The key issue in the current round of Sandinista-contra negotiations, scheduled to end here tomorrow, is democratization. Nicaragua's leftist government and the United States-backed rebels - as well as the internal opposition - have sharply conflicting views of what the term means.
For the Sandinistas, democratization means ``guarantees for free and fair elections so that every party has an opportunity to impose their political program on the country if they win,'' Vice-Foreign Minister V'ictor Hugo Tinoco said in a briefing to reporters. Mr. Tinoco is also a member of the government's negotiating team.
``There is already democracy here, revolutionary democracy,'' Tinoco said.
That democracy is known as ``poder popular,'' or popular power. It is summed up in the vague Sandinista slogan, which is often repeated by President Daniel Ortega Saavedra: ``When the people own the streets, the arms, and the land,'' that is democracy.
The system is meant to work by having grass-roots ``mass'' organizations of workers, farmers, students, women professionals, and neighborhood ``defense committees'' transmit their wishes to the top.
But for the opposition, poder popular is just another term for Sandinista hegemony.
``Everything here is `Sandinista,''' says Eric Ram'irez, leader of the Social Christian Party.
``Sandinista Army, Sandinista government, Sandinista television. How can there be a democracy when one party controls all this?'' Mr. Ram'irez asks.
The unfair advantage this gives the Sandinistas, says contra leader Alfredo C'esar, ``leads to a system in which there are no fixed rules of the game'' of politics.
``There can be no form of checks and balances like [in the United States] when the Sandinistas have made all the rules and enforce them too, adds Mr. C'esar, one of the contra's top negotiators.
``If we are to have democratization, then there must be fixed rules to the game, by which everyone plays, which are part of the institution of government beyond any one party or administration.''
The absence of any real checks on Sandinista power, C'esar said in an interview, is the most fundamental change needed here.
But for the Sandinistas, says one Latin American diplomat, it is quite simple: ``They won the revolution and submitted to the rules'' by holding and winning the 1984 election. ``And they are telling the opposition, `So we are not just going to give it all to you.'''
Yet if the political system - the distribution of power - is to be changed here, more than elections will be needed. Particularly as the highly fragmented 14 opposition parties are widely considered here to be unable to mount a united challenge to the Sandinistas in an election.
``Elections are not enough,'' says Maurico Diaz, head of the Popular Social Christian Party.
``We had elections under [former dictator Anastasio] Somoza and what did that get us? We need a natural democracy. A democratic process as well as elections,'' Mr. Diaz adds, and that means separating the Sandinista party from its identification as the embodiment of all national interests.
But while the opposition, both internal and rebel, are long on demanding changes, they are short on specific suggestions: a point that the Sandinista government often mentions.
``We wish they would make suggestions to us,'' Tinoco says, referring to the contra delegation, which arrived here Wednesday night.
A wish which may come true to a small degree as the contras have brought with them their first proposal for the political changes they are demanding to end the six-year war.
Those demands may be strengthened by the presence of C'esar at the head of the delegation. C'esar, most diplomatic observers here agree, is a more astute politician than former contra chieftain Adolfo Calero. Mr. Calero, the loser in a recent internal power struggle, is not on the rebel delegation this time. The Sandinistas are insisting that all substantive discussion of democratization take place in the National Dialogue between the government and all the opposition, including the contras once a definitive cease-fire is signed.
The National Dialogue has not enjoyed a reputation as a very serious forum, but as one European diplomat notes, that dialogue and the changes being discussed here are ``unique, perhaps in the world.
``Here is a revolutionary government involved in a process of institutionalizing the opposition. ... Where is there another example of that?'' the European diplomat asks.
A main requirement of the Central American peace agreement - signed last August in Esquipulas, Guatemala by the Presidents of Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica - is democratization.