programs. Today, 23 pairs of official sister cities, and 35 others are operating unofficially as they await city council approval, according to Roy Wilson of the Seattle-Managua Sister City Association.
Created in 1956 by President Eisenhower, the Sister Cities International program includes cities in all 50 states and exchanges with 86 foreign countries. These relationships are started as nonpolitical people-to-people exchanges with US and foreign cities.
But many people involved in the Nicaragua exchanges return from visits with more to say about US involvement in the country. In fact, the popularity of US-Nicaraguan programs has largely been due to the Reagan administration, according to Mr. Wilson.
``The Reagan administration's distaste and aggression toward Nicaragua has made Nicaragua famous,'' he says.
Sister-city leaders say, however, that the intent of the program is not to encourage political activism. The goal, say organizers, is to bring about understanding and grass-roots ties to churches, schools, and hospitals.
``I think some people get involved for that [political] reason,'' says Alan Wright of the New Haven-Leon Sister City Project. But there are other people who are more interested in humanitarian work, he says. ``We don't mask or conceal the fact the politics have played a role in the development of that country,'' Mr. Wright says.
Some question whether those who visit Nicaragua are given an objective view of the country. Although the Bennington group was escorted around by the mayor of Somotillo and the school superintendent, Steffen says she didn't feel she was getting a one-sided view of the area. Most people could go wherever they asked, she said. A reporter on the trip was allowed to visit both the Sandinista-controlled newspaper in Managua and the main opposition newspaper, La Prensa.
Some who visit Nicaragua find their political views are reinforced. James Farnam, director of Downtown and Harbor Development in New Haven, Conn., traveled with the Leon program last December. Mr. Farnam stayed with a family and was impressed with its openness toward Americans. He said living conditions there were not nearly so bad as many Americans perceive.
But he is now even more convinced of his opposition to US backing of the contras. The Sandinista government, he says, has an ambitious program that puts the interest of the poor first. It ``should be left to unfold and we should let them try it,'' says Farnam.
Americans should not be hindered in their efforts to aid the Nicaraguan people, a State Department official says. But they should not count on the Sandinista government to solve the country's problems, the official says. These Americans should be aware that ``the Sandinista government has not lived up to its myriad promises ... concerning democracy and human rights.''
Indeed, opposition to the Sandinista government has caused difficult beginnings for some US-Nicaragua city ties. Seattle developed initial ties with Managua in 1981, but it wasn't until 1984 that the city voted to formalize a sister-city relationship. The relationship became political after the Seattle sister-city committee sponsored lectures by speakers who were all pro-Sandinista. The committee was accused of being too political and one-sided. In the fall of 1986, Mitch Hughes, a Seattle County Court clerk, led an initiative to make the sister-city committee apolitical. The initiative was supported by 54 percent of the voters. According to Mr. Hughes, the number of pro-Sandinista speakers and the amount of literature distributed by the sister-city committee has lessened considerably since the initiative was passed.
Hughes is skeptical of sending Americans to Nicaragua for short stays. Such ``whirlwind'' tours, he says, fail to take into account the views of opposition leaders.
``I don't think it's a good idea because it's got to be for political reasons,'' he says, adding, ``why [choose] Nicaragua?''
The US government makes no attempt to judge US-Nicaragua sister-city ties that invite or reinforce opposition to Reagan administration policy in Central America, according to the State Department.